On Prioritizing My Rage
by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie
To tell the truth spaceship can’t be so bad…I been on earth all my life and all my life I been mad.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, outrage and I have been close friends for some time.
Outrage: an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock or indignation at an injustice.
Yes, I know outrage rather intimately. I know outrage’s moans, its musky sweaty scent, its favorite colors. I know the graceless, determined way it dances. How it sometimes gets important things done. Being Black, a woman, and a poet means I often have to negotiate and prioritize the outrages I encounter. There are things that happen in the literary world that really piss me off but then there is the world outside of words that threatens my very life and could keep me in a constant stage of rage.
In terms of literature, one of the more recent things that had me ready to rumble was the 2014 VIDA women of color count. The statistics were dismal. While the VIDA Count shows that women are starting to be published and reviewed more in top tier literary publications (in part because VIDA has brought it to the attention of the publishers and writers that there is a problem) the VIDA women of color count shows that the voices of women of color are still being shut out of most top-tier literary journals. Now this is the thing: does anyone on my block know about that stuff? Does anyone in my old neighborhood give a damn about lit journals or what arguments we have about literature online? Does that stuff affect my parents? As angry as I get about the fact that the London Review of Books and the Paris Review scarcely review or publish Black women’s work, I’m also dealing with the reality that Black and Brown children are being murdered by police on a regular basis. So what do I do? The truth is that since I have to go out in the street yelling that my very life matters, I guess it stands to reason I’ll have to insist that my literature matters.
While my parents and neighbors and children don’t read literary journals and they’re not much affected by what happens in them or in the online debates I sometimes engage in about the literary scene, there is this:
Of 3,500 children’s books published in 2014, 179 were about Black people and 84 were by Black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.
I can see the impact of this on my children every time they come home with library books from school. I want my children to see their own reflections in the library. I want them to see themselves at the center of important stories. I want my children to know that their voices are valuable enough to be heard on the page. They are not just silent sidekicks or the main character’s best friend. Ever since my first child was born I’ve been on a mission to bring all the intelligent Black and Brown and Asian protagonists I can find into our house.
I’ve also written two children’s books and shared the work with rooms filled with children who told me they couldn’t wait to see the work in print. Despite the kids’ enthusiasm, for a long time I couldn’t find an agent or publisher willing to take on the books. This led me to be outraged about how few publishers and literary agents of color there are in the United States. When I pick up issues of Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest featuring agents and editors, I’m often left shaking my head. Where are the people of color, I say to the magazine pages, which offer pale stares as a response.
I went online looking for answers. I found “Literary Agents Discuss The Diversity Gap In Publishing.” This is an honest, important, and probably very difficult discussion that was published in 2013 on the Lee & Low website. Here are two exchanges from that piece:
Q. Why do you think you receive far fewer submissions from authors of color as opposed to white authors?
(Abigail Samoun:) From what I’ve gleaned from attending conferences, it feels like a large percentage of the people writing children’s books are white women in their forties, fifties, and sixties with at least some college education. This probably has been the case for decades. The children’s book authors I’ve met often share a few characteristics: they grew up with books, they’ve read a lot, they have some sort of connection to children, either through teaching, parenting, or a job that puts them in contact with kids, and they’ve had the time and money to develop their writing skills and attend conferences. So I think there is definitely a socio-economic factor in becoming a children’s book author.
Q. Since the number of books for children written and/or illustrated by people of color has not grown in the last eighteen years according to our CCBC study, what could agents do to increase this number?
(Karen Grencik:) I don’t think many agents are actively searching for new clients, so I can’t see how an agent could have much of an impact on this issue unless they had a personal passion for it. I am grateful to publishers like Lee & Low who devote their lives to leveling out the playing field. I think the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected, who have the energy, the passion, and the drive to effect the change, just like any underrepresented group in any profession.
There’s quite a bit that’s upsetting about these exchanges, more than I even care to tackle, but the idea that change has to come from “those who are affected” is particularly disturbing. Aren’t all readers left impoverished when some of us are excluded from children’s books? Isn’t the world of literature lacking something when it places whiteness in its center? When a majority of books give children the subtle message that 30% of this country’s population is “other,” it affects us all. It’s deeply troublesome to me that the respondent seems to think that she is not affected when children’s literature is so myopic.
In his 2014 New York Times op-ed piece, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” Christopher Myers writes:
Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost. They are threatened by difference, and desperately try to wish the world into some more familiar form. As for children of color, they recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves inside the lines.
Clearly, all of this country’s problems will not be solved because there are children of color in books but could there be some connection between the dehumanization of Black and Brown people and our invisibility in literature?
