Why More Books by Authors of Color Are Needed

We Need Diverse BooksRecently, the Duluth, MN public school system decided to drop two American classicsTo Kill a Mocking Bird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – from its required reading list because of their liberal uses of the n-word.

I agree with the books getting dropped, but not for the same reasons.  Quite honestly, there are many classic books by black authors that also drop the n-word a lot, like Invisible Man, Native Son, and Their Eyes Were Watching God and many others.  The two books in question written by Harper Lee and Mark Twain shouldn’t be removed because of the racial slur, but because they are outdated with problematic themes written from a white perspective.

When To Kill a Mocking Bird was published in 1960, it was groundbreaking because it was really the first book to address racism from a white liberal perspective. It became a symbol for white people who didn’t want to be lumped in with the KKK, Nazis and other white racists of the day. TKMB was like an earlier version of the #MeToo movement for white liberals.  However, the book did jumpstart the white savior complex genre, which is when a book or film that is supposedly about racism really centers around a good-hearted white protagonist and the issues of people of color are an afterthought.  The book should really be about Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, but it is entirely focused on the feelings of Atticus Finch, the good white liberal who has to save helpless black people from themselves.  We never know if Finch uses his white privilege to challenge the racist status quo beyond defending Robinson, but apparently, he turned out to be a racist in Go Set A Watchman.  You can read more about white savior complex here.

As for Huckleberry Finn, while Twain was a brilliant social commentator, the portrayal of Jim and Tom are problematic and just downright offensive near the end of the book.  If anything, the book reinforces some of the racist stereotypes of black people during the late 19th century.

Because these two books are still considered great American classics, they are still viewed as the best books for discussing race in the classroom.  But in reality, they are not.  It is hard to have meaningful discussions about race with these books in a classroom in 2018.  I remember reading both of these books when I was high school 25 years ago, and my well-intentioned, white liberal teacher found it difficult to really have a thoughtful conversation about it because she didn’t want to talk about slavery or black men accused of raping white women.

The solution to this is not just hiring more teachers and administrators of color (which is a whole other conversation), but to also include more books written by authors of color in the curriculum.  As the country becomes more multicultural, in order to truly address the racial realities in America, students need to read more books from the perspective of people of color.  There are statistics to back up this problem.  According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, out of 3,500 children’s books in schools surveyed in 2014, only 180 were about black people.  The numbers are even worse for books about Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.  In 2016, out of 3,400 required reading books from around the country, only 441 of them were written by authors of color (This number is black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American writers combined).  And this is in a country that will be minority-majority in 2050!

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my friend, Reginald, who is a gay, black man who works in a publishing firm that puts out young adult books.  He had an even more radical take on diverse reading than even I was thinking: “Schools should put a moratorium by dead, straight, white guys, at least at the high school level.  High school is a great time to expose students to diverse ideas and views since teenagers are beginning to develop their own identities and perspectives.”

As for his own reading habits:  “I don’t read books by white guys anymore. Those books don’t reflect my life, my color, my culture, my masculinity or my sexuality.”

It would be great if school districts included Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give as required reading, but that is me thinking out loud. Again, I am not for removing or banning all books from a white perspective, but it is time to include more books from diverse perspectives.

Re-Read Book Club: Invisible Man

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I like re-reading certain books, usually masterpieces, because I get a different perspective as I age and gain more life experience.  I have read Invisible Man at least five times, and I learn something new about it and myself in every re-read.

When I re-read it again last month, I began to think about my own invisibility.  In the book the narrator is recruited by the Brotherhood, an activist group mostly run by white people that recruits him to give speeches and become the next Booker T. Washington.  It was clear that the narrator was being used by this organization and he was expected to not have his own opinions because they knew what was best.  This reminds me of my own time working for a particular organization I worked for and felt invisible.

Similar to the Brotherhood, the organization I worked for was run by white people but most of the underlings were people of color like myself.  Even though the organization mostly worked on issues that directly impacted people of color, the white leadership thought they knew better than their black, brown and Asian co-workers because of “their history in progressive politics.”  Most of the white folks in this organization were 1960s hippies who were involved in the civil right movement.

Needless to say, I didn’t work there for very long…

They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their own voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves and I’d help them. I laughed. Here I had thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference when in reality it made no difference because they didn’t see either color or men . . . For all they were concerned, we were so many names scribbled on fake ballots, to be used at their convenience and when not needed to be filed away. It was a joke, an absurd joke. 

“Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

Ralph Ellison was a genius and you can listen to more of his thought process on invisibility:

My Year In Books 2017

I have been reading a lot of books this year, not only to stimulate my mind but to also block out President Dotard in my life whenever possible!

I made a list not only to share my reading habits but also to hold myself accountable to continue reading.  My new year’s resolution every year is to read more books, and I think I have achieved that!  

Some of them are review copies I received from publishers for free, while others are older books that I reread because of their relevance.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin

White Man, Listen by Richard Wright

Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South by Beth Macy

Difficult Women by Roxanne Gay

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War by Adam Hochschild

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey

You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

How to Kill a City by Peter Moskowitz

No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein

The Pigeon Tunnell by John Le Carre

Voices of Liberation: Frantz Fanon by Leo Zeilig

From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

In the Country We Love by Diane Guerrero

A Beautiful Ghetto by Devin Allen

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs

This Is What A Librarian Looks Like by Kyle Cassidy

Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa by Keith Somerville


What Is White Privilege?

