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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Racism & Seuss: It’s not a bug. It’s a feature. (A Twitter Essay)

So, as racism is on the rise, people seek examples of anti-racist thought to share.  This is helpful!  We need models from the past and present to guide us through these perilous times and (let us hope) towards a better future.

Dr. Seuss is one of the people who is often quoted and shared.  He’s a useful example, although not always in the ways that people think.  Seuss often gets portrayed as someone whose thinking on race evolved.  And to come clean here, I myself am personally responsible for promoting this belief in my earlier scholarship on his work.  The problem is that this is only half true: his thinking on race did change, but it also didn’t.

Dr. Seuss, "What This Country Needs Is a Good Mental Insecticide" (PM, 10 June 1942)

This evening, seeing the Seuss “racial prejudice bug” cartoon shared again (in the wake of white supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville) inspired this impromptu Twitter essay.  It seemed worth sharing with a wider audience — so, I’ve gathered my Tweets into this blog post.


There are many other posts on this blog tagged Seuss. Here’s a selection:

From time to time, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • Sarah Begley, “The Hidden (and Not So Hidden) Racism in Children’s Books,” Time 27 July 2017.
  • Sopan Deb, “At the Dr. Seuss Museum: Oh, the Places They Don’t Go!” New York Times 21 June 2017.
  • Joshua Barajas, “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Dr. Seuss,” PBS News Hour blog, 22 July 2015.
  • “New Window into Dr. Seuss’s genius” (26 Feb. 2014). John Wilkens’ article in the San Diego Tribune discusses new Seuss material that his widow, Audrey, donated to the Dr. Seuss Papers at UCSD.
  • “Dr. Seuss: Mini-Biography.”  A&E Biography (2013).  Time: 4 minutes.
  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.

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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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Surviving Trumpism. Restoring Democracy.

With apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,…

How does an unhinged, thin-skinned, son of a Scots and a

Klansman, born into privilege and wealth,

a thug who loves only himself,

his money and his station,

become the next leader of this nation?

There are many reasons, including the false equivalency of the media (Clinton’s emails being equivalent to dozens of Trump’s disqualifications), FBI Director James Comey’s late-breaking vague “emails” allegation, racism, sexism, anger at neoliberalism, the rise of fake news, people’s tendency to vote on feelings rather than on policy, the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act (and the voter suppression it has enabled), lowest voter turnout since 2000, and several others.1

But the questions we face now are how can we understand this next phase, and most importantly what can we do?


proposed Trump logo, satirically created by Sam KuoRise Up

If you have ever asked “Why didn’t people protest and stop Hitler’s rise to power?” you now have an opportunity to answer that question for yourself.  What will you do now?  President-Elect Trump ran an openly bigoted campaign, calling Mexicans criminals, alleging that Muslims are terrorists, arguing for racist profiling, and bragging about committing sexual assault.  Now, after the election, hate crimes are on the rise, and he is assembling an administration to enact his plans. What will you do?


White people need to step up

As you might imagine, the less a person looks like me (straight White man), the more she or he is frightened right now. So, I am reaching out to all of my friends, colleagues, and students — but especially those who are most vulnerable. I talked to my students Thursday (these were my first post-election classes), and told them that if they need to talk, I will listen.  If they need to cry, I have tissues.  If they need help finding resources, I will help them.  I told them that, whoever they voted for, I know — from our conversations over the semester — that they know we’re all part of the same human family. And so I told them to look out for each other, and especially for those who don’t look like me. If you see someone getting harassed, this is the time to step up.

This is especially the time for White people to step up — and not only because White people elected Trump. Yes, I know, if you’re a White person reading this, you’re probably not one of the people who voted for the angry talking yam. But if you have White privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, class privilege, the privilege of being abled, any unearned privilege at all, you need to use that privilege to stand up for others. Indeed, the more privilege you have, the greater your obligation to use it.


This Is Not a Drill

There are already reports of hate crimes and racist graffiti around the country.  This is likely to increase under a Trump presidency.  As long as I live in this country, I will defend all people’s rights to life, liberty, and happiness.  All people must be treated fairly under the law.  All people must feel safe.  I will defend those values until my dying breath.  I will never yield.  I invite you to join me.

But be aware of what you’re signing up for. Given bigots’ propensity for violence and the widespread availability of firearms, opposing the coming tyranny is likely to place us in harm’s way. We may be shot. We may be jailed. We may be harassed. The NSA, the FBI, and the CIA will soon be working for Donald Trump.  I understand why people may hope that Herr Gropenführer’s openly racist and sexist campaign rhetoric was merely bluster and that he will govern differently than he campaigned.  But autocrats — and he campaigned as an autocrat — tend to follow through on their threats.  It would be naïve to hope that President Trump will adopt values that differ markedly from Candidate Trump.

