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