Search on SLJ.com ....
Subscribe to SLJ
Bowllan's Blog
Inside Bowllan's Blog

Writers Against Racism: Christine Taylor-Butler

Christine Taylor-Butler lives in Kansas City with her husband and two daughters. She believes that every child is born with unique gifts to share.
 
ctbstarpix2 Writers Against Racism: Christine Taylor Butler

Literature is a wonderful way to encourage a child’s journey of self-exploration.

Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.

When I was growing up racism was very overt. Neighborhoods were segregated and it wasn’t always safe as an African American to venture “out of the box.” But my parents and teachers were very adept at showing me how to navigate some of the roadblocks. One situation sticks out in my mind as representative of what I ran into on a regular basis.

One summer, I worked for the Youth Conservation Corps at Lake Hope State Park in southeast Ohio, just on the West Virginia border. I was one of only two black students at the camp and working with Forest Rangers. At the end of the month I arranged to ride part of the way home and spend the night with another camper until my father could come and get me.  Everything was set until the girl laughed and said, “I need to warn my mother that a black man is going to come to the door so she doesn’t call the cops.”  I just froze. A counselor found another way for me to get home.

 

Flash forward several decades to a world we assume is more enlightened and “race” neutral. I was a manager at Hallmark. One of my employees invited me to her baby shower.  I arrived at her mother’s home with a basket filled with baby items wrapped with lace and big satin bow. Her sister answered the door, accompanied by a girl, about five years old.  Immediately, she shoved the girl backwards to protect her and scolded me that “they didn’t take solicitations” and that I should get out of the neighborhood before they called the police. I turned to leave. The mother-to-be came running out of the house yelling – “What did you say to her? That’s my boss!” She coaxed me into the house and apologized by explaining that they didn’t get a lot of black visitors in the neighborhood. It was the most uncomfortable evening I’ve spent in a long time.

 

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

I’m trying to lay the same navigational routes for children that my mother laid for me. The world is a bit more open. And yet many of the same barriers are still in place. Many urban children are ostracized for “talking white” at school. It isn’t “okay” to be smart.   

 

What I realized is that, for many students, their exposure to what life holds for them is heavily influenced by the media to which they are exposed. Years ago there was an outcry about the lack of diversity in books.  While publishing met that challenge, what resulted was an significant uptick in historical fiction and contemporary books featuring people of color as victims of racial adversity.  If you want to find a story about slavery or civil rights, for instance, I can show you shelves of them. Want a sensitive, but poor kid in trouble with the law, there are a lot of those too.  But if you want to find a book in which race is a part of a child’s life , but not the prevailing cause of the problem (a wizard, an aspiring Harvard student, a smart kid solving a mystery for example) – it’s harder. And popular literature still features them, more often than not, as sidekicks and afterthoughts.  I call it the “Not You” syndrome. You can read about Harry Potter but you can’t aspire to be a Harry Potter, or a Bella Swan, or a Frodo.

 

The results are often insidious. My youngest daughter attended a summer program at a New England Boarding School. One day she called and I could tell something was wrong. I braced and flashed back to the day when, attending the same school, I’d heard the “N” word from a student in the surrounding town. It took her ten minutes to calm down long enough to tell me what upset her. The school hosted a diversity event. Groups of students were invited to showcase their culture. Hundreds of students were present from all over the world. Those students talked about a wide variety of topics including music, art, and traditional dances. The African American students did a presentation on civil rights and slavery.  My daughter was both angry and embarrassed that we had an opportunity to showcase the positive aspects of our culture and squandered it. For many of the foreign students, including her Thai roommate, this was their first in-person exposure to African Americans. What they got was more of what the media already shows ad naseum.

 

Then I understood. The media so over-saturates the market with a limited range of images of African Americans, that those students don’t recognize their history predates those events or that they are capable of surpassing them. I’m a college interviewer. Before Barack Obama was elected, I couldn’t convince urban students that they could aspire to go to Harvard or MIT. In almost every case I was told those were “uppity white” schools. Why wouldn’t they? What guideposts do we give them to say otherwise?

 sacredcover Writers Against Racism: Christine Taylor Butler

So I write against the stereotype.  I try to write what is NOT there, rather than more of what is already being acquired.  Because as a child I had to “translate” to see myself in mainstream literature and I guess I’m heartsick that my children and their friends are having to do the same.

 

 

In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?

 

Literature is, for many people, their first introduction to the world outside their geographical boundaries. It can serve as a way for someone to test theories without actually having to do those things themselves. Readers can watch and analyze what a character does in a safe environment.  Often – if it’s a good book – they pass it along to friends, compare notes, start discussions and debate the merits and drawbacks of the text. 

 

But I want to also say there’s a giant elephant in the room. What often happens is that books are written from the perspective of the “conquerers” and often ignores the accomplishments of the indigenous people.  Or — in the case of many cultures in the U.S., — books saturate the market with images of those people overcoming some racial adversity or mired in a stereotype.  What happens is that people who are not exposed to those cultures in any other way get a skewed perspective.  And children who are often the subject of the books, start turning off to reading because the books they love — the books their friends are talking about and that are touted by the media — don’t show them in any meaningful roles. Hence, we perpetuate the same conditions and stereotypes that we hope literature will defeat. And just as with the girl who had to warn her mother, or the woman who initially blocked me from a baby shower – if their only images stem from these narrow offerings, then progress comes more slowly than it should.