But we must not stand by while fascists threaten our fellow citizens. Silence is complicity. We must not be silent. We must stand and fight.


If you see something, do something.

If you hear words that are racist, homophobic, sexist, Islamophobic, call it out for what it is. If you see someone getting harassed, intervene. Maeril has created an excellent bystander’s guide to Islamophobic harassment which is a model we can adopt to oppose any type of harassment.

http://maeril.tumblr.com/post/149669302551/hi-everyone-this-is-an-illustrated-guide-i-made

Go to her Tumblr post to read more about it.


We must not normalize Trump.

This is not an ordinary transfer of power, in which one party’s candidate takes office after the other party’s candidate loses. The President-Elect is openly disdainful of democratic norms and social norms. As president, his hatred, his lack of regard for anyone but himself, his sexism, his bigotry, his mendacity will all begin to seep into the body politic, gradually undermining democratic institutions.

CNN: The Alt-Right Man for the Job?Stay outraged. Do not adopt polite euphemisms that disguise oppression. Language risks normalizing tyranny.  I saw a CNN headline yesterday on potential Trump Chief of Staff, an anti-Semite and spouse-abuser: “The Alt-Right Man for the Job?”  The “Alt-Right” is White supremacists’ term for themselves.  It’s not a joke. Whomever wrote that headline is colluding with the fascists.  To call Trump’s proposed Environmental Protection Agency head Myron Ebell a “climate contrarian” or “climate skeptic” is to propagate a lie. Climate change is real. If the human race is to have a future, we need to combat it as aggressively as we can. Mr. Ebell is an anti-science, conspiracy-theorist who is funded by the coal lobby. He’s a professional saboteur, and a crackpot.

Do not adopt the language of your oppressors.  Monitor your own language, listen skeptically to others — especially to the media’s.


Phone and write your representatives as often as you can.

Your representatives need to hear from you. Don’t waste time with Tweeting and Facebook.

The most effective things you can do are (1) phoning them and (2) writing a “snail mail” letter to them.  Send these to the district (state) office, rather than to DC.

Emily Ellsworth, who worked in Congress for six years, explains it all in this Twitter thread.

What should you focus on?  Professor and political strategist Lisa Corrigan made these suggestions on Thursday:

  1. Ironically, the neocons will have to moderate him or coalitions between outraged non-Tea Party Republicans and Democrats will work to stall his bumbling policy initiatives in Congress. This doesn’t leave a ton of room for Democratic Party maneuvering.
  2. Campaigning is not governing. He said a bunch of dumb shit that will not come to pass, even though it freaks you out.
  3. The backlash against him as a president will increase in the first two years, so down ballot Dems in Congress will have a huge opportunity in 2018. Send them money early and often. Trump will be a huge target.
  4. Obama has 100 days to ram through a bunch of executive orders, which is what I would advise him to do.
  5. And dude needs to get Merrick’s confirmation done. ASAP. It looks like that *might* be easier now that the GOP is freaked about a Trump presidency. Or not. Because #gridlock.
  6. The Democratic Party doesn’t like the evangelicals but there will be lots of them who are not supportive of Trump’s worldview and a political revolution, if it happens at all, will come from the evangelicals. They have the money and the organizations.
  7. Democrats need to talk about a new vision for American labor. NOW. And use it as a competing frame.
  8. If Dems give up education, all is lost.

For coping under a Trump presidency, my advice would be to focus on items 3 (supporting down ballot Democrats in 2018), 6 (finding common ground with evangelicals), 7 (new vision for American labor), and 8 (education).  Focus your energy here.

And remember: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. More voters opposed Trump than supported him.


The Cycle of Progress, Backlash and Progress

In the U.S., backlash follows progress just as surely as night follows day. In response to the racial egalitarianism that inspired the Civil War and Emancipation, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws terrorized African Americans for another century.  After the Civil Rights Movement comes the Nixon Administration.  After our first Black president, a president endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.safety pin, designed by Sam Kuo

This does not mean “Oh, history moves in cycles, and will thus move us back in the direction of equality.”  We move towards equality when people fight for it.

In other words, sure, wear that safety pin as a gesture of solidarity.  But we need more than gestures.  We need action.  Now.


