Sunday, May 31, 2020

Being a “Person of One’s Time” in 2020

Elisa Gall
While the events of the last several days, weeks, and years are unique to this moment in history, none of this: state violence, White supremacy, racist double standards, White liberal racism...none of this is new. 

As a White person, I can’t and won’t ever begin to understand the trauma BIPOC have faced and continue to face every day. I can be horrified, devastated, enraged, and justice-focused, and at the end of the day I’m still White. I will always be colluding with racism and benefiting from it. It is my responsibility to work to understand what this means and pay attention to the complexities at play, especially when I am trying to engage in anti-racist action. It is my responsibility to consider how my ignorance and naivety, my expression of feelings, and my behaviors impact BIPOC. (General reminder: STOP posting traumatic videos of anti-Black violence on your timelines.)

I can’t write as fast as the world spins, but as I am sitting and processing what’s happening around me, I’m thinking a lot about the community of children’s and young adult literature of which I am a part. Thanks to Dr. Laura M. Jiménez and Betsy Beckert’s research, we have the data from 2019 to show how #kidlit is dominated by White people just like any other White supremacist, capitalist industry. Children’s literature has never been separate from the wider world. Everything there is here. It is all connected.

As politicians use racist terms like “thugs” to dehumanize activists and denounce organized action, #kidlit uses terms like “online mobs” to dismiss, silence, and punish expert critique and valid expressions of pain. While White community leaders distort Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and cry for a mythological “peace” that somehow exists without justice, norms of “niceness” and “professionalism” are upheld and defined by majority-White #kidlit gatekeepers who have a vested interest in protecting the status quo. 

This is all happening in an industry in which BIPOC pain and trauma are routinely commodified, #OwnVoices books (credit Corinne Duyvis) face an uphill path to creation, and racist books filled with straight-up misinformation and stereotypes keep getting published. As Jason Reynolds said last week at School Library Journal’s Day of Dialog: “There is something about the documenting of a thing, that it becomes real. It doesn’t matter if it’s true.” 

I am thinking of the BIPOC in the children's literature community who fight tirelessly for equity. I am thinking about the #kidlit patterns we see, again, and again, when racism in our industry is challenged. I’m thinking of the children that we serve. And one other thing that I’m thinking about today, as I write this in 2020, is how often discussions of racism in children’s literature turn into a defense of racism with the excuse that the creator is (or was) “a person of one’s time.”

What does it mean to be a person of one’s time?

Sure, we are all human. We’re all socialized, we carry ignorance, and even when we are given information our actions have the potential to be racist and anti-racist in the same afternoon. We are all people, yes, and of course we each live during a time. Andrew Jackson was a person of his time. So was John Brown (they lived during the same time actually). Laura Ingalls Wilder was a person of her time, and so was Ida B. Wells (of that same time). Marsha P. Johnson lived during the same time as George Wallace. Helen Bannerman lived during the same time as W.E.B. Du Bois. Fred Korematsu lived during the same time as Theodor Seuss Geisel. Charles Lindbergh overlapped with Langston Hughes. Rebecca Nagle, Judy Heumann, Mari Copeny, and Dolores Huerta all live during the same time as Stephen Millerand us.

As long as there has been racism, there have been people fighting racism. Just as there has always been racism in children’s and young adult literature, there have always been people fighting racism in children’s and young adult literature. One look at the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin Archive organized by Dr. Nicole Cooke and her team shows that.

To say someone is a person or product of their time isn’t just a weird and sort of obvious thing to say to defend racist writings or actions. It functions as an excuse for the racism (and whatever connected systems of oppression are also being challenged in the moment the defense is elicited). When people use “of one’s time” to defend a writer’s work, they are actually naming, even if subconsciously, that the oppressive status quo of that time period is worth making excuses for. Or at the very least, that they are OK with that racist text or behavior being defended in the context of the discussion, which is happening in the present. An “of one’s time” defense claims some sort of time-space neutrality that just doesn’t exist.To quote Jason Reynolds againremixing the work of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi”if you're not being anti-racist, by definition, you are being racist.” 
EDITOR'S NOTE 6/2/20 5:13PM CST: I want to apologize for citing Ibram X. Kendi above, without crediting Angela Davis, who should be cited for the concept and quote: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.”  I'm sorry for this intersectionality failI erased a Black woman's work. Thank you to Stacy Collins for pointing out this mistake. 

I am a White person of 2020. I am learning, and sharing, and doing my best to fight the anti-Blackness and racism that I’m swimming in and that has been part of my life and this country since forever. I’m a person of my time, and if you’re reading this, you are a person of your time too. And this (*looks around*) is where we are. The status quo right now, today, is NOT okay. 

What each of us doeswhat we defend, what we stay silent on, what decisions we make, what we pay attention to, how we spend our money, and even what we don’t doall are choices. Fellow White people, what choices will you make today? 

You can read our kindred spirits blogs (you should be doing this already, before you read Reading While White) or explore links on this all-ages Anti-Racism Resources padlet developed by Dr. Nicole Cooke. You can purchase titles recommended by the team at We Are Kid Lit (the new list is slated to go live tomorrow). You can evaluate your library’s policies or a favorite curricular text using a critical lens. You can support a local bail fund or a nonprofit like BYP100 or Black Visions Collective.

It’s 2020. We are all people of now. Black lives matter and they have always mattered. Full stop. 

-Elisa Gall

1 comment:

  1. I was really intrigued about how you respond to those who defend racist authors as being "people of their time". The comparison between racist and progressive figures in history that existed during the same time period is valid point to bring up. It goes to show that using this as an excuse or "reason" for ignorance is unacceptable, especially when putting these ideas and thoughts into the minds of the younger community through children's literature. Every era has had their progressive figures and those in children's literature should be in that role as well.