“I remember the day that I became colored,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote in How it Feels to be Colored Me. In that essay, she related how she’d never thought much about her own skin color until she turned fourteen and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where she encountered discrimination that transformed her from “Zora of Orange County” to “the little colored girl.”
I first read that essay when I was in college, and it blew my mind out of my ears and onto the pile of pizza boxes in the corner of my dorm room. I’d never imagined that experience for anyone. What was it like to have your identity redefined into a category you never knew existed? What was it like to go from just being a girl to being “just a girl”? To go from being one of the guys to being “one of those guys”? To realize that, no matter your achievements or accomplishments, people would first notice the color of your skin?
“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” said Abraham Lincoln when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Those words came back to me in the early 1990’s when I watched a newscast showing Mary Cummins, President of School Board District 24 of Queens NY saying, “This is a war and it will be fought….” Cummins was talking about the Rainbow Curriculum, a resource compiled for New York City school teachers that suggested titles to make classrooms more inclusive and diverse. Cummins objected to three books included in the curriculum that feature families with same-sex parents including my own book, Heather Has Two Mommies. Chaos ensued with protests, demonstrations, and heated school meetings that came close to violence. Headlines such as “How a ‘Rainbow Curriculum’ Turned into Fighting Words” (from the New York Times) and “City writer’s book involved in national gay-rights battle” (from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, my hometown newspaper), gave me pause. Fighting words? Battle? Had I also written a book that started a great war?
That certainly was not my intention.
I wrote Heather Has Two Mommies in 1988 at the request of a lesbian mother who stopped me on the street one day and said, “We have no books to read to our daughter that show a family like ours. Somebody should write one.” I knew exactly how this little girl felt. Growing up in the 1950’s, I had no books that showed a family like mine: a Jewish family celebrating Chanukah and Passover and eating matzo ball soup and challah on Friday nights. After reading book after book about families that decorated Christmas trees and hunted for Easter eggs, I wondered why my family didn’t do those things. Why was my family so different? What was wrong with my family?
“Ask yourself if your community can see itself reflected in your library. And if you don’t work in a particularly diverse community, you should still feature a wide range of books. Especially in places where kids don’t often have the chance to meet and interact with children who are different from them, books can offer a special opportunity to expose children to cultures and lives that are different from their own.”—Abby Johnson, children’s services/outreach manager at New Albany–Floyd County (Ind.) Public Library, in her article Diversity on My Mind
Categorizing the Human Condition – Re-defining Who We Think We Are
One of the most frustrating arguments I see made so often in the ongoing diversity dialogue is an expressed concern by publishing professionals (in various departments) that books spotlighting diverse characters (whether racial diversity, sexual diversity, or gender diversity, on book covers or as lead characters) will naturally have an ingrained niche appeal, and won’t be as accessible to the broadest reader.
To that I say:
“Why do we expect so little from the average consumer?”
“Why do we assume that the natural response from adults who don’t share a commonality with a diverse character in any respect aren’t hungry to expand their horizons a bit through their nighttime reading?”
Celebrating the Legacy of Walter Dean Myerspublishersweekly.com
Friends, family members, colleagues, and those otherwise touched by the work of the late author gathered for an evening of rich and decidedly up-tempo readings, speeches, and performances to honor his life.
Hosting the evening’s events was Myers’s son and artist Christopher Myers, who reflected throughout the night on the gifts given to him by his father, while also welcoming the authors, artists, and musicians who joined him on stage.
In the Fall 2014 issue of The ALAN Review, the peer-reviewed journal of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE (ALAN), contributors were invited to share their experiences, challenges, hesitations, and successes in using or promoting young adult literature that features characters and/or authors of color.
Statistics suggest that, by 2019, approximately 49% of students enrolled in U.S. public schools will be Latina/o, Black, Asian/Pacific Island, or American Indian (Hussar & Bailey, 2011). However, the field has been increasingly criticized for not reflecting these demographics in the literature published for young adult readers. For readers of color, this can result in a sense of disconnect between lived reality and what is described on the page. For readers from the dominant culture, this can result in a limited perception of reality and affirmation of a singular way of knowing and doing and being. For all readers, exposure to a variety of ethnically unfamiliar literature can encourage critical reading of text and world, recognition of the limitations of depending upon mainstream depictions of people and their experiences, and the building of background knowledge and expansion of worldview.
Consider the experiences of the late Walter Dean Myers: “All the authors I studied, all the historical figures, with the exception of George Washington Carver, and all those figures I looked upon as having importance were white men. I didn’t mind that they were men, or even white men. What I did mind was that being white seemed to play so important a part in the assigning of values” (Bad Boy: A Memoir). And ponder Jacqueline Woodson’s words, “Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down” (The Other Side).
The current issue of The ALAN Review addresses what educators and librarians have done (or might do) to give that fence a nudge.
Wendy J. Glenn is Associate Professor in the Neag School of Education where she teaches courses in the theories and methods of teaching literature, writing, and language. She is the former President of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ALAN) and current Senior Editor of the organization’s peer-review journal, The ALAN Review.
The first time I met Miracle (not her real name), she arrived in a full suit of armor: a thick mask of makeup, black eyeliner pointed like arrows at the edge of her eyes - a warning, perhaps, to not look at her the wrong way - hair slicked back into a severe ponytail, a jean skirt and flat black leather boots suitable for running away, if need be.
My friend, a detective with the NYPD at the time, had arranged the meeting. Miracle was known to police as a reliable source of information about sex traffickers in Brooklyn. She is also a survivor of child prostitution.
When I decided to write Little Peach, I knew I could not attempt the story without speaking directly with victims. I felt I had no right to type a single word on the page without doing so. Little Peach could not be my sheltered imagining of the issue, but an accurate account guided by the victims themselves. My job was to cede my voice, and give rise to theirs.
The first night we met, Miracle and I spoke for three hours.
She told me about the scouts that lie in wait at bus terminals and outside of group homes, looking for runaways and desperate, injured kids. She told me I could go to Port Authority that very night and I would see men wearing red or blue – signifying their particular gang affiliation – hunting for girls.
She showed me the tattoos she was given by her pimp, including a five-point red star placed strategically behind her ear by a sect of the Bloods that deals in trafficking. The placement is intentional: she could easily be identified as their property with the turn of her head.
“The key to effective diversity initiatives [within companies and organizations], research has shown, comes not in mandatory manager training, but rather in finding ways to engage managers to contribute to their company’s diversity efforts. For example, encouraging managers to volunteer as mentors to underrepresented employees is one of the most successful diversity efforts taken on by companies.”—