Spotlight

Caribbean Children's Literature, Where's Our Diversity Jedi?



Image Source: Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking


Are you familiar with the "Diversity Jedi" (or #DiversityJedi, as they go by on social media) in the world of American children's and young adult (YA) publishing? If not, this post published earlier this year by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) on its blog is probably the best introduction to them and their work.

The Diversity Jedi is a group of mostly women of colorAfrican American, Asian American, First Nation and Latinx American womenin America who speak up boldly against cultural misrepresentation, racism, bias, cultural appropriation, stereotyping and related issues in children's and YA books. They are very outspoken, informed and passionate about these issues, and have emerged as the major representative voices of the children's book diversity movement, both online and in the children's literature conference circuit. They often provide incisive "take-downs" of problematic books on their well-read blogs and Twitter pages.

Oh, and a lot of them have PhDs.

They include people like Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen (Twitter: @readingspark), Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (Twitter: @Ebonyteach), Dr. Zetta Elliott (Twitter: @zettaelliott), Dhonielle Clayton (Twitter: @brownbookworm), Dr. Debbie Reese (Twitter: @debreese), Ellen Oh who is a co-founder of the We Need Diverse Books movement (Twitter: @ElloEllenOh), and Edith "Edi" Campbell (Twitter: @CrazyQuilts).

Although they are American, or rather because they are American, the Diversity Jedi's thought leadership has cut across geographical borders, shaping the way diversity problems in children's literature are discussed around the world. Whenever you see an article in a major news outlet discussing the diversity problem in children's literature, whether it's a UK paper or an African news website, chances are a member of the Diversity Jedi has either written it, will be quoted or referenced, or has influenced the author's thinking.

I have been in touch with some of these fiercely intelligent women over the years, and because of the common work we do, we certainly all know of each other. To say I admire them and their work is an understatement. If you want to understand the decades-long "conversation" surrounding diversity in children's books and the issues that people of color all over the world continue to face navigating this field, then it's important to follow the Diversity Jedi's Twitter pages, attend their workshops, and read their books, articles and essays. Like many people outside of the USA who want to affect change in the content and availability of literature for young people in their own countries, I have learned a lot of what I know from reading the Diversity Jedi and listening to their presentations and talks.

Here at Anansesem, we always like to say so whenever we like or support something, so we haven't supported the Diversity Jedi in the US in silence because we know that does not help their cause, which we believe is our cause as well. We don't just silently send them "good vibes," because we know there is power in numbers and that causes only acquire critical mass when people are vocal and visible about who and what they support. Rather, over the years, we have shared their writings, bought their books, retweeted their posts, interviewed some of them about their work, and reached out personally to some of them to express our gratitude and admiration for their efforts. To put it simply, we never let a compliment go unspoken if we can help it. I wrote about the power of this before in my rather gushing post on "Convivencia: What We Can Learn from the Latinx Children's Literature Community." I am actively thinking about how Anansesem can be even more visible in our support of the Diversity Jedi.

At the same time, I am also aware that not everything about the Diversity Jedi's ideas, frames of reference, politics, points of contention and methods translates to Caribbean spaces, or to people outside of the US in general. For example, back in 2014, when American children's author Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler) made a "watermelon joke" while presenting the National Book Award for Young People's Literature (a major US children's literature award) to African-American children's author Jacqueline Woodson, the Diversity Jedi and their supporters quickly denounced the joke as racist. In the Caribbean, or in Africa and India for that matter, the watermelon is not a fruit burdened with the kind of racist history it has in America. Many Black Caribbean people living in the Caribbean would have been completely unaware that they are supposed, as Black people, to be offended by Handler's joke.

The fact is, a liberatory struggle that has organized itself along certain lines of thought and action in the US may not practically work in other countries simply because different societies work differently, have different histories, and often do not have the same resources. (Other countries certainly don't have the material resources of America, the world's economic superpower.) So while I absolutely encourage people outside of the US to stay abreast of the Diversity Jedi and support their work, I also want to caution us in the Caribbean against assuming that American voices, and an Americentric movement, as it were, can represent, or wholly represent us.

What I believe we need to do (or more accurately, to stop avoid doing) is figure out exactly in what areas and ways Caribbean people can stand to benefit from adopting the positions and methods of the Diversity Jedi, and other people of color in the US engaged in liberatory struggle. Are there are ways in which people of color in the USA, including the Diversity Jedi, are ahead of us when it comes to anti-oppression efforts and liberatory struggle? As we continue to negotiate agendas for making Caribbean children's/YA literature more publishable, visible, accessible and socially meaningful, might we find it in our best interest to be more like the Diversity Jedi in certain ways? As we follow the Diversity Jedi's (often riveting) Twitter threads or read their (often scathing) critiques of books deemed problematic, what in their thinking and approaches should we accept as useful for, and what should we reject as not relevant to, a forward-thinking (emphasis on the word 'forward-thinking') and uniquely Caribbean social construction?

