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Writers Against Racism: LaTonya M. Baldwin "Susan"

LaTonya M. Baldwin, known as “Susan” to most of her readership, blogs at Black-Eyed Susan’s and is the     lt2 Writers Against Racism: LaTonya M. Baldwin "Susan"
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:

 

COLOR ONLINE

PO BOX 1004

FARMINGTION, MI 48332

Comments

  1. Paula Chase says:

    LaTonya, thanks for being a very vocal and active supporter of diversity in literature, both online and off!

  2. George Edward Stanley says:

    Amy, these “I had absolutely no idea” revelations keep coming and coming. Thanks for this WRITERS AGAINST RACISM series. This information needs the widest possible circulation.

  3. Amy Bowllan says:

    Thanks to Zetta, there’s more coming, George. The next series will be, “Where do we go from here?” ;)

  4. Zetta says:

    As a teenager growing up in Canada, I loved the Anne of Green Gables books, but as an adult, I wish there had been other options on my local library’s shelves. I literally didn’t know what I was missing. Kudos to LaTonya for realizing that power lies in giving young readers CHOICES, instead of ramming “the classics” down their throats…

  5. Amy Bowllan says:

    I was visiting my sister this weekend and on her kids’ high school reading lists had The Autobiography of MALCOLM X and The Bluest Eye. That’s it. Two pages of choices, and no Asian, Latino/a, Native American etc., were on the list. Who is to blame?

  6. Amy @ My Friend Amy says:

    wow LaTonya you seriously inspire me. Thanks for this great interview!

  7. Rasco from RIF says:

    Thank you to Amy and to Susan/Latonya for bringing us this interview!

  8. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    Thank you for this Writers Against Rascism (WAR). Eye-opening interviews. Thank you Susan and Amy for the courage to put this out there for all to see.
    Jo Ann Hernandez
    BronzeWord Latino Authors
    authorslatino.com/wordpress

  9. Mayra says:

    SUSAN! i mean LaTonya, you are SOOOOO CUTE! Thank you SO much for always supporting people of color authors and for empowering teen girls. i don’t know what we’d do wtihout you. thanks Amy and Zetta for bringing Susan into the group. GRACIAS!

  10. Doret says:

    That was great. Don’t even get me started on reading list. In school we read White auhthors. Somehow I discovered Black authors, don’t remember how but I still recall the wonderful feeling I got from reading Sassafrass Cypress & Indigo by Notzake Shange – Mama Day by Gloria Naylor and all the other authors I found on my own. Everyone should be able to find self in the literture they read. Its great that LaTonya, (though I will always think of her as Susan) gives this gift to so many.

  11. George Edward Stanley says:

    Doret, that statement, EVERYONE SHOULD BE ABLE TO FIND THEMSELVES IN THE LITERATURE THEY READ, should be over the front doors of every library in the country!!! You said it all.

  12. George Edward Stanley says:

    …and I do know that “everyone” is considered singular… but I still think a similar statement should be above library doors. The point is this probably doesn’t even occur to most white readers. And that needs to change!

  13. Karen from Shelfari says:

    Thank you for this enlightening interview. I plan to e-mail~share it with others that would benefit. Being able to share valuable information like this with others is a great Internet benefit!

  14. Lorie Ann Grover says:

    I’ve had a great time getting to know LaTonya, in the blogosphere. Thanks for the interview!

  15. The Brain Lair says:

    Amy, after reading all of these columns – I took a look at the reading list at our middle school and I did not find ONE book by or for a POC. In this case, I don’t have to look far to find the fault because part of it is mine as the librarian. I talked to my LA teachers and the principal and we’ve all agreed there needs to be change. As the ONLY black person on staff in a school of 7% nonwhite – I think I’ve treaded too carefully. That’s changing. We already have the usual suspects – Woodson, Myers, Draper, Flake, Johnson, Parks, and Perkins. I will start displaying those titles more as I build up a collection in the library and on our reading lists. My goal is to have at least one POC’s work featured at each grade level that is read by everyone and discussed by everyone at that grade level within the next year.

  16. Amy Bowllan says:

    The Brain Lair,
    The fault is mine as well, with my own kids’ lists. I would love for you to share your reading lists. Zetta, and George (who is not an author of color), but his books address issues of racism, as well as other authors featured here have wonderful books to add to your collection. I have reviewed these books and they serve as excellent historical references, as well as engaging stories for students. Let me know and thank you for your insights.
    amy.bowllan@reedbusiness.com

  17. Renee says:

    Thank you for your work and words, Susan. You’re having a tremendous impact on youth. Thanks also for sharing the lovely photo of you!

  18. LaTonya says:

    Amy, thank you for hosting this series and for allowing me to participate. Thanks to all for your kind words and support.

  19. Edi says:

    Reading these personal accounts has been so re-affirming. Susan, I also enjoy working with you and every opportunity to get to know you better.

    Moving to the media center has been quite an eye opener for me. It has been amazing to realize so much that occurs with adults who work with young people. Amy, if you look again at that reading list supplied by your children’s teachers, you’ll probably find that most of the books are actually written for adults. Many teachers enter the classroom in some sort of comfort zone, expecting students to read and enjoy the same as they did. They don’t explore young adult literature and the certainly don’t explore literature by authors of color. YES: everyone should be able to find themselves in the literature they read!

  20. Amy Bowllan says:

    Not only are the books for adults, they are also not in sync with today’s learners. Some of the books are MUST reads, no doubt. But there are more new novels out there, today, that are current and represent the world WE live in, now. Thanks for your insights, Edi.

  21. LaTonya says:

    Amy,
    Edi is so right. Most reading list contain classics written for adults. These list rarely include POC except for the notables like Morrison and Ellison. I am so glad I’m behind a screen when I read a comment about Mildred Taylor or Virginia Hamilton (fine writers), writers that my generation read. Young people want to know someone is writing about them for them. Start where they are and they will be more willing where you’d like them to explore.

  22. LaTonya says:

    Okay, I need an edit button. This is why I rarely venture out of my space. :-)

    Obviously I meant list(s) and “more willing [to go]where”

    And while I’m here may I suggest a few titles that middle school and high school teachers should consider regading race, ethnicity and sexual orientation:

    The Rock and The River by Kekla Magoon
    Down To The Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole
    Burn by Black Artemis (Sophia Quintero)
    A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott
    If You Come Softlty by Jacqueline Woodson
    Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger
    Step From Heaven by An Na
    Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim

    Middle school
    If A Tree Falls at Lunch Period by Gennifer Choldenko
    The Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins
    After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
    The House You Pass On The Way by Jacqueline Woodson

  23. Amy Bowllan says:

    LaTonya! What a gift! I was just asked, today, to have a list for some parents. Thank you a million times!!! Keep em’ coming! :)

  24. Shalonda says:

    Thank you so much for sharing, LaTonya. It is always a pleasure reading your words. You truly are an amazing person!

  25. tanita says:

    Susan, thank you so much for all you do.