Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘racism

I’m not a nice person.

I’m not a good person.

I’m not a kind person.

This isn’t to say that I don’t ever try to be any of these three things.  I do, especially the last two.

It’s more to say that, for me, surviving in this cissexist, racist, ableist, heteronormative, classist, often fucked up world of ours has involved rejecting the idea that “good” and “bad” are static states of being.  I will never be a “good person” because, to me, “good” is not something that you achieve.  It’s an ongoing process that never ends.

It is, in fact, almost impossible not to be doing bad things as well as good when you are human and therefore flawed.  Especially when you are part of a messed up system, as we all are.

This, to me, is why it’s important to call out bad behavior, or hurtful language, or even ways of framing the world that make it easier to ignore harm that is being done to others.

Not because people deserve to be shamed or judged or called out, but because we are all fish who sometimes forget that the water is there, and part of helping each other do better involves pointing out when we didn’t do as well as we could have.

Since the world is complex (and not just in bad ways), the fact that we have the same goals doesn’t mean that we will always agree.  It may not always be possible to determine who was “right” and who was wrong about the choices people make or the words they use.

But this is where my librarian training kicks in and points out that more speech is better than less.  That it’s better to let people know what it is that you think they could have done better, so that they can decide for themselves if they want to change or not, rather than never giving them that option.  It’s also important to be specific about it, so that no one is left second guessing everything they do and say.

To me, it’s a sign of trust, to tell someone when what they did or said hurt you.  That’s not a thing you tell people when you think they won’t care.  Or worse, will use it to hurt you more.

When I tell people that what they said was sexist, or racist, or otherwise hurtful, I don’t do it because I want to hurt them. I don’t do it because I think they are bad people.  I don’t do it because I think they are irredeemably sexist, while I’m a perfect feminist, a model for everyone to follow.  I’m not specific about what they did wrong simply because I want to nitpick, I promise you that I have better things to do with my time.

I do it because this is what I truly believe, and because I have faith in their ability and willingness to do good things.  And most of all because I have faith that they will respect my opinion even if they disagree with it.

So I want to ask everyone out there who is asking all us to “keep YA kind” to remember that, while criticism is hard to take, criticism is not lack of kindness.  It’s often a measure of trust.

Everyone has flaws, everyone messes up.  That includes you, that includes me.  That includes the author you admire, the friend that has always been there for you, the teacher that inspired generations.

That someone is “good people” should never be an excuse for not listening, or used to admonish others for speaking.  Because “good” is something that you make the decision to do every second of every day, not something that you acquire and then use as a shield.

I have so much more to say on so many things that has happened this past week.  And so many links to smart women who you should really listen to more than me.  Hopefully I’ll even manage to make some link lists and get those words out and onto paper – er, pixels.  But I wanted to start with that, because I think it’s the most fundamental.

If you don’t trust that I am trying to do good as well, that my anger is a sign of hurt and not hate, that the opinions I express are genuine and not merely performative, that I am in fact trying to be kind to a great number of people, even when you disagree with me, even when I say things that hurt you or your friends or make you uncomfortable, then this conversation is never going to go anywhere.

Instead, “kindness” will once again become a way to reinforce the status quo, rather than a call to be more compassionate and empathetic.

Instead both “kind” and “good” will be used to avoid examining the problems we most certainly have, a way to once again NOT have the hard and complicated and uncomfortable conversations that are long overdue.

cover image for The Freedom MAzeThe Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Thirteen year old Sophie longs for an adventure like the ones she reads about in books. But instead, she’s stuck spending the summer of 1960 with her aunt and bedridden grandmother, in a smallish house at the edge of what was once a grand sugar plantation.  So she passes time reading books and exploring the bayou, waiting for fall to come.  Until the day she attempts to find her way through the once magnificent hedge maze, and finds something unexpected at the other end.

This is not a book that I can be objective about, in any way.

My maternal grandfather’s family comes from Georgia.  My mother grew up in the south – the deep south – in the 1950s and 1960s.  Until she turned 13 and her family moved to California, finally to stay.

In the Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman has written a story that doesn’t often get told. A story about family ties denied and forgotten – and others that are unbreakable even against the greatest of odds.  About what the antebellum south was really like – and about what it means to be nostalgic for a time when owning other people was legal.

I feel like she’s telling me the story of my family that no one ever admits to.

My uncles will joke about being taught about “the War of Northern Aggression.”  And my mother has rarely ever looked as sad as she did when I asked her, incredulously, if her hometown had separate water fountains when she was growing up.  But it always feels like there’s so much missing.  So much left unsaid.

My family would not find it flattering that I see us in these pages, but oh how I do.

