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Writers Against Racism: Amy Bodden Bowllan

Amy Bodden Bowllan is the writer of  Bowllan’s Blog, at School Library Journal’s website
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She’s also the author of The Land of Crayons (Wordbeams, 2000), an e-book series that was published online in 2000, yet rejected by EVERY book publisher she sent it to. As a result of the rejections, she thought the publishers may be right; but after reading the W.A.R. series, maybe she was wrong.

Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.

It’s hard for me to identify the impact that racism had on me as a young person. I mean, my father NEVER wanted to hear excuses, so any attempt at recognizing injustices that happened to me, were viewed by him as excuses. Ironically, he was quite militant when it came to black issues that he was passionate about.

But I do remember a time when I was probably 6-years old and the black kids in a nearby park formed a circle around my sisters and I, and performed an Indian dance — chanting, "WOO! WOO! WOO! WOO!" As they slapped their mouths they would tell us, "Y’all ain’t black!" Huh? Meanwhile, both of my parents, and grandparents were black, so I had no idea what they were talking about. Consequently, a negative impression began to form about my own people. It was a them against us experience in my early years. We were constantly teased and labeled as "The Booh-den Bunch." A group of (other) kids who played that white sport – tennis - and who also knew how to "get along" with whites.  

My dad was a strong disciplinarian who did not – and I mean NOT – want his seven children to act like them; the black kids who didn’t live up to his standards. As a result, most of my childhood was spent being shuttled out of my community to play tennis with white kids. We played with blacks, too, but mostly whites. My dad used to say it was a way to "save" us. Ironically, years later, my baby brother was murderered by a white guy. 

But really, if we even uttered a "street" term, a look of disdain would flash across my dad’s face, and you just knew what he was thinking. Was it racism? Was it a style of parenting? I still don’t know. All I know is, at the time, I did not want to disappoint my dad (or my mother).

Then there was the socio-economic piece (of my upbringing) that separated the blacks who had, from the blacks who did not have (my family). Who had the better house? Who had nice clothes, cars, etc. In the community I grew up in, things were of great importance . I felt we were not accepted by our own people – certainly not all of them – but some. 

Then when the competitive tennis started in high school and then college, that’s when the slurs from the whites started to get thrown. "I hope this stuff doesn’t come off," was said to me, while attempting to shake hands with a young white girl who lost to me. There was also a time during college when I was teaching a tennis lesson to the Cosby mom, Phylicia Rashad. A white woman who was playing next to my court yelled at me because my ball rolled on her court. And because I was taught to obey folks, I apologized profusely. Ms. Rashad took one look at that woman and said, "Don’t you talk to my friend like that!" That day was the birth of my backbone. I’m still a little sheepish.

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It was also a day when I started to realize - wow - racism is real? I guess I buried it because I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand why teachers would question me when I did well on a test. I didn’t understand when people of all races would ask, "you’re not ALL black, right?" I never thought to question a reading list, or events in history. The way I was raised…it was a one-way education that you never questioned. Just do as you’re told.

Oh… 

ALWAYS the issues of good hair vs bad hair, light eyes vs regular eyes, and straight noses vs "black" noses – was of great importance in my community. There was a non-verbal understanding that the light-skinned kids would have an easier time in  life, so they were oftentimes picked on, or if they were tough enough and could fight, they were revered. 

Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer/educator?

Absolutely! And when you’re the victim of racism and you are unaware that it is racism, you look too hard at yourself, and then begin to doubt your talents. When I worked in news, oftentimes I was sent out to cover stories in Black, and Latino communities. I would think to myself, why me? I am just as scared as you are to go there!  But I was black, and I could get other blacks to talk to me on camera.

In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?

Literature is the one door that can unlock lids to eyes that can’t see. Every opportunity is available through the lives of characters in books. You can see the world the way it is. I don’t, however, believe the effects of racism are "combatted" through literature. Literature provides a window to look through – a door to open – and it’s up to the reader to open it, and go inside.  

As far as tolerance, that word always bugs me. I do not want anyone to tolerate me. I want them to get to know ME first, then judge me later. 

This W.A.R. series has enlightened me in many, many ways. And I am eternally grateful to the writers who shared their stories, and to those who left, thought-filled comments. While my interview is the last one for now, the movement will continue forever. I am sure of that. 

Zetta Elliott and George E. Stanley, as well as the many writers featured here, will be my teachers forever.