 

When I wrote Everest, I wanted to focus on a “road less traveled.” What struck me, in my research, was how many books on the subject focused on the foreign visitors – those who came and conquered. More often than not, they are wealthy Europeans and Americans.  Never mind that those accomplishments were made possible only with the help of people who had lived in the region for hundreds of years. So I wanted to expose children of color to other people of color who are ignored and marginalized in literature in favor of a majority point of view.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~
You can visit Christine at http://www.ChristineTaylorButler.com

Comments

  1. M. LaVora Perry says:

    Go, Christine! I’d expect nothing less than a pointed piece like this from you. Thanks so much for sharing it. If your daughter is anything like you, I know she’s not only going to be all right, she’s going to move mountains–and maybe write about them too.

  2. George Edward Stanley says:

    This was a fantastic W.A.R. story, Christine! There are so many “talking points.” I really liked what you said about the Diversity Day and the missed opportunities. I think we often focus so much on negative things that we forget we have a lot more positive things to share and celebrate with each other. I most certainly agree with you about literature for young people. Reading lists in this country’s schools need to represent the population. They don’t now. We’re all hoping that can be changed!

  3. Olugbemisola says:

    Great article — thank you so much for making these points. Keep writing against stereotype, Christine!

  4. Paula Chase says:

    Christine, thanks for sharing so candidly!

    What’s particularly interesting about your daughter’s experience at the summer program is that it nods to another issue that’s borne of promoting diversity – sometimes people misunderstand it. They think we’re trying to “forget” our history when the case is we’re trying to shine the light on other parts of our history and culture.

    My daughter will not read a “race” book unless you force her. I’m very vocal about diversity but I’m also very strong on not forgetting history. But she, probably like your daughter, often feels like – Yes but isn’t there anything else we can focus on? I think some kids feel trapped by the single focus.

  5. Kelly says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Christine. Both of your anecdotes about racism you experienced were poignant and powerful. Sacred Mountain is a beautiful book and example of how we can help dismantle institutional racism by using literature to bring the experiences of people of color from the margins to the center.

    I think all children need to see reflections of themselves and their history in books. We should have it all — contemporary stories about every-day lives, fantasy stories that allow our kids to soar to other worlds, non-fiction about unsung heroes and sheroes and historical fiction that celebrates and chronicles the experiences of our past.

    Something that saddens me — and I think contributes to the perception that most of our books are about slavery and civil rights (and I think those are really important and deserving of attention) — is the slim-to-nil selection of children’s literature featuring African-American kids that’s available in the popular marketplace.

    There are wonderful books in print and out-of-print that showcase African-American children in so many diverse roles. I mostly read picture books. So I think about Jerdine Nolen’s amazing fantasy tales, Irene Smalls’ stories of family life, books by Charles R. Smith, Nina Crews, Angela Johnson, Randy duBurke and so many others.

    But you’d be hard-pressed to find those books at most bookstores and school libraries. Actually, you’d have trouble finding most of our books — even the award-winners — at many bookstores. So I think that’s an area we really need to focus on changing.

    I think we need to educate people (parents, booksellers, librarians, teachers) about the true scope of children’s literature featuring children of color. I have so many parents tell me that they can’t find a book of a particular type featuring a black child, but then I do a bit of digging and find that they’re out there, just unsung.

    I think we need to push publishers to significantly increase their efforts to attract, nurture and publish writers of color. We are an amazingly diverse people. Our stories speak to our sensibilites, dreams, values and passions. More writers of colors means more points of view, more dreams, more chances for kids to connect with what they read in print.

    Thank you for being part of this conversation and for writing gems like Sacred Mountain, A Mom Like No Other and No Boys Allowed!

  6. B Herrera says:

    Powerful piece. Thanks for reminding us that we need to encourage people to write about the heroes of each race, not just the victims. It doesn’t mean you forget the past injustices, just that you also remember the past heroic deeds.

  7. Gaylia Taylor says:

    Christine,
    I read your book and it is FANTASTIC!! I loved it.

    Thanks for your input. I could not believe the baby shower event!

  8. ELAINE LANDAU says:

    What a moving and insightful piece! I think it should be required reading for all Americans.

  9. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    Oh you hit a cord with me about not being too smart. I addressed that in my first book White Bread Competition. My character won the contest, and her friends warned her that if she won, the boys wouldn’t to be seen with a brainer. If she lost, the boys wouldn’t want to be seen with a Loser. She couldn’t win. Oh yeah it’s hard to be smart in school.
    Jo Ann Hernandez
    BronzeWord Latino Authors
    //authorslatino.com/wordpress

  10. Marie R. says:

    Christine – This is so well written and poignant and lovely. It breaks my heart to read your stories of racism, especially because I know how real those attitudes are, even still. Good for you for being one of the voices to combat it in such a positive and life-affirming way.

  11. tanita says:

    Wow. There is so much here for me to think about. I’m CRINGING at the babyshower thing — wow. And I’m also cringing for your daughter’s experience. We are so much more than slavery and the civil rights battle. We have to be more — if only because when we stay still, we die. I found the topic of your book really intriguing and surprising, and that’s a good, good thing. We need to be surprised!

    Thanks for sharing this.