SLJ: Writers Against Racism

Interview on School and Library Journal
Amy Bowllan’s Blog: Writers Against Racism
October 18, 2009

Literature is a wonderful way to encourage a child’s journey of self-exploration.

Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.

When I was growing up racism was very overt. Neighborhoods were segregated and it wasn’t always safe as an African American to venture “out of the box.” But my parents and teachers were very adept at showing me how to navigate some of the roadblocks. One situation sticks out in my mind as representative of what I ran into on a regular basis.

One summer, I worked for the Youth Conservation Corps at Lake Hope State Park in southeast Ohio, just on the West Virginia border. I was one of only two black students at the camp and working with Forest Rangers. At the end of the month I arranged to ride part of the way home and spend the night with another camper until my father could come and get me.  Everything was set until the girl laughed and said, “I need to warn my mother that a black man is going to come to the door so she doesn’t call the cops.”  I just froze. A counselor found another way for me to get home.

Flash forward several decades to a world we assume is more enlightened and “race” neutral. I was a manager at Hallmark. One of my employees invited me to her baby shower.  I arrived at her mother’s home with a basket filled with baby items wrapped with lace and big satin bow. Her sister answered the door, accompanied by a girl, about five years old.  Immediately, she shoved the girl backwards to protect her and scolded me that “they didn’t take solicitations” and that I should get out of the neighborhood before they called the police. I turned to leave. The mother-to-be came running out of the house yelling – “What did you say to her? That’s my boss!” She coaxed me into the house and apologized by explaining that they didn’t get a lot of black visitors in the neighborhood. It was the most uncomfortable evening I’ve spent in a long time.

Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
I’m trying to lay the same navigational routes for children that my mother laid for me. The world is a bit more open. And yet many of the same barriers are still in place. Many urban children are ostracized for “talking white” at school. It isn’t “okay” to be smart.   

What I realized is that, for many students, their exposure to what life holds for them is heavily influenced by the media to which they are exposed. Years ago there was an outcry about the lack of diversity in books.  While publishing met that challenge, what resulted was an significant uptick in historical fiction and contemporary books featuring people of color as victims of racial adversity.  If you want to find a story about slavery or civil rights, for instance, I can show you shelves of them. Want a sensitive, but poor kid in trouble with the law, there are a lot of those too.  But if you want to find a book in which race is a part of a child’s life , but not the prevailing cause of the problem (a wizard, an aspiring Harvard student, a smart kid solving a mystery for example) – it’s harder. And popular literature still features them, more often than not, as sidekicks and afterthoughts.  I call it the “Not You” syndrome. You can read about Harry Potter but you can’t aspire to be a Harry Potter, or a Bella Swan, or a Frodo.

The results are often insidious. My youngest daughter attended a summer program at a New England Boarding School. One day she called and I could tell something was wrong. I braced and flashed back to the day when, attending the same school, I’d heard the “N” word from a student in the surrounding town. It took her ten minutes to calm down long enough to tell me what upset her. The school hosted a diversity event. Groups of students were invited to showcase their culture. Hundreds of students were present from all over the world. Those students talked about a wide variety of topics including music, art, and traditional dances. The African American students did a presentation on civil rights and slavery.  My daughter was both angry and embarrassed that we had an opportunity to showcase the positive aspects of our culture and squandered it. For many of the foreign students, including her Thai roommate, this was their first in-person exposure to African Americans. What they got was more of what the media already shows ad naseum.

Then I understood. The media so over-saturates the market with a limited range of images of African Americans, that those students don’t recognize their history predates those events or that they are capable of surpassing them. I’m a college interviewer. Before Barack Obama was elected, I couldn’t convince urban students that they could aspire to go to Harvard or MIT. In almost every case I was told those were “uppity white” schools. Why wouldn’t they? What guideposts do we give them to say otherwise?

So I write against the stereotype.  I try to write what is NOT there, rather than more of what is already being acquired.  Because as a child I had to “translate” to see myself in mainstream literature and I guess I’m heartsick that my children and their friends are having to do the same.

In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?

Literature is, for many people, their first introduction to the world outside their geographical boundaries. It can serve as a way for someone to test theories without actually having to do those things themselves. Readers can watch and analyze what a character does in a safe environment.  Often – if it’s a good book – they pass it along to friends, compare notes, start discussions and debate the merits and drawbacks of the text. 

But I want to also say there’s a giant elephant in the room. What often happens is that books are written from the perspective of the “conquerers” and often ignores the accomplishments of the indigenous people.  Or — in the case of many cultures in the U.S., — books saturate the market with images of those people overcoming some racial adversity or mired in a stereotype.  What happens is that people who are not exposed to those cultures in any other way get a skewed perspective.  And children who are often the subject of the books, start turning off to reading because the books they love — the books their friends are talking about and that are touted by the media — don’t show them in any meaningful roles. Hence, we perpetuate the same conditions and stereotypes that we hope literature will defeat. And just as with the girl who had to warn her mother, or the woman who initially blocked me from a baby shower – if their only images stem from these narrow offerings, then progress comes more slowly than it should.

When I wrote Everest, I wanted to focus on a “road less traveled.” What struck me, in my research, was how many books on the subject focused on the foreign visitors – those who came and conquered. More often than not, they are wealthy Europeans and Americans.  Never mind that those accomplishments were made possible only with the help of people who had lived in the region for hundreds of years. So I wanted to expose children of color to other people of color who are ignored and marginalized in literature in favor of a majority point of view.

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