My life has been shaped by America, so these are the kinds of questions I am always puzzling over. Then again, which of us in the Caribbean can honestly say that our lives have not been shaped, in some way or form, by America? That is what is means to be the world's superpower America has shaped us all; certainly it has shaped us in terms of the books we grew up reading as children and teens, which of course, were overwhelmingly American (and European) books. Certainly it has shaped the conversations we have about race and diversity, and sometimes that is as it should be. But I do believe that we sometimes allow America to shape our conversations (about diversity in children's books and everything else) too much, when we should in fact be speaking up against this very presumption and intrusion.

As someone who was raised a third culture kid, was a barrel child, was a card-carrying immigrant in the US for a decade, and am now a returnee to the Caribbean who, as a dual citizen, spends a few months out of the year in the US, I'm very aware that my life trajectory has afforded me the ability to see things from many different angles, and to understand the shifts of meaning and perception (both one's own perception and others' perception of you) that happen when one moves from place to place, particularly as a person living in a brown body. All of this moving between spaces and societies has gifted me with empathy, and also a kind of clarity I think. Ultimately, although I have an American passport, I am Caribbean in sensibility and loyalties (mostly!), and so I do not always see things the way the Diversity Jedi see them. But a lot of the times, I do. And sometimes, when I do share the Diversity Jedi's viewpoints, I do so without a lot of agreement or support from other Caribbean people.

For example, I recently sent Edith "Edi" Campbell (Twitter: @CrazyQuilts), a Diversity Jedi member who is an academic librarian and is African American, links to two picture books written by Black Caribbean children's writers: Jooba Goes to the Market by M. E. Mohalland and Carla Dances Soca by Alyssa Bierzynski. I had been following Edi's recent blog posts (among them "On Negroes, Monkeys and Apes", "Monkey Business," and "Out Out Damn Monkeys") on the racism of monkey imagery in children's books and thought rightly that these two books might be of interest to her since both have protagonists that are anthropomorphic monkeys. I know that many Caribbean people will not even notice anything offensive about Jooba Goes to the Market and Carla Dances Soca. In the Caribbean, race is, for the most part, not the big issue it is in America, and because race is not a major form of identification in the Caribbean, we are much less attuned than Americans to possible racist motives, associations or microaggressions. On the other hand, many African American people will immediately conclude that these two books are racist, as Edi did.


Why did a Jamaican write a book about an anthropomorphic monkey when there are so few books about Black Jamaican children being published?


As editor-in-chief of Anansesem, my job is to decide where I (and by extension Anansesem) stand on an issue like this. I have to side with the Diversity Jedi on this one. For one, I am always irked whenever I am scouring a lily-white (racially I mean; not the wall color) bookstore for children's books with brown-skinned people and glimpse a flash of what appears to be brown skin on a book cover only to realize it's not a brown person but a monkey. (Tell me this hasn't happened to you before.) Because the fact is, the anthropomorphization of monkeys in children's books often leads to these kinds of inappropriately blurred lines, such as body coverings that look more like skin then fur.

The book Carla Dances Soca, written, as mentioned before, by a Black Grenadian, came out of a Room To Read (an American literacy non-profit headquarted in San Francisco, USA) book publication program in Grenada, the aim of which was to help Grenadian writers and illustrators produce culturally-relevant books for Grenadian kids. If that was the goal, then why not simply have Carla Dances Soca star a Grenadian child? Why did the author and illustrator feel the need to make the protagonist a monkey? Were they perhaps influenced by the directors of the Room to Read program to make such a narrative/artistic choice?

When asked why they choose to use anthropomorphic animal characters in their books, white American authors typically respond that they do it to make their books racially inclusive; the faulty and baffling logic seems to be that, in an industry where 73% of the children's books published annually feature white characters, it is animal characters, rather than racially diverse human characters, that provide the solution to the lack of racial diversity in children's literature. Should one assume that the Black Grenadian author of Carla Dances Soca shares the same faulty logic, and if so, might this not be evidence of a colonized mindset? Caribbean people and people of color in the US both talk alike about "decolonizing" but clearly this decolonizing sometimes means wildly different things to us. But should it? Or should it always? Also, should Caribbean people not be free to critique children's books by Caribbean authors, rather than merely blindly applauding them? We are putting these books in the hands of young people after all.

All of this brings me to a question that someone recently asked me: Why isn't there a Diversity Jedi in the Caribbean where our children's and YA literature is concerned? The person had noticed that children's and YA books depicting Caribbean people, many of them written and illustrated by non-Caribbean people, are full of stereotypes and cultural inaccuracies, and regurgitate narrow narratives. She was complaining about the low numbers of children's books featuring Caribbean people published yearly (my own research shows that, on average, only 58 English-language children’s and young adult books with Caribbean protagonists or by Caribbean authors are published annually, and 62% percent of them are self-published.) Clearly, she reasoned, there's a desperate need for a Caribbean Diversity Jedi, although she owned that the term "Jedi" might not work for us. Interestingly, this person had not taken the time to research children's/YA literature advocacy efforts in the Caribbean, and I was struck by her assumption that we do not already have a version of the Diversity Jedi.

