Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (Talks at Google)

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)And now,… presenting a 45-minute illustrated lecture of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books.

Indeed, here are two versions, one in English and one in Spanish (which is also delivered via sign language).  Both versions were recorded in the past couple of months — the English-language one in Mountain View in July 2017, and the Spanish-language one in Santiago in August 2017.

The English-language version comes courtesy of Talks at Google.

Talks at GoogleThanks to (ex-Googler) Tyler Shores for making the Google connection, and to David Barry and everyone at Google for their hospitality!  I had a great visit to the Mountain View campus this past July.


La versión en español es cortesía de Chile’s Ministerio de Educación. Mi discurso comienza a los 34 minutos del video. Esta versión dura unos 10 minutos más: estoy hablando más lentamente para ayudar al traductor a mantener el ritmo.

Muchismas gracias a Mónica Bombal Molina por la invitación, y a Mónica, Andrea Casals, y Catalina Landerretche por su hospitalitad. ¡Me gustó mucho mi visita a Santiago!


Related posts (on this blog unless otherwise indicated), including glimpses of the work in progress:

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7 Questions We Should Ask About Children’s Literature (Oxford UP blog)

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)White nationalism is on the rise in the US and nativism is in the ascendant across the globe.  What role can literature for children play in teaching the next generation to be more empathetic, to respect difference, and to reject hatred?  How do we find children’s books that promote these values?  And what do we do with classics that offend?

Over on the Oxford University Press blog today, you’ll find “7 Questions We Should Ask About Children’s Literature,” including:

  1. What does this book present as normal? You might follow up with these more specific questions borrowed (and slightly modified) from Nathalie Wooldridge:
  • What or whose view of the world, or kinds of behavior does the book present as normal?
  • Why is the book written from this perspective? How else could it have been written?
  • What assumptions does the book make about age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture (including the age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture of the reader)?
  • Whose perspectives does the book present? Whose perspectives does the book silence or ignore?

… and 6 more questions.

Oxford University Press iconOxford UP asked me to write the post to help promote Was the Cat in the Hat Black?  My own aspiration was also to write something that could be useful in evaluating books for young readers.  Here’s hoping that the questions can be of some help to educators, parents, publishers, and all who are involved with children’s literature.


REMINDER: Goodreads Giveaway of Was the Cat in the Hat Black? Giveaway details via the link below (and via the links in this sentence).

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

by Philip Nel

Giveaway ends October 01, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


If you’d like to learn more, Oxford University Press has created three short videos (featuring me) addressing some of the subjects in the book.

1. What do children’s books tell us about society? (90 seconds)

2. Literary Activism with Children’s Books (2 minutes, 50 seconds)

3. The Responsibility of Authors Writing Children’s Literature (2 minutes)


Historical context from Rudine Sims Bishop (3 minutes, 30 seconds)

Rudine Sims Bishop’s work is foundational (I mention Professor Bishop in the second video, above). My book builds upon the work of lots of smart scholars, including Bishop, Michelle Martin, Robin BernsteinKate Capshaw, and many others.  Was the Cat in the Hat Black? wouldn’t be possible without their groundbreaking work.


Related posts on this blog, including glimpses of the work in progress:

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Free Book: Goodreads Giveaway of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)Greetings, people who read books!  Thanks to Oxford University Press, there is — this month — a Goodreads giveaway of my new bookWas the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books.  10 copies will be given away.

Important restriction: the books can only be sent to addresses in the US and Canada.  (Sorry!  The distribution isn’t something I have control over!)

Giveaway details via the link below (and via the links in this sentence).

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

by Philip Nel

Giveaway ends October 01, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

If you’d like to learn more, here is Oxford University Press’ 90-second video (featuring me) on racism in children’s literature:


Related posts on this blog, including glimpses of the work in progress:

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We Need Diverse Scholars

The most powerful panel at last year’s Children’s Literature Association conference was “Needs of Minority Scholars,” featuring Sarah Park Dahlen, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Laura M. Jiménez, and Marilisa Jiménez García.

  • If you are at the Children’s Literature Association conference right now, I encourage you to attend the follow-up session, “Beyond Diversity and Inclusion: Changing the Culture and Practices of the ChLA.” It will be held tomorrow (Thursday, 22 June) at 3:30 pm in Palma Ceia 3.

