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Writers Against Racism: M. LaVora Perry

M. LaVora Perry’s MG, Taneesha Never Disparaging, is the first novel ever released by the Dalai Lama’s publisher, Wisdom Publications (Fall 2008) 

photo polk smiling 29 Writers Against Racism: M. LaVora Perry  

Describe one or more instances when racism directly affected you during childhood

One sunny day, at age 7 or 8, I pedaled my bike uphill from my predominately African-American and working-class Mt. Pleasant community on Cleveland , Ohio’s eastside. My destination? A neighboring wealthy and predominately Caucasian suburb.

 

Once there, I rode towards two adults and a little boy as they stood in a driveway. When I biked passed them, the boy pointed at me and said “Look! A nigger!”

 

Stung, I thought, “Why’d he call me that ugly name?” I lost some innocence that day.

 

Thankfully, my parents taught my 4 siblings and me to prize education. And my 5th/6th grade teacher encouraged me and my classmates in the “Gifted/Talented” public school program in which we were enrolled to apply to private schools.

 

In 1977, I entered 10th grade in an all-girls’ school located in the previously-mentioned suburb. This school limitlessly opened my world. For that I am eternally grateful.

 

Nonetheless, one day, I listened as my Social Studies teacher chopped Egypt right off of Africa . Perturbed, I raised my hand and said “But Egypt IS in Africa .” And he said “But, I mean, Egyptians, aren’t like, as dark as YOU.”

 

My eldest brother (now deceased) served as president of Kent State University ’s Black Student Union during the early ‘70’s. He once posed for a giant black/white poster photo wearing a Black Power! Beret and a rifle.

 

By the time I was in 10th grade, I was not the 3rd grader who was SO embarrassed when I sat with my classmate in her living room and watched a TV newscaster report my brother’s arrest for protesting at Kent. At that time, my 3rd grade self just wanted to DIE because my friend and her mother saw “THAT POSTER ON TV!”

 

But by 10th grade I wore my brother’s militant past like a badge of honor. Needless to say, I was SO not amused by my Social Studies teacher’s absurd take on geography.

 

Once, a faculty member at the private school said I was “polarizing the school’s black community.” Today, I can’t remember what I did to earn that accusation.

 

How has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?  

 

We write what we KNOW, right? I have my 14 year-old’s permission to tell you that she’s writing a novel about a Caucasian teen. Initially, I really dug her story. But then I started wondering, “Why is she writing about a white boy?” Writing this blog post and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo about it enlightened me.

 

I have friends of various races, ages, and ethnicities who I see regularly. Yet, what I innately KNOW from my own childhood and from sending three children through my local school system are the experiences of African-American children in urban schools. Given this, no wonder my first children’s novel features a black girl in an urban school.

 

And given that for 22 years I’ve been an African-American Buddhist, I’m married to one, and our three children are Buddhist, no wonder my first novel’s protagonist is Buddhist.

 

However, largely due to the diverse make-up of the faith community that my children have been a part of since birth, they’ve always had a rainbow group of friends. So, no wonder my daughter can write from a Caucasian dude’s viewpoint. She KNOWS it. Some of her close friends fit her protagonist’s M.O.

 

My current work-in-progress is a picture book biography that I hope rings like Planting the Trees of Kenya. But, unlike that book about Nobel-Peace-Prize-winner Wangari Maathai, my story isn’t overtly “of African descent.” It features Josei Toda, who’s deceased, and his follower, Daisaku Ikeda, who’s eighty-one.

There was a time when I’d have fretted that I’d be called un-black for writing this book about the cruelty of war and the timeless bond of a mentor and his disciple. Once, I might have worried that I was slighting my Baptist preacher father—who grew strong under Jim Crow’s thumb—by writing about a Japanese man who’s almost Daddy’s age.

 

I don’t only write Buddhism. I’ve got a non-fiction YA co-project simmering that doesn’t mention it. But practicing Buddhism as Daisaku Ikeda’s student is a huge part of what I KNOW. So wanting to bring children a slice of his life story comes natural to me. 

  tnd Writers Against Racism: M. LaVora PerryS

How can literature promote tolerance? 

In my entire lifetime no one has ever called me a “low reader.” I may have been called a “nigger”—not only as a child but by the British customer who ended up with Gazpacho soup in his lap when I waited tables on New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1980’s. But I’ve never been called a “low reader.” And I’ve felt somehow “better than” because of this fact.

 

Yes, I’ve been an education-snob—going around prejudging people based on how much education I thought they had. And how dare I when I’ve only got a B.S? (See? There I go, snobbing on myself, even).