It’s true that in making this story about Sophie, Sherman has centered Sophie’s point of view and growing awareness of her privilege over the the experiences and courage of her newly discovered family.  Which is frustrating for obvious reasons.

And yet…

And yet I know that this is a story that needs to be told as well.  My niece needs to grow up understanding what it means that her family is from the south.  It’s not enough that she maybe sort of learn it once she’s an adult.

And I don’t know how to explain it to her, in large part because I don’t really have that understanding myself.

But I can give her this book.

cover imafe for Ellington Was Not A StreetEllington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

it hasn’t always been this way
ellington was not a street

Once upon a time, the greats of the Harlam Renaissance were more than just a memory.  They talked and laughed and sang and played and discussed the issues and events of the day.  Presented from the point of view of a young girl whose house was a gathering place for these great men, Ellington Was Not a Street shows readers how solid and real and human these legends were.  Told in poetry and pictures, Nelson’s rich and detailed illustrations are a perfect compliment to Shange’s elegant language.

The short biographies at the end was a wonderful addition, but the book did leave me wondering where all the women were.

cover image for Thunder RoseThunder Rose by Jerdine Nolen, illustrations by Kadir Nelson

Rose was born on an auspicious night, against a backdrop of thunder and lightning. Her parents knew as early as that first night that Rose was something special, full of power and talents beyond that of ordinary children.  As she grew, so too did the tales about the amazing things Rose could do.  But when drought threatens her family’s cattle, and the survival of her frontier town, can Rose fight weather itself to bring rain and thunder back to her home?

Told in the tall tale tradition, Thunder Rose is an engaging and delightful story of a confident young heroine.  The rhythm and imagery of Nolen’s words evokes the folklore that inspired her book, and Nelson’s illustrations are as wonderful as ever, with action and expression on each page.

cover image for Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Rolihlahla became Nelson when he began school and his teacher refused to call him by his Xhosa name.  Although life was not fair or easy for blacks in South Africa, Nelson Mandela worked hard and eventually became a lawyer.  As the South African government enacted more and more discriminatory and unfair policies, Nelson used his talents and education to defend his people.  Despite the danger of speaking out against apartheid, Mandela became a leader, organizing rallies in support of the rights of blacks and enduring years in jail in his fight for a better South Africa.

Kadir Nelson’s illustrations never fail disappoint, but this is a particularly gorgeous book.  His style is the perfect compliment to the history being told, presenting moments of quiet reflection or vibrant energy as needed.

cover image for We Are The ShipWe Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

The rule that barred blacks from joining the National and American leagues was never posted on a sign or written into law, but that didn’t make it any less real.  So greats like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson played instead for the Homestead Grays and other teams in the Negro League.  Adored by fans and treated like stars when they would tour in Latin America, the players in the Negro League still had to often take care to leave town before sundown when they were on tour in the US.

Full of stunning paintings and amazing stories, Kadir Nelson’s award winning book shares a part of history that is often overlooked.  While Nelson’s artwork is always the star of his books, the research and skill that went into the text is noteworthy as well.  Told in vernacular and from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who was alive to see the Negro Leagues in action, We Are the Ship‘s memorable voice appropriately centers the black experience rather than assuming a white audience.  The dynamic artwork captures a variety of experiences and moments, and suitably brings to mind both Norman Rockwell paintings and sports photography.

cover image for Coretta ScottCoretta Scott by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

When Coretta Scott was a young girl, she would walk five miles in the early morning dew just to attend school, while the white children rode the bus to theirs.  When she grew to be an adult she fought for equality, tirelessly and despite personal tragedy.

Shange’s poetry is once again elegant and evocative, while the repetition in Nelson’s always remarkable paintings this time also echo the rhythm of the text.  A part of me wanted more particulars in the poem about her work after her marriage, but the  short biography at the end of the book helped with that.

Here is the breakdown of the massive list I posted on Monday:

I read a total of 207 books last year.

bar graph of types of books read in 2013

Nearly a third (68) were young adult books, and another third were board books and picture books (25 and 45, respectively).  Middle grade novels (28) and adult novels and stories (35) each made up another sixth of what I read last year.  I also read a handful of easy readers and non-fiction books (4 each).

80%  (169) of the books I read last year were written by women, but only 14% (29) were written by writers of color.


I’m not terribly concerned that only 20% of the books I read were written by men; there are plenty of people with much more influence than I do that seem to read and talk about only male writers, so it can’t possibly hurt for me to read and talk up female writers.  In fact, it’s clearly still needed. Also, I’m probably still balancing out what I read when I was younger.