Beyond Diversity and Inclusion: Changing the Culture and Practices of the ChLA

  • Wherever you are, I encourage you to read last year’s panel, published in the latest issue of The Lion and the Unicorn (January 2017).  The panel’s papers published there, instead of in the organization’s own Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, because — as Michelle Martin points out in her contribution to the issue — “because the editors [of ChLAQ] didn’t consider these pieces research.” That fact proves the necessity of that panel, of tomorrow’s panel, and of the ChLA’s need to walk the walk — and not just talk the talk. As Kate Slater (the panel’s chair and editor of the special section) asks, “What if every marginalized scholar felt welcomed within the field of children’s and young adult literature studies? What if our community listened—truly listened—to their experiences, words, and perspectives, even when that experience of listening requires us to look uncomfortably at ourselves? And, perhaps most importantly: what now? How will we act together to make these ‘what ifs’ a reality?”

The Lion and the Unicorn (January 2017)

If you have any interest in children’s literature or in making your scholarly/professional organization (whatever its subject) a truly diverse one, I encourage you to read these essays.  (Note: Ebony Thomas’s piece is not included, but [as you will have guessed already] a new piece by Michelle Martin is included.  And the other three panelists are there.)

Need a brief summary of why?  I’ll offer succinct (and thus incomplete) highlights of each essay here.  ALSO: please access these via your institution because doing so helps underwrite the cost of the scholarly journal.  BUT if you cannot get behind the paywall, email me and I will send you pdfs.  My address is at right, under “A note on mp3s.”


Sarah Park Dahlen, A Step from Heaven: On Being a Woman of Color in Children’s Literature Studies

  • on the need for mirrors: on the experience of reading An Na’s A Step from Heaven for the first time, Dahlen writes, “I wasn’t alone. I saw for the first time that these things happened to other people too, other people who looked like me. Whose parents looked like mine. Whose mother suffered as mine did. Whose father was absent as mine was.”
  • on being the visible embodiment of racial identity: “I do not leave my personal history or identity at the door when I enter a classroom. As Ebony Elizabeth Thomas said at the Children’s Literature Association 2016 conference’s Minority Scholars panel, students read our bodies before we even open our mouths. How they treat us is based, first and largely, on how they read our racial identities. My Korean body disrupts assumptions about who is an authority in teaching children’s literature.”
  • on point: “We who are racially Other are fatigued by repeated distortions and erasure, and by exposure to micro- and macroaggressions in our daily lives and in spaces that masquerade as safe but actually exist to uphold the status quo. Racial battle fatigue is real. White fragility is entirely different. White fragility maintains power.”

Michelle Martin, Brown Girl Dreaming of a New ChLA

  • on the insufficiency of good intentions. I (and many others) are fond of quoting the organizations unofficial mantra: “We don’t eat our young,” which past president Roberta Trites likes to say.  It’s true: ChLA is welcoming.  But it also isn’t equally welcoming to everyone, as Martin reminds us: “when scholars come through the doctoral pipeline whose educational experiences have been rife with racial and gender microaggressions from more seasoned scholars (even well-meaning ones) and peers and when they, like Marilisa Jiménez García, constantly struggle to have their work acknowledged as (1) scholarship and (2) relevant, ‘we don’t eat our young’ is little comfort. Some of us feel that we’ve been eaten our entire careers.”
  • on how structural power magnifies microagressions; or, how the powerful forget the harm they do, but the less powerful remember.  Martin recounts a story shared by Tiffany Martínez — a Suffolk University undergraduate, McNair Scholar, and aspiring academic — who used the word “Hence” in a paper. Her professor circled the word, opined “This is not your word,” and accused her of plagiarism.  As Martin notes, “Although this incident was seismic for her, Martínez suspects that the professor might have already forgotten it.”
  • on the need for scholars from outside of minoritized communities to do the research and write what she terms “crossover scholarship”: “writing crossover scholarship should not be undertaken casually but with a commitment to excellence, with humility, and with a teachable spirit.”

Laura M. Jiménez, My Gay Agenda: Embodying Intersectionality in Children’s Literature Scholarship

