Tuesday, July 4, 2017

What We Celebrate

With ALA’s Annual Conference in the books, I’ve had opportunities to learn about the experiences of people of color at this year’s conference, and to reflect on my own experiences and the role I play as a White person in majority White spaces such as library conferences. (If you haven’t read the posts by April Hathcock, Edi Campbell, Sarah Park Dahlen, or Fobazi Ettarh, you’ll want to leave this site and do that now.)

I had an opportunity to invite a White educator friend to the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder banquet this year. If one thinks of the banquet as representative of mainstream American children’s literature, it’s no surprise that the celebration ends up being a majority White space. My friend, it being her first ALA experience, noticed and named this. I was not surprised by her noticing, but it was a moment of learning for me in that it made me realize how comfortable I have become in that room. My friend’s acknowledgement pressed me to remember that while the whiteness in that room is not surprising, I can’t let myself “get used to it.” It needs to be at the forefront of my mind. I get to choose every day whether institutional racism in my world and in my field bothers me or not...whether to notice or think about it or not...when for others that whiteness is poking at them day in and day out, causing pain and planting weights I won’t ever have to carry.

As much as conferences exhaust me, I love connecting with people and learning ways to improve in my practice. I get energized and often have a feeling of being part of something bigger than myself. This too, is complicated. While there is work being done to dismantle racism in the field (and it is worth noting that much work is being done and led by people of color and First/Native Nations folks), youth librarianship still has so far to go. That I feel energized is partly dependent upon others feeling exhausted...that I feel seen and understood and welcomed is the other side of the coin which makes others feel excluded. I can’t forget this.

I was at a session for ALSC (an ALA division to which I am a member) when the organization was described by a White woman as “welcoming” and “inclusive.” For many people, it is those things, but one White woman’s experience can’t be taken as universalto accept that would be to ignore and undervalue Hathcock’s, Campbell’s, Ettarh's, and Dahlen’s experiences and shared perspectives. I can’t ignore how whiteness in my organization affects who does and does not see it as “welcoming” and whose voices have been heard and ignored historicallyand are heard and ignored today. (Alec Chunn’s recent ALSC Blog post “And the Work Continues” speaks to some of these challenges.) Racism is embedded into our profession (and world) and just saying an organization is welcoming and inclusive doesn’t make it so.

This conference I also found myself reflecting on Megan Dowd Lambert’s “alongside, not despite.” I am celebrating the ALA Youth Media Awards alongside the history of the awards Javaka Steptoe spoke to in his Caldecott acceptance speech. I am listening and viewing recordings of honorees and library leaders sharing their favorite award-winning books alongside being disappointed when they laud problematic books such as Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, and The Little House series. I am psyched about this year’s award winners and honorees alongside being aware that we have awards named after Theodor Seuss Geisel and Laura Ingalls Wilder, creators with complex legacies worth interrogation.

The Geisel Award website says that Geisel was “always respectful of children.” The Wilder Award website shares that Wilder “wrote...primarily to entertain. She was interested in providing her young readers with information on how life was lived by their ancestors. Wilder’s books were not about the country’s leaders; they were about the country’s people.” I don’t believe these statements are wholly true. Geisel’s propaganda dehumanized people of Japanese ancestry and from other marginalized racial and ethnic groupsthat work wasn’t respectful. Wilder’s books include characters saying “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” To me, this represents a limited and biased view of who is included when we say Wilder’s books represent “the country’s people.”

Without recognizing these creators’ whole legacies, what do having a Wilder Medal and a Geisel Award say about whatand whothe profession values? What do those stickers on books communicate to children? What feelings of inferiority do they generate, or what feelings of dominance do they support? Of course, these awards (monuments to Wilder and Geisel) aren’t the only instances in librarianship, the country, or the world where we have pieces of our unjust past and present made visiblein America we have money, textbooks, the National Anthem, and 4th of July celebrations, just to name a few. But when we celebrate an award honoring someone’s life’s work, and part of that work is in opposition to the core values of the association, we are being selective in what we are remembering. Sometimes we are consciously selective. Other times we are getting “used to it,” becoming comfortable. I need to step away from that comfort and remember that it is NOT okay. To me, this is all worth noticing, naming, and changing.

Elisa Gall

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