 

But books can free me of my snobbery. And not just books for a certain kind of reader either. Literary, commercial, and just plain fun books about people of various backgrounds who in a real life I might have felt “better” or “lesser” than have, at times, helped me reawaken to the truth that, in the end, we’re all just folks.

 

I’d like to think that if books can do that for me, they can do it for anybody.

 

Recently, I conducted an elementary school workshop in a school that, racially speaking, was the polar opposite of the schools in my community. But when I shared my novel with the students, and we talked about famous quotes from U.S. Presidents, it didn’t matter that, on presidential election day 2008, all the lawn signs in my town touted a different candidate than I suspect many of the signs in their town did.

 

It didn’t matter that their families and my family pray in different ways.

 

And it didn’t matter that—as one student noted after observing my novel’s cover—my main character’s “neighborhood is poor.” That wasn’t my first thought when I initially saw Floyd Cooper’s cover art for the book. But everyone’s entitled to an opinion and that boy’s was just as valid as anybody’s.

 

He and I and his classmates were all just rapping about the U.S.A. and a book about a girl who had bully problems. And we all knew something about both topics. 


~~~~~~

M. LaVora Perry lives in Ohio with her husband and three children. For more, visit www.mlavoraperry.com

Comments

  1. George Edward Stanley says:

    I absolutely loved your story! It’s not a black/white thing, either, because I’m white. I loved your story because you decided early on that you simply were not going to put up with anyone’s nonsense, because YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE! It really always comes down to the individual. It’s silly, I think, and extremely counter-productive, I firmly believe, to make it more than that. I can tell you for sure that the the people in my life who have given me the most grief have been WHITE. Thank you for your W.A.R. story!

  2. LaVora says:

    Thanks, George,

    It was kind of scary writing this peice because I expose my own prejudices, aspects of my thinking I need to work on. But I figured if I don’t write my truth here, I shouldn’t write this piece at all. I’m really encouraged to know you “felt” me.

  3. Amy Bowllan says:

    Lavora,
    I learned – through this series – that YOUR way is the only way to growing past this racism that is inherent in each of us. Whether we sing to choir is no longer relevant; it’s WHY we sing that matters. Thank you for your candor.

  4. LaVora says:

    As always with writing, I wish I could just change…In this case, I wrote that I have “friends” of various races without mentioning that I also have a rainbow family. I don’t want to leave this unsaid because these are people I deeply love. -LaVora

  5. HCDowney says:

    I loved your story as well-not only for its truthfulness but I could feel your feelings through your words. It’s hard being different no matter what race, religion, or sex you are. Thank you for sharing.

  6. LaVora says:

    Amy,

    I really appreciate your comments, more than I can say. I think you are moving mountains with W.A.R. -LaVora

  7. jan godow annino says:

    LaVora, Hello there Author.
    Amy has brought out some great responses from your fascinating World. Thank you for sharing.
    And you have to know I loved hearing about Mr. Ikeda’s story in progress.
    Look forward to attending one of your signings some day!

    Amy, thanks for this insightful series.

    - jga

  8. George Edward Stanley says:

    LaVora, thank you so much for adding the comment about your RAINBOW FAMILY! I too have dear, dear RAINBOW friends – and this W.A.R. movement really is about all-inclusiveness. We’ve talked before about how all these hateful words such as nigger and faggot and spick and chink and rag head… and on and on which have been spewed at us have hurt at first but have eventually made us stronger than the individuals who assaulted us!!

  9. Jeannine Garsee says:

    Excellent interview, LaVora. As someone with her own rainbow circle of family members and close friends, I especially loved Taneesha because her story did, in fact, transcend matters of race, religion, and background. Thank you for this very thought-provoking post.

  10. Kelly says:

    LaVora,

    When I read the part about you being in 3rd grade and feeling embarassed about your brother’s arrest for protesting, I immediately thought you could use that experience as the seed of a middle-grade novel. Keep writing, empowering and soaring. Thank you for sharing your story.

  11. Jackie Hardges says:

    Great story Lavora! People tend to write about what they know, or what interest them. It can be a challenge to not view ourselves as “better than” or “less than”, But I agree that in the end we are just “folks”. My desire is to view myself as the best Jackie, Not better than… or less than… Best of luck in your writing endeavors. Peace

  12. tanita says:

    Oh, I have to smile about that reading snobbery. That’s been my point of pride, too. But that alone reinforces the similarities we can find in books – we all have our one small thing in which to take pride. We are all alike in that way. Thank you for sharing your story, and your daughter’s story.

  13. B Herrera says:

    Love your interview. Would love to meet and discuss life. Although we may or may not agree on everything, I bet we’d have interesting conversation and I know it would be one of my more memorable moments. Thanks for being honest and pointing out that all of us, in a secret way, want to feel “better than” about something. It’s a guilty pleasure which we must work to keep under control. And it always helps to have good friends who remind us that we are all better than we might be if we didn’t read and learn from each other.