  • on the need for an intersectional agenda: “it is not uncommon for me to be accused of having a “gay agenda.” I’ve read the phrase on student evaluations, reviewers’ comments, and heard colleagues use it to dismiss my arguments, assertions, and even my life experiences. Let me be clear, I have an agenda, and it is an out and proud agenda, but it probably isn’t the one most people assume. My agenda isn’t simply gay. My agenda is a race-class-gender-and- all-kinds-of-identities-that-make-people-uncomfortable-and-unsure agenda. In short, my agenda is an intersectional agenda.”
  • on importance of teachers making their own intersectionality visible: “At the same time they read these texts I provide an authentic model of intersectionality. I say the words that my students fear. The words that need to be said out loud and often. The words Black, White, Asian, Japanese, African American, Arab, Persian, race, racism, Latinx, Chicano, women, men, Native American and First Nations, cis-gender, able, disabled, neurotypical, gay, queer . . . all the words need to be said out loud. The words that need to be talked about so these teachers get to know the feeling of these words on their tongues. I come out to my students as a complex person by addressing my intertwined identities. I am performing myself in ways that most of my students have never seen a teacher do, have never had to do themselves, and will come to recognize as one way to normalize diversity.”
    • If I may, I would like to add here that it is especially important that a cisgendered straight, White, male teacher — like myself — take categories that are typically invisible (and thus normalized via their invisibility) and make them visible.  We must also acknowledge how the invisibly privileged among us may fail to acknowledge or even see the ways in which we are implicated in systems of privilege and oppression (typically without our active consent).  As Jiménez says, “The disruption of admitting to differences, by naming those differences and directly addressing them in a classroom, can be transformative and in that transformation, change is possible.”
  • on the need to make majority communities uncomfortable: “teacher education provides opportunities for them to learn to recognize the stories they are not a part of, are not native to, are not privileged by and to hear the voices that are unfamiliar, and believe the narratives that run counter to their lived experiences. Piaget’s concept of learning has helped me understand how to challenge preservice and practicing teachers. For Piaget, learning takes place when a person experiences disequilibrium, attempts to assimilate the new information into their existing schema, and finally must change that schema to accommodate the new knowledge. But for this to happen, the learner must first recognize what is unknown, must be aware of the disequilibrium and want to change it. Disequilibrium is by definition uncomfortable; this discomfort is often caused by the mere fact that the new knowledge is in direct opposition to the learner’s existing schema”

Marilisa Jiménez García, Side-by-Side: At the Intersections of Latinx Studies and ChYALit

  • on the need to dwell on intersections and contradictions. Citing Monica Brown’s Side by Side / Lado a Lado (2010) as a metaphor for this need, García writes, “The picture celebrates the coming together of Chavez and Huerta, yet we see that English and Spanish are also placed side-by-side: two languages with a violent history facing each other, but separated by a division on the page. Chavez and Huerta’s hands bridge the divide, yet that division between cultures and languages running side-by-side remains. U.S. children’s literature evidences these splits, switches, breaks, and unlikely pairings—these parallel stories and traditions greet us with a history of delight, violence, and contradiction. My research has demanded that I negotiate divisions both in the field of Latinx studies and children’s literature in order to exist in academia, and to dwell on the parallels, the intersections and the contradictions.”
  • on the need to displace English’s centrality to the field (citing Emer O’Sullivan): “Emer O’Sullivan writes in the ‘Preface’ to her study, Comparative Children’s Literature (2005), that ‘[c]hildren’s literature studies in English is mainly a monolingual phenomenon, mostly dealing with the wealth of children’s literature in English-speaking countries and referring to critical material written in English. Researchers who do not write in that language generally remain internationally unnoticed’ (x). She suggests that limiting inquiry to predominately Anglo children’s materials ‘neglect[s] to adequately describe and explain the crossing of linguistic and cultural borders’ (1)”
  • on the need to address diversity from more than one field: “scholars in Latinx studies rarely consider the position of literature for youth and writers for young audiences in the study of historically oppressed peoples. That is, in ethnic and postcolonial studies, literature for youth remains, for the most part, marginalized.” As she notes, “As a field, are we engaging in scholarship that values diverse communities and stories? What story does our scholarship tell about the communities and knowledges we value? Or is our scholarship centralizing only certain kinds of knowledge? I have argued in my research that you cannot know the story of American children’s and youth literature and culture without knowing the story of the Puerto Rican community in the United States; the same applies in reverse.”

 

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black? — cover reveal

Here is the cover for my next book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in July 2017.  Since it (the cover) is now on some websites (notably Oxford UP & Amazon.com), I thought I’d share it here.

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)

THANKS to Oxford UP’s Lucas Heinrich for his design and editor Sarah Pirovitz for her tolerance of my perfectionism.* And thanks to aesthetically adept friends who shared their thoughts on the cover: Megan Montague Cash, Mark Newgarden, Mervi Pakaste, and Dan Warner.  Thanks also to all of my colleagues who I polled on a rather minor distinction between two versions of the cover.

