Book Review: "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD (or how I moderated for the very first time a race panel with the longest name ever at Wiscon)

(Scene: a meeting room filled with people. At the front stands an empty podium. LaShawn soon enters from the back and makes her way to the podium, setting a briefcase on the floor beside it. She squats to open the briefcase, rifles through it for a moment, then nods in satisfaction and stands. She adjusts the microphone to her level and coughs. The room goes silent.)

LS: Hello and welcome to the book review with the longest title ever presented at The Cafe.

(Polite laughter and applause)

LS: Thank you all for coming. I wanted to do this book review in an interview format because, as you know, the reason I read the book was because I had been "chosen" (she makes quotation marks with her fingers) to moderate a panel based on this book at Wiscon. Despite the fact, you know, I’d never actually BEEN to a Wiscon panel. (glares at a table towards the back–then switches back to her enthusiastic expression). Luckily, I was able to rise up to the challenge.

(Woman in audience): I understand that you had a wacko who emailed you a 10-page document comparing atheists with people of color?

LS: (wincing) Wacko is such a strong word. Let’s just say he didn’t get why people of color needed to have a safe place to meet at Wiscon. But yeah, that email was sent to our panel two weeks ago. I didn’t exactly read it through. But the other panel members knew who he was and had a plan just in case he showed up and tried to disrupt the panel.

(woman): And did he come?

LS: Actually, he did.

(The audience gasps.)

LS: yes, but he didn’t disrupt the panel  like I thought he would. In fact, he said that he really appreciated hearing what we had to say and he thinks having safe spots for people of color is a good idea.

(The audience ahhs. Another woman raises her hand.)

Woman: How did you change his mind? Did you discuss some of Tatum’s arguments in your panel?

LS: (scratching head) Ummm…to be honest…we didn’t exactly talk about her book much. What we did was talk about our backgrounds, how we felt like we didn’t fit in to our respective race groups, how when we got to Wiscon, we met others of our race who could also be considered "weirdos", "nerds", "geeks" and "oreos", and just how, for the first time, we felt like we’ve belonged, that ‘we’ had a black table of our own now, and we wanted to explore that to the fullest.

A man: So you didn’t mention the book at all?

LS: Oh, on the contrary. We referred to the book a lot when describing our experiences. Take me, for instance. Up until last year, I would have looked at Tatum’s book and said, "Well that book doesn’t describe me. I never sat at the black table when I was a kid." But Tatum describes goes on to explain how black kids deal with their identity, how some kids live in both worlds where they see themselves as emissaries, and when I read that, I thought, holy cow, that’s me. So we did a lot of referral’s to the book. But the panel was more personal in that we were sharing our stories. I didn’t intend it to happen that way. I had planned for us to share a bit about ourselves, then I had some questions for the panel that I made when I read the book, then have the rest of the time opened to the audience for Q&A.  I did get to a couple of questions on my list, but we on the panel shared so much, I just sat back and let the stories flow. It hardly felt like I was moderating at all.

Another man: So the audience actually just sat there and listened?

LS: I was surprised they actually seemed interested in what we had to say. I didn’t think they would care all that much, but you could see it—they really wanted to listen to us and our stories. That was pretty nice. Of course, it helped that it was a small audience—about ten people, so it made for a nice intimate setting. And we did open it to comments towards the end.

Man: Sounds like you had a good time.

LS: Yeah, no drama either. (laughs) I lucked out in that regard.

Woman: But you still haven’t told us what you thought of the book.

LS: Oh yeah, the book. Awesome book. I think it should be required reading  for all colleges, heck, even high school. The beginning had a lot of psychological jargon that swam before my eyes, but once you get past the foreword and first chapter, it starts getting interesting. I especially appreciated Tatum’s advice in introducing children to the concepts of race, and starting them early in learning about advocacy. I have a six-year-old who received a picture book for a present that made me feel uncomfortable in that it showed several Mexican stereotypes. My response would be either downplay the stereotypes (for instance, read straightforward as opposed to reading the "dialect") or avoid the book altogether ("why don’t we get another book instead?") Tatum’s suggestions challenged me enough so that the next time my son brought the book, I told him okay, I’ll read it, but then I told him how it made me uncomfortable. We had a small talk about race, very simple, very short, but still effective in the long run. I like the fact that I’m no longer ignoring it, but opening a dialogue with my son that I hope will continue well after he becomes an adult.

