Remaining committed to our mission, even when defining the mission can prove tricky

When we set out to define our mission for the 28 Days Later campaign, our vision was crystal clear: To highlight African-American (Black) youth literature creators. Children’s books written by or about African-Americans make up a small percentage of the publishing pie, and those works often flow under the radar of teachers and librarians. Our goal was to shine a light on those authors and illustrators.

Our intentions were good, but there was a problem: How does one define African-American? What does an African-American look like? And what does it mean to be Black?

Last fall we took nominations for the 28 Days Later campaign in the form of comments and emails from our readers — teachers and librarians, authors and illustrators, publishing houses and their editors, anyone with an interest in children’s publishing. We culled the nominations and discussed them. We argued them, cheered them and sneered them, before we left them to simmer awhile more. Then we tossed in a few names of our own. Finally we took a vote, formed a final list, and then our research began.

Our team is made up of published authors and illustrators, so we know many of the people in consideration, or are at least familiar with them. Some are obviously African-American. Others, we weren’t so sure about. We don’t use a litmus test or subject the authors to genealogical surveys. And we don’t draw blood, so there’s room for error.

The author we’d planned to highlight today came highly recommended by someone influential in the children’s publishing industry, so I took the nomination and ran with it. For research, I began with pictures. But again, what does Black look like? My own mother is African-American, and she is just as fair-skinned as any Caucasian (recent photo), and her hair is naturally straight.

I attempted to contact the author and his editor for an interview, but I was unsuccessful. Finally I called his job, but I didn’t get him. I explained the 28 Days Later campaign to the receptionist who answered the phone.

Sheepishly, I asked, “Is Greg Foley African-American?”

“Y-yes,” she answered slowly, careful how she let it roll off her tongue. “Well . . . he might be African-American.” There was a long pause. “He could be.” Another long pause. “Honestly, I don’t know his racial makeup.” she said. “He’s definitely not White.”

Last week I finally made contact with the author. Greg is not African-American. Not even a little bit. He’s Filipino, Irish and French. Stop giggling.

What to do, what to do?! We considered changing the poster, hoping that no one would notice. But more than 600 posters had been downloaded; We weren’t going to fool anyone. We’ve decided to be up front, admit our (my) mistake, and hope ya’ll wouldn’t write I told you so posts on your blogs.

Thankfully, Greg was understanding. I asked him to complete the interview, and he graciously did. I am posting it on my personal blog, Devas T. Rants and Raves, and I ask you to shoot over there and check it out. Maybe even link to it from your own blog. I’m a fan of Greg’s work. I love his simplistic yet powerful illustrations. Nothing, absolutely not a thing changes that.

But in order to remain committed to the mission of the 28 Days Later campaign, today we’ve decided to commemorate author Virginia Hamilton. Please see her highlight below.

Our apologies, and thank you for your understanding.

3 thoughts on “Remaining committed to our mission, even when defining the mission can prove tricky

  1. The debate about multicultural literature and awards showcasing specific ethnic and racial groups seem to be the topic of the day. Most recently the debate at Black Threads Kidlet blog and Mitali’s Fire Escape.

    While running our own Black History Month contest, members of one community misunderstood who could submit. Many assumed to enter the contest you had to be black.

    We have so much work to do when it comes to translating our ideas about celebrating diversity into our every day lives.

  2. …! I am not laughing at the mixup at all — it could happen to anybody — but rather the struggle that even The Brown Bookshelf has in determining what it means to be black. (Or, is it brown?)

    Wishing you success in continuing to remain committed to your mission!

  3. Don beat himself up over this but it was a team faux pas. My wish is that overall diversity in books was the norm so race-based initiatives like ours was moot.

    The day The Brown Bookshelf and others like it aren’t needed would be a good day in publishing. I just question if that will ever happen. But I can hope.

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