Let’s Talk About Race

27 11 2009

First off, I have to say that I looooved A Thousand Never Evers by Shana Burg.  Not in the same personal way as Peggy, but I thought the story was just so simple and tween and had so much character development and honesty and…I just loved it.  Any parts that I thought sounded inauthentic, I must have skimmed, especially the name of the town.  I have read enough civil rights books and enough historical fiction to know that this is a book that reminds you that historical fiction is fun to read when it’s done well.  That being said, I want to talk about the fact that the author is white.

Jen mentioned that this book “set the blogosphere on fire” when it was published.  I’m sure she’s right, but I’m having a hard time finding those posts.  What I have found are some honest interviews done by the author, as well as a blog post by the author discussing racism especially in relation to the presidential campaign that was taking place at the time.  I am sure that Barack Obama’s candidacy and subsequent election only made the debate over this stronger.  As a country, everyone was already talking about whether we are living in a post-racial society.  It is clear from Shana Burg’s blog post about race bias based on a conversation with a white man raised in the South that race is still important.  I don’t want to open a whole can of worms regarding the definition of post-racial society and what that means.  So for now, I’m not going to worry about it.  But I still wonder: is there a difference between a white woman writing from a black perspective and a black man writing from a white perspective?

Because there are no good statistics on where this has occurred, I’m mostly thinking about A Thousand Never Evers in comparison to Guardian, the book about a lynching written by Julius Lester from a the perspective of a young white boy.  He writes in the author’s note that he chose to write from a white perspective because he ” wasn’t interested in writing something that would enable whites to shed crocodile tears for blacks” (from Author’s Note of Guardian, full text here).   Julius Lester is an established writer, especially of books about African-American history, many for young readers.  And Guardian is written extremely well.  The review on Booklist mentions that Julius Lester has chosen to write from the perspective of a white teenager.  But I doubt that anyone is saying that the author does not have an authentic perspective or can’t authentically write from the perspective of a person who is not his race.  Now, maybe I’ve missed the complaints.  It’s also possible that few people feel comfortable accusing this man, who has written a thought-provoking book this time around and has consistently produced other interesting, well-written books, most often from an African-American perspective.  Or maybe it’s just because it’s believed to be easier to imitate a white point-of-view, mostly because whites are still the majority culture, much as they were during the era Lester is writing about.  But I am still mildly offended by Lester’s comment in his author’s note.  I understand where he’s coming from, where he feels that his experiences growing up aware of lynching have not been adequately represented.  That’s fine.  Still, he makes an assumption about white people and how they respond to books about lynching written from the perspective of blacks.  Personally, I’m a little insulted, even if he has encountered people like those he is speaking of.  I still like Guardian and I’m glad he took a chance writing it.  We need the white perspective on these crimes and times, too.

I think what ties these books together (aside from the cross-cultural perspective) is that both authors are very open about the fact that they are not the same race as their protagonist.  This is in contrast to some authors who write from the perspective of the opposite gender, who often use their initials.  One who comes to mind is A.M. Jenkins, author of many books about teenage boys such as Night Road, Repossessed, and Damage.  It took me a lot of searching to find out the author’s first name is Amanda, though you can’t tell she’s a woman from her writing, or her bio on the book jacket, for that matter.  If Burg or Lester had done the same thing, obscuring their race, I am sure there would have been hell to pay.  I’m grateful that they did, but I doubt that most tweens will care in the same way adults do.  And I’m hoping that their not caring means good things for the future of our country, that has such an ugly history of Jim Crow, as evidenced in both of these books.

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5 responses

28 11 2009
Julius Lester

I’m sorry that you were personally offended, if only mildly, by what I wrote in the Author’s Note about why I didn’t write about a lynching from the point of view of blacks. I don’t understand why you would be personally insulted, even if only “a little”. Yes, I did generalize, but there are exceptions to any generalization. My generalization is about an aspect of American culture that still exists, namely, one way in which whites have related to blacks, and found blacks acceptable is when whites can feel sorry for blacks, when whites can see the blacks as victims, an attitude which only reinforces the feeling of white racial superiority. In black-white relations, this is one thread that goes throughout American culture. In writing GUARDIAN, I didn’t want the reader to end the book feeling sorry for Big Willie. I wanted the reader to confront one of the ways in which racism expresses itself. The fact that there have been nooses placed on the doors and lockers of black people is an indication that the attitudes that led to lynches still exist. And there are web sites that compare President Obama and his wife to apes.

