Thoughts on Varian Johnson’s Post, “Where are all the black boys?”

I read Varian Johnson’s post, “Where are all the black boys?” earlier this week, when people were linking to it all over Facebook. If you haven’t read it yet, you can see it at Varian’s blog, here. It’s one of those posts that has stayed with me, partially–of course, because it’s so important and Varian shows the problem and his feelings about it so beautifully. But, also, I think, because there are so many questions in the post, one question in particular–which I’ll get to later–that I can’t find any answer to.

I’m going to talk first about my own reaction to the post and to many of the excellent posts I read about multi-culturalism. Basically, I feel part of the privileged group–the white American girl who grew up in a safe, sheltered environment; who tucked herself consciously into that safe, sheltered environment and was happy there. I have always been able to find myself in books–basically, you could build a tower as tall as the Washington Monument about us shy, reader girls who don’t feel popular and would rather curl up with a book than venture out into the world. Yeah, that’s me. Except, of course, in those books, those girls always find themselves in a situation where they have to step out of their comfort zone, and I never, really did. Yes, I’m Jewish, and no, there aren’t that many books about Jewish-American girls today, at least not that I know of, but I grew up in a completely non-practicing family, of which many members had also grown up not-practicing and not necessarily believing for a generation or two before me. I still don’t practice any form of religion, Jewish or otherwise. So the Jewish girl who’s written about as a practicing, even semi-religious character just isn’t my “me,” if that makes sense. I can find my grandparents and great-grandparents, and my mom, in some excellent historical fiction–for adults and kids–if/when I want. I guess, if I were looking for a more specific me than that white, sheltered girl, I’d look for an atheist girl growing up in a very non-atheist world. I look around my brain and heart and ask if I mind that I don’t find that story, and–for myself–I guess I’m okay with that. Maybe I shouldn’t be?

All that is just to explain why/how, when I read Varian’s post, I feel like I’m a bit on the outside looking in. I feel sad and angry and frustrated, but as someone seeing this stuff happen (or not happen) to another person, not to me. I’ve had the same feeling, reaction ,when I’ve read and contributed to some of the excellent posts on multi-cultural writing at Mitali Perkins’ blog, Mitali’s Fire Escape. I’m not sure whether that actually makes any difference in how I respond or how I should respond, but I do think it’s part of my perspective.

Anyway, what I do know is that it matters what I do about it. It matters what we all do about it. Except…

I don’t know what that is. I don’t know what I, we, can do to change the uneven, unfair representation in books of so many peoples, so many populations. Is this misrepresentation even just happening in books for kids? I’m guessing not, but I really don’t read enough “adult” books to have an opinion.

Whatever. The question is, what can we do?

Buy the books that are written with non-white characters? I do that. Not just because I should, but because I’m always on the lookout for a good MG or YA story. Also because I like to explore worlds and cultures and people who are different from me. Like I said, I can pick up a “me” book anytime, anyplace. With ease. I like something new and different. Buy these books for our kids? Did. Do. Check out these books from our libraries? Request that our libraries purchase them? Did, do, again. Possibly, on this one, not often enough. (Note to self: Send more requests to librarians.) Talk about the topic and the books on our blogs and in social media? Did. Do. Doing.

What else? It just doesn’t seem like enough, not enough to actually make a change. I know, I know, a drop of water can wear away a stone, but…IT TAKES FOREVER. Varian says he’s worried about his daughter, and his nieces, and his nephew. I’m worried about them, too. I’m worried that our kid will still be fighting this battle for their kids, and so on, and so on.

What do you think? What else can we do? What do you do? And do you think it’s actually going to work?

Trying not be discouraged. Trying to find a sweet spot in the fact that Varian’s post is making its way around and that we are all at the very least talking about this. It just feels like a relatively small sweet spot.

Thoughts? Comments?

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11 thoughts on “Thoughts on Varian Johnson’s Post, “Where are all the black boys?”

