First, I want to thank everyone who has participated in this conversation. The people who have commented here, who have commented on other blogs, and who have emailed me directly have all helped me think harder about this, and explore the issue that was bothering me—and which I now see should really be approached as several issues.
As you know, I’m not the first to raise these concerns.
Marc Aronson, Esme Codell, and Mitali Perkins have all been a part of this discussion ahead of me, and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s thoughts are not to be missed.
I hope, however, that I have something to say that will add a little this debate.
As the primary award for black authors/artists and black topics in the industry, the CSK weilds a psychological force on the industry's ideas about who deserves recognition and for what, and I think that by trying to serve two masters, the CSK is in effect diminishing both its objectives.
Issue 1: There Are Too Few Black Authors and Illustrators in Children’s Books
No argument. But… thus, we need an award honoring black authors and illustrators?
When I think of this question in terms of other people, I see little harm and much value in the practice. I respect and admire the motivation behind wanting to laud outstanding members of a community that has a lot to be proud of—and which yet struggles with incohesiveness and disadvantage. I know the people who support the CSK are not my—or anyone else's—enemies. They are smart, sincere, and proactive people—people I am proud to call colleagues.
But… it's naive to think that the only effects the CSK has are the ones outlined in its description and mission statement. And when I think of this in terms of myself—putting myself in a parallel scenario, for instance being given an award for being a woman in a particular profession—then I do see the harm.
Women compete separately from men in athletic competitions because in terms of athletics, women have a handicap. Basing the CSK on race, I think, runs the very high risk of implying that the people contending for the award are handicapped in some way, so that they must compete separately. The prejudice that black people face in America today—whether the instances are deliberate or unwitting—is not their handicap. It’s America’s. I think it’s very important for all of us to keep making that distinction. Black participants in this debate can certainly never forget it—but they must remember to keep sending that message to others. Separate is not equal.
But let’s say that the CSK committee wishes to continue the practice of honoring black authors and illustrators separately. If the primary purpose of the award is to do this, then the CSK is doing itself a disservice in only allowing black topics.
If the goal is to have more black authors and illustrators in children's books (which I think is a wonderful goal), then that goal would be best served by recognizing work in any topic by black authors and illustrators.
Issue 2: There Are Too Few Black Stories in Children’s Books
Again, no argument. But if the primary purpose of the Coretta Scott King is to honor the publication and exploration of black topics, then the award is doing itself a disservice in only allowing black authors and illustrators.
If the goal is to have more multicultural and/or multiracial children's books published (which I also think is a wonderful goal), then that goal would be best served by recognizing work on that topic by any author/illustrator.
Issue 3: But Isn’t the Real Problem That There Are Too Few Minorities in Publishing?
This is a multiple choice question.
b. God, yes.
c. Hell, yes.
d. Are you f***ing kidding me? Yes!
I would posit that it's this more than any other thing that keeps the number of minorities represented in books low. As many of you have intuited, this is not because the people in publishing are racist themselves—at least, not deliberately. The people I work with are kind, hardworking people who want to be responsible—socially, environmentally, personally. But that’s not to say they couldn’t use a little help.
Let’s be clear, though—the CSK, whether in its current form or in any other possible form, is not going to have any impact on this problem.
Want to do something about this? Initiatives to address the ludicrous dearth of anyone but upper-middle-class white people in children's publishing would be a tremendous thing for the industry. As has been pointed out before, internships are the gateway for many beginning editors, and no publisher can afford to pay its interns a liveable wage, if they pay them at all. Thus many people starting out in publishing are leaning on their families—and it’s relatively wealthy families that can support their children as they get started in publishing.
I would highly recommend a grant program for minorities who are applying for internships in publishing. Yes, that’s discriminatory, and can be called racism (or reverse racism, if you like). But I wouldn’t be against it. I think such an initiative would speak directly to what we all see as a problem.
If somebody wants to set up a grant program like this, I will pledge $1,000 of my own money toward it.
Issue 4: It’s Not That You Don’t Know What It’s Like To Be Black, It’s That You Can’t Know What It’s Like To Be Black
Here, I think, is one of our biggest problems, and the negative effect that the CSK doesn’t want to admit it’s having on publishing.
There are still plenty of people who think this—as one response to my original post wrote, “…hell, the CSK doesn't have to suggest that you cannot understand what it's like to be black in America unless you are black (for the record, that's not what the award suggests). I'll say it, because it's true.”
In a wider cultural sense, our progress towards a less divided nation is hurt by the attitude among many black people that others cannot imagine what it is to be black—and that to try—to want to go beyond sympathy to empathy—is not only foolish, it's disrespectful.
We who know the tremendous power of books to allow readers a complex and world-expanding experience of another person's point of view should know better than that. And we who hope for a world in which there is no separate-but-equal have to understand that the first thing to go has to be the 'separate' part.
I can bear witness where people outside of the publishing industry—and indeed where black people within the publishing industry—cannot: there are many people who are afraid to attempt to publish a book that describes current-day black experience without a black person to vouch for its authenticity (implicitly or explicitly) because of this attitude and the scorn and rejection such a book risks before it.
I strongly recommend inviting more people of other races into the fight to make black people an equal part of the American dream. Many people have posed the question of whether there is any intrinsic value in white people writing about non-white people. To them I say, Are you kidding me? The more people who are not like you want to know what it is like to be like you—and the more you praise and celebrate them for the effort—the better our world is going to be.
Many of the upper-middle-class white people in children's publishing would love to be more involved in this fight. But as the preeminent award around that issue, the CSK is implying that the only people worth recognizing for their efforts to tell black stories are black people, and the only stories worth recognizing black people for are black stories.