December 9, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Imagine Yourself a Young Reader in the Margins | #OwnVoices: Three Takes

ebony_thomas_headshot_smIn reading, literacy, and English education, #OwnVoices is not a new conversation. Centering the perspectives of the marginalized has been the focus of decades of struggle over curriculum. Literacy education has long been informed by Louise Rosenblatt’s influential reader response theory, which emphasized the dialogic construction of relationships between readers, texts, and authors. Rosenblatt characterized the relationship between readers and writers as a transaction. In other words, readers and writers both have stakes in the exchange that happens—stakes that are mediated by the stories that they share.

Those of us who hold literacy to be a transactional social practice believe that meaning is never located solely in texts, but instead is made through the work of readers as they relate to, interact with, and understand stories. Different readers bring to each reading experience their identities and social subjectivities, because no two readers have the same lived experiences. Thus, there is a long tradition in my field of inviting the perspectives of readers into the act of interpretation.

Also read:

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Christine Scheper, children’s materials specialist, Queens (NY) Library

The ways that we interpret both the “word” and the “world” differ according to who we are, as Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo write in their book Literacy: Reading the Word and the World (Routledge, 2005). “Reading does not consist merely of decoding the written word or language; rather, it is preceded by and intertwined with knowledge of the world,” they write.  However, a challenge for literacy education is that most books for children and young adults do not seem to imagine a diverse readership. This is problematic at a time when half of the children in our nation’s schools are from diverse backgrounds with a myriad of experiences in the world.

If you do not understand why many of us advocate for better representation in literature and the media, imagine yourself as a young reader from the margins. Imagine never seeing yourself in much of what you read growing up, or in most of children’s television or teen TV that you viewed. Now imagine one day opening a book or turning on the TV and seeing a melted, warped version of yourself, your family and friends, and your home and neighborhood. You turn the page or flip the channel, and find much of what you are, know, and love is two-dimensional and flattened. A funhouse mirror version of the self.

Now imagine facing this imaginary version of you for most of the first two decades of your life as a precondition for entering adulthood.

That’s not me, you think. But when you are young, your mind, heart, and imagination are searching for all the mirrors, windows, and doors into experiences that you can find.

Eventually, one begins to think, Maybe this is me. Maybe this is what people who are like me really are like. Or you resist these representations, decide that you don’t really like reading, and end up falling behind in school.

It’s not that some authors from historically privileged and powerful groups who write diverse characters and settings aren’t incredibly well meaning. It’s not that some haven’t done a fine job of telling stories from the outside. It’s not that these authors haven’t done extensive research. Some have commitments to the communities they are writing about, even living among them. When outsider writing comes from a place of deep empathy and commitment to humanization, it can succeed.

However, the #OwnVoices conversation is not only about the ability of authors to tell stories from the outside. Just because someone can write a story doesn’t mean that they should write it, no matter how well-intentioned they are. Intentionality is only one part of the story.

As a friend once told me when I was angrily indignant by how an action of mine was interpreted: “Ebony, your good intentions are beside the point if others are harmed by your actions.” I took that advice to heart. I believe the least we can do is listen to critiques—without defensiveness—and attempt to move toward risky, yet courageous conversations about how we continue to press forward in an increasingly virtual/digital world that is rife with social inequality, economic precarity, and political uncertainty.

Here is an uncomfortable truth: in children’s and young adult literature, Whiteness has long been the dominant narrative perspective. White authors have heretofore been allowed to tell any story, set anywhere, about anyone. Toni Morrison noted this about the U.S. literary landscape 25 years ago in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination  (Harvard University Press, 1992); little has changed since then. Conversely, authors of color can barely publish on their own cultures. And they certainly don’t get to tell everyone’s story.

I have always advocated that any author can tell any story, as long as they do their research and tell it well. But what we have now is a landscape where most of the human experience is overwhelmingly narrated from a very narrow perspective.

That cannot stand. That will not stand.

The choices that children’s publishers in New York, teen TV-show runners in Los Angeles, teachers in Detroit, and librarians in rural Kansas are making today will have consequences deep into this century, and into the next. That is because today’s children are growing up with not only a single story, but overwhelmingly, a single literary perspective. Their imaginations are being shaped now.

In literacy classrooms all over the United States, students from all backgrounds are encouraged to read and respond to literature from their own perspectives.

What would it look like if children’s publishing valued #OwnVoices as much?


Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. A former Detroit Public Schools teacher, Thomas’s program of research is most keenly focused on children’s and adolescent literature, the teaching of African American literature, and the role of race in English language arts classroom discourse and interaction.

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Comments

  1. I’m thinking of how disappointed I was recently when I chose a book in large part because the author was a woman of color, but the characters were, as far as I could tell, all white. How telling that I expected the author to “stay in her lane” as it were. Thank you for pushing my thinking about who can tell which stories.

  2. Anonymous says:

    How in the world can a Latinx-American woman writing a brilliant book about an African-American cause harm? An African-American writing a brilliant novel about someone Persian-American? Someone Persian-American writing something brilliant about someone Cambodian-American? Someone Cambodian-Ameican writing something brilliant about someone Latinx-American? Or is it only brilliant books by cisgender white American men that are ipso facto objectionable when they venture outside cisgender white America for their subjects ?

  3. Anonymous says:

    The great social scientist and philosopher Karl Popper posited that the importance of research in all areas of science is that it offers a way to falsify, not confirm, a hypothesis.

    Your hypothesis, Dr. Thomas, is that all children in the margins will be hurt and their self-esteem ruined by both warped depictions and a lack of mirror books. Available data shows that this hypothesis is false. The data are the general outstanding academic achievements, compared even to white children, of children of the following marginalized American groups: Indian-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Nigerian-Americans,and gay couples, among others. If the lack of mirror books and prevalence of “warped versions” had the power you claim, those groups’ children would be underachieving compared to white folks’ children. They’re not.

    An alternative hypothesis for you to explore is that children who are raised in a home with the same two parents who brought them into the world will outperform children in single parent or parental-disrupted homes, even controlling for marginalization and income.

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