    Reading helps us connect on universal themes. Thanks for providing some great books.

  14. LaVora says:

    Thanks for the comments folks. HCDowney, I agree. It’s hard being different. But we’re all different in some way or another—and we’re all the same. For me it all comes down to self confidence. When I’m sure of my self—without being stuck on myself—I don’t worry about what people think of me or feel that I have to one-up somebody be important.

    George, unfortunately, sometimes those hateful words stick. It would be great if everyone became stronger as a result of enduing them. But “isms” damage some people beyond repair.

    Books, I think, can go a long way in helping us see how our own thoughts, words, and actions affect others but also how we’ve been affected by the negativity of others. In this way, books can help us grow. I just love them for that reason—and for lots of other reasons, too.

    Thanks for stopping in, Jan. Of course, you’ll be one of the first to know when my project is cooked. You helped me with it immensely.

    Jackie, you highlight my grammar snafu (“lesser than” instead of “less than”—ouch says my inner editor!). But more than that, you bring out a great point. I just want to be the best LaVora I can be, too. That’s an attainable goal—not easy, but definitely doable.

    Hey, Jeannine, thanks for what you said about Taneesha Never Disparaging. It was a challenge striking a balance with it, trying to get its themes across without knocking the reader over the head with them. So many folks helped me through the critique process. Writers like Rhenee McGraw-Harris, Christine Taylor-Butler, agent Regina Brooks, and editors Eileen Robinson (of F1stpages.com) and Josh Bartok of Wisdom Publications. Writers Jerry Spinelli and Rich Wallace gave me great feedback on it, too, at the Highlights Foundation Chautauqua conference in 2006. I’m very glad to know you think Taneesha ND succeeded in what I set out to do in terms of illustrating our commonalities.

    Kelly, what a great idea. My brother was so awesome. Of course, because he died—his private plane went down in 2000—he’s kind of frozen in my memory. For that reason, the arguments we had over the years fade and his awesomeness looms large. But, all in all, I must say, I have been blessed with a wonderful family all around. I’ve got lots of family stuff waiting to show up in a book one way or another. Want to get it all down while I have time.

    Tamita you said: “But that alone reinforces the similarities we can find in books—we all have our one small thing in which to take pride. We are all alike in that way.”

    What a wonderful way to look at it!

    B Herrera, you said “Thanks for being honest and pointing out that all of us, in a secret way, want to feel ‘better than’ about something.”

    I figured my best way to go in writing this piece was to be honest about my own faults. If my doing so helps others reflect on theirs, I’m very glad about that. I agree with you that we need each other to help us, as Jackie mentioned, be our best selves.

    -LaVora
    http://www.mlavoraperry.com

  15. Charlise Lyles says:

    Hi LaVora,

    I appreciate every very human feeling and foible you dare to reveal in your essay for Writers Against Racism. They all add up to the insightful, dynamic and very different children’s and young adult writer you have bcome. It’s so important for African-Americans to see themselves not only outside the box of racial prejudice but also outside of the cultural boxes that often contain us. One black Buddhist to another, I’m happy to read about African Americans who take a different approach to faith but who respect and share common values and virtues with people of other beliefs and faiths.
    Thank you for your work.

    Courage,

    Charlise Lyles
    Author, “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe: From the Projects to Prep School”

  16. George Edward Stanley says:

    Continued great posts, LaVora. Actually, when I commented about overcoming hate words to succeed, I was actually talking about us W.A.R. writers, but you’re right about some people not managing to do it, and that’s why I think hate speech assaults should be punished the same as physical assaults. Even if we are eventually able to “overcome” these assaults, the words remain imprinted on our brains forever!

  17. LaVora says:

    Hey, Charlise! Glad to see you stopped by. Thanks for your kind words. You know much about courage yourself, girl!

    Thanks to you, too, George. I’ve been thinking about my “beyond repair” comment all day. I think we each always have the potential to heal and grow. But the reality is not everyone actually realizes that potential. I think that’s more what I was trying to say.

    For that reason, I appreciate your “zero tolerance” attitude towards hate speech. I think literature can aid us along the path to healing all kinds of wounds.

  18. B Herrera says:

    Love reading the continuing conversation on this blog. It encourages me to believe we can make a difference and inspires me to go out and “change the world.” And LaVore, I completely identify with wanting to feel better than. Although I love writing and teaching others to write, my ego gets a huge boost when one of my writers, or I, win an award for our writing. The problems start when people who can’t find something within them to feel good about start looking for something to put down in others. Bringing others down is the coward’s way of feeling “better than.” I want all of us to rise together, not drown together.