It’s the end of the year, and this column is both a wrap-up and, I hope, a first step toward a new path. First, I was thrilled to see Tanya Lee Stone’s Courage Has No Color, the True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers (Candlewick, 2013) on the 2014 YALSA nonfiction finalist list—in part because I edited it along with Hilary Van Dusen of Candlewick Press, but also because that book, along with Steve Sheinkin’s forthcoming The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights (Roaring Brook, January, 2014), led me to a realization—and, perhaps, an invitation.
When Tanya considered working on the story of the Triple Nickles she was concerned about her standing writing about those African American paratroopers, since she is white. Ashley Bryan insisted that she go ahead with it. Tanya, like Steve, had found a story about World War II, African American servicemen, and discrimination that no one else had told. Perhaps because of this, no one raised the old question of identity—why is a white author writing a book about people of color?
Thinking about what Tanya and Steve have accomplished led me to a question that I hope opens new doors: Why are there so few nonfiction books by people of color that are not about the history of their own race/ethnicity? Why, for example, don’t we have a Walter Dean Myers biography of, say, Fiorello La Guardia, or for that matter, William Shakespeare? Why don’t we have Charles Smith on white point guards such as Bob Cousy or John Stockton? Joyce Hansen on Abe Lincoln? Andrea Davis Pinkney on Benny Goodman? Wouldn’t it be fascinating to have these accomplished writers, who are steeped in history and skilled in writing for young people, looking at a culture that is not “theirs” (in the same way African American history is), but is part of our common history?
I can think of a few exceptions: Tonya Bolden’s FDR’s Alphabet Soup (Knopf, 2010); E.B. Lewis’s illustrations for Mary Matthews’s Magid Fasts for Ramadan (HMH, 2000) and Doreen Rappaport and Lyndall Callan’s Dirt on Their Skirts (Dial, 2000); and some of the books by Leo and Diane Dillon that were expressly meant to be about all and everyone. I am sure you can add more. But I am equally sure you recognize the pattern I am describing. Books by people of color tend not only to be about people of color, but indeed their own particular background. Is that necessarily a good thing?
I posed this question to my graduate MLIS students, and one, an African American woman, felt strongly that while she could see the value of books written by people of color on any subject, she feared that as long as there is still such a huge need for titles on African American history—and so few examples—that that small stock would be diminished. One of my editors added a concern that many readers are so glad, so eager, to find books about themselves, we need to keep making sure more and more such books are available. And those readers who know that I have spoken out against ethnic rules for awards (see “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes” published in The Horn Book Magazine and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s eloquent response) may suspect that I am trying a judo move: encourage people of color to expand their range and the case for having “to be it to write it” diminishes.
No to all three. I am not suggesting that there be fewer books on any subject. I am not revisiting the old ethnic awards issue—I’ve had my say on that. And I have never accepted the “I-want-a-book-about-a-person-like-me” argument. Or, at least, I have never accepted it as a case-closing position. Because as indeed James Baldwin so eloquently stated, books connect you with everyone: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Books can give you the chance to explore and enter lives that are not your own. And, thus, authors studying such books can enter histories that belong to all of us, and bring us fresh, interesting, unique insights into that pageant.
Wouldn’t it be thrilling to have Ed Young, Gene Leun Yang, and Allen Say exploring Jewish history, Italian history, and Irish history—the way, for example, Peter Sis visits histories from around the globe? Why should history in general belong only to white authors and illustrators, while history in particular (within a given underrepresented minority) belongs to that group? Isn’t that a bad trade? Doesn’t it send the message that, say, Greece, Rome, the Medieval Period, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment were somehow white?
They were not—not then, and not now. Plato is as important to Asian Americans as Confucius is to Arab Americans as Marie Curie is to Hispanic Americans as Frederick Douglass is to European Americans as Thomas Aquinas or Martin Luther are to me as a Jewish American. These individuals and their ideas formed the present in which we all live, the air we all breathe. We all have the right, indeed the need, to explore and retell these stories. The stories get better as different people consider them—adding new insights and fresh angles of vision.
If we believe that students from underrepresented communities are drawn to authors they can identify with, shouldn’t we ask those authors to lead those students all over the planet and throughout history? Wouldn’t you love Kadir Nelson to depict Alexander the Great in battle, or Zheng He at sail in full vibrant color? Nikki Giovanni could introduce us to the Romantic Poets, Coe Booth has already written about Judy Blume, how about a full biography? Mitali Perkins has stated how much Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women meant to her—why not a bio of Alcott? I’m riffing here, and I don’t mean to insult any authors (sounds as if we can start a new K-12 parlor game—celebrity dating for authors and subjects). But tell me, wouldn’t you buy Myers on Shakespeare, and rush to turn the pages to find out how this author reads Hamlet and Lear and gosh, wow, Othello?
I wish all of you a good finish to this year, and a great start to the next—one that’s full of riffs, possibilities, and openings. Perhaps, even, some books I’ve imagined here.
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