Monday, July 25, 2016

When Whiteness Dominates Reviews

by KT Horning

In the past twenty-four hours we've seen thoughtful critical reviews from Jennifer Baker and Edi Campbell about a new book coming out next week by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo, When We Was Fierce (Candlewick). Both reviews offer African-American perspectives on the book that contrast sharply with the praise it has received so far from White reviewers and librarians on social media. Why is it that Whiteness continues to dominate professional reviews? And what can be done to change that?

Last week I spoke to School Library Journal reviewers who were nearing the end of an eight-week course on Diversity and Cultural Literacy in Professional Reviews. The group had already heard from experts such as Debbie Reese, Angie Manfredi, Malinda Lo, Allie Jane Bruce, and Edi Campbell, and they had already done extensive reading and participated in online discussions with each other.

I think it’s great that Kiera Parrott and Shelley Diaz of SLJ are providing these kinds of opportunities for their team of volunteer reviewers. We need to see more positive steps forward in our profession for our reviewers and for people in our field at large. Because let’s face it, the majority of children’s book reviewers are White, as are most members of book evaluation and a award committees. Our experiences as White people are limited. How can we discern if a book about a child of color is authentic? In order to do our job, we have to seek out and listen to diverse voices. And those voices are not appearing much in the professional review journals.

A case in point: When We Was Fierce by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo. The book deals with a group of African-American teenage boys in the inner-city who get caught up in gang activity. I first became aware of this book when I started seeing the advance praise and reviews for it in the professional journals. Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist all gave it glowing starred reviews. Normally, this would make me eager to get the book, but something stopped me short -- the lines that the reviews quoted from the book. A sample:

“Jive brothers rolled in hard./ They walked intent.... I didn’t want nuthin’ to do with their truth./ Sometimes it don’t matter what you want or intend./ It’s gonna go how it go” [quoted in Publishers Weekly]

“He wanna have speak”; “We all held our wait.” [quoted in Kirkus]

It’s sort of Black English. But not really. One of the reviews made reference to a “semi-invented vernacular” and right away that waved a red flag for me. Coming from a background in Linguistics, I know that African-American Vernacular English is not “broken English.” It has complex and consistent grammatical and phonological rules, and you can’t just “make it up.” It’s a living, breathing language.

If Charlton-Trujillo were creating a form of English for people living in the future, as Anthony Burgess did in A Clockwork Orange and Russell Hoban did in Riddley Walker, I might buy it. But she’s not. She’s putting words in the mouths of characters who supposedly live in the Here and Now. In fact, it’s the raw immediacy of the story that these reviewers seem to be especially high on.

In her seminal study, Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Fiction, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop cited language as one of the five key traits that define books reflecting authentic Black experience, what she called “culturally conscious fiction.” These are five traits that cultural outsiders can get right, but rarely do. They don’t walk the walk, talk the talk (in this case, literally), and they haven’t, as Virginia Hamilton once said, “lived the life.”

But here’s the thing. If I hadn’t had a background in Linguistics that made me sensitive to language usage (and misusage), I might have taken these reviews at face value and simply trusted the judgment of these three reviewers.  I might have completely jumped over this line in the Kirkus review: “Only the free verse’s frequent apostrophes connoting a dropped letter are stereotypical and distancing.” Frequent apostrophes… stereotypical… You know what that conjures up? A Joel Chandler Harris-type fake “Negro dialect.” And keep in mind that this line appears in a starred review. So are we saying that stereotypical speech from an African-American character is not only okay but highly recommended? Can’t we do better than that?

Booklist goes one step further and drives its starred review home with a feature interview with Charlton-Trujillo entitled “Teeth, Truth and Tenacity.”  In it the author talks about the language she used:  “Right from the jump, I could hear the music of T’s world that hadn’t existed in YA before.” Hadn’t existed in YA before?  That’ll be news to Jacqueline Woodson, Coe Booth, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, Kekla Magoon, and many more. And any of them might point back to the work of Walter Dean Myers, Virginia Hamilton, and Alice
Childress, whose book A Hero Ain’t Nothin But a Sandwich was published so long ago that I read it as a teen while listening to the Jackson 5. Charlton-Trujillo goes on to explain her invented vernacular:  “Slang can become dated quick, so I had a unique opportunity to incorporate some slang along with a new vernacular.” Suffice it to say that some opportunities are best not taken.