As for a black man writing from the perspective of a white boy, etc., each of us is more than our racial identifications. I have written books from the point of view of women. In fact, I find it harder to write male characters than I do female. We are more than the color of our skin, which is what Esther represents in the novel. She doesn’t feel sorry for Little Willie and his parents; she is angry at how they are treated.

Thanks for writing about GUARDIAN, and liking it even though something I wrote in my note was insulting to you. Incidentally the heading of your blog for November 27 is “Let’s Talk About Race”. I wrote a picture book with that very title, and, at first, that is what I thought you were writing about.

As for how I found your blog, once a day Google e-mails me with links to
anywhere on the web that my name was mentioned in the previous 24 hours.

And no, this is not a joke, and yes, I really am Julius Lester.

You write well, whoever you are.

Take care of yourself.

Julius Lester

28 11 2009
letterstonobody

Dear Julius Lester,

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog. I hope that Google finds my reply to your comment. Your comment brings to mind one thing I did not mention in my blog: I believe that being offended is a necessary part of living and learning. It makes you sit up, take note and take action. Perhaps my blog post was a small way to take action, to start a conversation about race and the assumptions we make as Americans of all colors. I was lucky enough to be raised in a family that values social justice for everyone. Sometimes I forget that not everyone has shared that experience. Generalizations exist for a reason, because there is some truth to them. Even if I don’t fit into your generalization, it is important for me to realize that there are people that do-even if this awareness upsets me. Dialogue is important when it comes to issues of race and culture, especially when we have a black president but our society still perpetuates racist attitudes. Thank you for having this conversation with me.

This blog is part of a class assignment for “Tween Media Literacy,” a course I am enrolled in at the School of Information and Library Science at Pratt Institute. I wanted to challenge my fellow budding librarians and ask them to think about what we say when we dismiss books because the author identifies differently than their characters. I could not agree more with your statement that “each of us is more than our racial identifications.” Perhaps if I had thought about that statement, I would not have been offended by your Author’s note. But then, I might not have had the chance to have this exchange. As the civil rights movement and the Holocaust and countless other broad injustices have taught us, it takes a brave person to tell the truth. Thank you for not shying away from it in your books and other writings. I appreciate your commitment to writing provocative, thoughtful and often beautiful books for young people. I look forward to reading Let’s Talk About Race, which I am sure will assist me to keep opening up these hard but necessary conversations, especially with the next generation of readers and thinkers.

Alexa D. Hamilton

30 11 2009
Jack

Wow lots of great points here. I think you raise exactly the kinds of questions that need to be raised with this issue, because it rears its head all the time in the publishing world.

A similar issue arose last semester in my YA Lit class when Nick Burd, author of Vast Fields of Ordinary, came to speak. One of the first questions from a student was along the lines of: You’re not white? Why would you write a book about a white protagonist?

I think you and Julius answered most of this question very well, but I love that Julius says that we’re much more than our racial identifications. Great post, and great responses.

6 12 2009
Julius Lester

Dear Alexa –

Yes, Google did send me your response, which I found to be very thoughtful, and I am grateful for your words. Your words reminded that the time and circumstances in which we grew up has a profound influence on our thinking. I grew up when lynchings still happened. I remember the lynching of Emmett Till; I remember having to act around white people in a way that, while not subservient, I had to be careful not to invoke their ire because I might end up dead. So I do carry anger from having to grow up in a country in which white people seemed like they were crazy. Reading your response I realized that in my generalization I was thinking about the white people of my childhood and adolescence. I am glad that you grew up in the kind of family you did. May others grow up in the same way.

Take care of yourself. You write well and are very thoughtful, qualities our country can never have too much of.

Julius Lester

23 03 2010
SLJ’s Battle of the Books « This Grrl Reads…A Lot

[…] Fortunately, tomorrow’s match, Tales from Outer Suburbia vs. When You Reach Me, is a great match-up of books I’ve already read.  I’m rooting for the latter!  Check back with me tomorrow to see what I think about Judge Julius Lester’s decision.  He and I have already had some interesting disagreements on this very blog. […]

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