Join the Movement

Trump’s elevation to the highest office in the land took many of us White people by surprise because we like to think that most — not all, but most — White people are better than that.  We like to think that we’ve become a less racist society, that White supremacy is on the wane, that the future will be brighter. This is a mark of our White privilege.

5’7″ Black Male (@absurdistwords on Twitter) has a great thread on this subject, written the morning after the election.  As he says,

I’m talking to you now surprised white people. I wanna bring you in for an empathy moment.

This feeling you have right now. Amazement that the country could be so short-sighted, that it could embrace hate so tightly? Welcome.

This despair and dread you feel. The indignation, the bewilderment, the hurt, powerlessness, the fear for family and livelihood? Welcome.

That knot in your stomach, that feeling of heartache? That uncertainty about your safety? The deep sense of fundamental injustice? Welcome.

For many marginalized people, this spike in distress you feel this morning is what we feel EVERY morning.

That feeling of “How could they possibly…?” is precisely what we feel with every incidence of excused violence, disenfranchisement, denial

I do not say this to diminish what you feel today. What you feel is real and valid. I’m giving you an opportunity to truly empathize.

For it is the lack of that empathy that allowed America to shrug as the marginalized shouted warnings.

Today the imaginary wall that divides your experience from ours has come down. You have the chance to commune with the rest of us.

So, to those calling to start an anti-Trump movement, a better option is to join those already fighting oppression.  Rather than building a new pro-democracy from the ground up, get connected with those groups already doing this work.


Here are some organizations to join and to support

Jezebel has compiled a list of “A List of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support.”  Here are a few highlights (plus one not included), but follow the link for the full list.

For those with the means, I challenge you to follow my friend Katherine Fusco’s lead, and choose your organizations, and then commit to give regularly. Can you commit to $5 a month?  Great.  How about $10?  Even better.  If you can sign up for a recurring contribution that will help the organization by giving it an ongoing source of income.

As long as there has been oppression in the U.S., there have been organizations fighting that oppression.  Join them.


We Have Been Here Before…

Americans like to think of their country as a democracy that offers equal opportunity to all comers.  However, for most of its history, the United States has been a White supremacist police state that treated women as second-class citizens.  The last fifty years have been an aberration, not the norm.

Thomas JeffersonOur first president owned human beings.  Our third president both owned human beings and raped them. (News flash: a slave cannot grant consent to the person who owns her. We can call Sally Hemings the “mistress” of Thomas Jefferson, but what that means is that she’s the woman he raped repeatedly.)  Our twenty-eighth president, Woodrow Wilson, segregated the federal government, thought segregation was good for Blacks, and was a Ku Klux Klan apologist. Upon seeing the classic racist film Birth of a Nation (in which the Klan are the heroes), Wilson remarked, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

President-Elect Trump wants to institute a nationwide “stop-and-frisk” policy — which is both a proven failure from a police standpoint, and actively racist.  He ran an openly racist campaign, calling for mass deportations.  He is not the first racist president.

This is also not the first time that freedom of speech and of the press will come under attack.  We need only look to the Sedition Act of 1918, or to McCarthyism, and to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

There are historical precedents for a lot of what we’re about to experience.  But not everything…


… And We Have Not Been Here Before.

He is the first actively megalomaniacal president to have command of the nuclear arsenal, and a vast surveillance apparatus. He is the first president to lack experience in government or the military.

As far as I know, he’s the first demagogue president. He called for his opponent to be jailed, and twice insinuated that she be assassinated. He believes in revenge.  The most powerful person in the world is a vengeful man who admires dictators. This is very, very dangerous.


How to Survive Autocracy

Protesters outside Trump Tower the day after the election, New York City, November 9, 2016

Indeed, as I write these words, I wonder whether it’s safe for me to write these words. Come January, we will have a president who ran as an autocrat (“I alone can fix it”), spoke disdainfully of freedom of speech, and maintains an enemies list. However, his incredibly thin skin also makes it impossible to gauge what may set him off.  Just about any form of criticism seems to anger him.

Though I have not lived under autocracy before, I am becoming more aware of how even implied threats curtail freedom of expression. Though this criticism may later place me at risk, I think it’s better to speak up than to stay silent.

I would, though, advise you to study Masha Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.”  Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who has opposed Putin.  She knows what she’s talking about.

