I recently heard the news about Scholastic pulling the newly released book A Birthday Cake for Washington written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. The picture book has come under fire as sentimentalizing slavery. There are over 350 very passionate customer reviews on Amazon that attest to the controversy. This incident has caused me to ponder how very layered the notions of race and diversity remains in children’s book publishing and society in general.
If the creators had been white it may have been tempting to think the misrepresentation of the brutality of slavery resulted from their distance outside of African American culture. However, this is not the case. The author, illustrator, and editor are all women of color.
As a writer of color writing about the experiences of people of color it is crucial that I keep in mind my point of view. Many of us may share a collective experience of being part of the African diaspora, however that does not make any of us an authority on all things “black”. For me, there are unique experiences and nuances that come from being a Canadian woman of Jamaican heritage living in America. Other examples are an African American woman with southern roots, or a Guinean man living in France, or a young Haitian boy living in the Dominican Republic.
As writers of color, we may be working to uplift the image and collective psyche of “our people”. However, if we are not intimately familiar with a particular part a history or an experience we can end up doing as much damage as someone from the outside misrepresenting us. If any author of any color, gender, etc. chooses to write about a group of which they are not a part, it requires extra care.
The news of this regrettable publishing decision has reinforced my belief that I must ask myself some hard questions if I’m going to attempt to write about an experience that is not uniquely my own. Questions like:
What is my point of view?
What images, stereotypes and ideas have I internalized?
What images, stereotypes and ideas have my readers internalized?
Why am I writing this story?
Who’s story am I telling? Why?
Have I done my research?
Is this story true/authentic?
The publishing industry still has a long way to go in giving writers of color equal access and opportunity. However, once we get our shot we need to represent...NOT misrepresent.
Carol Higgins-Lawrence wrote her first story at the age of five. Her father paid her a quarter for it and she's been writing ever since. She's taken a variety of courses in writing for children. Multicultural perspectives are of particular interest to her. Carol is of Jamaican descent and was born and raised in Canada. She has a BA in Communications and Sociology and she has completed coursework towards a MA in TESOL. She has worked as a literacy educator for the past 15 years. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two young children. You can visit her website at carolhl.weebly.com
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