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Writers Against Racism: Revisiting A "Slippery Slope"

I hope you follow me as I journey through and add, yet, one more (obvious) piece to this ever-unfolding W.A.R. puzzle.
 
While this post is longer than usual, it is substantive in that it provides a glimpse into some heated, ongoing, and much needed debate, that pertains to W.A.R.

Again, I ask that you follow me. And after reading this post, should you have any questions, comments, ideas, or just want to disagree with it, use the comment section. I won’t even post a picture, so not to distract your reading eyes. icon smile Writers Against Racism: Revisiting A "Slippery Slope"  

Here we go…

I admit it. Virginia Hamilton and Arnold Adoff have totally fascinated me beyond words. I hope you don’t mind my effusiveness, but they have really helped me to gain some much needed historical perspective as to the need to keep moving forward with the Writers Against Racism campaign. Which quite honestly started with George and Zetta. 

George E. Stanley, "I think novels that promote tolerance and understanding of EVERYONE in our society should be required reading." 

Zetta Elliot, "Literature gives us access to the inside lives of people we might otherwise dismiss or assume that we know; books counter the use of stereotypes as a kind of shortcut to truly knowing someone who’s different than us."  

And while my question in this series has always been, why aren’t the K-12 reading lists, and new release catalogs diversified? (Those publicists -argh- STILL, have yet to respond to me, as to WHY!) There have also been questions about the elite book awards that are awarded each year to authors. 

In Speaking Out, By Nikki Grimes, Nikki poses an even bolder question, which is also interesting for those – like me – who are NOT completely IN THE KNOW (but getting there). "But I have one burning question for Caldecott committees, past and present: if this nation can manage to put a black man in the Oval Office, why can’t the Caldecott committee see its way clear to give the Caldecott medal to an individual artist of African descent?
 
"…my hope is that sooner, rather than later, the Caldecott committee will find a way to help shatter the glass ceiling that seems to exist for illustrators of African descent. I will applaud that day. I wait for it with bated breath. "

Now, Virginia Hamilton, who described her own books as "liberation literature,"  took her own crusade for justice in literature, further, by publishing this letter (one of her last) DEFENDING the Coretta Scott King Awards and others. Which I can’t believe was even an argument to be made. 

Here’s Virginia’s letter:

Letter to the editor of The Horn Book

 

May 24, 2001

From:               Virginia Hamilton

To: Attn:           Roger Sutton, Editor in Chief

The Horn Book, Inc.

 

 

Letter to the Editor:

Re: Article, “Slippery Slopes…”

 

That outdated argument is risen again. Who shall best tell the tales out of African American and Latino experience? Those who are African American and those who are Latino? And how should their excellence be rewarded? With the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré Awards, of course. Mark Aronson in his article, “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes,” May/June 2001 Horn Book, would have us believe he has a better answer: ALA should rid itself of these two troublesome awards which, apparently, he is certain are based only on identity factors and not the selection committees’ judgments of literary excellence in conferring their choices.

But no! By the end of the article we encounter the finish of a pseudo-intelligent “bait and switch” exercise. On the last page he states, after a long harangue as to why both awards would best be discontinued: “My suggestion is … keep the CSK, Belpré … awards, but honor content alone, not identity.”

The American Library Association clearly understands that having “house” Newbery/Caldcott along with “house” CSK and “house” Belpré awards in the same community of excellence, shines the light on all three all the more brightly. It does not take away from Newbery/Caldecott if “house” CSK selects its own award books based on criteria of its own making. As happened when Christopher Paul Curtis’ book, Bud, Not Buddy, won the John Newbery Medal, it was selected as winner of the CSK literature award as well. That both awards committees selected Curtis’ book as the best of the year simply demonstrates the committees’ comparable selection processes.

Certainly there will be people who will say, “We don’t need to give this or that African American or Latino a Newbery (or) Caldecott; they have their own awards! Similar excuses have been voiced since the start of the CSK Award. It was more than 50 years of Newbery Awards before an African American was awarded the Newbery Medal, with my M.C. Higgins, The Great in 1975.

There is a difference in the way a member of a Parallel Culture community writes about the community through her own experience from the way one outside of that community might write about it. Race and culture and social consciousness give Parallel Culture artists and writers unique insights.