Here are her main points:

  • Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.
  • Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
  • Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.
  • Rule #4: Be outraged. If you follow Rule #1 and believe what the autocrat-elect is saying, you will not be surprised. But in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock.
  • Rule #5: Don’t make compromises.… In an autocracy, politics as the art of the possible is in fact utterly amoral. Those who argue for cooperation will make the case, much as President Obama did in his speech, that cooperation is essential for the future. They will be willfully ignoring the corrupting touch of autocracy, from which the future must be protected.
  • Rule #6: Remember the future. Nothing lasts forever. Donald Trump certainly will not, and Trumpism, to the extent that it is centered on Trump’s persona, will not either. Failure to imagine the future may have lost the Democrats this election.

But read the whole thing.  You’ll need this.  We will all need this.

While I’m offering advice on what to read, follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter and read everything she writes. Kendzior is a journalist and an expert on authoritarian states.  Here’s her piece from the morning after the election: “A fascist’s win, America’s moral loss.”


Resisting Tyranny is Patriotic

Superman PSA, c. 1950

I have continued wearing my Clinton-Kaine pins in public because I want other anti-fascists to know that I’m with them. So far, I have not been challenged, but when I am I will say:

I wear these because I’m a patriotic American. I support all people’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All races, all religions, all genders, all sexualities. Whether they’re immigrants or native born.  Whether they’re abled or disabled.  Throughout his campaign, our president-elect has actively opposed these American values.

If they say, yeah but Trump has a black man and a woman in his cabinet, then I say:

they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Nearly all of his top picks are White men. Also, news flash: racism doesn’t only infect White people. It seeps into the minds of all of us. The person who says things like “I am the least racist person you’ll ever meet” is either lying to you or unaware of how racism works.

Fighting Trumpism is inherently patriotic. Remind people of this at every turn. You are the patriot.


Struggle is more reliable than hope

It’s hard to be hopeful right now. The mood resembles the days after September 11th 2001, with one crucial difference: the terrorists will now be running the government.  We know that things are about to get much, much worse — but we don’t quite know how.  We’re falling and have no idea when we’ll reach bottom, or even where the bottom is.

But do not give in to despair.  Join the struggle because struggle is more reliable than hope. Struggle gets things done. Struggle organizes. Struggle makes the phone calls. Struggle votes. Struggle stands up for the marginalized.  Sure, it’s nice to feel hopeful. Hope offers the warm illusion of that things will get better. It’s a nice feeling.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)However, things will get worse more rapidly than we realize. Hope is a luxury. Struggle is a necessity. Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it best in his eloquent, necessary Between the World and Me:

So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

And in that struggle, remember that you have allies. As Hillary Clinton’s campaign advised us, we are stronger together.


Take care of yourself, too

Watch Luke Cage or whatever your current favorite show is. Watch your favorite comedians or news/satire shows. Exercise. Take a walk, go for a run, play basketball, swim, do yoga. (I find that I feel a bit better when I exercise regularly.) sbtPray or meditate. The meditation app “Breathe” can be calming. In sum, turn to your wellness strategies — or devise some soon.

For me, the bright moments in this election’s aftermath have been all the supportive people in my community — here in Kansas, across the country, and around the world. As Clinton’s victory began to slip away on election night, I started getting texts and emails, with more arriving the following day. My friends and colleagues have been reaching out to each other, caring for each other.  We have each other.  We support each other.

An election like this shatters whatever faith I have left in humanity, and so it’s been vital to hear from good folks. The task now is to gather these bright fragments, and guided by them, stagger forward into the looming darkness.

We will prevail.  We have to prevail.  There is no other option.

Any suggestions?  Anything I’ve left out above?  Please feel free to add it below.

Thanks for reading.

Now, let’s get to work.


THE SOLE ENDNOTE:

1. I didn’t want to make “the reasons Trump won” the main focus of this piece, but here’s brief note on possible causes for any who may be interested.

