Fantasy author Zetta Elliott (A Wish After Midnight, Ship of Souls, The Door at the Crossroads) takes on the issue of minstrelsy in kidlit.
“Minstrelsy is the New Black” originally appeared in the third volume of our Quarterly Almanac–a quarterly collection of awesome original short fiction, essays, reviews, and reprints (edited and curated by yours truly).
Minstrelsy is the New Black
Two of my closest friends are black women performance artists, and their daring public acts both shock and inspire me. I can’t imagine making myself vulnerable in that way. Writing suits my introverted personality because it is, in a way, disembodied; during the creative process I’m able to avoid exposure and after publication, my storytelling voice is what matters most (or that’s what I like to believe). Only once did I consider making my own performance art project and the idea emerged from a place I visit often: the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Years ago, I used to find reading material by scanning the fiction shelves for the neon green strip on the spine that labeled a book “black Interest.” These were mostly books by black authors, but occasionally a book about blacks bore a green sticker, as well. I primarily read books by and about blacks, so these stickers were useful in a limited sort of way. They saved time, certainly; I didn’t have to guess a book’s content or pull it off the shelf to find an author photo, nor did I have to wonder whether I could tell an author’s race by her name and/or book title. Even a book that is face-out on the shelf can have a “race neutral” or whitewashed cover that obscures the fact that black people are central to the story, so those green stickers played a useful role in my book selection process.
The problem, of course, was that many books by or about blacks weren’t necessarily interesting to me. And the overwhelming majority of books in the fiction section bore no green sticker and were, therefore, considered by some librarian to be of no interest to me at all. I recently read a novel by a white author about Vikings, wizards, and trolls. I got it from the library and enjoyed it but under the previous system, that book would not have been classified as “black interest”—not “for” me despite the fact that I’m working on my own Viking novel. The sticker system also implies that white readers’ interests are too varied and numerous to even be labeled, and the “black interest” label might signal that anything pertaining to black people is irrelevant to whites.
For my performance art project, I imagined myself distributing a thousand of those green labels to my black friends with directions to stick them on whatever compelled their interest. Participants would then snap a photo, post it online, and I would curate the images to prove how far-ranging the interests of black people truly are. I speculated that I could complicate matters by distributing “black interest” labels in a different color to white participants, as well (though I cringe to think where their stickers might wind up).
The debate over how and where to shelve books by black authors never seems to end. Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times to voice his frustration over white librarians wanting to know the race of his characters—even when he’s writing about frogs. Bookstores and libraries don’t generally carry my books (most of which are self-published), so I don’t really have a strong opinion about the ghettoization of black-authored books. I freely and proudly admit that I write about—and primarily for—black people. I don’t use silhouettes or other visual strategies to conceal the race of my characters in order to create a cover that will appeal to white readers. And I’m generally open to any marketing tactic that alerts black readers to my books since it can be hard as an indie author to get the word out. I’m somewhat heartened when white readers pick up my books, but securing their good opinion of my writing (or of me) is not my priority.
I never executed my performance art project with the “black interest” stickers, but I did make one small yet significant adjustment a few years back. In my essays and presentations I stopped referring to “black books” and began using the term “black-authored books” instead. As a mixed-race black woman, my “authenticity” is contested often enough for me to be careful about using essentialist and/or exclusionary language. Yet in a room full of black people I might lapse, trusting that my audience will understand my meaning: a “black book” is one that affirms the worth and respects the culture(s) of children of African descent. A “black book” has a black creator who not only identifies with but participates in a community struggling against oppression. This creator doesn’t trade in stereotypes and recognizes that her work not only can but should serve black youth by reflecting their beauty, diversity, and resilience.
The existence of books that meet the above criteria is what poet June Jordan once called “a miracle” because of the systematic exclusion of black people from a publishing industry dominated by whites (specifically straight, white, cisgender women without disabilities). In recent years, the number of books for young readers that are about blacks has seen a significant spike (from 93 in 2013 to 270 in 2015, according to the CCBC), but the number of books by blacks hasn’t seen a comparable increase (from 68 to 107). One could argue that editors have embraced a new kind of minstrelsy by showing preference for cultural outsiders who can only appropriate, imitate, or impersonate black voices.