Man: So you enjoyed the book.

LS: For the most part. (she crouches and rummages through the briefcase until she finds the book and pulls it out). I made a few notes in it. (turns the book so the audience sees all the post-it notes sticking from it) The only quibble I had with it was that since the book was written in 1999, I wondered how the internet influenced identity. Now, the version I read was the 1999 version. I understand there’s been a 2003 version, but I don’t know if it talks about the internet at all. I’d be curious to hear a panel on that, (frowns) but don’t ask me to moderate it. Please…

(The audience laughs. The woman who spoke first raises her hand.)

Woman: So how would you rate the book?

LS: Definitely five tables out of five. As for the panel, four tables out of five. But that’s only because halfway through the panel, all the coffee and tea I drunk out of nervousness and caffeine caught up with me, and I really, really had to pee, but because I was moderating, it would’ve looked stupid if I got up from my own panel and went to the bathroom, so I had to sit there in agony, while…hey…where’s everyone going? What? What I say? Oh come on…when Ellen Klages left, y’all were in hysterics…

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It happens in the Christian world, too.

http://www.mlive.com/business/west-michigan/index.ssf/2009/12/zondervan_makes_critics_book_r.html

The above article gives an interesting coda to what’s been happening for the past month in the Christian publishing world. It shows that, yes, even in the Christian world, RaceFail lives. It also shows that while we still have far to go, changes can be made, both graciously and lovingly. Here’s another perspective. The writer, Al Hsu, was one of the main people who put together the Multiethnic publishing seminar at InterVarsity Press this past March.

At that seminar, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Soong-Chan Rah. Great guy, reminded me a whole lot of the Angry Black Woman in that he is passionate about bringing racial injustices on Asians to light.  Of course, it’s interesting to read the comments on Rah’s letter to Zondervan asking them to remove the Ninja Viper materials. Lots of different perspectives, mostly support for Rah, but also those who felt that Rah was reading to much into it and to lighten up, in fact–an Asian could have written a same thing. My favorite rebuttal to that came from Irene Cho:

"The statement was meant to imply that most Asians who are familiar with their Asian culture/heritage/language, would not have mixed up the cultures like the authors did. In fact, it’s one of the grievances that’s high on the list. It’s insulting when you’re constantly asked, “Oh you’re Asian. So you’re Chinese? Ah so you know Karate?” Many of us have spent much of our lives answering these questions: Yes, I’m Asian. No I’m not Chinese. And no I don’t know Karate and Karate is Japanese by the way. So what I meant was that in my opinion, most Asians wouldn’t publish a book that treats Karate, Kung Fu, and Tae Kwon Do as if there’s no difference. A book would not have been published that doesn’t specify the difference between Chinese, Korean and Japanese writings. And most of all, most Asians wouldn’t have written that someone’s name sounds like a disease. AND even if they did, it’s one thing to make fun of yourself, it’s quite another to have someone else of a different ethnicity say that my language sounds funky or like a disease and mix everything up and treat all the cultures as if they were the same."

You tell it, sister.

So how do I feel about all this? I feel good that the creators of Ninja Viper and Zondervan did offer an apology and pulled back the books. I feel sad though for all of those who said that it was a shame because it was a legitimate leadership source. And that is true, it is. I just wished the creators researched it better. I do feel that we need more multiethnic people involved in publishing, which is why I support Verb Noire and black writers like Nisi Shawl and Nnedi Okorafor. And goodness knows I’m trying my hardest to add myself to the list. But I also feel what we do is a mere drop in the bucket—that nothing will change, and that those in the media will continue to put up what they like because, hey, they’re the majority and there’s more of them in the media industry than there are of us…

And then I read blog posts like this one which talks about getting minority teens to think about entering the publishing industry, and then I get the December issue of Parents Magazine, which has an article that strives to teach an even younger audience about race relations, and well, we’re trying. Most of us are working on it. It’s just a matter of time.

Celebrating Black Future Month

Remember Black History Month back in February? Yeah, I didn’t either. Sadly, my observance of the month has faded along with Kwanzaa, which my family never really celebrated anyway (in fact, it never even entered our heads to celebrate it). I do have fond memories of all the stuff we had to learn during Black History Month, and I’m a little sad that Daniel won’t have that same experience, not unless we send him to an all black school (and to be honest, I want him to be exposed to many different cultures, not just white and black).