That 14% does concern me though, especially considering what I do.  My reading and talking about that low a percentage of authors of color doesn’t just impact my circle of friends and what they read, it means that when I do reader’s advisory, when I create book lists and displays, and when I order books for the library, the vast majority of the books that come to mind will be by white writers.  Even if I try to do searches and peruse recommended lists in order to make these all more balanced, the titles I find that way are not going to take emotional priority or stay in my head the way that the books I’ve actually read will. Which means that I’m not doing my job and that I’m failing the children I’m supposed to serve.

So my goal for this year is to double that percentage, for at least one third of the books I read this year to be by a writer of color.

I hope to eventually increase that number to an even larger percentage, to better match the demographics among children in the US.  But I also know that only 10% of the children’s books published in the United States are written by an author of color, and I don’t know at what point (if ever) that reality will begin to make such goals difficult.  And for this year (because of my time and budget) I wanted to start with a goal that I know is easily doable.

I have a confession to make: I’m quite sexist at times.

I blame myself when random men on the street harass me. I think I’m an awful person for being as fat and out of shape as I am. I wonder if I’m really any good at science and math. I worry that I’m wasting my talents working with children.

I think that what I have to say isn’t important or useful.

This is why I call out sexist assholes. Why I let my anger color my voice when I do.

I do it so that I don’t explode. So that the doubts in my head don’t take over. Because it’s a better choice than razor blades.

I don’t do it for them or for you, I do it for me. Because sometimes I need to hear the truth spoken out loud, even if it’s just me saying it.

I don’t use my anger to purge myself, I use it as an affirmation.

I don’t need to justify my anger to you. It doesn’t exist for your benefit.
It most especially doesn’t need to pressed, folded, and packed into a form that pleases you. It doesn’t need to be locked away so that you aren’t disturbed or frightened or “saddened.”

It’s not a weakness or a poison. It’s the stubbornness that keeps me going when people treat me like shit. It’s the sense of righteousness that placed twelve year old me between the bully and his target before I’d even realized what I’d done.

Most of all though, it just is. It’s there the same way that happiness is. The same way that I like pickles and geometry. Or the way my brain never seems to shut off.

I’ve had this temper of mine all my life and I don’t need you to teach me how and when to reign it in, I learned that from my parents. I don’t need you to show me how to make it work with me and not against me, I figured that out on my own while standing on the field in my cleats and giving death glares to the ref who missed my teammate being fouled. I’ve known how to use it to make myself faster, sharper, stronger for almost as long as I’ve known how to read.

I don’t need you to tell me what my anger is good for.

I don’t need you to tell me that I’m not being polite. That I’m not convincing you. That I’m only making myself look bad.

I’m not angry for your benefit. I do not exist for your benefit. When I speak, I do not do so for your benefit.

Except for the times that I do.

Not because I’m trying to convince you that I’m right dammit!, but because I’m trying to convince you that you are. That you are awesome and wonderful and please never stop being that way. When I’m letting you know that, as far as I’m concerned, all those sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, classist, and transphobic assholes who even dare to imply otherwise can go take a long walk off a short pier.

The privileged may think that they’re always the center of every conversation that women have about sexism. They may be incapable of comprehending that they are not the focus of every discussion that people of color have about racism. But you and I both know that not every “you” is about them. That not every conversation has to include them, sway them, or plead with them in order to be productive.

That’s the fucking point.

Communities and conversations do not belong to them and them alone. They are not theirs to hold hostage when we misbehave.

They may think that we are the ones that turn everything into a battle. That we invade their world and divide it into groups to which they don’t belong. But we know that all we are doing is taking the war that has been waged on our bodies, our hearts, and our minds and forcing it back into the space we all share, where it belongs. Where it can be dealt with without tearing us apart from the inside. We know that we have always been here, just like them, and that it’s their choice to refuse to meet us as equals.
I don’t expect everyone to be perfect. I don’t expect people to never make mistakes. Goodness knows I make plenty of them myself.

What I ask is that you remember that there are all kinds of “yous” in this world and in our organizations. That you contemplate that just maybe you aren’t who I’m taking to every time I open my mouth. That you aren’t the person I’m primarily addressing when I point out hate and bias and stereotypes.

But most of all, that you not let the Bryan Thomas Schmidts of the world tell you that you aren’t. Don’t let them trick you into thinking that they are the only ones that need to be persuaded, as if we were merely humble petitioners. Don’t let them confuse you into thinking that I wrote this post for anyone but you.

(If you haven’t yet, please read Amal El-Mohtar’s initial and follow-up posts for background. And also just because they’re really good.)

Dear SFWA,

SFWA members,

and fellow interested parties,

I’m not a member of SFWA. I don’t write science fiction – or any other kind of fiction.

What I am is a librarian. A youth services librarian, to be precise.  Since speculative fiction is one of the most popular genres in children’s and young adult literature right now, I think it’s safe to say that my goals and yours are often in alignment.