Both the Newbery and CSK awards committees responded to the universality in Curtis’ rendering of a Black experience. Contrary to Aronson’s opinion, the CSK has always honored content. The integrated CSK awards committees have been responsible and reliable. The books they have chosen have been among the best. Occasionally, the committees have erred, as has the Newbery committee, but on the side of literary judgment and social awareness, the latter being of deep concern to CSK committees. While my M.C. Higgins, the Great won a John Newbery Medal, it did not receive the CSK Award for text. But to suggest, as Mark Aronson does, that CSK awards committees are not as competent as Newbery and Caldecott, and the books, not as well deserving, is outrageous. The committees often have different opinions about a book. And I believe it is wrong to besmear the extraordinary writing and art that has been and continues to be produced by Black artists and illustrators. It is unjust and the kind of biased thinking advocates, like Aronson, of cultural pluralism, pose as “the honest truth.” Rather than verity it reveals a fear of difference, and of Parallel Cultures providing their own views and appropriating manifestations of their considerable power through parallel awards. Do they really not understand that, rather than balkanization of art and literature, multiculturalism thrives on the equal opportunity of all peoples of color, to pursue their arts and awards on their own terms?

What is wrong with having an award based on African American experiences? It’s not that we need it, particularly. We want it. Perhaps Mark Aronson should turn in his Robert S. Sibert Award. After all, it is a new award for informational books, and likely contributes to stylistic balkanization of prose!

The fact of African Americans’ singularity in being the only group racial or otherwise brought here against its will has everything to do with how we think and respond, and what we see, write about and illustrate.

Our African American history and traditions entitle us to judge our own literary contributions, using an award system of our own making that is consistent with our Parallel Cultural views. To hold this belief in ourselves in no way takes away from our ability to judge the merits of our literature. Many times members of CSK have been members of Newbery Award committees. We should honor the tireless labor of both award committees.

Multiculturalism is the point of view of Parallel Cultures of which Blacks and Latinos are a part. The multicultural view is one of equality of all cultures in a parallel or equal stance with one another. The view from here is other than that of cultural pluralism—Mark Aronson’s view—which will recognize members of other cultures in the pluralistic literature as “minorities” remaining marginalized within a dominant culture, which culture is generally white.

The multi-culture view is that a Parallel Culture people will create stories and make illustrations in which the central characters are of that very culture and express feelings and experiences, hopes and dreams of that culture. I see nothing wrong with that.

African Americans have learned from generations of experience, the white culture imperatives as well—because we’ve lived and prevailed within their structure. We are capable of writing from more than one perspective. But the time has long since passed when we will even consider giving up hard-fought gains in the continuing struggle.

 

Virginia Hamilton, Honorary Chair of the three-year Coretta Scott King Awards Initiative.
From: Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays and Conversations…Edited by Arnold Adoff and Kacy Cook…published by Scholastic/ Slue Sky…used by permission of Arnold Adoff and Kacy Cook….

Please visit Virginia Hamilton’s website for more on how to order her latest book.

My interview with Arnold is next…

Comments

  1. George Edward Stanley says:

    Amy, this is a wonderful blog with information we all need to know. Here’s something from my own writing experience which I think supports this argument. One of my titles in Simon & Schuster’s Childhood of World Figures series(a former companion to S&S’s Childhood of Famous Americans series)was about Pope John Paul II. I love writing these titles, and I work really hard, doing the necessary research. I made copious notes on Pope John Paul II’s early life in Poland, his exposure to the horrors of Nazism, and his journey through the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. I am not a Catholic, but I have studied the teachings of the Catholic Church for decades. I was very pleased with the results of POPE JOHN PAUL II – YOUNG MAN OF THE CHURCH which was published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster in July 2005. It was well-received – EVEN BY A REVIEWER WHO COMMENTED IN HIS REVIEW THAT IT WAS WELL-WRITTEN AND WELL-RESEARCHED BUT IT WAS OBVIOUSLY WRITTEN BY SOMEONE TRYING TO WRITE AS THOUGH HE WERE CATHOLIC. I was more than a little surprised. Frankly, I thought the book was “solid Catholic,” but obviously there was “something there” that exposed me. I’m thinking it’s the same thing with white writers trying to write about African-American or Hispanic-American experiences. There’s probably “something there” that exposes them as not being a member of that group. Maybe not, but it seems to fit.

