Here at the Brown Bookshelf, we’ve spoken often and long on the issues and ideas expressed in the Open Declaration. We do this work to lift up our young readers and show them how they can survive, thrive, and soar in this world. For many of us, the way forward might be clear, for others, not so much. We may sign on to petitions and open declarations, forward emails, RT, and “like”, and these can all be good and powerful things. But we believe that it’s important to reflect on how we will hold ourselves accountable, how we will act, and reflect; how we will “live out commitment to using our talents and varied forms of artistic expression to help eliminate the fear that takes root in the human heart amid lack of familiarity and understanding of others; the type of fear that feeds stereotypes, bitterness, racism and hatred; the type of fear that so often leads to tragic violence and senseless death.” We’ll present a series of those posts here; signatories asking, wondering, and doing an essential question: Where do we go from here?
Below, in the second of these posts, are some thoughts from award-winning authors, artists, and creators, including Kekla Magoon-KM (Shadows of Sherwood, X: A Novel, How It Went Down), Wade Hudson-WH, author (Jamal’s Busy Day, In Praise of Our Mothers and Fathers, Book of Black Heroes) and publisher of the storied Just Us Books, Margaree King Mitchell-MKM (When Grandmama Sings, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop), and Johnny Ray Moore-JRM, (Meet Martin Luther King, Jr., Howie Has A Stomachache).
Why did you sign the Declaration?
“I signed because I believe in the vision of supporting our children through art, and because it’s important in moments of social change or upheaval in my life to stop, reflect, consider, and ultimately recommit myself to my goals. Being part of a thriving creative community that fights to bring truth and light to young readers through art and storytelling has long been one of my personal and professional goals, and being a part of this Declaration affirms that intention.” -KM
“I signed because, I just can’t sit and watch what my BLACK ANCESTORS fought and died for be viewed as being unimportant. I am determined to continue the fight for justice and equality.“-JRM
“I signed the declaration because it is important that all children see themselves depicted in books. There are many stories in the lives of children that are not being told. All children need to see their lives depicted in books and in movies and know that their lives matter. I will continue to create authentic representations of children and tell their stories honestly and in the process, inspire them to be the best they can be.”-MKM
“I wanted to add my voice to those in the children’s and young adult book community who were determined to take a stand in support of our children, those for whom we create our books. I think it was (is) a powerful statement of commitment and dedication to a better future, and one in which our children are not just bystanders. The truth is, the kind of future we cultivate, water and fertilize, is for them. I was so elated by the number of folks who signed. It was a major success on this long road to the kind of world, kind of future most of us desire, inclusive, respectful of differences, nurturing and empowering.”-WH
How do you describe the intersection between art and activism? Who/what has influenced you in that area?
“Art and activism go hand in hand. We create art from the deepest parts of ourselves, the parts that crave connection and belonging and to make our mark on the world. These are the same, most deeply individual and deeply human, parts of ourselves that cause us to strive to create a better world. The beauty of art is the ability to look at what is going on in the world and speak to it and about it from many different angles. That ability to see the world through a new lens, and the constant re-evaluation and challenging of the status quo is a core aspect of effective activism.
I’m influenced by generations of artists that have gone before, and who have attempted to shed light on the harshest conditions of life in our world through beautiful language. A handful of my favorites include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin. They used their words for activism, directly and indirectly, and the best community organizers and educators I know today still use these artists’ now-famous words to inspire and uplift new generations of activists.”-KM
“I, Johnny Ray Moore, am art in the flesh, trailblazing and warring for what is right for our Black Community, first. Then, I keep trailblazing and warring for all who can’t or won’t do for themselves, for whatever reason.
I am influenced by JESUS CHRIST. He died for wretched ole me, so I might bring glory to The Kingdom of GOD, and help others step out into a better day.”-JRM
“There is a quote by Cesar Cruz which states: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Art transcends entertainment. We use our art to paint the world through our experiences. And those experiences touch others who have had had similar experiences. Whether a book, a painting, or a song, art can touch people to their core. Art activists I admire and have influenced me are Elizabeth Catlett, Sonia Sanchez, Zora Neale Hurston, Lena Horne, Ntozake Shange, and Christine Taylor Butler. “-MKM
First, I think I need to share simple definitions of art and activism that work for me. For me, art is an outlet of creative expression normally influenced by culture and that is used to comment on that culture in some way. Activism is a focused and concentrated effort to bring about change in society, or to address a ill, that the activist feels will help make the society in which he or she lives, a fairer and better place.
So, with those definitions, I’ll say that I believe art and activism have been partners in battle for a very long time for us in this country. The style of delivering God’s Word to congregations by Black preachers can be considered art. I believe Nat Turner used that artistic style to inspire and motivate his followers to activism, to revolt. Frederick Douglass used the art of the written word, as well as his oratory (he was an ordained minister), in the cause to abolish slavery. Edmonia Lewis’s sculptures addressed the enslavement of her people, but she also worked on the Underground Railroad and organized support for the first Black regiment that fought in the Civil War. Spirituals were songs that lifted spirits, but some were encoded with signs and directions to assist slaves escaping to freedom. Black churches, and other black institutions, were born out of activism, with Black folks saying, okay, if you won’t allow us to be included, we’ll start our own. The truth is, I believe activism is a part of our DNA. Essentially, I am saying that art and activism more than intersect, they are married.
