February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

We Will Continue to Raise Our Voices: Survival, Slavery, Censorship | Up for Debate


Daniel José Older

Besides various free speech groups accusing Scholastic* of censorship for pulling A Birthday Cake for George Washington, here are two other recent moments in literary news:

  • Lee & Low Books released the results of its diversity in publishing survey, adding detail and numerical data to the crucial conversation about the overwhelming whiteness of gatekeepers in the industry.
  • The New York Daily News Editorial Page posted a scathing and lengthy history of the exclusion of black stories from the book world, concluding that the publishing industry systematically “shunned books about important African-Americans” for most of its existence.

These three news items have much to tell us about the state of books and race in our country today. What the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), the PEN American Center, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors call “a shocking and unprecedented case of self-censorship” was, in fact, an editorial decision. The publishing industry makes thousands of them every day. They happen in response to many factors, including outside pressure, personal bias, and money. This particular decision happened after many voices were raised opposing the book, led by Black Lives Matter activist Leslie Mac. (That Scholastic chose to downplay the influence of the outrage on its decision leaves one to wonder—what did happen between their statement of support for the book and their decision to pull it?) But, nevertheless, it is not censorship, nor is it nearly as shocking as the fact that Scholastic chose to publish it in the first place.

NCAC compares Black Lives Matter activism to the bigots trying to ban books with LGBTQ characters and Mexican American history. To conflate the work of people trying to get free with those trying to continue the legacy of oppression is to fundamentally misunderstand power and the history of the United States. The current state of crisis requires that we have a more thorough analysis than that. We are besieged by multiple oppressions; we must be defiant and courageous and complex on many fronts. Anticensorship groups would have us throw away all other concerns, including survival and freedom, to wave their flag and theirs alone.

You can’t cape for white supremacy and call yourself a free speech activist. White supremacy has silenced more voices than the movements fighting for people of color ever could. American literature, dating back to its very roots, is incomplete and steeped in racist clichés because the publishing industry, as Arthur Browne put it in the Daily News, “cast most African-American life stories into oblivion.” Where is the outcry from the anticensorship camp? Where are their campaigns decrying the dearth of children’s books showing kids of color and Native kids as we truly are instead of crude, hate-inspiring caricatures? Are we not silenced by these portrayals, by these editorial decisions that have left so many stories of our freedom, stories that center our struggles and our humanity, in the publishing industry’s trash bin? PEN American** hosted a series of panels last year on the matter, and that was a start. But by and large, the free speech crowd takes its stand selectively.

Echoing sentiments of many white participants in this dialogue, NCAC’s statement bemoans the loss of a book that “generated important discussions about how our nation creates, perceives, and perpetuates narratives about slavery.” But this discussion is not new; people of color have been having it since our nation enslaved people. So while the white-majority publishing industry celebrates a “teaching opportunity” or a chance to be snarky, the rest of us endure another lesson in what we already knew: publishing has a long way to go in valuing our stories and humanity. And free speech groups have shown again that they’re in tacit agreement.

If someone wants to have a teaching moment with a children’s book that shows smiling enslaved people, there are unfortunately already a great many to choose from. One came out last year, to much critical acclaim.

Testimonies from many of the killers in recent police murders of unarmed black children attempt to justify their actions by reimagining the victims as hulking, inhuman monsters. Representation matters. Books have power. Stories change the world, for better and for worse. They teach us who we are, where we’re going, where we’ve been. For communities that haven’t had equal representation, these are not quaint tête-à-têtes; they are matters of life and death.

By demanding our silence in the face of that which we know harms us, the NCAC has asked for our complicity in the ongoing lie about race and America. We will continue to raise our voices. Not because we enjoy it or to score points, but because we have to. As Zora Neale Hurston said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

*Full disclosure: Scholastic published my YA debut Shadowshaper  last year.

**Full disclosure part 2: I am a PEN American member.

Daniel José Older’s YA novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic) was a New York Times Notable Book of 2015, shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature, and named one of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Person Should Read. Older also writes the “Bone Street Rumba Urban Fantasy” series (Penguin/Roc). He coedited the Locus and World Fantasy–nominated anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. You can find Older’s thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic, and hear his music at ghoststar.net@djolder, and on YouTube.

Recalling a Book: Bowing to Pressure, or Righting Wrongs?
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  1. Thank you so much, Daniel, for providing this valuable context for a discussion that (sadly) continues to be necessary. You’ve put it very well: “If someone wants to have a teaching moment with a children’s book that shows smiling enslaved people, there are unfortunately already a great many to choose from. One came out last year, to much critical acclaim.” I plan to teach this controversy to my classes this summer and fall, presenting the views of all sides, and (as I always do) leaving students to arrive at their own conclusions. I appreciate your voice and your courage as we work together to create a better literacy environment for all kids.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Daniel, did you really just draw an equivalence between the NCAC, PEN American Center, and “other anti-censorship groups” (ACLU, I guess) and those who “cape for white supremacy”?

  3. “For communities that haven’t had equal representation, these are not quaint tête-à-têtes; they are matters of life and death.”

    Well said. The whole piece, really, but quoting the whole thing would have been silly.

  4. Hillary Sanders says:

    Shadowshaper was one of my favorite reads of last year. But now that I know that its author is pro-censorship, I will stop recommending this book to impressionable teens. (See what I did there?)

    • What you did there was not censorship, Hillary Sanders. You said that because you disagree with D. J. Older’s position on speaking out against historically inaccurate children’s books you are going to stop recommending his books. Now, I disagree with you—Older’s position makes me want to recommend his books more than ever—but you’re *not* censoring him.

      Neither is Older censoring anyone. Nor was Scholastic. They decided they made a mistake in publishing Cake because it’s an historically inaccurate depiction of slavery. That’s not censorship.

      Would you call the recall of a textbook that was riddled with errors censorship? Because that’s essentially what happened here.