  2. Amy Bowllan says:

    George, I would like to think that people should have the right to write about whomever and whatever group that choose — provided the proper research is done and all aspects are covered. A different point of view adds for a unique perspective. I think the problem here is that those writers of color are not being recognized when they do. And if they are, there is an argument that they are doing so because of their color. There is a vast majority of literary awards given, and very few are awarded to writers of color — or to those books – like yours, that speak of REAL LIFE stories that would rather be forgotten. ie NIGHTFIRES. Thanks for your thoughts and I would love to read the book you reference. :)

  3. George Edward Stanley says:

    Oh, I have always felt that way, too, Amy, quite strongly, that you don’t have to be a member of a group to be able to write (and write successfuly) through the eyes of a member of that group, and I have railed against the argument that you do, but this letter from Virginia Hamilton certainly gave me pause – and when I remembered that comment about my book on Pope John Paul II, I really started to wonder that if a writer hasn’t really experienced something himself or herself, then it might be difficult for that writer to capture these “experiences” with authenticity. Perhaps writers just have never been called on it before. Perhaps most readers haven’t experienced the things, either, so they just accept what the writer has to say. Now, I’m not at all supporting this notion that I can’t write from an Afghani point of view, for instance, or from the point of view of a young boy in N’Djamena, Chad, in the early 70s (something I’ve been working on for years – since I was there). In my head, I certainly think I’ve captured the boy’s feelings, his attitudes about whites, his attitudes about the government of Chad, his attitudes about the anti-government rebels just a few miles outside N’Djamena, etc., but who knows?

  4. Chris says:

    Amy,

    I sat through almost all of the notable discussion this year. I was shocked, on the final day, when it was announced that books that had won the Caldecott, Newbery, Prinz and Sibert were automatically included on the Notables list even if they weren’t originally on the committees radar. BUT books that won the CSK and the PBP, for example, weren’t “major” awards and had to be voted on to be included.

    Huh?

    And there’s the rub that many of us have been screaming about for years. ALA still represents a “separate but equal” way of doing things.

    CSK and PBP awards aren’t touted or promoted the way the others are. Many award winners report having difficulty placing additional work. I don’t get Amazon notifications to let me know what books are on tap from those categories, and someone once conveyed that colleagues sometimes think that “those books” have their own awards and so they don’t have to be considered seriously for the main awards.

    CSK and PBP may give the impression that the quality is “less than” because you don’t see those same books making the grade (or even becoming “honor books” in the major categories very often. Someone will always throw up Christopher Paul Curtis as an example. But he’s the exception. Even Jerry Pinkney — with his body of work — couldn’t get a Caldecott until essays such as Nikki Grimes in the Horn Book review began to ask questions about whether race is be a factor in judging and then – voila – he gets one.

    I don’t know the answer. And I know sales to libraries are major factors for publishers. But I think we put so much emphasis on what adult gatekeepers want that we totally forget why we write and illustrate – to reach a kid and excite, entertain, educate and/or empower them.

    To which I begin to think we are in the midst of an epic fail as literacy rates drop across the country and children turn off to reading for pleasure while we argue semantics in small rooms based on personal preferences.

  5. Debbie Reese says:

    Chris points to a powerful double standard: Books that automatically are added to the Notable Books list, and those that have to be voted on.

    What was THAT discussion like? Did anyone even point it out?

  6. Amy Bowllan says:

    Chris and Debbie, I am trying to understand all of the layers that have been clearly established amongst those who are “in the know.” I have a ton of questions, and wonder if readers are even aware of the arguments being presented, since they too, should weigh in, no?

  7. shelftalker elizabeth says:

    I LOVE this article, and I love that this issue is gathering momentum in all quarters. I have high hopes that change (long overdue) will actually start happening in a significant way. Thanks so much, Amy, for gathering together so many important pieces of this conversation in one place.

  8. Roger Sutton says:

    As far as I understand it, the reason the CSK and Belpre Awards are not automatically included on ALSC Notables is not because they are “lesser” awards, but because they are not ALSC awards.

  9. Eliza Dreang says:

    HI Amy, Debbie, and Chris (and others),

    I’m writing in two capacities — one is as a follower of your blog and one who has recommended it to her students in a course I’m teaching in which I’m hoping the students are gaining ‘cultural competence’ (note I did not say cultural proficiency) through the study of resources for youth.

    The second is as chair of the 2010 Notable Children’s Book Committee, the committee that has just been mentioned on your blog. Unfortunately there is a misunderstanding about what was reported, but it IS very confusing so no wonder that there was.

    Let me just explain how the Notable Children’s Book List is constructed (and has been for some number of years). I am NOT defending this but rather explaining it. Keep in mind that the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) is a division of ALA that gives SOME of the youth awards and ‘best books’ but not nearly all of them.

    SO here goes:

    1. The list consists mostly of books that a committee consisting of 11 members of ALSC/ALA vote on that receive 6 or more votes, selected from approximately 2000 that we examine during the year. This year that amounted to 50 books.