Recently I finished reading Phoebe Robinson’s awesome book, You Can’t Touch My Hair. While a great deal of the content and the attention the book has received has mainly focused on Robinson’s struggles with her black hair throughout her life, I was particularly interested in two parts of the book that specifically revolve around instances of white privilege. To be even more specific, white privilege in the LGBT community. One issue is regarding the story of the white lesbian couple that didn’t want a biracial child and the other is a sad tale of the white lesbian fetishizing a black female slave.

I discussed this book with one of my friends, Melissa, a very outspoken black lesbian who has had negative experiences with some white LGBT folks, and I wanted to get her thoughts on the book. After talking to her, we came to the same conclusion about this racial identity issue in the LGBT community.

Just a quick refresher, a couple of years ago a white lesbian couple in Ohio used a sperm bank to get pregnant. The bank gave the couple sperm from a black donor instead of a white donor they requested. After giving birth to the child, they then proceeded to sue the sperm bank for the mistake. Mind you, the couple had every right to sue the sperm bank, but they seem to be doing more damage to their child’s life through the lawsuit and the media frenzy that ensued at the time.

I remember when this story first happened. One of the mothers was on TV complaining about the “emotional distress” of living in a conservative, bigoted, lily-white community in Ohio with a biracial child and the punishment of dealing with their child’s natural hair.

The first thing to come to my mind was that the conservative, bigoted, lily-white community in Ohio hated the biracial child, but was okay with being neighbors with a lesbian couple.

Okay, girl…

“The couple sees themselves as white before gay,” Melissa said. “They live in literal white privilege in Ohio and thought as long as they are white, they could pass and be seen as equals in their white community. Having the black child disrupted their white privilege status. Instead of them saying ‘Hey, let’s move to a community that is more diverse, and inclusive, and welcoming of our family,’ they are basically saying ‘Hey, this black kid with the nappy hair is messing up our white privilege lifestyle, and reminding the community that we are not really white because of our dyke status.'”

I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Regarding the other issue, Robinson recalls in her book when she took a writing class at Pace, and a white lesbian classmate wrote a story about the relationship between a black female slave and her slave master’s daughter. Yeah, this actually happened…

From an NPR interview Robinson did last year:

…This one girl in my class, she’s very sweet but she just recently discovered that she was a lesbian — which I was like: Yes, it’s amazing that you found yourself. So, she wrote this play that … I think it was coming from a good place, it really was, but she wrote this play about slavery. …

Basically, the slave had the chance to get her freedom, but she turned it down to stay being a slave at that plantation or whatever because her and the slave master’s daughter were like having an affair. …

I kind of had to speak up and be like, you know, I don’t think any slave would be like: “Hard pass on freedom, I’m going to keep picking cotton so I can hook up with this chick twice a week.” …

…If you want to write a story about slavery, by all means, do it. But it has to come from a place that’s respecting the past and respecting the people in it…

There is so much wrong with this story. This again proves my point about the problem of sanitizing the history of slavery. People are graduating from schools today who don’t have any clue about the harsh realities of slavery, and this incident is a result of the lack of proper education on the subject. When you have people going around saying that slaves were “migrant workers” and Sally Hemmings was a “mistress,” then you can’t be surprised that this classmate would write such an inappropriate story.

Again, Melissa and I agreed that this not only showcases white privilege in the LGBT community, but it also fetishizing black bodies.

“This reminded of this time I briefly dated a white girl in grad school who had a hard time understanding why the black gay community might not have the same life priorities and concerns as white gays,” Melissa said. “I used to tell her that gay black people deal with the same problems straight black people deal with – racism and discrimination – living while black stuff, right. We are out here struggling with housing, poverty, healthcare, and cops beating us up. She was all about marriage equality is the priority.  I’m discriminated more for being black than for being gay in my everyday life because it is easier discriminate against skin color than sexuality because it is obvious. Most black people are obviously black and it is easier to discriminate against that. Whereas, most gay people are not obviously gay, unless they say so. Gay whites have the privilege to pass when they need to in most cases.”

Interesting! And this is why they dated briefly.

“We had been dating for a few weeks and stuff was starting to get sexual between us, and she texted me out of the blue that she had this sexual fantasy of me being a criminal breaking into her apartment to rape her with a big, black, veiny dildo,” Melissa said. “I didn’t even know what to say. The whole black criminal thing really had my head go back. I was like this girl is really sick in her racist mind and wanted me to live out her warped black, rapist, lesbian BBD fantasy. The fact that she would even text that to me and not think twice before pressing send says a lot. I texted her back and told her to never contact me again and I blocked her. Blocked her! Never saw her again. I don’t really mess with white women anymore.  I mostly date my own kind now.”

Well, alright then… I wasn’t expecting Melissa to say all that…

I don’t really know how to appropriately end this post after writing that. Just go read the book!