While I’m offering a preview of the cover, here’s a preview of the…

Table of Contents

Introduction: Race, Racism, and the Cultures of Childhood

1. The Strange Career of the Cat in the Hat; or, Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination

2. How to Read Uncomfortably: Racism, Affect, and Classic Children’s Books

3. Whiteness, Nostalgia, and Fantastic Flying Books: William Joyce’s Racial Erasures vs. Hurricane Katrina

4. Don’t Judge a Book by Its Color: The Destructive Fantasy of Whitewashing (and Vice-Versa)

5. Childhoods “Outside the Boundaries of Imagination”: Genre is the New Jim Crow

Conclusion: A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature

_________________

*Just to be clear: we made only minor tweaks to Mr. Heinrich’s design. This is a testament to his talents.  I’m very particular about covers!  (A few proposed book covers — none of which were seen publicly in that form — have yielded a fair bit of email debate between me and the publisher of the work.  This one yielded hardly any such debate… because it’s great!)

Related posts on this blog; or, glimpses of the work in progress:

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Again. And Again. And… ENOUGH!

I can’t watch the latest videos of police murdering black men. I feel that I should watch them, to bear witness. But… the depressing regularity of these videos threatens to engulf me in despair. So, I am not watching the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Instead, I will write a few words — expressing sentiments I’ve shared before and that others have expressed more eloquently.

#BlackLivesMatterLet’s start with three words: black lives matter. If you are tempted to respond “all lives matter,” please don’t. Of course all lives matter. But all lives are not equally at risk. Black lives are much more susceptible to being cut short — by police, by stand-your-ground enthusiasts, by others. And that’s why we need to say black lives matter, but we don’t need to say all lives matter. If I see red flashing lights in my rear view mirror, and a member of the police signaling me to pull over, I do not fear for my life. I am calm because I am white. When a person of color sees those red flashing lights, his or her experience tends to be quite different. Hundreds of years of brutalization at the hands of the law can make a non-white person view representatives of that law more warily.

To say the least.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American LyricAs Jesse Williams observed a couple of weeks ago, “we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people every day.”

Or, as Claudia Rankine writes,

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dying

If you haven’t read her Citizen or watched Williams’ speech, please take the time to do so.

I don’t for a minute believe that adding my words to their (far more eloquent) words will end police brutality, or transform America’s profoundly racist system of justice. Did the oxymoronic coupling of those last four words pass you by? Let’s revisit them: racist system of justice. In other words, it’s a system of justice which is not just. Until it is not racist, it is also not justice. This is why Williams also said, “we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor on people routinely targeted by police

While I do not believe that my individual words will make a difference, I do believe that if enough people speak up, we can change the system, move it closer to justice.

I also believe that, as the primary beneficiaries of white supremacy, it is white people’s responsibility to end white supremacy. Stay with me here, fellow white people, and I’ll explain what I mean.

As a white person, I am a direct beneficiary of American racism. Every day. Let’s start with the fact that I have never been the target of racism. I’ve never been asked why I speak so “white.” Nor have I ever been asked to speak for all white people. While shopping, I’ve never been tailed by a store detective. My job application has never been passed over because my name looked “ethnic.” And red flashing lights in my rear view mirror do not make me mortally afraid. I could write a much longer list, but my point is that the unearned privileges of whiteness accrue over time. For non-white people, the penalties and their attendant psychic stresses also accrue over time. In other words, white supremacy not only grants me advantages; it actively penalizes non-whites. Every day.

I say this because a lot of white people fail to realize that you don’t have to actively support white supremacy in order to be a beneficiary of white supremacy. All white Americans are beneficiaries of white supremacy, whether they want to be or not. Our privilege conveniently conceals itself from us, and so we don’t notice our unearned advantages. As a result, we also don’t notice that those privileges are built on the oppression of others.

In other words, recognizing white privilege is not an occasion for hand-wringing or white guilt. It is instead an occasion for recognizing that whiteness makes all white people complicit in a system that disenfranchises, terrorizes, and murders people of color. Yes, we whites can and should mourn the loss of yet another black person. But we also need to ask ourselves what it feels like to be beneficiaries of the system that murdered Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and so many others.  As Naomi Murakawa puts it, rather than trying to imagine that you can feel black pain, you should instead ask yourself what it feels like to live in “a country that incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any nation in the world, and that has built an elaborate system of cages that actually does cage black people… What does it feel like to be on the side of that where I pay taxes for that, and the defense happens mostly in my name?”

Start there.  Start with recognizing your complicity.  And then act.

