illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
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, some thoughts from five Brown Bookshelf Team members, Kelly Starling Lyons (KSL), Tracey Baptiste (TB), Tameka Fryer Brown (TFB), Crystal Allen (CA), and me, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (ORP).
Why did you sign the Declaration?
I signed because it’s an important statement to make right now, especially as children are dealing with unprecedented racism and xenophobia at their schools since the results of the election. ~ TB
I signed the Declaration because I wanted to express my outrage at the systemic racism, hate and brutality that’s devastating our children. I wanted to transform my feelings of helplessness into a pledge to have kids’ backs, to make sure they are seen and heard. – KSL
My parents taught me that my handshake, and my signature must always mean something to me, and to take both very seriously, because one day, they may be all I have. The Declaration serves as a reminder, and gives me an opportunity to hold myself accountable, through my signature, to use my God-given talent to provide quality stories to empower, embrace, and uplift the youth of today and tomorrow, and continuously remind them that they will always matter. -CA
I signed the declaration because, in the wake of all the injustice and bigotry that people in our community have been experiencing, I felt the need to publicly acknowledge the mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering that has affected us all—including the children. I wanted to publicly affirm that I would use my role as author to foster a predisposition to education, empowerment, and empathy in the next generation. They are always our best hope for enduring change. – TFB
I’m someone who believes in “small, good” acts, and quiet revolutionaries; I admire the people, like Ella Baker, who do the mighty and meaningful work that happens behind the scenes. But I signed on to our Declaration because I believe that sometimes holding oneself accountable in a public sense is necessary, and because I want our children to know that there are adults who value them and their voices, who hold them as precious treasures, who are paying attention. -ORP
How do you describe the intersection between art and activism? Who/what has influenced you in that area?
Art is activism. It is always saying something about the state of the world. Of course, there are books that aren’t about activism, but that’s not art, that’s a commercial product. I think I get my cues from artists like James Baldwin and Maya Angelou who understood this intersection better than most. ~TB
In college, I read about the Black Arts Movement. The belief that art should not be for art’s sake, but to make the experiences of black people seen and felt grabbed me and held on. Art is a bullhorn, an amen, a hug and outstretched hand, a pulsing beat that makes you nod and groove, an exultation to rise and soar. Art is action. Reading about how writers became warriors for change through their creativity, connection and daring helped shaped the kind of writer I strive to be. – KSL
In an article published by The Nation, Toni Morrison recounted a conversation in which a friend responded to her despair about the state of our nation by saying, “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!” That sums up my perspective on the intersection between art and activism. If you’re a writer, your words can be written to make people understand more thoroughly the need to change. If you are a visual artist, you can create imagery that impacts the soul of man on such a visceral level that he cannot be satisfied until he changes.
Whether it be through art or not, I think maybe the whole point of life is activism in some form or fashion. I remember reading a quote from Dr. King years ago that said, in essence, if a man had not discovered something he was willing to die for, he wasn’t fit to live. That resonated with me deeply. My greatest influence, though, was probably my grandmother. One of her most tried and true sayings was, “Right is right and wrong is wrong.” If you are raised with that as one of your mantras, you can’t help but stand up to wrong when you are confronted with it. – TFB
As a child, I never had the pleasure of meeting an author or illustrator. So back then, for me, I’d say there was no intersection. But as I began my professional writing journey, I was blessed with a core of strong African American women such as Eileen Robinson, Bernette Ford, Dara Sharif, and Christine-Taylor Butler who helped me understand the importance of staying relevant, and involved. -CA
The act of writing, of producing art, of creating, is such a powerful thing. I believe that art and activism are wholly intertwined, that whatever art we make is “a political statement”, whatever we think we intend. I grew up in a home that celebrated activism in the arts, that viewed it as necessary, as a sign of intellectual rigor, of passion about one’s work and community, of a desire to serve, and think of the gifts that we give instead of what we can take from the world. I was surrounded by books music and film and fine art by and about people like Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte, Maya Angelou, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Sweet Honey in the Rock…I could go on forever. We went on marches, and we sang. Our family participated in meetings and gatherings where people of all ages spoke truth to power in song, poetry, dance, and more. I was also so fortunate to have had teachers in middle and high school who took extra time to work with us theatre nerds to explore and produce work like A Raisin in the Sun, which we took “on tour” to a local prison, and who encouraged me to write plays and stories, and to read, read, read about the intersection and power of art and activism. -ORP
What next steps do you plan to take to carry out your pledge?