In his seminal study of minstrelsy, which emerged in the US circa 1830, Love & Theft author Eric Lott summarizes the often lewd public performances as “an affair of dollars and desire, love, and theft.” Lott also contends that, “a sort of generalized illicitness was indeed one of minstrelsy’s main objectives.” When white men donned blackface and tattered clothes and stepped onstage, they permitted themselves to behave in ways that would have been deemed inappropriate and indecent for whites but perfectly acceptable for blacks who were believed to be morally inferior. Minstrel shows didn’t aim to accurately represent black people—they provided an opportunity for whites to live out their wildest fantasies by performing transgressive acts as blacks. Minstrel shows provided white audiences with what they desired most: confirmation of blacks’ inferiority and immorality (which justified their enslavement and mistreatment in a white supremacist society).
So what do I mean by a “new” kind of minstrelsy taking hold in the children’s publishing industry? I often wonder what goes through a white author’s mind when she decides to write from a black person’s point of view. Most would no doubt argue that their intent is to “tell an important, untold story” while showing the “humanity” of blacks. Many white authors do seem to gravitate toward noble black characters (slaves seeking freedom, protestors pressing for civil rights), but others are invariably drawn to the criminal “type” (drug dealers, gang members, murderers). With its multiple starred reviews, I suspect the controversial young adult novel When We Was Fierce would have won the Newbery Medal for its “gritty realism” if black women and their allies within the kid lit community hadn’t voiced their outrage over the book’s offensive stereotypes and “invented vernacular.” The Mexican American author e.E. Charlton-Trujillo admitted no wrongdoing, and the publisher seems determined to publish the problematic novel after postponing its August release for “further reflection.” Why would Candlewick champion a disparaged book by a cultural outsider when black writers could provide more accurate and authentic stories about their own communities?
Of course, there are drawbacks to the #ownvoices option, as well. In her article “A Good Time for the Truth: POC art and the pathology of white audiences,” Caroline Taiwo argues that “people of color and Native people render their trauma and truths to no end” but in “a capitalist white supremacist society, the value of these stories isn’t equity or enlightenment but entertainment and profit steeped in voyeurism, and voyeurism that dips deeper into appropriation.” Once again—dollars and desire, love and theft. American Indians in Children’s Literature blogger/scholar Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) once suggested that the metaphor of children’s books as “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” could benefit from an addition—curtains. Because once our authentic stories are shared, we lose the ability to control their circulation and the consequences of white consumption can’t always be anticipated.
So what is the value of authenticity if it leads to appropriation? In her essay “Why We Need Real black Characters By Real black Artists,” Bethany C. Morrow marvels at Queen of Katwe, Disney’s film about a Ugandan chess prodigy. Morrow writes, “It was a story that didn’t fall into exploitation…It felt authentic from the first shot because of the color on both sides of the camera, because it was spoken with overwhelmingly native voices, and because home was shown to be a community fraught with need and brimming with love—exactly as we know it to be” (my emphasis). Morrow then reflects on the meager offerings she had when watching television in the 80s and 90s, concluding: “Whether or not I knew it at the time, the tokenism that existed on the screen was probably a good indication of the writing room. How could those characters speak to me—let alone soothe or recharge me—when they were written by someone who looked nothing like me?”
I saw Queen of Katwe and share Morrow’s sense of awe—no white savior, no poverty porn. But even though the film featured a brilliant, all-black cast and was directed by Mira Nair (who is South Asian), the screenplay for Queen of Katwe was written by William Wheeler and Tim Crothers—two white men. The cinematographer—the man on the other side of the camera—was also white (Sean Bobbitt filmed 12 Years a Slave, as well). If I saw a DVD of Queen of Katwe on a street vendor’s table, I would definitely apply a “black interest” sticker. But with so much creative control not in the hands of blacks, does it still count as a “black film?”
Morrow concludes that black creators are “building on the art and the work that came before us, and centering ourselves in a way we weren’t when someone else was writing our lines for us.” As a self-published author, I know this to be true but when it comes to the traditional publishing industry, I’m not so optimistic. In June 2015, I wrote a blog post about book packagers and asked two women of color at packaging agencies to share their insider insights. I’m not opposed to packagers, but remain wary of the unseen, unacknowledged role they play in producing “diverse books.” Packagers like Alloy hire blacks to write and serve as “the face” of their internally developed projects (Everything Everything, American Street) before selling the book (along with film and television rights) and splitting the often sizeable advance and subsequent royalties. For writers of color who often face years of rejection from predominantly white agents and editors, writing for a book packager can be a valuable opportunity to gain entrée into the traditional publishing industry. Packagers can essentially groom a writer, teaching commercial storytelling conventions and initiating her into an industry that has an ongoing history of excluding people of color.
