Many people today question the need for a black children's literature. Frequently I am asked by librarians and teachers, "Why is a separate literature needed for black children, if what we are all working toward is a world in which people are just people?" I hear in this question an uneasiness in accepting what seems to me to be a fact -- namely, people are different. The problem seems to be that many whites are disturbed by difference.
All too often differences between people are seen only as the factor separating one group from another. In and of themselves, however, differences are neutral. It is our attitudes toward differences that create separation and division. In actuality, the differences between groups and races can serve as a bridge, as a space for sharing.
One's racial or ethnic background represents a particular window on reality, as well as a particular way of expressing reality. All people live in shelters, but the diversity of shelters erected through the centuries, in all parts of the world, is amazing.
The pueblos of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado were home to Native Americans as far back as the 11th century. Some, like Pueblo Bonito, are built against sheer canyon cliffs, stand four and five stories high and have 800 rooms. Others, as those at Betatakin, are literally carved from and into the walls of the cliffs.
Nothing could be more different from the two-story house in which I live. Yet, when I sit inside those rooms of stone 30 feet above the ground, I am not diminished. I become more fully human, because I have ventured outside my familiar reality into the unknown. (Or, at least, the unknown to me, because for the Native Americans who lived in those pueblos, it was the familiar.)
Black children's literature is a kind of unknown for non-blacks, and all too often it is designated as being exclusively, or primarily, for black children. Without question, literature that reflects and speaks to the realities of black children is necessary. I write the kinds of children's books I do because they are the books I wanted to read when I was growing up. To have had my existence as a black affirmed by bookss would have made my growing years fuller.
However, because black children's literature speaks in a special way to black children does not mean that that leterature does not have a special but different way of speaking to white children.
Black children's literature will serve only part of its purpose if it is seen as being exclusively or primarily for black children. Black children's literature exists for all children, is necessary for all children, if there is to be the remotest possibility that the racial polarities in our country cease to exist.
There is one letter from a child I will never forget. It came shortly after the publication of my "To Be A Slave" and was from a young white girl in Virginia. She wrote that she was not alive during slavery, but she just wanted me to know that she was sorry about what had happened during slavery.
I was deeply moved by this letter. It was clearly from a child who was not afraid of differences but allowed herself to open enough to be taught by the differences.
She had not been educated into believeing that what was different was to be feared because it was unknown, unfamiliar. That which is different represents an opportunity to explore the unknown, to learn from the unknown, to become more human.
There aren't many adults capable of teaching children this attitude toward what is different. So it leads me to wonder if black children's literature might not be a place for adults to start re-educating themselves. (And when I say "black children's literature," I could easily subsituted, or add, "Jewish" or "Native American children's literature.")
The response of adults to black children's literature is sometimes instructive. My "Black Folk Tales" has been criticized often not only for its language, but for what some consider its derisive attitude toward whites. John Steptoe's "My Special Best Words" was criticized for its frank use of language. The message seems to be: It's all right to write black children's literature, but do so according to white standards and values. If I do that, I am not writing black children's literature, but an acceptable white version of it.
All too often white adults refuse the invitation to participate in another reality by such responses. This is unfortunate for all of us. If we are to learn to live with each other, I wish to be known as I am. If we ever reach that glorious time when people are regarded as just people, it means to me that we will have reached a time when ethnic and racial differences are accepted as valid, good and right, as gifts we have to offer each other.
Often I am invited to speak at schools because, "There aren't any blacks in our community and we want our children to be exposed to the black experience." I turn down such invitations always, since I don't see my mission in life as being an exhibit for culturally deprived communities.. (I have, however, toyed with the idea of renting out black friends.)
But this is where black children's literature is vitally important, because it can bring the experience of black reality to children who live in all-white communities. Through literature, these children will experience a reality different from their own and know that it is not something to be feared.
How children feel about those different from themselves is in our hands. And being black doesn't exempt me from this same obligation, because I educate my children to those windows on reality different from theirs -- Jewish, Native American, Hispanic American, etc. I want them to live in this world of diversity not with fear and dread, but with joy and anticipation.