I’m working on new stories, ones that I hope will do more to open up perspectives, bring people together, and help readers think critically about the messages we’re all bombarded with in the world. I’m also reaching back to my training as a teacher and using those skills to explore the effect of literature, not just on learning, but on empathy. ~TB
I will keep writing stories that center the experiences of black children, raise awareness of children’s book creators of color and Native authors and illustrators and push for publishing and marketing equity. I will listen to the children, fight for their safety, visibility, voice and future through my art and vote. – KSL
As a member of The Brown Bookshelf, I will work with the team to come up with concrete ways to get more books by African American authors and illustrators into the hands of our future leaders. First and foremost, I will pen stories that nurture cultural appreciation and empathy. I commit not only to writing such books, but also to finding effective ways to help those already in the marketplace bypass the myriad obstacles standing between them and their intended audiences. – TFB
I will continue to write stories where African American children are the main characters, but race will never drive my stories. I will continue to put my characters in everyday predicaments, show them doing normal activities, and allow them to tell their stories in an effort to encourage conversation among readers about ‘sameness’ in all races, and demolish the ignorance that drives prejudice and social injustice. -CA
I’m proud to continue working with The Brown Bookshelf to promote Black children’s book creators across the Diaspora, to share our many stories with children everywhere. I’m also especially glad to be working with the Internship Committee of We Need Diverse Books, because I believe that in order to have diverse books we need diverse voices in positions of power in all areas of the industry. As an educator, I plan to continue to do workshops such as “Reading and Writing for Change”, and share strategies for teaching and learning with an eye toward social justice in every area, and am planning a couple of long term projects along those lines. I’ll also continue to encourage and empower young people to tell their own stories, to know and hold dear the value of writing, of documenting their journeys, of creating art, and surrounding themselves with people who believe in that. I’m so grateful for my friends and support group in the children’s lit community; people who inspire and encourage every day, sometimes just by their very existence. And of course, I’m very excited about my own upcoming writing projects and opportunities to tell complex stories of vibrant characters of color. – ORP
How would you like to see the children’s publishing industry do its best to support our children?
The industry needs to publish books that are representative of the population of the United States. As it is, children’s literature is disproportionately white. This helps no one. People have been talking about this for a long time, and it’s time for action. Of course, the way to help is not by painting characters brown, but with authentic representations of people and cultures. It’s not a simple task, but the work needs to be done. ~TB
The industry needs to understand where its blind spots and biases are and find ways to correct them. Children deserve to see themselves in stories that show their history, their dreams, their fantastic adventures, their realities. In every level of the industry, we need more representation by people of color and Native people – editors, art directors, publicists, reviewers. Background can shape editorial and marketing sensibilities – what stories you believe will resonate with kids, what you invest in. – KSL
I’d like them to proactively put more marketing dollars into books written by authors of color. And to publish a greater percentage of books by African-Americans that fall outside of the civil rights and civil war time periods, across all genres, including but not limited to contemporary, sci-fi, and fantasy. – TFB
Put more money into marketing books that promote everything the Declaration stands for. I would even love a sticker or a stamp created for books by publishers for parents to know which books will help erase hate, promote unity, and provide religious, ethnic, gender understanding, and include with study guides. -CA
I’d like to see the publishing industry acknowledge the seriousness of these issues, hold itself accountable for perpetuating bias, and take concrete, measurable steps to move toward equity. I would love to see more active encouragement and development of #ownvoices, and a diversification of voices “at the table”, in all sectors of the industry. – ORP
What suggestions do you have for readers who wish to make the same pledge (specific actions, favorite resources, etc.)?
The Brown Bookshelf will be doing curriculum connections with some of the books we have featured on the site. That will be a good resource for teachers who want to promote books that are more representative of the population. There’s also TeachingBooks.net and recommended titles from We Need Diverse Books. ~TB
I urge readers to support books by children’s book creators of color and Native authors and illustrators. When these books are consistently in demand at libraries, bookstores and schools, publishers will respond. There’s power in the dollar. A quote I love is the journey of a thousand miles begins with a simple step. What can you do now? Check out books by children’s book creators of color and Native authors and illustrators at the library, request them if they aren’t there, buy them as holiday and birthday presents not just for kids of color but for all children (Take the Birthday Party Pledge – https://birthdaypartypledge.com/), review them and tell your friends about them, support publishers like Just Us Books, Cinco Puntos Press and Lee & Low. Change begins with each of us. – KSL
In whatever capacity you create or advocate books for children, keep the end goal of a more inclusive, empathetic citizenry at the fore. For example, if you are a media specialist, make sure you (very naturally and without fanfare) offer titles featuring main characters of color to your white students. In addition to offering mirror books to your students of color, offer them window books into other POC cultures as well. Same goes for parents and other adult book buyers. – TFB
Buy books from those authors who have taken the pledge, and tell your friends to do the same. This way, we can flood the world with more love than hate. -CA
In one of my presentations, I always say “Make an effort.” Don’t be complacent. Everyone doesn’t have to do something “big”, but if everyone does *something*, it will be big. If you read and share children’s literature (and you should), make an effort to seek out literature by those who are marginalized, all of the different stories that we tell. Use resources like The Brown Bookshelf, The Pirate Tree, American Indians in Children’s Literature. Read scholars like Edi Campbell, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and Sarah Park Dahlen. Talk with your children about these issues, offer young people the tools to start doing this work themselves, to think critically about their literacies, perhaps using resources like The Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, Rethinking Schools, and Teaching Tolerance. I’ve written more about this for parents and educators on sites like Brightly. -ORP
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?