Around this time last year, my word for 2016 became “HARMONY”. It seemed like a pleasant enough word and I was sure I’d get as much out of it as I did ‘COURAGE’. ‘TENDERNESS’, and ‘SHINE’ in previous years. I remember with courage that I interviewed several people regarding their personal courage and I had oodles of fun finding ways to ‘shine’ on others. It really didn’t take me long to realize these words weren’t about me, but about the ways I interact with others. HARMONY really brought that home.
While harmony is indeed about others, it has to begin with inner harmony, the wisdom that comes from the inner love I have for myself. At first, I thought about musical harmony and the way all the sounds blend to make beautiful music, but harmony has been more difficult than that for me. Remember the rabbits?
Buddha teaches that harmony (avirodha or sahita) “is the smooth, pleasant and non-contentious functioning together of two or more things.”
Since Thanksgiving, the thought of ‘home’ has been very much on my mind. Winter set in and temperatures dropped into my favorite time of the year. There are foods I began eating that I’d savor with my eyes closed and mind in a place I’d call ‘home’. That feeling for me is ‘home’ more than any place, perhaps because I’ve lived too long in a state that has never felt like home. Winter gets me close to there.
I think the books we enjoy the most are the ones that take us home, that take us to an emotional place where we truly feel we belong. Harmony is reaching a new level of belonging in unfamiliar places. We’re welcomed in these places both when we’re open to the possibilities and when the possibilities are open and available to us. This works in gardens as well as in books and stories.
A lot has been written lately about censorship. I think this has become such a political term, one in which we often miss the way it privileges some and not others. In its purest form, if there is no censorship there is no disharmony, no contentious functioning because every voice is accounted for. But, censorship is so pervasive in literature, particularly children’s literature that it becomes a tool many use only for their advantage.
People of color, people from lower income groups, from the “wrong religion” or from too much religion are censored from positions within the publishing industry, from positions as booksellers, agents and publicists.
Stories written by Native Americans are censored for being ‘too Native’ just as books by Black authors are “too black” or because there are too many Native or too many Black stories on the market. It doesn’t matter how good your story is, how innovative or imaginative. Black and brown children are routinely censored, silenced and ignored. Working from my annual list of books, Zetta Elliott has identified a total of 59 middle grade and young adult titles written by African American authors in 2016. (14 nonfiction and 45 fiction) I’ll have to check the Library and Book Trade Almanac for the latest figures, but there are about 6,000 young adult titles published annually in the US. I’d say the fact that only 59 of them were by African American authors is censorship.
One-upmanship is a childish game, but how do you compare a self-made decision to stop publication of a book to the invisibility of black voices in children’s literature? Are we going to call one censorship and the other reverse censorship?
Censorship is routine in children’s literature. We use these books and stories to socialize, protect and form young citizens. Decisions of what they are exposed to is political in every sense of the word. Honestly, I think on some level we might all agree that there are some things to which young people should not be exposed, but we’ll probably never agree on what those things are. Parents, raise your children, don’t let the state do it!
That we think there are some things to which children should never be exposed is exactly why it is so difficult to decolonized children’s literature. It’s why the black, brown, queer and disabled voices will be censored as long as the present power structure remains in control. There is no harmony in that unnatural silencing no more than there is harmony in stories built upon oppressive language, racist ideology or white supremacy. While there are those who may think this Whiteness is as present in the real world and that they are representing my home, please know it is not. I, like many, many marginalized people not only resent your deficit thinking about us, we resist and deny as we are live our lives in many of the same places as you, earn incomes and find empowerment through new technologies. I’ve always thought it was odd how a young child was embraced and revered for her work in trying to promote books for African American children, when so many have been doing it for decades with not a single recognition. Was is just me, or did this slight render those voices invisible? Censorship once again. I bow to Satia Orange, Debbie Reese, Alma Flor Ada, Cheryl & Wade Hudson, Jean Mendoza, KT Horning, Rudine Sims Bishop, Nancy Tolson, Oralia Garza de Cortes, Michelle Martin, Walter Dean Myers and so many, many more that I never should have started listing names. Feel free to give a shout out in the comments.
Censorship happens when bookstores refuse to carry books by marginalized people because “those books don’t sell here” or when they charge thousands of dollars to place books face out on their shelves, knowing that only works by A-List Authors will be afforded this luxury.
Censorship happens when librarians ignore how few books they have by marginalized groups, when they don’t manage their budgets effectively enough to afford a few more books with disabled characters rather than more ABC books. Librarians also censor when they disappear books from collections either by hiding them in an obscure area of the Dewey or by never getting the book on the shelf. It also happens when Latino and LGBT stories never make it into story time, well except during those specialized month.
When books that echo views of colonizers or that perpetuate biases and stereotypes come to light and are eventually removed from the market then, we’re going to call that ‘censorship’? I do wonder how many of these books will be amended and re-released and more important, I wonder if we’ll see fewer of these racists publications in the future. The thought of censoring racism, oppression, discrimination and hatred from children’s books is a thought I can get behind. Must I turn in my librarian card?
How do we go from this censorship of oppression to a sense of harmony in the world we’re presenting to our children? Should there be a manifesto? Would that bring the 100+ year battle to improve representation to a quicker end? Should #ownvoices develop #ownpublications? Zetta Elliott says there should be reparations. What do you say? I’ve been doing this ten years and in that time have only become more aware of how entrenched this is. Can we change children’s books without changing society? Is it really so difficult to create more books that help young readers find ‘home’?
Oh, 2016 you have taught me much! I’m reading for my 2017 word.