February is Black History Month, officially designated by every U.S. president since 1976. It is an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history. (The month of February was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.) For those of us who care about books, this also means celebrating and supporting diversity in publishing.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin collects data about children’s books by and about people of color published in the United States, and the statistics paint a rather dismal picture. To summarize, Kathleen Horning, Director of the CCBC stated that, of the 5,000 children’s books published every year, no more than 5 percent are written by or about blacks, Asians, Latinos or Native Americans.
It seems that publishers assume small children will identify with rabbits, ducks, and little trains, but not characters of color.
And it’s not just children’s books of course. Author Rebecca Walker, daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, said her mother told her of white female writers:
“We read them, but really, they do not read us.”
In our increasingly polarized society, it would benefit us all, not only to provide a reflection of all kinds of people, but for all kinds of people to learn empathy for others. As author Lyn Miller-Lachmann said in an interview:
“While it is important for books to provide mirrors for readers of diverse backgrounds, it is equally important that the books offer windows into cultures besides the readers’ own. For those who have grown up with a sense of privilege—who, for them, nearly every book is a mirror—multicultural literature opens up the world and the perspectives of people who the readers may not have met personally but whose lives and experiences are important. Such books foster empathy, critical thinking, and the ability to live in a world in which white, middle class, English-speaking people are a minority.”
What can you do? Buy books by and about people of color! Show publishers that these books are in fact marketable. After all, all people share similar hopes and dreams and stories worth contemplating. And some of those dreams have become legendary, such as the one famously espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, this month, in honor of Black History Month, you could hardly do better than to check out the beautiful book by Kadir Nelson, I Have a Dream:
[And for those cynical readers of this blog who suspect that I just posted that video so I could feature a picture of Kadir Nelson, here is an extensive list of more reading suggestions for this month, with no pictures whatsover! These are books recommended by the Black Caucus Members of the NT/4Cs (National Council of Teachers of English Conference of College Composition and Communication).]