Color Me Perplexed
by Nikki Grimes
It’s 2010, but you’d never know it. I’m just back from ALA and I’m still hearing librarians say things like “I love your work! I only wish I had more African American students so that I could use your books.”
I wish I could tell you that such comments are rare. Sadly, they are all too common, and my question is why? What makes a librarian, or teacher, or a parent for that matter, assume that a book is inappropriate, or of diminished value to a child simply because the character on the cover is of a different race?
Let us, for a moment, follow the line of logic that says one should not share literature by and about people of a certain color with children who are of a different color. According to that logic, I would have to suggest schools with predominantly non-white student populations skip Charlotte’s Web, Bridge to Terabithia, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Old Yeller for starters. Forget Alice in Wonderland. Tom Sawyer is debatable. Diary of Ann Frank? I don’t think so. As for adult literature, let’s just say Shakespeare’s readership just shrunk significantly.
Are you gasping yet? Have the words “ridiculous” and “absurd” popped into your mind? I certainly hope so. And yet, the act of an educator who limits the use of books featuring characters of color is no less egregious, and his or her reasons no less absurd. The single most important question we should ask when considering a book for our classroom or library shelves is, is the book any good?
Forget about color. M.C. Higgins the Great, by Virginia Hamilton, is a great book. Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan, is a rich story. Night Garden, by Janet Wong, is for all dreamers. Code Talker, by Joseph Bruchac, has a message for everyone. Everett Anderson’s Goodbye, by Lucille Clifton, would warm the heart of any reader.
A good book is a good book, is a good book. Period.
Students of every race should be exposed to the good work of Julius Lester, Walter Dean Myers, Tonya Bolden, Lucille Clifton, Angela Johnson, Patricia C. and Frederick McKissack, and Christopher Paul Curtis. Gary Soto, Pam Munoz Ryan and Tony Medina should be names they recognize. Naomi Shihab Nye should be a staple in their classroom collections, as should Joseph Bruchac and Linda Sue Park. The list of worthy authors of color, creating books of substance for young readers, is a long one. Their good books—our good books—should be sprinkled among all the others.
Obviously, a book featuring a character of color (Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American—fill in the blank) will be especially appealing to a child of that race. However, his or her interests are not—and should not—be limited to those books. The very same can be said of children who are Caucasian. I dare say, my fan base is quite diverse, and I receive letters from at least as many white readers as black. That being true, might I suggest that the problem lies not with the young reader, but with the adults in his life who wrongly assume that their charges will not be interested in a book based on the race of its chief protagonist.
Earlier in my career, I gave a reading at a bookstore during a Story Hour event. A child in the audience came forward afterwards to handle some of my books. She was especially fond of Meet Danitra Brown, and asked her mother to buy it for her. Her mother, however, did all she could to persuade her daughter to choose another of my books, C is For City, one with a cover featuring a multicultural cast of characters. I watched helplessly as this mother snatched Meet Danitra Brown out of her child’s hand while the child screamed bloody murder. It was one of the saddest displays of racism I’ve ever witnessed. You can be certain I’ll never forget it.
We are all aware that we live in a multicultural society. Many, though not all of us, would like to create a future society in which our citizens engage more peacefully with one another, without regard for race, color, or creed. Art and literature, deftly employed, can help us achieve that end.
When you give a child a book featuring people of a culture other than his own, he is able to learn about that culture in the least threatening way possible. When you hand him a book that shows that we are more alike than we are different, you are planting seeds for a society in which the next generation is able to, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr, judge one another by the content of each person’s character, rather than by the color of his skin. We say that’s what we want. Of course, if that isn’t what you want, then by all means continue to withhold literature featuring people of color from children who are not. Just don’t expect the world to change. It won’t.