The Black Experience in Children's Books: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backby Walter Dean Myers
I was at a conference at a small school in Michigan. The focus of the conference was on literature for children. My talk had gone reasonably well, touching upon my own publications and my seven-year career as an editor. The question and answer period was divided into two sections, interrupted by a more than welcome coffee break. At the beginning of the second session a young man in the front of the auditorium raised his hand. He hadn't participated in the earlier session although I had noticed him taking careful notes.
"Mr. Myers, apart from your personal interest in multi-ethnic literature," he asked, "don't you think we've been harping on the issue of racism in children's books for some time now?"
The inference, of course, was that the "some time" had been too long a time. I asked him to elaborate on his question and, rather uncomfortably it seemed, he expressed the view that the push against racism in children's books, while commendable in itself, had become anachronistic in these enlightened times. What's more, the issue was being greatly overplayed by some people and some groups.
The response from the rest of the assembly was immediate. What buzzing there had been ceased. This was clearly a question that had been on more than one mind—and indeed I had heard similar questions from librarians and educators in Michigan, Kansas, New Jersey, New York and Texas, mostly within the last two years.
This essay is an attempt to answer, from my own viewpoint, this question: Is it time to say "enough" about racism in children's literature? I think I can express my viewpoint best by sharing my experiences as a Black writer.
I first became involved in writing for children some ten years ago by entering the CIBC's first contest for unpublished Third World writers. Before that I had been writing short fiction primarily, with only a dim awareness of the crying need for children's books reflecting the Third World experience. It became clear upon examination of the materials then available that books did not do for Black or other Third World children what they did for white children—they did not deliver images upon which Black children could build and expand their own worlds. But this was in 1969 and publishers and librarians alike were voicing similar concerns about the lack of suitable materials for Blacks and other Third World children. It was just, I felt, a matter of time before the situation would be rectified.
But I soon discovered that there was a lot of resistance, even resentment, to this idea. I visited my daughter's grade school in Brooklyn at the request of the school librarian. After speaking to a bright group of seven-year-olds I was introduced to the principal. I showed him my first book—Where Does the Day Go? (1969)—and he thumbed through it quickly, looking at the pictures. I fully expected him to say something tactfully complimentary. Instead, he said that he didn't feel that the book belonged in his school's library. There were no white children in the book! There were several Black children, a Japanese girl and a Puerto Rican boy, but no white child. I began to wonder if my work would be ignored—or remain unpublished—if I did not include white children. Would I be unable to write about all-Black neighborhoods?
My next book, The Dancers (1972), was published some two years later. I need not have been worried about not having white children in this book. The publisher introduced a white character for me. He's not in the story, but he appears in as many pictures as possible and seems to be in the story. This being a Black writer was not going to be an easy task.
The Dancers and The Dragon Takes a Wife (1972) inspired some of the most virulent hate mail imaginable. I've received hate mail in response to my magazine articles—an article about interracial adoption drew a lot of angry letters from whites, for instance—but the mail about these children's books represented a different beast altogether. The letters were primarily from parents, people who could keep my work from school shelves and from local libraries. Many correspondents were furious that I—a Black author—had "invaded" the white world of fairy tales; "obscene" was one of their milder labels for The Dragon Takes a Wife.
But, despite these minor annoyances, I still felt that the time was soon coming when literature for Black children would really blossom and that all children's literature would be truly humanistic. The accusations that Black writers wouldn't or couldn't write well was being mocked by the CIBC contest, which had attracted a host of good Third World writers, excited by the opportunity to chronicle their own experiences. Such writers as Sharon Bell Mathis, Ray Sheppard, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, Margaret Musgrove and Mildred Taylor were demonstrating that not only were they excellent writers but that their work did have viable markets.
By the mid-seventies, however, the promise of the late sixties and early seventies seemed suddenly hollow. The number of Black writers being published decreased as Black political activity decreased. The reasons for this were clear. Publishing companies had never tried to develop markets for Third World literature. Instead, they had relied upon purchases made through Great Society government funds, and when these were phased out the publishers began to phase out Third World books. Books were spaced so that their publication would not coincide with other Black books because sales representatives complained that they couldn't represent too many at one time. A look at the most recent catalogs shows that there are fewer books being published for Black children now than a decade ago....
I have had good experiences in my writing career as well as bad. But while I am hopeful for my own efforts I am not hopeful for the body of literature that still needs to be produced. I am not hopeful for the writers who are being turned away because "Black books aren't selling." I am not hopeful for the librarian who claims to love children and children's literature and yet can tell me that American children who are white do not need to learn of the Black experience, or that the Black experience need no longer be chronicled with truth and compassion. But most of all I am not hopeful for the millions of Third World children who will be forced to grow up under the same handicaps that I thought, a decade ago, that we were beginning to overcome. I'm afraid that the time has not yet come to say "enough" about racism in children's books.
Do you agree or disagree with Mr. Myers? Explain your answer.
Update: This is not an essay on whether or not there is still racism. It is about whether or not the topic of African American oppression and history should still be present in children's and young adult's literature. Look at my comment below before you write your own comment.
Why the necessity in children's literature, specifically fiction? What are the consequences of Myers' quote, "A look at the most recent catalogs shows that there are fewer books being published for Black children now than a decade ago...."