And as far as next steps for W.A.R., here are three immediate goals:
1) develop consistently updated > K-12 < reading lists for teachers and librarians to use as resources  
2) add a W.A.R. blogroll on Bowllan’s Blog, which will include many of the blogs featured in this series
3) continue to send updates to Washington, so a national spotlight can focus on these very important issues

~~~~~~~~~~~~
Amy began her career as a Television Investigative Producer and Reporter for WCBS-TV NY and KNXV in Phoenix, AZ. She also snagged two Emmy awards for Broadcast Journalism and several Associated Press awards. She now is the Director of Diversity and teaches Broadcast Journalism, and technology classes at The Hewitt School in NYC. She has spent over a decade working closely with librarians and teachers  helping them to integrate technological resources into their students day-to-day programs.

Comments

  1. George Edward Stanley says:

    I’ve been clicking on this site all evening because I wanted to be the first to comment! Selfish, I know, but I don’t care! You have absolutely no idea how you and your blog and all you’ve done in your life so far have impacted me, dear, dear friend. You are truly a very special human being, Amy! And I am so happy to read even more about all you have done and about all you’ll be doing in the future. Count me in on all future projects, Amy! I shall be there! Onward and upward! Many, many, many thanks from the bottom of my heart!!

  2. Amy Bowllan says:

    I am grateful, and touched by your kindness and generosity of spirit. :)

  3. Monica Hayes says:

    This was a superb series and a very insightful concluding submission. I agree we need a larger forum because these are stories and lessons that must be shared. The impact is multigenerational and clealry multiracial. Well done

  4. Don Tate says:

    Thank you for this series, Amy *standing ovation*.

  5. tanita says:

    This series took a lot of heart, and has been both hopeful and helpful. It took courage to bring this up, and I’m grateful. Thank you.

  6. Zetta says:

    A fitting conclusion to the interview series, Amy; thank you for sharing your personal history with us. You’re a gracious hostess and an indefatigable WARrior for justice…

  7. Amy Bowllan says:

    Onward and upward…as we hold hands together for the common cause.

  8. Edi says:

    Amy,
    One day, we will have to talk!

    Thanks so much for all of this

  9. Doret says:

    Thank you, Amy for giving W.A.R. such a lovely place to call home.

  10. George Edward Stanley says:

    Amy, two of my dear high school friends (Judy and Brenda, whom I’ve mentioned to you) emailed me today, telling me again how thrilled they were about WRITERS AGAINST RACISM and how incredibly informative and inspirational the W.A.R. stories on your blog were. Amy, we have people pulling for this movement all over the United States. Everyone appreciates how much you’re doing to help eradicate racism in this country!

  11. Amy Bowllan says:

    George, Doret, and Edi, thanks so much! I do believe that our collective voices will oneday be heard in Washington. What appreciate, George, is the guidance I have received from EVERYONE who participated, and for those who have been sending me e-mails. Bowllan’s Blog has been clearly defined.

    Now I am off to take a quick nap, then start the W.A.R. blogroll. That will take some sifting, but I am anxious to get it started.

  12. Laura Atkins says:

    Thanks to Amy and Zetta for this amazing series. It’s been a whirlwind, with loads to take in and think about. I’ll look forward to the reading lists and anything else that you produce.

  13. Mayra Lazara Dole says:

    Amy, i’m left wondering what your dad felt about a “white” person having taken the life of your sibling (so sorry). i also wonder if you’ve seen The Real Housewives of Atlanta and what you think of them (reminded me of a few things you commented on about the African American community). thanks so much for your responses. i enjoyed reading them. i’m grateful for the W.A.R series and honored to have been a part of it.

  14. Amy Bowllan says:

    Mayra, when we were first called, we immediately thought he was shot by someone black. It was only until later, when we met the police that in fact it was an ex-convict. Never again did I judge. My brother howled a sound I had never heard before, and haven’t heard since. He and my mother sounded like wolves. I haven’t seen the Real Housewives…but will look into it. Thank you, and thank you Laura for your support! I am looking forward to what’s ahead. :)

  15. Lyn Miller-Lachmann says:

    Amy, thank you for sharing your story and for putting this series together. I’d love to see it published in a book someday. In the meantime, I’m going to ask our Internet resources columnist to write the W.A.R. series up for MultiCultural Review because it deserves a wide audience of educators and the young people with whom they work.

  16. Debra Harris Johnson says:

    The W.A.R. is a series whose time has finally come. I attempt to dialog about race relations but people here in Texas are so afraid. You have been a touchstone in rallying me to keep going. I would love to interview you on my blog. My e-mail is divamomone@yahoo.com
    Thanks and keep the faith.
    Debra J.

  17. George Edward Stanley says:

    Amy, what an affirmation from Lyn of what you did with the W.A.R. series!! These stories have the potential to change attitudes and reading lists, I do believe, and no praise for you could be too hyperbolic!!

  18. Amy Bowllan says:

    It’s funny how I was just reading Maureen Dowd’s piece, Boy, Oh, Boy, today. It’s so interesting how even our own POTUS is being challenged with much of what we’ve been through many years ago. It’s 2009 and nothing will ever change if no sounds are made.

  19. Jesse Joshua Watson says:

    Beautiful Post, Amy! I am sorry about your baby brother!
    This post is filled with lots of starting points for great discussion. I am going to be introducing W.A.R. into my school this year. These kids need this kind of passionate dialogue.
    Lastly, though all these years later and I still do not exactly understand it, I cling to this when I start to lose hope in humanity and for the task at hand: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

  20. Neesha Meminger says:

    Thanks, Amy, for doing this. It was especially important for me to see my story within the context of so many others, both similar and different, but all dealing with race and the impacts of racism.

    Brava to you and Zetta for bringing it all together!

  21. Susan T. says:

    Way to go, Amy.

    W.A.R. has been a terrific series.

  22. B Herrera says:

    I have been impressed by all the people who are willing to share their stories, both in the blogs and comment sections. I am also encouraged by the number of people willing to talk about our problems. We cannot solve them if we ignore them. I don’t stop hating someone if I stop talking to him/her. Only through dialogue and time can we hope to understand and accept others. Amy, you say you have trouble with the word tolerance. So does my son, but to me it means acceptance of differences in order to get to know each other better. I believe we should tolerate differences, but not behavior. By tolerating someone who is different, we avoid the prejudging which closes our hearts and minds and we listen until we realize that we are not really different after all. Thank you once again for giving me a place to feel hopeful about our possibility of acceptance.

  23. George Edward Stanley says:

    Beverly, I appreciate you so much – and I added my comments to what you said on my W.A.R. story entry.

  24. Keva says:

    Hi Amy! Would love to catch up. You have a beautiful family. Love Ya, Keva

  25. Amy Bowllan says:

    KEVA!!!!! CALL ME!!!! I miss you!!! OMG
    amy.bowllan@reedbusiness.com :)

    Wow!!!