Tony Medina is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Howard University.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
I grew up in predominantly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods in the South Bronx and further north in the Throgs Neck Housing Projects. We were pretty insular. The only white people were in school, on TV, or the insurance man. Our projects were surrounded by private houses we nicknamed “White Boy Territory”. Whenever we ventured out beyond the bounds of our projects community, we’d frequently get chased by white kids and their dogs, usually egged on by their parents. I think those were my first instances of direct racism. For some reason, as kids, we always knew there was a difference between us Black and Brown people and white people (in the way they viewed and treated us). But in elementary school and junior high school, we seemed to all get along. It wasn’t until I was in high school (Norman Thomas High School) in Manhattan, that I experienced a more subtle form of racism by liberal-minded teachers. More than once I was accused of plagiarism (by a Spanish teacher who was a white Cuban and an English teacher who was white) and one teacher didn’t think I understood the English lessons because I was quiet in class, lost in my own head, thinking about the characters and stories from the books I voraciously read. Being accused of plagiarism infuriated me because I felt that the teachers were being racist against me; not believing that this skinny, little Black Puerto Rican kid could write as well as he did. But it was also a validation that I could write. This double-edged sword of subtle racism let me know that I could possibly be a writer because I had the talent. Of course this did not wound my psyche too much, because I also had white teachers that noticed and encouraged my talent.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
As I got older, I became more politically aware of racism. I went through a narrow phase of seeing everything through the prism of race. It wasn’t until I began studying Marxism that I began to not only see problems concerning people of color though the lens of race alone, but class as well. I believe that all of my work is infused with this socio-political sensibility where race, class and even sexism play important roles.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
The first way that literature can combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance is from the various stories that deal with the experiences of peoples of color. I think that when children are exposed to the stories of characters from various cultures they not only learn about those cultures and histories, but are able to connect to the similarities to their own experience. In this regard, literature not only humanizes, but brings people closer together to show the commonalities we have, as humans trying to understand ourselves and our place in the world. I think that more books need to be published that explore the rich variety of world cultures, stories and traditions we are fortunate to have. Educators and media specialists also play an important role in exposing children and youth to books that not only deal with the students particular background, but that of other ethnicities. Teachers can’t afford to be intellectually lazy; they have to continue to explore libraries and bookstores to find the literature to expose to their students. And, in the event that they cannot find literature due to some void, demand of the publishing houses that more works from writers of color be published. There needs to be balance in publishing and in education in order for there to be balance in our culture among a populace that consists of so many rich and dynamic cultural traditions. The idea is not to have a tolerant society, but an educated, sophisticated society of acceptance.
Medina is the author of fourteen books for adults and children, his children’s and young adult title include DeShawn Days, Christmas Makes Me Think, Love to Langston, Follow-up Letters from Santa to Kids who Never Got a Response, and the most recent, I and I, Bob Marley.