This week’s story is the first of our We Are Here Now Online Issue which features stories dedicated to women and other under-represented voices. A new story from the issue is to be published every Monday.
Imagine if you will, the author as a teen: awkward, black, and completely absorbed in the act of reading everything within a twenty-mile radius. I loved to read fantasy, and later, soapy teen horrors like the Fear Street books or the books written by Christopher Pike. The books were punctuated by Harlequin romances, where secret babies and millionaire playboys were the norm. I devoured these stories, reading in between classes, on the bus ride to school, everywhere.
Portrait of the author as a bookworm. A black bookworm.
In all of my reading and book devouring, not once did I read a book that featured a black girl or woman. There were no black girls slipping into fantastical worlds and saving prophesied kings. There were no dark-skinned girls facing down their serial killer boyfriends or black women falling in love with their millionaire bosses. There were only white girls and women: blond women, brunettes, plucky redheads. Never a girl whose skin color was the same earth tone as mine.
Magic, love, and heart-stopping action just didn’t happen for black girls. We didn’t exist in those spaces, in those books. It was an apartheid of a different kind, a literary genocide for black women, and by extension, an apartheid of the imagination. By reading those books, I began to believe that those things also didn’t and couldn’t exist for me.
Because black girls, in the few instances they did appear in books, existed down the way in different kinds of books. They were there, as slaves in historical fiction, as house servants, as kids fighting their way through the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s. Maybe, if you were lucky, you could find a black kid in the modern day inner city, struggling to survive gangs and bad decisions.
The stories of black lives within the literary sphere, when they did appear, were stories of pain and despair. There was no joy in reading about black people; there was only the reminder that my existence was to be one of agony and woe. The best I could hope for was to be the Black Best Friend: a secondary character there to help the white main character on their way through the story arc. Maybe I could even suffer for white betterment! I mean, there are a lot of black best friends dying to save the white main character when you read literature. That wouldn’t be too bad, right? My pain could be their gain! Well, at least according to the books on the shelves.
And, coincidentally, movies and TV and and and…
The options were not encouraging.
In the time since I was a teen not much has changed. In 2014 Christopher Myers, the son of well-known author Walter Dean Myers, wrote about the Apartheid of Children’s Literature for the New York Times. Myers described this literary segregation as the fact that “characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth.” Myers goes on to discuss the impact of this wholesale marginalization of black people within literature, looking at how it impacts young black children, by limiting their self worth and robbing them of a safe way of interacting with the larger world by reading fiction.
But this apartheid of children’s literature goes further than that. It impacts the very fabric of children’s minds, so much so that white children grow up without the ability to even imagine black people as the hero in a story unless it’s about slavery or civil rights. And for black children it means entering adulthood with a damaged sense of self, of secretly wondering if they are as good as their white peers, if the hardships and inequality they face is real or made up in their heads. This may seem dramatic, but consider for a moment: black children grow up viewing the world through a lens of white joy and black pain. We’re slaves and victims of violence, individuals without self-determination. We have no happiness, no successes, except for February when we trot out a handful of black folks who somehow defied the odds, and maybe their biology, to be extraordinary.
This apartheid of the imagination is damaging enough to the black psyche, but our white classmates grow up thinking that this is what it means to be black as well. They think we exist in specific spaces: slaves, Civil Rights workers, gang members in the inner city, rappers, athletes. They think we’re not good as professionals, that we’re great as a best friend but maybe not as a CEO. After all, we’re not the ones navigating magical lands and saving the world time after time after time. If we’re secondary characters in every story white children ever experience why shouldn’t we be in real life as well? Sure there might be exceptions, those extraordinary black folks like Harriet Tubman and MLK, but for the most part blacks just aren’t really equal. They’re back-up dancers, there to shake their ass and make the white pop diva look cool and edgy. The black body as scene dressing, both in real life and our fictional ones.
This may seem bleak enough, but the real issue is that without the ability to dream, to imagine black folks as main characters in every story, the cycle continues. Every year, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Education publishes the annual count of books published for children and their racial breakdowns. The project began in 1985 when the CCBC Director at the time was appalled to learn that of all the books published for children that year only 18 contained black main characters.
The count is important because it provides a window into what is an otherwise very murky process. Most publishers are not forthcoming on the racial breakdowns of their lists, instead choosing to focus on the few books they did publish, breadcrumbs tossed on the altar of “diversity.” The CCBC lists take those breadcrumbs and show them for what they are.