After all, you want to get your books into the hands of readers and I want to get books into my readers hands!  These may not be our only goals, of course, but as far as goals go, they rank fairly high.  As a fellow professional, I appreciate all the hard work you do to make that possible.  From supporting your members financially and legally to singling out their best work for praise and honors – and much more.

But we need to have a talk, because I’ve been hearing some pretty disturbing things lately.

I cannot say in strong enough words how much Beale’s actions, and SFWA silence on the matter, offends me not just as a private individual, but also as a library professional.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we librarians take issues of freedom of speech very seriously.  We don’t like it when ideas are silenced or people are denied access to information just because the ideas or the people in question are unpopular.  We’ve even been known to do what we can to render laws unenforceable when we think they infringe upon our patrons’ right to read – or even their right to privacy (since the former depends a great deal on the latter).

Defending the public’s right to read can be trickier than it sounds at first. Librarians have learned over the years that sometimes this requires placing limits on people’s behavior while they are in the library.  Solicitation, making loud noises, or being hostile to fellow patrons are all ways in which private individuals can infringe upon others’ right to free speech within the library.  All of these, harassment especially, disrupts people’s ability to make their own reading choices in privacy and without fear. It’s not just a matter of fighting back chaos, it’s about respecting everyone.  Not just the people who are the loudest or most demanding.

The SFWA is not a library, nor is it a workplace.  But it is supposed to be a professional venue.  The same basic concepts about free speech and workplace harassment apply.

US law says that Beale has every right to whatever opinions he has on any subject.  He has every right to express them – in his own space, on his own time.  I’m certainly not going to advocate for libraries start filtering access to his site.  I wouldn’t even be opposed, assuming space and budget and collection development policies indicate it would be a good choice, for his opinions to be neatly shelved alongside all our other books, where patrons may choose to read or ignore them as they wish.  It can hardly be more inflammatory than Mein Kampf or less scientific than the latest book by Glenn Beck.

But the moment that Beale used SFWA resources to promote his opinions is the moment that he made his speech more than just about him and his own rights and his own opinions.  He’s made it about you – all of you – about your integrity, about your professionalism, and about your good judgement.

This is the part that worries me.

As a librarian, I like being able to look over the titles of the Norton award winners and nominees.  It has been one of the many resources I can go to for suggestions on what to buy or recommend to my teenaged patrons, and it’s been a very interesting and helpful one.

But recent events, and your silence about them, threatens the integrity of this resource.

Beale may have his own opinions about the the capabilities of “a society of NK Jemisins” but I have professional obligations to my young patrons.  Obligations which includes fostering their hopes and building up their skills and resources, even for those patrons Beale would deride as “savages.”  When I choose books for my library’s shelves, for library programs and displays, I choose them based not only on literary merit, but also on what they offer my patrons in terms of interest, personal growth, and joy.  When I go to various resources for suggestions and advice, as the sheer volume of books requires that I often do, I’m making a choice to trust the judgement of others.  This includes trusting them – trusting you – to, unlike Beale, see all my patrons as worthy of respect.

You can see my dilemma now. For the problem now is not just that Beale is one of your own, but that he has appropriated your voice.  In blatant disregard of your own policies yes, but unless there are appropriate repercussions for such actions, there must be doubt about your commitment to your own policies.  Doubt about your our own integrity.

What does that say about your judgement?  The judgement I have until now relied upon?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you, individual SFWA member, if I continue to pay attention to the Norton nominees and winner each year, or if I don’t.  It matters to me, though.  When I say that I use the list of Norton nominees as a resource, I say this as a librarian and a reader who has passion for the genre and experience evaluating it.

And when I say that the Norton Award will mean nothing to me, going forward, without Beale’s expulsion, I say this as a librarian who knows my own library’s collection well.  I know that what is most missing from my library’s collection are stories by and about the very people Beale has insulted and dehumanized.  We already have Tolkien and Heinlein.  We will continue to purchase Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman’s latest whether they are nominated for the Norton or not.  What I need are reminders to make room in the budget for stories like Akata Witch, Above, Hereville, and Ash.  Books that tell my most marginalized and oft forgotten patrons that they, too, belong in the library. That they, too, belong to a world of stories and worlds of possibilities.

But how can I trust you to help me with that when you can’t even manage to treat your own members with respect?  What is your judgement worth, if it fails to understand the difference between private speech and blatant disregard for organizational policy and goals?  What am I saying to my own patrons if I trust the judgement of people who associate with men who refer to them as “savages”?  If I trust the integrity of people who make excuses for shocking displays of racism?

If you lack the most basic respect for your own members, if you lack the most basic belief in the humanity of the patrons I serve – of the youth I serve – then I have no use for you.


Jenny Kristine Thurman