Further reading

  • James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” (originally published in The Saturday Review, 21 Dec. 1963). “any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.  On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war.  He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”  He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth.  But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”
  • Britt Bennett, “White Terrorism Is as Old as America” (New York Times, 19 June 2015). “This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil. … A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Reparations for Ferguson.” (The Atlantic. 18 Aug. 2014). “The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic, 21 May 2014). Long and well worth your while.
  • Michael Eric Dyson, “What White America Fails to See” (New York Times, 7 July 2016). “The problem is you do not want to know anything different from what you think you know…. Whiteness is blindness. It is the wish not to see what it will not know.”
  • David Graham, “The Second Amendment’s Second-Class Citizens” (The Atlantic, 7 July 2016). “The two shootings give a strong sense that the Second Amendment does not apply to black Americans in the same way it does to white Americans.”
  • Sally Kohn, “This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter” (Washington Post, 6 Aug. 2015).
  • Chuck Wendig, “I Am a Racist and a Sexist and Probably Some Other –Ists, Too.” (Terrible Minds, 23 Nov. 2014)
  • Dan Zanes, “Be Less Racist: 12 Tips for White Dudes, by a White Dude” (The Mashup Americans, n.d.)

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Here’s some news I’ve been itching to share: Oxford University Press will publish my next book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books. Also, this coming Monday, I will be turning in (to Oxford) the complete manuscript of the book. Though it’s too early to confirm a publication date, I’m hoping it will be out by late 2016.

Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hatNo, the entire book is not about the Cat in the Hat, though Seuss’s famous feline features prominently in one chapter. The book is about different manifestations of structural racism in the world of children’s books: the subtle persistence of racial caricature, how anti-racist revisionism sustains racist ideas, invisibility as a form of racism, whitewashing young adult book covers, and institutional discrimination within the publishing industry. The book takes its title from the Seuss chapter (which looks at, among other things, the influence of blackface minstrelsy on the Cat) because several of his works illustrate how racism hides openly — indeed, thrives — in popular culture for young people. Since the hidden racism of children’s literature is my central theme, a Cat-in-the-Hat riff on Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? became the title.

Here’s my opening paragraph:

        Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, we have a new civil rights crusade — the Black Lives Matter movement, inspired by the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, and galvanized by the 2014 Ferguson protests. Fifty years after Nancy Larrick’s famous “All-White World of Children’s Books” article (1965) asked where were the people of color in literature for young readers, the We Need Diverse Books campaign is asking the same questions. These two phenomena are related. America is again entering a period of civil rights activism because racism is resilient, sneaky, and endlessly adaptable. In other words, racism endures because racism is structural: it’s embedded in culture, and in institutions. One of the places that racism hides — and the best place to oppose it — is books for young people.

As the Publishers Weekly blurb says, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? is indeed an “attempt… to do for children’s books what The New Jim Crow does for the justice system.”

"Nel Walks ‘Cat’ to OUP" (Publishers Weekly)

I realize that this is a tall order: Michelle Alexander’s book is both powerful and beautifully written. But this is indeed my aim. I want not just to get more people thinking about racism’s resilience in children’s literature. I want people to act. I want not merely to recognize the dire need for more children’s and young adult books that better represent the experiences of non-White people. I want people to join the movement for diverse books. So, rather than just conclude, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? ends with a call to action — “A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature.”

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)Finishing this book (on top of teaching, writing other things, grading, editing, and everything else) is one reason this blog has recently been a little quieter than usual. As regular or even irregular readers of Nine Kinds of Pie have likely already guessed, fragments of this work-in-progress have appeared here. My earliest (and admittedly flawed) thinking on what developed into Chapter Two started as “Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices?” Parts of an autobiographical post appear in the introduction. Indeed, I gave an earlier, article version of the title chapter its own blog post. Scattered here and there across the blog are glimpses of me thinking about racism in children’s literature. Many of these pieces will vanish when the blog does, but others — almost always in a significantly revised form — find their way into the book.

So, a hearty thanks to those who have read and commented here, answered my questions, offered feedback when I’ve presented portions of this work, or educated me via your books and articles. I’ve learned so much from all of you. (Hint: Look for your names in the book’s Acknowledgments!) I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you.

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Disagreement, Difference, Diversity: A Talk by Christopher Myers

Christopher Myers, Kansas State University, 22 Oct 2015This is not the title of the talk that Christopher Myers gave here on Thursday. It was called “Please Don’t Agree with Me: the Need for Disagreement in Debates About Literature for Young People.”  However, I’ve aligned these three words — disagreement, difference, diversity — in my title because one of Myers’s central points is that respectful, thoughtful disagreement respects difference, and that this respect makes diversity (in its various forms) possible.

