Friday, December 5, 2014

Only If You Tell The Truth (Diversity in Books Rant Part 3)

I was struggling to clarify my words for this post--part of my multi-part rant on diversity in children's books--when I received a comment from a friend, the wonderful narrator of the audio book of Jefferson's Sons, which helped a great deal.

She thought that my phrase "listening to each other's stories," was so vague as to be meaningless. Well, on further thought, I agree. Because the straight truth, the slightly uncomfortable truth if you're white like me, is that it's mostly white people who need to sit up and listen, really listen, not judge, not argue, not question, mouths shut ears open listen, to the stories non-whites tell. If you're not white, let's face it, you get white people's stories all the time. Especially in school. Think about the books your children read as school assignments. Just list them in your head. How much diversity?

When my son was in fourth grade he came home one day het up. It was February, Black History Month, and one of the little girls in his classroom had raised her hand and asked the teacher, snarkily, "When do we celebrate White History Month?" I was proud of my son, because--and if you know him you know he meant this sarcastically, he has always been one of the most just people I know--he immediately put his hand into the air and said, "That's the other eleven months of the year."

In her comment my friend went on to say that what we needed was the truth. The truth of our history, the truth of the terrible evil of slavery and other prejudices, and how they shaped our country and ourselves. She said that white people need to stop telling black people to "get over it." White people and black people and all children have to be taught the truth.

When I was a young writer, I was taught very specifically that I should stick to writing within my own ethnicity. That I shouldn't write about black or Hispanic or Native American characters unless I was black or Hispanic or Native American. For a long time I paid attention to this, some because I was afraid my teachers were right, and some because, let's face it, it's a lot easier to write from a familiar point of view. But then I began to be unhappy with the idea. There are more white writers than non-white--but we want, need, more non-white books. (One obvious solution is to get more non-white writers--that's a subject I'll tackle later.)

And then I wanted to write Jefferson's Sons. The story of the children of Thomas Jefferson and his slave (and wife's half-sister) Sally Hemmings. Early on, a few people suggested to me that it would be better if a black person wrote that story. I said I agreed, but didn't see anyone else lining up to write it, and I thought the story needed to be told. You can discuss whether it really is a black story--those children had 7 white great-grandparents, and 3 of the 4 who lived to adulthood ended up integrated into white society--but it is certainly a story of the evils of slavery and our past.

Some people tried to argue me out of writing it for other reasons. "Why would you want to write negative things about Thomas Jefferson?" one woman asked me.  I said, "Because they're the truth." The curator at Thomas Jefferson's second home, Poplar Forest, told me that school groups often came to tour the museum. "The kids always say, 'but Jefferson was a GOOD slaveowner'," she said. "Perhaps your book will make them understand there is no such thing."

Jefferson's Sons took a full four years of research and writing. Any agendas I carried with me were soon buried in a wealth of factual information. I wanted to decry Jefferson and Hemming's relationship--how can there be consent between a 14-year old slave and the man who owns here?--yet one of their children insisted that she'd made choices, extracted promises from Jefferson that he kept. I found it difficult to write Peter's happy innocent voice, knowing the future that awaited him, but his own words, recorded at the end of his life, insisted that his early childhood had been that happy, that carefree. ("Until Jefferson died, I never knew I was a slave.") I wanted Jefferson to be honorable in some sense toward the people he owned--detached, perhaps, but honorable--but then I learned that he'd sold the first-born son of his celebrated French-trained chef and talented blacksmith, sold the boy away at age 11 for no discernible reason at all. James Hemmings was probably the second child born in the White House (he had an older sibling who died shortly after birth.) and he disappears from history at age 11 with one word in the Monticello Farm Book, written in Jefferson's hand. Sold.

Jefferson's Sons is slavery lite. I know that. The main characters are enslaved under the best possible circumstances, with a loving parent, good food, and most importantly the promise of freedom. I wrote it with great care, too, so that in the end it could be put into the hands of a fifth-grader. It would have been very easy to make Jefferson's Sons a book that you couldn't properly put into the hands of a middle school child, because it would have been too violent, too frightening, too awful to be borne. I very much wanted middle schoolers to read it.

I was aware the entire time I was writing it of my own whiteness. I wondered what prejudices or assumptions I was unconsciously carrying with me. I read a lot of books written by slaves or former slaves; I read a lot about white and black relationships. I read "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and a book by a South African writer called "Some of My Best Friends Are White." (A+ for title alone.) I also, though this was more circumstance than anything, went to Africa twice while I was writing it--to South Africa, a country that now talks openly about race because they learned they have no choice. I learned to talk openly about race.

I took my novel through six full drafts and by the end thought hard, over and over, about the children who would be reading it. The black kids, the white kids. It was instructive to me how some of my words changed throughout the drafts. And, because I am a praying person, and because I was aware all along that I was writing about real human beings, not fictional characters, I prayed for intercession to their souls. Please help me tell your story. Please help me tell the truth.

Because while we need diversity in children's books, we need the truth even more. I review books for Kirkus. I get most of the horse books, a lot of WW2 and WW1, and a good smattering of Civil or Revolutionary war books. That's my areas of expertise.

Twice I've gotten to review books by Ann Rinaldi, a pretty famous writer of children's historical fiction. Both of them were horrible history and astonishingly racist. The first--title escapes me--concerned a young white woman who lived on a Gullah island plantation (think Hilton Head before the golf) in 1900. To start with, for Christmas she was given ice skates. Not like the ponds freeze down there, baby. Then she married and went to NYC where he husband had an electric refrigerator--uh, copyedits? Anyone? Worst of all was the supposed history of her plantation home--after the Civil War, all the slaves just stayed on, because they loved Massa! And now they got paid! It was wunnerful!

The second Rinaldi book I reviewed was My Vicksburg, a novel about the siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War. My review called it blatantly racist. Those words. My editor called and said really? and I said read it. She pulled my review, wrote a stronger one, and then sent it to the publisher with a letter saying please do not publish this book. If you do publish it, here is our review. I just looked the review up, here's a quote: "an enslaved man (one of the Corbet family’s four loyal retainers) works in his free time—during a siege, no less—to earn money for the Confederate deserter’s escape, instead of for himself. Rinaldi’s African-American characters are Uncle Tom’s direct descendants, complete with cringe-inducing dialect: “I wuz thinkin’, suh, if’n it be okay wif you and your mama...” There’s no excuse for this one." But it was published, and if you look the book up on Amazon, there's no mention of the Kirkus Review. (Because Amazon wants to sell books, dur.) Ann Rinaldi's gotten blasted by other groups as well--there are whole websites devoted to how much Native Americans hate and disagree with her book My Heart Is On The Ground--but mostly she gets good or goodish reviews from mostly white reviewers. Her books are used a lot in schools.

It's comfortable from a white perspective to believe that slavery really wasn't that bad, that lynching and Jim Crow were no big deal, that the Civil Rights movement was just a lot of fuss over nothing and that Eric Gardner deserved to be murdered via an illegal choke hold for selling loose tobacco cigarettes on the street. 

It's time to be uncomfortable. We can start small with our children--with slavery lite, like Jefferson's Sons, with small stories of bravery and injustice. Then as adults we can look injustice straight in the eye, with luck do something, with work make things better. Diverse books is the right place to start. But only if they tell the truth.