Amy Bodden Bowllan is the writer of Bowllan’s Blog, at School Library Journal’s website.
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.
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.
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.