Even though two of the three starred reviews were anonymous, they read to me as evaluations by cultural outsiders. The book is a week or so away from publication and we’re just now beginning to get responses from prominent African-American critics. They see the book completely differently. They are not finding it “[g]raceful, trenchant, moving, and utterly necessary” as the Booklist reviewer did.  They have found it inauthentic, even offensive.

Jennifer Baker and Edi Campbell are offering important insider perspectives that are sadly lacking in the professional journals. White people can and should learn from them. Please read their reviews and think hard about them before you place When We Was Fierce into the hands of a young reader.

Update (July 26, 2016): Zetta Elliott has added her voice on her blog with this essay: Black Voices Matter


Roger Sutton said...

And you're making me remember June Jordan's His Own Where (1971), which I thought WAS a brilliant synthesis of what we then called Black English and the writer's own unique bending of its rules.

K T Horning said...

I didn't notice a whole lot of rule-bending where language was concerned with His Own Where. It seemed like fairly standard Black English in poetic form. But it was a real rule-bender in other ways -- novel length picture book? For teens? With pictures? As is often the case, African-American authors do it first and best but rarely get credit. I'm also thinking of Alexis DeVeaux's great biography of Billie Holiday, called DON'T EXPLAIN from the early 80s. Written in verse. (Or in this case, true poetry.)

Thanks for remembering June Jordan, Roger. I should have included her in my list, along with Sharon Bell Mathis.

Jenn said...

Thanks for noting the consistent erasure and dismissal of Black voices being able to be prominent and the authority ON Black voices. This is another very sad example of that.

mclicious said...

When it comes to inventing slang, I think of how Amy Heckerling invented nearly all of her slang for CLUELESS, and people assumed it was just for kids so hip that they hadn't heard it before. But Heckerling is white and was writing mostly white characters, so a) she was part of the in-group, and b) rich white people are not marginalized in the way that poor blacks are. AND she made hers crazy over the top so it should have been obvious, and yet it naturally fit into the characters' mouths. That's the way to go about doing it. I haven't read this book, and unlike picturebooks we've talked about in the past year, there's not enough of it available on the internetz for me to make specific criticisms. BUT to bring up what I know was a totally rhetorical question that you know the answer to, I do love that SLJ decided to do something like that! But let's be honest - reviewers will be white so long as librarianship is white, and they will be white so long as the majority of publications don't pay their reviewers, and they will be white so long as white editorial boards silence PoC objections to positive reviews or stars or highlights because they don't deem them problematic *enough* to warrant taking those stars away.

K T Horning said...

Great points, mclicious. Thanks for bringing them into this discussion.

K T Horning said...

Great points, mclicious. Thanks for bringing them into this discussion.

B. A. Binns said...

I belong to a group of African American authors who still have trouble begging, borrowing or stealing a spot with major publishers. I published a YA in 2010 to good reviews, but still could not sell another until earlier this year, a MG book to Harper Children's that will not be out until 2018. It is both defeating and deflating to see things like this occur. Especially with someone making up their own language and yet getting raves, a think I told a class of writing students to never do when writing ab out different races only last week. And now we have accolades given out for this book.

Disheartening barely describes this for the group of African American childrens writers.

Hanna said...

Thanks, as always, for your insightful and important analysis, KT. What do you think accounts for the rave reviews, particularly in light of the fact that POC authors often have a hard time breaking through and getting similar attention?

Do you think there is an element of preference for a white translator? That the positive response is not just in spite of the author's outsider status, but because of it?

K T Horning said...