My problem is this: how can readers spot a packaged book? Sometimes the copyright page will reveal the name of the packager, but not always. This isn’t exactly another form of minstrelsy but it still feels deceptive, and forces me to adjust my understanding of authorship. Calling a book “black-authored” doesn’t necessarily work for me if the idea for the book didn’t originate with the writer. Most teen readers likely won’t care if the story is compelling. In the xenophobic Trump era, when immigrants are being demonized, should we be concerned that a packaged book focuses on a black immigrant family engaged in criminal activity? Who should take credit and/or blame—the writer or packager? When such a book lands on the New York Times bestseller list, does that constitute a victory for black writers? Did black readers put it there? How are these books marketed and to whom? Should writers, publishers, and/or reviewers be required to reveal the role packagers played? And what about awards committees—could a packaged book with a Black writer win the Coretta Scott King Award?
Clearly I have more questions than answers. In the end, I’m inclined to “hate the game, not the player” knowing that racism in publishing makes packagers like Alloy very attractive to talented black writers who might not otherwise get the foot in the door they deserve.
If you follow Orange Is the New black, you might have seen on social media a photograph of the writing team for the show that surprised a lot of fans; despite having many black and Latinx characters, all of the show’s writers appear to be white. I gave up on OITNB halfway through the first season, but I grew up enjoying shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons, 1970s television programs created by Norman Lear. PBS recently aired a documentary on the Jewish American entertainment icon and I was struck by the film’s subtitle: “Just Another Version of You.”
In a way, that sums up the complex, lingering history of minstrelsy in the US. What white audiences seem to prefer is another version of black people—not the “real” us, but a facsimile they can shape to suit their needs. When black performers were finally allowed to take center stage in US theaters, they too had to appear in blackface and follow the comedic conventions established by their racist predecessors; white audiences weren’t interested in black actors reciting Shakespeare—they wanted the same “coon jokes,” buffoonery, and sexually suggestive songs. The appetite for “illicitness” and/or idiocy hasn’t abated and now extends to black audiences as well (one could argue that today’s top minstrel is Tyler Perry). But the popularity of any book or film needs to be weighed against the availability of other options and that largely depends on those with the power to greenlight projects. John K. Young explains how white supremacy operates in the publishing industry in his book black Writers, white Publishers (2006):
“…what sets the white publisher-black author relationship apart is the underlying social structure that transforms the usual unequal relationship into an extension of a much deeper cultural dynamic. The predominantly white publishing industry reflects and often reinforces the racial divide that has always defined American society.”
Looking at episodes of Good Times now as an adult, I’m horrified. Star Esther Rolle did raise objections about the writing at the time, and her co-star John Amos was cut from the show after repeatedly (and loudly) complaining about the stereotypes and buffoonery (like the character J.J. uttering “Dy-no-mite!” every three minutes). On the other hand, actor Viola Davis is now developing her own projects (including a biopic about Harriet Tubman) and stars in a hit primetime television show—would that have been possible if she didn’t accept the role of a maid in The Help? Probably not.
Hate the game, not the player.
About the Author:
Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994. Her poetry has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. She is the author of over twenty books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book Bird. Elliott is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
For more essays like this, check out The Book Smugglers’ Quarterly Almanac (Volume 3). Collecting original short fiction, essays, reviews, and reprints from diverse and powerful voices in speculative fiction, THE BOOK SMUGGLERS’ QUARTERLY ALMANAC is essential for any SFF fan.
IN THIS VOLUME (JANUARY 2017): BECKY CHAMBERS, SHERRI L. SMITH, A.E. ASH, KATHERINE MACLEAN, NIGEL QUINLAN, ZETTA ELLIOTT, ALLIAH/VIC, KATE C. HALL, NICOLE BRINKLEY, ANA GRILO AND THEA JAMES
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Bethany C. MorrowApril 25, 2017 at 1:43 pm
Rich and thought-provoking essay, and one I think needs to be read a few times to unpack. Thanks for this, Zetta.
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