Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s debut novel, 8th GRADE SUPERZERO,
is out January 1, 2010 (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic).
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
Briefly, huh? My most vivid early memory of racism is of a suburban New York community in which we lived, where a cross was burned on the lawn of a Mexican and Black family, and where, in the latter part of second grade, I was the sole Black person in the school building. I was told that my brown skin was due to the fact that I had been born in a toilet, among other things, and was called the N-word relentlessly by one student — he even waited outside the bathroom door to do it. I didn’t say anything, and when finally another student (one who was similarly persecuted for other reasons) told the teacher about it, she offered a weak ‘We don’t call names here’ and told us all to sit down. And I felt as though I’d done something wrong.
Throughout my childhood, issues of race and discrimination were part of daily life wherever we lived, from the ridicule of Black and brown images in toys, books and in the media, to unfamiliar hands in my hair, advice to aim low from school counselors, and institutions that sanctioned and even supported racist attitudes and expression. As a Jamaican-Nigerian who was born in New York and had the opportunity to travel a lot as a child, I was also sometimes placed in the category of being a ‘different kind of Black person’ and offered certain privileges and access that were not extended to my ‘regular’ Black counterparts. I am eternally grateful to my parents, who always made sure to foster a positive home environment that valued self-respect, tolerance, and appreciation of difference, so that I was well-equipped to deflect all of that.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
There are the ‘benign’, sometimes well-meaning occurrences: an editor congratulating me on being the ‘scholarship student’ at a conference (even though the decidedly not-Black scholarship winner had just finished speaking to the group); fellow publishing professionals talking to me only about the extraordinary Black person they met, read about, or heard of; critique partners who advised me to send my work only to Black editors and Black-interest publishers, and more. Like many other communities, the publishing world is something of a club, and as I’ve been the sole brown face at a conference or event, I remember that we are sometimes passively excluded from membership. And my experiences are of course present in my work. While my goal isn’t to write "I’m Black, Black, Black" over and over, my Blackness implicitly informs my work, as does my ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, my penchant for sweets and cheese, the time that I forgot my lines in the school play, and my life as a daughter, wife, and mother. And I wonder if sometimes calls to be ‘post-racial’ or to forget about race are calls to deny those stories from people of colour, stories about love, friendship, family, etc. like anyone else’s, that have both unique and universal qualities that are valuable and compelling.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
Literature, and in very special ways, children’s literature, offers unique opportunities for making meaning and crossing borders. Readers can both be safe and take risks when they’re in a relationship with a book, and the reading of books helps us read the world and each other in new and different ways. Literature can transform ways of thinking and habits of mind, dialogue, and ultimately how we live. The stories of those who are both like and unlike ourselves expand our imaginations and enrich our lives; they can go a long way toward strengthening individuals and communities; they are priceless gifts.
Olugbemisola was the ‘new kid’ at school many times, in more than one country, and currently lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY, where she loves walking and working on crafts in many forms.