That all said, this past March has been interesting. It feels like I’ve spent the entire month not just discussing multi-ethnic matters, but reconciling on how that applies to me as a black writer.

In the past, I really struggled on what made me a black person other than just color. I didn’t act like a "typical" black person; in fact, as a kid, I caught a lot of flack from other black people because I "acted white". I spoke proper. Always had my head in a book. Wasn’t very interested in singing or dance groups. In high school and college, I got to hear all the fun names that goes along struggling with black identity—like oreo or zebra. Fun, fun times. See, this is why I don’t like thinking about high school days.

It got to the point where I felt more "black" among my white friends than I did with other blacks. So I hung out with whites more. It was where I felt the most comfortable. The way I figured it,

Now, fast forward to this past March. I’m attending our Wiscon Book Club, Beer and Marmalade, and one of the things we decide to talk about was a racism discussion that’s been happening on LiveJournal appropriately called "RaceFail 2009". I’m not going to spell out the whole history of that; clicking on the link would give you an idea, although you can get a more detailed history of the whole mess at Ann Somerville’s LiveJournal. But anyway—I didn’t really want to do it, as any discussion about race makes me highly uncomfortable. But I dutifully read some of the essays out there, and I came across this post "We worry about it Too".

That essay hit a strong nerve with me.

You see, when I started writing, I had prided myself on being a ‘black’ writer of speculative fantasy. I figured it would make me stand out more, especially since I was writing a fantasy novel that contained black characters in it. Heck, it had a black woman who was a main character. But when I first wrote Willow, she wasn’t the main protagonist. The young man she protects, the white male, he was the protagonist. Most of the book was written from his point of view, as well as several others who were white.

I once took a draft of Willow’s Synopsis to an agent at the Midwest Writer’s Conference a while back. One of the things she said was, "It looks like the female character is stronger than the male. Why isn’t this in her point of view?" And I just stared at her, because 1) it didn’t really occur to me to write in the black female’s point of view, and 2) deep down, it scared me. Who was I, a black woman, mind you, to know what an actual black woman felt like?

(And yes, I know most of my short stories have black characters as the main protagonist—but it’s different when you write sci/fi or plain speculative, because it’s easier to picture black people in the future. But in fantasy? Most are set within Eurocentric settings; any black people would be relegated to an African tribal status.)

My sister, who has a LiveJournal of her own, puts it down the best way when it comes to her writing fanfiction: "I write about white characters because that’s what I read when I grew up." I’m the exact same way. I’ve grown so used to seeing white males in fantasy that when I started writing a fantasy novel, it was easy to fall into that same line of thinking.

My realization about my main characters came before I read that essay by Nojojojo, of course. But the timing couldn’t have been better. Because I read it just when I started my second rewrite of Willow’s prologue. And it made me seriously think. Am I writing from this character’s POV because it’s what I’m used to, or should I write from this other character to give him/her more of a voice in the book?

It’s a hard thing to juggle, but I’ve rewritten the prologue and chapter 1 of Willow, and I think that so far, both have come out a lot stronger. I’m eager to see this novel through Coren’s eyes. It’s risky, but it’s also very exciting.

That’s how I feel about this whole RaceFail thing. Sure, a lot of people on both sides have vented and/or said very stupid things (I almost don’t read comments anymore), but some very insightful and deep discussion has come because of this. And there are attempts to further the conversation. Wiscon will be holding its first Cultural Appropriation Class (I mentioned this in my last post), and luckily, I’ll be able to attend that. There’s also been a great promotion to read more fantasy and sci/fi by people of color, which I highly, highly recommend (and I’ve started doing myself). There’s also a new small press in the works called Verb Noire who caters specifically to people of color in the scifi/fantasy community. Worth checking out.

This is probably the best time to be a black speculative fiction writer. We’re forging into new territory here. It’s scary, risky and it’s never really been done before. But it’s long overdue. And I think this whole experience is helping to strengthen my own identity as a black writer. For the first time, I can own up to that and really feel like I mean it, instead of feeling like some imposter.

Of course, my hubby would suggest that’s because inside of me there’s a Japanese girl perpetually stuck at age thirteen, but that’s not true. She’s sixteen. That’s a world of difference.