    2. Before the above ‘final vote’ takes place, traditionally on Tues morning of ALA, the committee looks at their discussion list (180 books this year) and removes from their ‘voting list’ any books that won an ALSC Award (Newbery, Caldecott, Belpré, Sibert, Batchelder, Geisel). [Roger Belpré ARE listed as they are jointly sponsored by ALSC and REFORMA and so are an ALSC award), Ultimately these books plus any others that won ALSC awards are added to the ones the Notable Committee chooses. This year there were 27 ALSC Award and Honor books that were added to the 50 that were voted on by Notables. Approximately 12 of these were already on the Notables discussion list, but quite a few of them were not.

    3. After the list is completed with steps 1 and 2 above, a notation is made beside the book if it is ALREADY on the list if it has won another ALA (but not ALSC) award — this includes Coretta Scott King Awards, Schneider Family, Printz, etc. (It does not include Stonewall yet as this is the first year there was a children’s book category for that award — hopefully that will be noted also, and in fact, I will write the ALSC office suggesting that it be noted this year as Neman’s Mommy Mama and Me is on both lists). This procedure has NOT occurred yet this year as there will be CSK books noted that are on the Notables list. If you look on the 2010 Notable Children’s Book website you will see this “For your convenience, Notable Children’s Books that have also received other ALA awards, such as the Coretta Scott King Award, Michael L. Printz Award, Alex Award, and Schneider Family Book Award, are noted on this list. (For 2010, this will be added soon!)”

    In sum, this decision, of long standing, has NOTHING to do with LESSER or MORE IMPORTANT awards. It has to do with the division in which the award is presented. So ONLY ALSC awards appear on the original Notables list automatically, while awards presented by other ALA divisions such as the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange (EMIERT) that gives the CSK awards are identified IF they are already there but NO outside-of-ALSC awards are added.

    Now I would add that this decision (and I have no idea how long ago it was made) is controversial within ALSC. Some feel that the Notable list should be ‘purely notable.’ Others think that is an ALSC committee chooses a book as outstanding than by virtue of its choice it IS notable whether the Notables Committee chose it or not. The argument dould be made for ‘outside of ALSC’ committees but with the list already in the 80s I’m not sure it would happen.

    Anyway, please correct in your thinking that anyone regards CSK as a ‘lesser’ award. It is treated the same as any non-ALSC award.

    If there are more questions I’ll be glad to answer them. I myself have to review these ‘rules’ as they are

  10. Debbie Reese says:

    Thanks, Eliza. It is quite a process. I’d need a stack of books in front of me, I think, to fully grasp that process.

    There’s a lot that I don’t understand about ALA and awards. I know that someone has explained to me why the awards given by the American Indian Library Association (AILA) cannot be announced alongside all the others, but, I still don’t understand the explanation.

  11. Amy Bowllan says:

    After reading through Eliza’s thorough explanation of the process, I am starting to get it, and then wonder why RACE is even a factor? Are any of the ALSC committee members of color? I ask only because their seems to be an argument that recipients of these awards are rarely those members of the literary community who are of color. And I apologize if that is not in fact the case. Next, and off the topic of Awards, I put out a query to publishers as to why the K-12 reading lists are not reflective of the communities for which they serve. I am deluged with publishers sending me catalogs and rarely are writers from the Big 8 reflected. This has nothing to do with awards, but may in fact be a systemic issue that has been overlooked and could tie into the overall issue at hand. I do apprciate the time you have taken in responding and value your insights (and am thankful to the other writers who have commented.).

  12. marc says:

    I did not, and I do not, think Ms. Hamilton, for all her excellences, was fair to my argument when she said: “But no! By the end of the article we encounter the finish of a pseudo-intelligent “bait and switch” exercise.” That is not debate, it is polemic. My argument was that I am against ethnic criteria in awards. I was, and am, strongly in favor of a more diverse literature — as my record as both an author and an editor shows. I do not see why to raise a valid set of intellectual questions — questions we ask in all aspects of society — should occasion anger rather than consideration. I am strongly in favor of the goals of the CSK and Belpre awards. I am not convinced that the means are either intellectually defensible nor as effective as other approaches might be. I wrote the article then, and I speak up now, because interegration — of our lives, of our literature, of our children’s experience — means so much to me that rather than go along, get along, and nod approval of a system that I question — I felt it imperative that I speak out. I would hope that we could all consider honest debate an expression of commitment to common goals, rather than some kind of dishonest “bait and switch” designed to decrease the strength and power of literature written by any of those who feel, or exerience, marginality.