Looking In, Looking On

Posted on 17 March 2014 Monday


I remember back in the mid 90s going to buy a car with my then husband. While we were initially impressed with the presence of black sales reps who approached us, it didn’t take more than a couple of visits to realize that the black sales reps were assigned to black customers.

I was reminded of this experience when I read Walter Dean Myers’ recent editorial.

Years ago, I worked in the personnel office for a transformer firm. We needed to hire a chemist, and two candidates stood out, in my mind, for the position. One was a young white man with a degree from St. John’s University and the other an equally qualified black man from Grambling College (now Grambling State University) in Louisiana. I proposed to the department head that we send them both to the lab and let the chief chemist make the final decision. He looked at me as if I had said something so remarkable that he was having a hard time understanding me. “You’re kidding me,” he said. “That black guy’s no chemist.”

I pointed out the degrees on the résumé that suggested otherwise, and the tension between us soared. When I confronted my superior and demanded to know what about the candidate from Grambling made him not a chemist, he grumbled something under his breath, and reluctantly sent both candidates for an interview with the chief chemist.

Simple racism, I thought. On reflection, though, I understood that I was wrong. It was racism, but not simple racism. My white co-worker had simply never encountered a black chemist before. Or a black engineer. Or a black doctor. I realized that we hired people not so much on their résumés, but rather on our preconceived notions of what the successful candidate should be like. And where was my boss going to get the notion that a chemist should be black?

Publishing more books out by authors of color seems like such an obvious solution to so many problems, however the problem of not enough books with characters of color does not exist in a vacuum.

Numerous people have suggested ways to change what is published and many of these people work outside publishing as do I. I’ve never attempted to write a book, never visited a publishing house and have never tried to obtain an agent. My criticisms of this industry are a bit like Sandra Bullock cursing the universe when she realizes her spaceship had no fuel.

But, I see things and it makes me wonder.

I’ve read too many books by authors of color where the author is truly skilled, the story is fresh, entertaining and well developed. Yet there were shortcomings that ranged from flaws in world building, lacking character development, or the lack or a good sense of setting. Who edits these books?

I know that when artwork and teaching materials is needed for a book, the preference is to assign the project to a person of the same ethnic group.  I can’t identify the thought process behind this. Is a book so “Black” or so “Latino” that only people from that ethnic group will relate well enough to the story to develop it correctly? Or, do we just not work together if we don’t have to?

Isn’t it the oddest thing that we see so many creating ways to help Whites write books about people of color rather than identifying and publishing more authors of color and Native Americans? And don’t tell me authors of color don’t exist! Where are the new books by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich? Neesha Meminger? Sheba Karim? Padma Venkatraman? Derrick Barnes? Alex Sanchez? Kelly Parra? Torrey Maldenado?

Creating a culture inside any industry where people understand the advantages to themselves as individuals, their company and even society as a whole is something that no one outside that industry can force.

I don’t believe there will be more books by authors of color until those in publishing understand that they can mentor and edit someone of a different complexion, that they can be as demanding of these authors and have high expectations of them. Or unless more companies like Quill Shift Agency, 7th Generation Press, Cinco Puntos or Just Us Books exist to innovate alternative avenues of success.

When CBC Diversity first formed, I wondered why they didn’t reach out to those outside their industry to build an alliance. There are so many people who address diversity from so many perspectives that it would have to be empowering to bring them all together. But, as I’ve come to believe I understand problems within the industry, I can’t help but applaud these individuals for trying to do something that certainly will not increase their popularity in their own offices. They best know the limitations inside their industry and what changes need to be made.

How can I end this on a positive note? Well, I cannot ignore all the voices (predominantly female, I must add) that continue to fight the good fight. In many different ways and in many different corners, there are people who are passionately trying to make a difference for young readers. Because right there, those pages in the hands of a young child will color their entire worldview. We have to keep hoping because there is no change without hope. We have to keep our ear to the ground and listen for those who are beating a new path. We can move beyond talk and take action. And, we have to continue questioning this industry.

 

 

Advertisements