A few weeks ago, Walter Dean Myers was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress, and I cannot think of a better choice for America. His passion for literacy and honoring young people will certainly make him an effective advocate for young people’s literature. His appointment will also hopefully draw further attention to his own books, which are not only engrossing and original, but also often tell the stories of youth who are not given much attention in mainstream children’s or YA lit (that is, the stories of black inner-city young men). And, on a personal note, reading his book Monster in 7th grade was one of the most powerful reading experiences I had in middle school, so I’m quite pleased with the decision.
But his nomination has not been without controversy. Some dude named Alexander Nazaryan, a white guy who used to be a teacher in Brooklyn, thinks we should be pushing Homer and Shakespeare, not Myers. All y’all reading this blog are librarians, right? So I don’t have to get into why this sort of elitism is all sorts of problematic and ignorant? Because I’m not writing this post to defend Myers (a Google search will bring up defenses rendered much more beautifully than I could manage), and those of you who were present for my seminar on street lit know why I feel like his stories are important (even though his books are more realistic fiction than street lit). Plus, the position is not about promoting his own work, but about promoting young people’s lit in general, though Nazaryan seems to forget that.
Instead I want to pick apart Nazaryan’s writing, because I think it exemplifies a racism/neocolonialism that is pretty common when First World people talk about Third World** youth. And the way librarians and youth advocates talk about marginalized youth affects how we provide services for them, so I believe the language in the article is worth taking a look at.
Dissecting Nazaryan’s Language
I know Walter Dean Myers well. When I taught at a failing middle school in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I was mandated to start class with a 20 minute “free read” that, at its worst, had all the tranquility of Penn Station at rush hour. I don’t mean that as charge against my students, most of whom were poor, tragic, black and deeply desirous of something better – whatever that something was. I mean it is a knock against myself: I was a bad teacher back then and could not get them to sit down. It really wasn’t much more complicated than that.
This is the opening paragraph of Nazaryan’s article, and already we get a glimpse of how he views his students. He is clearly trying to come off as respectful of his students, but the language he uses nonetheless “otherizes” them. The words he uses to describe them are curious : poor, tragic, black. Friends, one of these words is not like the others. Are these words supposed to be related? Is being poor or black necessarily tragic? Let’s read on to understand a little more about how he sees his students.
Of course they loved Myers – at night, they heard the gunshots he wrote about. They told me so when I asked about homework. On weekends, some of them visited brothers or cousins on Rikers. Doritos were breakfast. And, often, dinner.
While this may be true for some of his students, it also feels incomplete. How do we know that these “tragic” circumstances are the only things that cause his students to relate to Myers’ work? Might the students also relate to the Myers’ descriptions of basketball triumphs and love in the ghetto? By focusing only on the poverty and violence they face, it reduces his students to victims, stripping them of the dignity, pleasures, and humanity of their daily lives.
His stated goal is to make urban children think, but his books rarely have to make them think very deeply at all – they are about those kids’ own sad lives, and the sad lessons too many of them have already learned. To me, from the front of the classroom, those kids were, by and large, smarter than the books he wrote for them – if not, just yet, more sophisticated.
So he’s finally coming out and saying that he thinks their lives are pitiable. Also, he is suggesting that these young people aren’t engaging with Myers on an intellectual level (and, tellingly, none of the “intellectual” books he mentions kids should be reading take place in the ‘hood…).
We need a kid beaten down by project life, struggling with all her might to rise from the fatal suction of the streets, to open the “Lysistrata” and let out a single laugh. Call me a romantic, an earnest fool, but that laugh could save her.
So it seems that Nazaryan wants to “save” these kids from project life. Because no one ever laughs in the projects (sarcasm). And thank God for white saviors, because clearly black people are still dependent on white people to improve their situation, and it’s not like white people have actively and structurally had anything to do with the creation of this poverty (more sarcasm).
The Implications of this Language
There are more issues I have with Nazaryan’s article (such as his main argument), but that’s for another post. What’s important about his language is that it facilitates and justifies a common type of modern day racism which is not intentional or malicious, but nonetheless destructive. Here are two concerns about the implications of his language: (1) By setting up these kids as innocent victims, who is Nazaryan placing in the role of the “bad guys”? And (2) who is he granting and denying agency?
(1) Who are the bad guys here? In the article, I believe Nazaryan is setting up the inner city as the demon. And to some degree, inner-city caregivers (arguably seen in the note about Doritos) and other adults/older teens in the ‘hood (as seen in the comments about shootings). Not structural inequality in social services. Not racism. Not capitalism. Not only does this place the blame on the adult inhabitants of the city, but it also suggests that young people need to be saved from their own communities. The communities that often times (though not always) love them and provide for them as best they can and are integral to their identities. I think this brings us dangerously close to the justifications for the effed-up tradition of “rescuing” indigenous children and putting them in boarding schools where they are not allowed to speak their own languages or practice their culture’s traditions.
(2) Who is denied agency? The answer to this question is obviously the young people and other inhabitants of the inner city. And the power of the white teachers and other outsiders is perhaps overstated. I think my problems with this are probably clear by now.
Resistance to “Kid Orientalism”
So what are the best remedies for these one-dimensional portrayals that mainstream journalists are peddling? Two ideas that are not my own:
- Fiction. Kathryn Bond Stockton, professor at the University of Utah, looks at how African-American fiction can challenge what she calls “kid orientalism” in her talk here (there’s a lot more to her talk – I recommend checking it out if you have 56 minutes!). Reading sensitive and thoughtful fiction about people who hold marginalized positions in society can create an empathy and (self-)understanding in readers that undermines the dominant racist/neocolonialist discourse.
- Youth Themselves. It would be hypocritical of me to write this post without mentioning how youth themselves are responding to the media that seek to flatten them. Here’s one really creative, beautiful response to a 20/20 episode that an article in Indian Country sums up as “poverty porn”:
To wrap up, I think paying attention to this sort of thinking is important for librarians. I’ve occasionally noticed these attitudes in discussions about literacy and services to urban/rural/poor/international/etc. people, and this undoubtedly affects what we think our patrons should be reading and how we engage with our patrons’ communities and cultures. Additionally, maybe librarians can play a role in transforming our society by promoting diverse fiction and amplifying the voices of those who aren’t given much space to be heard by society.
** Though one common definition of “Third World” is “underdeveloped” nations, here I mean it in the postcolonial feminist sense of including all peoples oppressed historically and presently by imperialism and colonialism. Thus, as Chandra Talpade Mohanty puts it, “black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous peoples in the U.S., Europe, Australia, some of whom have historic links with the geographically defined third worlds, also define themselves as third world peoples” (in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, p. 5).