  1. Suzanne Morrone says:

    I know this isn’t the answer, not really, but when a book is really good it doesn’t have to be about any specific race or social situation. It reaches beyond the outsider, the poor, the abused, the downtrodden, and just … well, reaches. And touches us all, regardless. Great art touches our universal humanity. So we strive for great art. And we should also teach our minority students the joy of writing (and reading), so more and more books are written by those with wider perspectives. My way to help with this was to volunteer at our branch library with my therapy dog. Our kids there are mainly immigrant, often the first English speakers in the family. Introducing them to reading as FUN is my first step. My children’s librarian said when the kids read to my dog it was the first time she had seen them with books in their hands. Baby steps for sure… but still steps.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Suzanne, yes, great art gets out there. But I, for one, am not aspiring for great art–sure, yes, it’d be wonderful, but what I want to write is a very good book that kids will love. And it’s hard enough for me to get that WRITTEN, then out there, being the person I am and having heroes that aren’t a specific race or culture that might make it even harder. I can’t imagine how frustrated I’d be if I thought I had that extra strike–and it’s not a small one–against me. And, again, how much I might not have wanted to become such a huge reader if I had to work to find myself in any books.

      I do think your way of helping is great, and how exciting for you to hear that about the kids really reading for the first time with your dog. 🙂

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  2. When Ann and I came up with a character list for Death By Chenille, we choose to add an African-American quilter with a family. We also included an Asian-American quilter, and quilters with unusual occupations, for the simple reason that people do like to see themselves in stories, and the more complicated reason that we wanted to honor the diversity in our craft.

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  3. anvillasante says:

    Great post, Becky. This is something I don’t think about as much as I should – and thank you for pointing me to Varian’s post. Perhaps it’s a symptom of taking ‘write what you know’ too far – I’m not African American, so I can’t write about African Americans. OBVIOUSLY this is not true (or shouldn’t be true). But it only occurred to me when a beta reader for my last book said, “Gee, I wish I could write a book with a multicultural character.” (my book’s MC is Hispanic, as am I) I asked him why he couldn’t (he’s midwestern white) and he said, “I don’t know, I just can’t!” So there’s also a perception of authenticity and having the ‘right’ to tell a story that isn’t culturally yours. This only speaks to the part of the problem where MCs are not diverse – not to the problem of the majority of writers in YA/MG being white. I haven’t read it, but I know Michael Chabon’s TELEGRAPH AVENUE got some of this kind of pushback – how can a white Jewish writer do justice to an African American MC? I guess the answer to that question, ultimately, is, the same way writers create worlds they’ve never visited, describe times they’ve never seen and people they’ve never known. Great discussion!

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    • beckylevine says:

      I think that’s it, Alex–that we have to step out of our comfort zone. I think, for me, it’s that, sure, yes, I can and will add a character or two who are from different groups than myself, but when I look around, I don’t–unfortunately–see a lot of this mixing together going on in real life. I know I live in a very white, non-diverse corner of the Bay Area, so my world isn’t all that’s real, thank goodness. But when I think about stretching into a world where EVERYBODY is in another culture, another group, I do get overwhelmed and intimidated. Still, I know it can be done and done beautifully. Sorry, here’s another reading recommendation, but Kathryn Fitzmaurice has written a beautiful, powerful story of a young Japanese-American boy in the internment camps, DIAMOND IN THE DESERT. Obviously, I don’t have any firsthand or even secondhand experience that can make me know if/how well she nailed it, but it sure seems like she is right there in the middle of the experience and the feelings.

      We do have to stretch ourselves every day. If I can write from the pov of a middle-grade boy, which is–frankly–one of my favorite things to do; if I can say that it’s OKAY to step into that world and claim to be able to share it well, then…the other places are maybe just further along the spectrum of pushing ourselves. That said, I’m not doing it yet.

      And, like you said, this doesn’t address the issue of children’s lit being so heavily populated by white authors.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Oh, and one more thought (hit me right after I clicked to post the last comment!). I do know that, right now, as a pretty beginning author (if only in skill, not years), I feel like my writing is full of SO MANY CHALLENGES, so many places I am struggling to figure out how and how much and what now, that maybe it’s just not time yet for me to add that other, BIG challenge to my projects. Which may be cowardly, but maybe it’s a layer that I’ll be able to add when all the other stuff, the fundamentals, come with more ease? Get the basics down, then really go?

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  4. Thanks for this post, Becky. I’m still thinking about it–days later. DId you read this:http://www.hbook.com/2013/01/choosing-books/horn-book-magazine/beyond-the-friends/ Great discussion about similar issues. I am dealing with multi-racial issues in my WIP and do it with fear and trembling!! Using both whites and blacks as experts and beta readers–my favorite is a 92-year-old who lived in the neighborhood that one of the characters lives in. He always asks me when it’s going to be done and to make sure I’m making it authentic. ALl we can do is “Keep on, keeping on” and writing a book that yes, our readers will learn from.

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