Where were all the white people?
This past weekend, I had the good fortune to be invited to participate in the A Is for Anansi children’s-literature conference mounted by the Institute of African American Affairs at NYU. I was invited because years ago I published an article on the almost complete absence of black characters in fantasy books for children—a void that has remained largely unfilled in the decade-plus since and that I will write more about in a future column. I was a little nervous about the invitation; I am not an academic, and I don’t consider myself an expert of any kind in African-American children’s literature. But I thought it would be good for me to revisit the issue and to do something a little different.
Boy, was I glad I did.
Michelle Martin, Augusta Baker Chair in Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina, offered the keynote, which opened with a mind-boggling series of statistics on the effects of our failure to connect with and nurture African-American youth.
- Every four seconds, an African-American child is suspended from a public school.
- Every 27 seconds, an African-American child drops out of high school.
- Every two minutes, an African-American baby is born into poverty.
- Every 15 minutes, an African-American child is arrested for a drug offense.
- Every 59 minutes, an African-American baby dies before his or her first birthday.
- Every two days, an African-American child or teen commits suicide.
It was a multidisciplinary conference, and representatives from varying fields shared their stories and perspectives. Meena Khorana, professor emerita of English at Morgan State University in Baltimore, demonstrated that, sadly, negative and misguided stereotypes of Africa and its many peoples still abound. Author Varian Johnson spoke with anguish about having worked to write a race-blind novel for teens, Saving Maddie, and then looking his infant daughter in the eyes and realizing that he’d missed an opportunity to write a book in which she would he see herself. Georgina Falú, professor of history at City College New York-CUNY, explored resistance among Afro-Latino youth in accepting their African heritage.
Comic-book writer Ivan Velez spoke of his work to create authentic African-American and Latino superheroes. Author and MIT recruiter Christine Taylor-Butler described her grief at the certainty of African-American children she meets at school visits that MIT is not “for kids like us.” Professor of sociology Terry Williams of the New School for Social Research described an innovative, literacy-based ethnography project that empowered children in Harlem through writing.
Author after author described their difficulties reaching publication and their frustration at being buttonholed. Coe Booth, author of contemporary, realistic fiction for teens including Bronxwood, talked of finding her books either on the “black shelf” at the back or, idiotically, included in Black History displays. Zetta Elliott, whose first book, Bird, illustrated by Shadra Strickland, poignantly explores a boy’s grief as his older brother spirals into addiction, shared her anger at her inability to find a traditional publisher for her speculative fiction. Nnedi Okorafor described the fight she and her editor waged against the designer who placed a white girl on the cover of The Shadow Speaker, about the experience of a dark-skinned girl in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic West Africa.
Three vigorous and opinionated teens weighed in on their thoughts on education and literature, showing the promise imperiled in Martin’s statistics.
The event was capped by a lifetime achievement award ceremony for four lions of children’s literature—Ashley Bryan, Pat Cummings, Eloise Greenfield and William Loren Katz—whose contributions over the decades have enlightened and enriched the lives of children of all hues. Organized by Jaîra Placide, an author and former publisher, and Rashidah Ismaili-AbuBakr, a poet and the very definition of a force of nature, the conference was a day and a half of stories of passion for and dedication to the well-being of children of African descent.
And I was one of very few white people in the room. Shamefully, I probably would not have attended the conference had I not been invited. Where were the (mostly white) agents and publishers, who are churning out dreary dystopian fiction about beautiful white teens by the barrelful? Where were the (mostly white) teachers and librarians?
Because those children in those statistics? They may be African-American, not white, but they are—by definition—American. More importantly, they are human children. They are all our children, and we need to do our part to take care of them.