Hanna, I've been thinking about these questions for a long time. I have more than a few possible answers. And your observation (preference for White translator) is apt, too.

Possible answers:

1) White reviewers know so little about contemporary African-American life/culture/literature that they believed this book to be an accurate portrait.

2) White reviewers approached the book with a stereotype of Black males deep in their heads and this book reinforced their belief that Black men are thugs.

3) White reviewers didn't see the author as an outsider because she is Latina, and they assumed that a member of one marginalized group understands all marginalized groups.

4) White reviewers found the invented vernacular beautiful ("Shakespearean") and thought the book reflected rap or slam poetry. The African-American Vernacular English sounded right to them because they don't hear real AAVE regularly in their own lives. They have no concept of code-switching.

5) White reviewers have never been close enough to any members of the African-American community to see their humanity, and didn't notice that that element completely lacking in this book.

6) White reviewers knew the author had worked with "at risk kids" and they assumed this had given her some degree of expertise.

7) All of the above.

I'd be interested to hear any other theories people have.

There has been much talk online in the past week, blasting the author and publisher of WHEN WE WAS FIERCE. That's valid. But for me it's equally as egregious that three of our mainstream professional journals didn't even question the book's authenticity, and gave it starred reviews.

B. A. Binns said...

Here's my two bits, I agree with numbers 2 & 5, in fact I think they are both sides of the same thing. If an author gives a reviewer what they expect, stereotype and all, then to them it sounds authentic. I don't know if you saw the 2005 movie Crash, but this makes me think of the scene where the white producer finds it disingenuous when a young black actor does a scene using proper English and ends up demanding that the black director, supposedly hired to help keep the show authentic, make him redo the scene using improper English so it will sound "authentic."

We get similar things from editors who respond that they can't feel or grasp a character as written by an authentic voice. It's not what they expect and they can't get into the character.

As long as the editors and reviewers believe the stereotypes, consciously or subconsciously, this kind of thing will strike a chord and appear authentic to them. And they will continue rewarding that.

I don't so much blast the author or publisher. I just wish people who want to write about a group would first spend the effort to think outside the stereotype. And that publishers (and reviewers) would really consider authentic voices, even if what those voices say do not match their preconceived notions.

Pat said...

All of the above.
K.T.'s list of possible reasons why professional journal editors and reviewers mistook urgency for accuracy might also be understood in relation to a recent article published in the Educational Researcher, by Zirkel & Johnson (Vol 45, 5, pp. 301-311). The authors focus on the ways White researchers have historically and persistently framed Black and Brown youth identities as damaged and suspect and then published research that announces what must be done to fix 'their problems.'
In response to this misguided (heroic) framing, Zirkel & Johnson show that a substantial body of research on Black racial identity "reveals robust and consistent evidence that Black racial identity is linked to a broad range of positive outcomes from measures of well-being- including greater resilience, coping with discrimination, higher academic performance, greater commitment to education, and improved educational outcomes on a number of measures."
They ask why researchers and other professionals hold on to theories "suggesting the 'danger' of Black racial identity". Why not shift the research framework to affirmative data and findings?
The parallel history of framing in publishing and reviewing is striking. This article supports the call to reject fictionalizing- and reviewing of such fiction - and teaching and researching- based on a presumption that Black and Brown racial identities are a danger to youth themselves. Teachers, writers, publishers and reviewers must learn to imagine humanity first. As K.T. points out, this means wide-reading, linguistic expertise, and dialogue/questioning about the foundational framing of the work at hand.

Unknown said...

some time soon while there is still time for me and my p o e t i n g i will write a long long long overdue love song to kay tee...
and so glad she is here with her historical perspectives and insights....the struggles continue.....
and one more indulgence:
virginia and i talked countless times of dialect and colloquial speech... and authenticities.....differences and what she loved to call: verisimilitudes....decades were devoted to research and study...trial and error...sources ranging from gullah wpa collected narratives...and on and on to create characters who spoke with the duality of authenticity and beauty....arnold adoff in haste and rememories.....