LaTonya M. Baldwin, known as “Susan” to most of her readership, blogs at Black-Eyed Susan’s and is the
founder of Color Online, a lit study group for teens and young women at a local non-profit. She initially created Color Online, the blog, as way to promote the local group and to teach teens how to use the web and technology to express themselves. The blog has grown into a global community of women who support women writers of color, and who are committed to promoting a love of reading and empowering young women.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
I grew up in Detroit, a predominantly black city, so I was pretty insulated. Everywhere I looked there were black people and very importantly, I saw black people in positions of power: teachers, principals, police officers, business leaders, mayor, and city council members. In school, we read black authors. My parents bought me black dolls and they insisted we study black history.
This environment sharply contrasted what I saw on the national scene. Everything was white: the media, pop culture, the news, and politics. I knew that while there were plenty of blacks who were professionals, politicians, and civil servants in the city, I also knew in everyday interactions and for most black people everywhere else, white people were in charge.
The first real racial disparity I experienced was when I went off to college and I met peers who had never met a black person. People thought my hair was strange. They wanted to touch it, and asked me how I lived in such a violent city. They assumed I grew up poor and didn’t have a father. At first, I thought they were kidding or naïve. Pretty quickly, I realized how racism shapes people’s perception even when they are consciously unaware of it.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a literacy advocate?
In 2005, I took over a small library at a local nonprofit serving homeless and high-risk girls in Detroit. My intention wasn’t to run a library, but a literary studies group for non- and reluctant readers. But when I saw the library, well, it became pretty clear why reading wasn’t high on the girls’ list. Now, there were other relevant reasons why these girls weren’t reading, but let me point out some of the problems I immediately saw in the library that contributed to their disinterest:
1. A cultural disconnect. The collection was dated and the majority of titles didn’t reflect the culture and experience of the targeted audience. We had no less than five copies of Little House on the Prairie, four complete sets of Anne of Green Gables, and Sounder. Now, while I am all for reading the classics, can you imagine a young girl named Shaquita wanting to read about Laura Ingalls? Shaquita is already forced to read books she can’t relate to in school. She likely doesn’t own any books of her own so she doesn’t know what she does like, but she knows she’s not interested in some old white girl from the past carrying on, happy and free, with her family.
2. Most of the collection clearly was comprised of donations from well-intentioned people who were likely white and who loved these books as children. And if the majority of the donors were not white, the children would have assumed so based on the kinds of books in the library. Now, this isn’t a matter of donors being racist; rather it is a matter of donors and patrons living very different lives and having very little interaction with each other.
My first goal was to purge the library and to create a space that said: you matter, your stories matter, in this space you can find your voice. I pretty much gutted the library. I brought in not only African American literature, but literature from around the globe because I know our children need to know there is a world beyond their boundaries. They need to know that other children who may at first seem different, have the same goals and dreams. They deserve to connect with the world.
Our community serves girls so our library is girl-focused. Today our collection is roughly 80% works written by women of color about people of color. You may think that is exceptionally high but outside of our walls, our girls live a practically invisible existence. They get the spotlight only when someone wants to do an exposé on the unfortunate and oppressed, but our girls rarely see themselves in the media and arts as beautiful, bright, artistic, and living empowered lives. The Nicholson library celebrates who they are.
Children need to see positive images of themselves and alternate views of what their lives can be. They need to know how they are connected to others. Today our library provides that connection. If you want to address issues of racism, you must address the issue of racial and cultural celebration. We do that at Color Online (the program I brought to the agency) and in our library, the unexpected gift I inherited.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
For me, literature was how I learned to navigate my way in the world and to understand how I felt about a myriad of issues. Reading exposed me to different perspectives and experiences. There is so much that happens in the world and to others that we personally will never experience ourselves. Reading affords the opportunity for empathy and identification.
I think students mistakenly see outward differences and assume those differences mean we have little in common. Young people are influenced by others’ perceptions, often with little or no personal experience to counter what they see or are told. Literature can counter those perceptions, and this is especially important when they don’t have any personal experiences with others who are a different racially or culturally.
Going back to my college experience, my peers had no experience with black people and so only knew what they saw on television. That gave them a very skewed perception of black people, and the urban black children I mentor likewise have some very limited misconceptions about white people. A study here years ago revealed that most urban black students believed all white people lived well and white students believed all black kids lived in the ghetto.
Reading about others can broaden our perspectives. We can see difference but we can also learn how we are alike.
LaTonya has two daughters, one well fed-kitty and a great guy who keeps her well-fed, too. The reader/activist, credits her former employer, a premier reference publisher known for its outstanding multicultural line, with giving her the foundation and experience that fuels her current passion. Celebrating multiculturalism, supporting writers of color, and advocating for diversity in children’s and YA literature is her life work. If you’d like to donate new or gently-used books, they may be sent to:
PO BOX 1004
FARMINGTION, MI 48332