As he says, “the most disturbing” argument is that “difference doesn’t really exist.” Contrary to this claim of absence, “Difference is real. The narrative that we are all the same underneath is a fear of difference.”  I like this idea because we so often hear the “we are all the same” narrative — offered, often, with the very best of intentions, affirming our shared humanity, encouraging us to see past any differences to build upon what we have in common. While these points of intersection can provide moments of connection, if we really wish to understand another person, we need to get to know their different life experiences. Or, to put this another way, we also have difference in common.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary AmericaThough Myers did not invoke color-blindness (in a racial sense), the “difference doesn’t really exist” way of thinking exemplifies what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls color-blind racism, a refusal to acknowledge difference that serves as a kind of “ideological armor for a covert and institutionalized system in the post-Civil Rights era. And the beauty of this new ideology is that it aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards” (3-4). As Bonilla-Silva argues, via such color-blind racism, whites can “enunciate positions that safeguard their racial interests without sounding ‘racist.’ Shielded by color blindness, whites can express resentment toward minorities; criticize their morality, values, and work ethic; and even claim to be the victims of ‘reverse racism’” (4). Color-blindness is a myth, and anyone who tells you “I don’t see race” (though they may mean well) is lying to you, or to themselves, or both. We all see race. But racial difference need not be an impediment to understanding, or to friendship, or to love. We have difference in common.

Christopher Myers, JabberwockyMyers did not take his own argument in that precise direction. Or, perhaps, he deliberately preferred to imply that argument rather than state it directly. (Note to Christopher Myers: should you happen upon this and find that I am misrepresenting your claims, please clarify, debate, rebut, etc. in the comments below. Thank you!) Myers instead focused on literature and on learning, noting that, via children’s and YA literature, “we give frameworks for thinking about difference.” He did a wonderful job of contextualizing this argument within canonical works, mentioning (for instance) that Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is a narrative of difference.

I particularly loved his point that agreement can efface difference, whereas “Disagreement recognizes an actual difference.”  As he said, “The narrative of I really, really care” — about diverse books, or about the need to secure human rights for Black citizens of the U.S. — “is really stressing me out right now.”  The reason it was stressing him out is that if everyone did indeed really really care, these problems would not be problems.  As he put it, “The problem wouldn’t exist if we all agreed that these things shouldn’t happen.”  Exactly.

His point about agreement effacing difference also reminded me of this passage from Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978; English translation, 1980):

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978; English translation, 1980)You know what it’s like when two people start a conversation. First one of them does all the talking, the other breaks in with “That’s just like me, I . . .” and goes on talking about himself until his partner finds a chance to say, “That’s just like me, I . . .”

The “That’s just like me, I . . .’s” may look like a form of agreement, a way of carrying the other party’s idea a step further, but that is an illusion. What they really are is a brute revolt against brute force, an attempt to free one’s ear from bondage, a frontal attack the objective of which is to occupy the enemy’s ear. All man’s life among men is nothing more than a battle for the ears of others. The whole secret of Tamina’s popularity is that she has no desire to talk about herself. She offers no resistance to the forces occupying her ear; she never says, “That’s just like me, I . . .”

Saving Kundera’s gender politics for another day (or, perhaps, for the comments, below), Kundera’s “That’s just like me, I . . .” resonates with what Myers was saying. Agreement effaces difference. If we really listen to other people, we hear the differences as well as the commonalities, and we do not try to impose our narrative upon theirs. “That’s just like me, I . . .” is attack disguised as sympathetic engagement. In contrast, disagreement is a great way to talk about and to respect difference.

And I do not mean that we always “agree to disagree”: that can be a valuable approach, of course, but some disagreements are so profound that simply “agreeing to disagree” becomes a way of papering over the depth of disagreement. I mean, instead, that respectful disagreement can be a path to better understanding — of both the other person’s position and your own position, which is another point that Myers made.  Here is another: “Real disagreement is also real connection.”  Yes.

Christopher Myers, Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books? (art, photographed, from New York Times, 16 Mar. 2014)Myers himself, by the way, is an excellent speaker — remarkably, he delivers a fluent talk without any notes — and knows a lot about an array of subjects, from art to filmmaking, to censorship, to design. You probably know him for his children’s books, and for essays like “Young Dreamers” and “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” — and he’s eloquent on these subjects. If you don’t know these pieces or his other work, his curiosity, intellect, and versatility make him an artist whose work you should get to know, whether or not you agree.