When I was growing up in Mansfield, LA, a small country town, the public library was for Whites only and there was no library in the Black community. Our school had a small library that contained books that were discarded by the white schools and the segregated library. Obviously, there were only a few books about Black history, Black culture, Black experiences. But as a young boy, I read the books in our library, books that focused on the White experience, the Western experience. As I continued to read them (that’s all that was there) I began to force myself into those pages, even though I was left out. For example, I ran across William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” in a collection of poems. I appropriated that poem to my experience and my challenges as a Black boy growing up in Mansfield.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
That poem spoke to me. I didn’t care about William Ernest Henley’s intent or purpose. That was my poem because it articulated how I felt, but could not put to words. “My head is bloody, but unbowed.” For me, that line meant, “my people are abused and mistreated, but they are still strong.” “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” That meant, “we have the determination and the will to change things.” That was an activist poem, because it, among so much more, helped to inspire and motivate me to become an activist. As I got older, and especially after I left Mansfield to go to college, I was exposed to a world of literature written by folks like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Haki Madhabuti, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and others that helped to fuel my activism.”-WH
What next steps do you plan to take to carry out your pledge?
“I plan to keep writing powerful stories for young readers. All I can do is use my own gifts, which include writing and storytelling, to try to bring injustice to light and share inspiration, empowerment and hope with the next generation. As part of this work, I follow my books into the world, offering author presentations and workshops around the country to help continue the conversation around literature, black history, civil rights organizing and social justice.”-KM
“I am creating stories for children, teens, and adults to showcase the rich stories of black people, not only through books, but through film and the stage as well.“-MKM
“I will continue to write in as many genres, possible, and entice; educate; and, motivate our youth and others to simply, HAVE FAITH, THEN, DO!“-JRM
“When we first started Just Us Books in the late 1980s, we recognized that a major part of our efforts to promote and sell the books we were publishing would require educating a significant segment of our market. So, we went wherever we could, sharing the importance of reading and books, presenting how books could be used to establish a family reading tradition and cultivating an appreciation for reading, etc. We did this utilizing workshops, book readings, one-on-one interactions at schools, parent/teacher organizations, churches, community organizations, etc. After a number of years of doing this (and it is hard work), we felt we could move to the more traditional model of selling and marketing our books.
I think today, the strategy we used during the early years, is still the way to go to reach more people. There is still a need to meet them where they are rather than assuming what they know and don’t know.
So, we are reaching out again to educate people rather than to merely sell to them. Whether it is via social media, workshops and author presentations, we include sharing why books are important and discuss ways that books can and should be a part of family and community interactions. And it’s not just reaching parents of children, but grandparents, uncles, aunt, cousins, godparents and family friends. A book is a gift that keeps on giving. We are renewing our efforts to take our message and books to various communities.
We are reaching out to more literacy organizations and after school programs. We continue to look for new voices, new illustrators, and often refer these talented book creators to other publishers if there is no room on our list. And, using a word used often by Frederick Douglass, we continue to “agitate, agitate, agitate” for more diversity, inclusion and equity in children’s literature, including staffing, whenever and wherever we can.”-WH
How would you like to see the children’s publishing industry do its best to support our children?
“I’d like to see the publishing industry take off the blinders and be serious and true in their dealings in regards to publishing books that should inspire our youth to do their very best. I challenge the industry to stop thinking black and white, and start thinking equality and justice for all GOD’S children. Life is not a silly venture to be taken lightly.”-JRM
“It is not enough for agents and editors to say they want #ownstories. Books have to connect with agents and editors before they will embrace them. If their worldview is white suburban or white middle class city life, then agents and editors say that books depicting different environments are not for them. They can’t identify with the characters. For example, they only accept stories showing the antebellum South because that is still their principle view of African Americans. Therefore, the publishing industry needs to have agents and editors with more diverse backgrounds.“-MKM
“This is a very challenging time in so many ways and in so many different aspects. We have a new president is who has, in many ways, opened the door to the dark side in our country where racism, homophobia, xenophobia, disrespect, selfishness and just down right nastiness live. These evils are not new. But they now have a more visible platform from which to do their damage. Our responsibilities as book creators, whether we are writers, illustrators or publishers, are crucial. We must counter and fight against this push to make the dark side pervasive and encompassing.
Through our work, the lives that we live, we can lift and give platform for our children, a more caring, respectful, loving and tolerant vision of the world in which they must live. Publishing companies must be bold and aggressive in as they embrace and implement this vision which has provided light and direction for our journeys. We have already seen how some school children have turned against fellow students because they happen to be different. Some of these incidents have been violent. The clear majority of them have occurred since Donald Trump’s candidacy and subsequent election.
Future children’s and young adult books that are published must educate and help children better understand themselves, their families, their communities and the world in which they live. These books should help children understand that despite our many differences, all people share common feelings and aspirations. And that love, tolerance, fairness, peace, respect and justice are desirable. When obstacles and challenges happen, as they most assuredly will, these lofty goals will help see us through. We have much to do!!”-WH
“I’d like to see children’s publishing continue to seek and publish new voices, and to find power and value in stories that originate from many different walks of life. There is such richness in diversity, and there is no better way to see the world more clearly than to challenge ourselves to see ourselves as we might be seen through others’ eyes.“-KM
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked “Where do we go from here?” in 1967. He wondered: chaos or community? He went on to note: “Now, in order to answer the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now.” Where do you think we are? Where are you? And where are you planning to go?