Whenever people in the Anglo-Caribbean's literary community raise, in some form or fashion, this question of why we aren't a more outspoken, militant or unified community, or why we aren't discussing the things that really matter more, inevitably a range of reliable explanations will be put forth. Some will cite our "colonial upbringing" which supposedly conditions us to docility and excessive politeness. Some will say that the geographical smallness of our island societies makes it difficult to risk offending people, which you kind of have to do if you want to do your Diversity Jedi work well (incidentally, as a Trinbagonian, I find this explanation particularly odd since there is perhaps nothing more Trinbagonian than the casual way we offend others as a matter of everyday conversational practice). Others believe that the geographical smallness leads to too much jealousy in Caribbean societies (think "big fish in a small pond" syndrome) which undermines positive change-making efforts. Others yet will place the blame on our unwillingness to support our own people unless they've first achieved acclaim abroad (read: in America or Europe) and thus "proven themselves." The list goes on and on. I have always resisted these easy explanations and generalizations about Caribbean people, which I find more suffocating than anything, and which to my mind, often demonstrate a lack of empathy for people and for Caribbean socio-historical situations more broadly.

I'm more inclined to think that Caribbean women of color (because let's face it, it is mostly Caribbean women of color who, over the past couple of decades, have championed Caribbean children's literature) simply do not have the kind of resources in our societies to do the kind of work the women of color in the US who make up the Diversity Jedi do, in precisely the way they do it. The American women of color who make up the Diversity Jedi are living with the taxing mental and physical toll of structural discrimination, but they also have "First World" privileges that Caribbean women of color often do not have. Confessedly, I would not have been able to do the work I have done building Anansesem and advocating for Caribbean children's/YA literature, had not the chance circumstances of my life equipped me with the privileges of American citizenship.

So, to revert to the first question of this post Where's the Caribbean Diversity Jedi? — the answer may surprise people who assume that we don't have one. Nothing could be further from the truth. At Anansesem, we have, from the beginning, been committed to recognizing and celebrating the fact that we have, in fact, had many people in the Caribbean, mostly unsung women of color, working to champion Caribbean children's/YA literature for decades. Anansesem published a retrospective on Jamaica's Children's Writers Circle in our December 2016 issue, and there have been many other iterations of similar action groups in the different islands. Our recent series on Caribbean children's librarians is just one of the ways in which we continue to highlight both organizations and individuals in the Caribbean working tirelessly to address the gaps and inefficiencies in how literature for young people is treated in our region. There are many more individuals we plan to highlight in upcoming features. If you know of anyone who deserves recognition, please reach out and let us know.

In the meantime, let's remember that we in the Caribbean who care deeply about the messages books are sending our children have been making our own movements in our own Caribbean ways. In many ways, the obstacles we face are even greater than those our American counterparts face, and a lot of us have been conditioned to think that we are failing when we aren't. That too needs to be acknowledged.

Our Caribbean movements to create the kind of literature for young people we deserve may not look like the American version, but that's because we aren't Americans. Well I kind of am, but you know what I mean.


About the Author

Summer Edward is the Editor-in-Chief here at Anansesem. Her writing and art have been published in various literary magazines and anthologies. Her home on the web is www.summeredward.com.




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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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1 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this post with me! I appreciate the opportunity to learn more about Caribbean cultures, children's literature and representations in those books.

    #DiversityJedi is a mouthful! There are so many many people who could wear that label! There are so many people working in their own way to decolonize children's literature in the US and there are so many more who have gone before us. I think that in the recent efforts to make youth literature more inclusive, the call for #ownvoices has become an important part of what we do. Essentially, this is calling for authors from marginalized communities to be able to write books that reflect their own experiences. This hashtag originated in the disabilities community from Corinne Duyvis. I think #ownvoices can apply to the global effort for diversity, inclusion and social justice in books, too. I don't think there's a one size fits all solution to this problem essentially because there is not single way to identify imperialism. This is a social construct that manifests in different ways around the world.

    It's easy for me in the United States to think we're making more progress than our brothers and sisters in Brazil or in the UK or the Caribbean, but if we're all not making progress then none of us really are. And, it's easy for me to make assumptions about something I don't really know. Race, racism, color, imperialism, integration has to be defined and understood in each country and again for each culture in that country. This doesn't make our work impossible; it makes it rich and dynamic. The human mind can handle complexity!

    I'd love to see a forum for international dialog among indigenous people and people of color. I'd love to see a conference! Until that can happen, I think spaces such as Anansesem are very important places for communication, building alliances and creating strategies. Here in the 21st century, our children are global citizens. We have much work to do!

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