Thoughts? Disagreements? Use the comments below.  Thanks.

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Created Equal: The Planned Integrated Community of Village Creek, Conn.

Village Creek: Shelley Shaw and Ellen Dewhirst, 1960For America’s Independence Day, here’s a little-known chapter in the history of American anti-racism. Following the Second World War, progressives founded a dozen planned integrated communities across the country. While working on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, I learned about one of those communities — a section of Norwalk Connecticut directly adjacent to where Johnson and Krauss lived, and where they both had several friends. Its name is Village Creek.  It was and is a fully integrated community. Here’s how it began.

In 1948, city planner Roger Willcox was looking for a home within commuting distance from New York.  He and about thirty other people, most of whom were veterans and sailors, wanted waterfront property where they could raise their families and go sailing. As Willcox recalled, when discussing the kind of community they would like to have, they decided that “one of the basic principles” was that there should be “no discrimination because of race, creed or color. The world is made of all colors, creeds, and if we’re going to build a community that we want families to grow up in, and have it recognized in the world, it ought to represent the kinds of people who live in the world.”1 In July of 1949, when they bought the land just across the creek — Village Creek — that would become the Village Creek cooperative neighborhood, they drew up a covenant prohibiting discrimination “on account of race, color, religious creed, age, sex, national origin, ancestry or physical disability.”2

Village Creek: map of lots, 1952

To ensure that it would remain an interracial community, the rules of the Village Creek Home Owners Association specified that Village Creek had to be one third black-owned and two-thirds white owned. To keep the ratio intact, anyone wishing to sell their property had to sell it back to the community. When one of the former residents told me about this ratio, I thought, “Ahh, they’re keeping it two thirds white to placate the whites in the surrounding community.” He said, no, “if we didn’t have this covenant, then if anybody wanted to sell, the real estate agents would immediately go to a black family and say you can move in here because there’s a lot of black people living here. And, of course, then it would start to become a black community. The whites would move out.” And the whole point was to keep it integrated.3

Village Creek: children playing, 1953 or 1954

At the time, integrated communities such as Village Creek were virtually unheard-of: this was the first in Connecticut, and, at the same time it was founded, across the United States veterans with similar goals were creating eleven other co-operative communities — some integrated, some simply co-operatives. Although Johnson and Krauss approved of Village Creek (and likely would have bought there if it existed when they moved to Connecticut), many Norwalk residents were suspicious. Detractors called it “Commie Creek” and claimed that the houses’ roofs were designed to guide Soviet bombers to New York City.4 But Village Creekers united against such adversity. When local banks refused to underwrite mortgages on Village Creek homes, Village Creek property owners either built their houses themselves or sought mortgages from New York City banks. When real estate agents would not show Village Creek houses to white families, Village Creekers helped sell houses by word of mouth.5

Although it was not “Commie Creek,” Village Creek did attract many progressive residents. Philip Oppenheimer, one of Village Creek’s founding members, met other founding members through their mutual support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign.6  Some other early residents included Doxey Wilkerson, African-American professor of Education and Daily Worker columnist; Frank Donner, civil liberties attorney, AFL-CIO lawyer, and active critic of Anti-Communist witch hunts; and Antonio Frasconi and Leona Pierce, artists who (along with their two children, Pablo and Miguel) would become friends of Johnson’s and Krauss’s.

Village Creek: Leona Pierce, Antonio Frasconi, Yolanda and Doxey Wilkerson, 1987

When Village Creek parents wanted to set up a cooperative nursery school for their children, they asked Norma Simon to help her do it. Norma — whose students inspired Krauss’s A Very Special House — and her husband Ed had moved up to the area in 1952. She had attended the Bank Street School, and by 1952 was teaching at the Thomas School in Rowayton. Norma Simon, with the help of her husband and Village Creek parents, transformed the basement of Martin and Sylvia Garment into the Community Cooperative Nursery School — which would become another place where Ruth Krauss would visit, talk with children, listen to children, make notes, and transform their ideas into children’s books. Founded on Bank Street principles, the Community Cooperative Nursery School was a progressive nursery school; enrolling the children of Village Creek, it had black children, white children, and children of many nationalities. Suspicious of its liberal founders, detractors dubbed it “the Little Red Schoolhouse.”7

In a way, this was hardly surprising, since such detractors also thought that all Village Creekers must be Communists, and even went so far as to say that the modern architecture of Village Creek houses were in fact signals to enemy planes. Norma, whose first children’s book (The Wet World) was published in 1954, soon discovered that her association with “the Little Red Schoolhouse” led to an unofficial blacklist: a PTA would invite her to speak, discover that she was director of the school, and, instead of accusing her directly, would then phone up to say, sorry, but the meeting had been cancelled, no need to come.8

That’s a bit of Village Creek’s early history, most of which had to be cut from my biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012). To the best of my knowledge, no one has written about these post-war utopian experiments. Here’s hoping someone reads this post and writes a full history, or a children’s book. 65 years after its founding, Village Creek is still going strong.