  • False equivalency: The media peddled the Clinton email story as if it were somehow equivalent to Trump pathologically lying about everything, swindling people at Trump University, failing to pay contractors, claiming to have written books (The Art of the Deal) that he didn’t, bragging about committing sexual assault, calls to assassinate his opponent, his racist “birther” b.s., his Islamophobia, etc. etc. When voters got unmediated Clinton, her poll numbers went up. For instance, after each debate, her poll numbers improved.
  • FBI Director James Comey’s statement about emails that he (too late) recanted tipped the scales in Trump’s favor.
  • White people/Racism. White working class voted for Trump, Black working class did not. White women voted for Trump, women of color did not. That Trump’s racism did not immediately disqualify him says a lot about the electorate.
  • Men/Sexism. If Hillary Clinton were on tape, bragging about (let’s say) “cock-grabbing,” her campaign would never have recovered. There are many other examples of the double standard to which she’s been held, but this is the most symptomatic.
  • The working class feels left behind because, on some level, they know that neoliberalism is a con. It doesn’t deliver prosperity to everyone. Hillary Clinton moved further to the left (thanks to Bernie Sanders), but she’s neoliberalism personified. I’ll take neoliberalism over fascism any day. But White working class voters were unimpressed.
  • Fake news. There are people who believe that Hillary Clinton killed Vince Foster, that climate change is a hoax, that our southern borders are porous, that Obama is a Muslim, that Obama was born in Kenya, etc. And they can point you to many on-line sources to “verify” their fanciful notions. Social media just accelerates this misinformation avalanche. The Left and the Right dont actually agree on the same set of facts
  • People vote on feelings rather than facts. If you look at Trump’s website, there aren’t a lot of specific policy details there. If you look at Clinton’s, there’s an abundance of them.
  • Thanks to the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Republican efforts at voter suppression (having fewer polling places in minority neighborhoods, resulting in long lines, for instance) are deterring voters.
  • Voter turnout was low. I wouldn’t venture to predict how much of this was due to voter suppression (it may be quite a small number), but 47% of eligible voters failed to vote
  • Did 3rd-party candidates have an impact? Given the tight margins, it’s probable that they did, but that’s hard to prove: we don’t know which way their votes would have gone or if they would have turned up at all.
  • Could she have run a better campaign? Actually, I think she did as well as she could — a data-driven campaign and on message (just like the candidate). She brought in high-powered surrogates, including the Obamas themselves. Campaigned hard. Listened. But the data was off. She should have campaigned in Wisconsin. She should have done more in Michigan. But hindsight is 20-20.
  • Should the Democrats have nominated Bernie? Now, that’s the $50,000 question, isn’t it? I think Trump’s better at channeling populist anger than Bernie. Bernie actually has some policy solutions, of course, but he’s also a Socialist Jew. Given the prominence of anti-Semites like Steve Bannon in Trump’s campaign (and Trump’s own racism), you can bet Trump & co. would have used that to delegitimize his candidacy. The answer is: we don’t know. Sanders might have succeeded. And he might not.
Image credits: Alt-Trump logo & safety pin by Sam Kuo.

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Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature: Call for Papers (1 Nov. 2017)

Drowned City, The Island, Number the Stars, War — What If?, How I Learned Geography

A Special Issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly

Edited by Philip Nel

Deadline: 1 November 2017

In September 2015, photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdi — his corpse washed ashore on a Turkish beach — came to symbolize the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis. World leaders promised to do more, people debated whether printing the pictures was appropriate, and charities experienced a surge in donations. In children’s literature, the figure of the child as refugee, migrant, or displaced citizen has long been a powerful trope, disrupting the assumed connection between personal identity and national identity, exposing virulent xenophobia, but also awakening compassion and kindness.  As Europe faces its largest refugee crisis since World War II (and demagogues stoke nativist/racist anger in Europe and North America), this special issue will examine children’s literature’s response — both contemporary and historical — to refugees, migrants, and members of diasporic communities.

Subjects papers might consider include (but are not limited to) how texts for children represent: the ways in which the term “migrant” can dehumanize people, whether persecuted minorities qualify for refugee status in their own countries, the many reasons for displacement (such as race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, war, economics), questions concerning human rights, and how the vulnerable figure of the child brings these questions into sharper focus.

Papers should conform to the usual style of ChLAQ and be between 6000 and 9000 words in length.  Please send queries and completed essays to Philip Nel (philnel@ksu.edu, with “ChLAQ Essay” in the subject line) by 1 November 2017.  The essays chosen will appear in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 43.4 (Winter 2018).

The Arrival, Day of Tears, I Am David, Bamboo People, Inside Out & Back Again

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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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Charleston, Family History, & White Responsibility

In response to concerns expressed by some members of my family, I have removed this blog post. This marks the first time that I’ve removed or changed something for reasons other than finding an error or a typo.

This post will not reappear here.  But nor will it completely disappear.  I plan to revise and expand it, with the aim of publishing it somewhere else in the future. If I can initiate a dialogue with family members, I want also to incorporate their critique into a new and better essay.  As I said in the original piece, I refuse to deny the truths about racism’s legacy.  But I also want to do a better job at expressing those truths.

As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time (1963), white people “are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (8).

[The links that accompanied the original post remain.]

Activism

Essays on the 2015 Charleston Massacre

Resources

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