In 2015, a year of Donald Trump “telling it like it is,” 106 books were published by black authors, with a total of 269 books being about black main characters. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Until you realize that about 3,400 books were published under the children’s publishing umbrella last year. And the majority of books written about black children were not by black authors, they were stories about black people filtered through the lens of white identity. Stories of slaves and Civil Rights and suffering. Children’s books like A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a book about a man enslaved by George Washington making the Founding Father a birthday cake, complete with grinning photos of enslaved black children and the assertion that Martha Washington was a great lady. The book doesn’t mention that the enslaved man in question ran away to freedom with his family the first chance he got, or that Martha Washington was known for having her overseers liberally take a whip to her enslaved lady’s maids. Instead it depicts slavery as not that bad, skirting the brutality and violence that was part and parcel of the institution.
Black children don’t see themselves echoed, their true selves and not some derivative stereotype, in their favorite book characters or the author photos of their favorite books. The result is that black children don’t imagine that they could one day write books. So, they don’t. They go on to get business degrees and nursing degrees instead.
At the same time, white children don’t see anyone that doesn’t look like them within the pages of the books and media they consume, so they don’t bother to consider that books should feature anyone but kids who look like them. These children grow up to work as literary agents and editors, and so the cycle continues. Lee and Low, a children’s book publisher focused on publishing books featuring characters from underrepresented racial groups, recently did a diversity baseline study within several of the major publishing houses. They found, not surprisingly, the whites make up 79% of the employees in the publishing, mostly in the editorial field. So that the few black writers who struggle to get published run up against the immovable wall of the white imagination, segregated by years of media consumption. These authors face an apartheid of the imagination that makes editors and agents wonder why the black main character isn’t a slave, fighting for Civil Rights, or a gang member in the inner city.
It’s a tragic, self-perpetuating cycle.
Every time I look at these facts, every time I see another breakdown of data or another black author writing about how it feels to be tokenized in publishing I wonder: “How do we fix this?” How do we get black kids and young adults writing, how do we get publishing houses and editors and literary agents and marketing interested in books by and about black people, not just at the children’s publishing level, but across the spectrum?
It seems like most people would see the numbers, see the issue, and immediately think: “We need to fix this. Show me what I can do.” But the opposite is true. The resistance is real. When the topic of diversity and representation comes up, publishers point to low sales of books with black main characters as proof that black people don’t read, all without looking at the book’s terrible cover and lack of marketing, and how this lack of care effectively buried it in the market. Arguments of quality, as though books written by black folks are automatically inferior, abound.
“If only I was sent quality books, I would publish black authors.” 3,500 children’s books were published last year, how many of those won awards? Broke sales records? Publishers’ current lists are already filled with books that are garbage. I know this; I’ve read them. And so have you. Quality is a slippery metric. How do you define “quality”? Does it need to speak to you and your identity? Does it need to appeal to your whiteness? And who defines quality, anyway? Because often “quality” relies heavily on the segregated imagination, which is why books about black suffering still get published in record numbers, but to find a carefree black girl is harder than finding a unicorn. Literally. There are tons of books about unicorns.
To change this rhetoric we have to change the very nature of the world as it is today. Teachers, as much as they are able, need to find books that showcase the depth and breadth of the black experience. Teachers need to nurture young black writers, give them the building blocks to pursue writing and the self-esteem to see that their stories are valid. Agents and editors and publishing houses need to think more critically about the decisions they’re making, especially when it comes to acquiring the manuscripts that exist outside of their comfortable, white-focused world.
In her article for the Children’s Book Council, senior editor Kate Sullivan discussed this, saying “Analyzing manuscripts for acquisition is sometimes an emotional or gut-based reaction… Consider the fact that your very whiteness might prevent you from understanding the lives diverse characters and peoples lead…” Editors must think critically about the why and the who of the stories they’re acquiring. If they don’t, the current cycle will continue, and in a world where more than half of the children in school are not white that is just an untenable long-term solution.
Somewhere out there is a young reader just like me who is dying to see herself reflected back from the pages of the book she’s reading. We owe it to her to wonder why that is, why our current way of doing things only privileges a few, and to do everything in our power to fix it. We may not be publishers or literary agents, but we are consumers and readers. So buy books that feature non-white main characters. Read those books and talk them up to friends and family. Ask booksellers why those books aren’t on their shelves, and remember that every little bit matters.
We all deserve to be able to find echoes of ourselves on the pages of the stories we read.
Justina Ireland enjoys dark chocolate, dark humor, and is not too proud to admit that she’s still afraid of the dark. She lives with her husband, kid, and dog in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows, both currently available from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. Her essay “Me, Some Random Guy, and the Army of Darkness” appears in The V-Word, an anthology of personal essays by women about having sex for the first time, published by Beyond Words (S&S). And her forthcoming book Dread Nation will be available in 2018 from the HarperCollins imprint Balzer and Bray. You can find Justina on twitter as @justinaireland or visit her website justinaireland.com.