And does this absence affect who we see ourselves being in the future? As a teenager, I didn’t know I could be a writer until I read Alice Walker’s work. Her presence let me know that writing books was something I could do. In My Feet Are Laughing, by Lissette Norman, the main character Sadie says that when she grows up she wants to be a poet. I can honestly say that until that book, I’d never seen “poet” put on the table as a choice of professions. Imagine how thrilling it was to be reading my daughters a book where the characters looked like they do, were the same ages they were, and dreamed of doing the same work that their mother does. Christopher Myers writes beautifully of the ways that books function as maps by helping us figure out where we can go and who we can be. Myers says when we don’t see ourselves in books our sense of possibility is stunted. My own experience leads me to agree with him.
And of course people of color are working to change things in publishing because we always work to change things. We can’t live in the narrow spaces assigned to us and stay human. That is why we have Lee and Low, that is why we have We Need Diverse Books, that is why my friend Zetta Elliott (who grew up reading books, has a PhD, has taught on more than one continent, and is not a white woman in her forties, fifties, or sixties) has self-published ten children’s books and three books for teens.
Those of us who write about the things that outrage us, those of us who wear our rage and passion for justice on our sleeves, those of us who write out of love often know that we’ll have an uphill battle getting our work seen. We could just be mad about that and talk about it online but instead we use our energy to create our own spaces. Journals. magazines, newspapers, presses, recordings, blogs, venues. Yeah. We do that.
Fortunately there are those who are not people of color who also know this reality must change. Right now I’m thinking of Claudia Zoe Bedrick publisher of Enchanted Lion Books. Her commitment to diversity extends to the types of stories she publishes, and the birthplaces of authors and illustrators. She believes in being out among writers–not just at conferences that cost hundreds of dollars to attend– but at book festivals and in her neighborhood. Bedrick says, “We all need books that encompass all of humanity, but in ways that are non-ideological and not issue-driven. We need stories in which the characters are brown-skinned or Muslim or Jewish or Native American or working class or homeless, but that’s not the main thing and that’s not what the story is about. Rather all of these human beings are characters with agency living fully human lives. To be fully human, we all need each others’ stories. Without them, we all are stunted and so much less than we otherwise might be.” It is Bedrick who has finally brought my search for a children’s book publisher to an end.
And yet, as James Baldwin writes: the world waits, “outside, hungry as a tiger.”
Rage? That, according to Merriam-Webster, is violent and uncontrollable anger. I’ve lived through a lot of difficult incidents, but when I learned about the murders of Trayvon Martin and Rekia Boyd, something I can’t describe happened in me. It was a time of sleepless nights and furious poetry. Phone calls to precincts in Florida and Chicago. Letter writing. Tears. It was the first time I took my children to a rally. Trying to explaining the murder of a child walking home, minding his business, carrying candy to my seven-year old and five-year daughters was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. But even all that paled in comparison to what I felt after George Zimmerman walked free. Two years later, Eric Garner’s murderers were acquitted. And so many lives have been destroyed in between. I entered a true state of rage. In that state of rage, I lost my voice. I had no words. I had visions of burning things and revenge. When I finally went into the streets, I did not burn anything or hurt anyone but I was literally shaking with anger. It was frightening.
I am a writer who cares about writing. I’m interested in what other writers are saying about our shared craft. But even more I am a writer who cares about life. When online debates go beyond writers and have an impact on people who don’t write, I’m more likely to get involved.
And what about folks who do get involved in online debates about literature? Well, I think it’s a good thing because it keeps the spaces they live and work in honest. I think that is the point. Those debates point out danger. They can be spaces for self-reflection if people are willing to do that work. I tend to think that face to face we’d work through issues a lot differently than we do online, but online there is an opportunity for people who would never meet to exchange ideas and create alliances and that could lead to some beautiful things.
More than anything though, I’d just like for my children–who are all of our children–to be able to walk down the street and be seen as human. I’d like for colleges not to be silent war zones on women’s bodies. I’d like for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people to not have to walk around constantly looking over their shoulders. In other words, I’d like for those of us in the margins of someone’s page to occupy space in the center without death being the consequence. I’d like for all of us to able to live and love out loud. Once that happens, we can have literary debates online all we want and know that in real life, we did the work that needed to be done.
Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie is the author of Karma’s Footsteps (flipped eye). She is the poetry editor of the literary magazine African Voices. Her poetry has been the subject of a short film “I Leave My Colors Everywhere” and it has been published in BOMB, Crab Orchard Review, North American Review, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, & Black Renaissance Noire. Tallie is also the mother of two wild, wonder-filled daughters. Her next book, Dear Continuum: Letters To A Poet Crafting Liberation, will be published this month by Grand Concourse Press.
Photo Credit: Dominique Sindayiganza