Notes

  1. Roger Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  2. Roger Willcox, “President’s Report: Welcome to our 50th Anniversary Celebration.” Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 1.
  3. Martin Garment, telephone interview with the author, 24 Sept. 2002.
  4. Philip Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000. p. 13.
  5. Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  6. Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 13.
  7. Norma Simon. Telephone interview with the author. 20 June 2002; Martin Garment, telephone interview, 24 Sept. 2002.
  8. Simon, telephone interview, 20 June 2002.

Further Reading

Source for photographs

Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000

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Five reasons to get One Word from Sophia

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015) was published this month. Here are for reasons you should get (buy, borrow, barter) the book for the young people in your life — or for yourself. (Grown-ups can read children’s books, too, you know.)

  1. It’s funny. Sophia wants a giraffe for her birthday. So, of course, the four adults in her life — Mother, Father, Uncle Conrad, and Grand-mamá — need to be convinced. A clever child, Sophia crafts four pleas, each tailored to the specific adult. To her mother, a judge, Sophia offers some legal arguments, including “In the last fifty years, no giraffes have been recalled for defective parts, and new models have a particularly strong safety record.” To her father, a businessman, she explains that giraffes “are a good source of manure, which can be sold at a profit to garden centers and activists. In short, people will pay me for poop.” Yasmeen Ismail’s exuberant watercolor-and-colored-pencil illustrations show both Sophia’s sincerity and the absurdity of her aspirations — but never mock her big dreams.

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015): "In short, people will pay me for poop."

  1. The book loves language. A running joke — spoiler alert — is each adult’s claim that Sophia’s argument goes on too long. Averbeck has each character deliver this verdict with a different word (“verbose,” “effusive,” “loquacious”), which the book defines in the main text and in a little glossary on the inside back cover. Also, Averbeck subtly adjusts the language so that it echoes that of the formal proposal (for Sophia) and of the specific career (for the adult). For Uncle Conrad, a politician, “Sophia polled the other members of the household” — actually her stuffed animals, Mr. Bun, Tiger Eye, Pony Boy, Snakey Poo, and Ted — so that she can report that “Four out of five respondents are in favor of giraffes.” Her mother (the judge) renders “her decision” by saying “I will have to rule against a giraffe at this time.” Juxtaposed with Ismail’s expressive characters in a bright domestic setting, the workplace language is gently amusing.

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015): "The four problems were . . ."

  1. Incidental diversity. There are far too few books like Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day — or, what I like to call “incidental diversity.” What I mean by this is that the character’s race is incidental to the story. One Word from Sophia is a great example of incidental diversity. Indeed, as my friend Michelle Martin pointed out to me, the family could either be mixed-race or a black family with a range of skin tones. This ambiguity is an additional strength (how many picture books show mixed-race families?). In an interview with Jules Danielson, Averbeck described his response to seeing Ismail’s art for the first time: “I was surprised by the multi-racial cast, because it wasn’t evident in the line sketches. But I was also completely delighted, since I actually believe that #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Plus, the multi-racial family in the book reflects my own family, to whom I’ve dedicated One Word from Sophia. I wondered how Yasmeen knew that.”
  1. Sophia is smart and determined. This — in addition to the aforementioned three reasons — is why One Word from Sophia will soon be in Emily’s Library. I want my niece to have plenty of books featuring smart, ambitious, admirable female characters. The fact that the book has a sense of humor is also welcome — since Emily has a sense of humor, too.
  1. It has already been endorsed by three of the Niblings! For all I know, Betsy, Minh, and Mitali may also like it. I haven’t asked them. But both Travis and Jules have written about it: Travis lists it first in his “Ten to Note” for the Summer of 2015. Jules both interviewed the book’s creators and posted some of Ismail’s art and sketches on her blog. And now,… I’ve devoted a blog post to the book as well. It’s one of my favorites for 2015. (Another favorite is Rowboat Watkins’ Rude Cakes, to which I’ve devoted a separate post.)
A generous tip of the hat to Michelle Martin for introducing me to this book.

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