Women of color stand at the "intersection" of race and gender--a unique location that comes with its own set of challenges. The invisibility black women often face was perfectly encapsulated in the title of a 1982 anthology, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some Of Us Are Brave. So as Black History Month transitions into Women's History Month, I thought I'd ask another woman of color to discuss strategies for engaging teens with race, gender, and history.
Neesha Meminger is the author of Shine, Coconut Moon, which was named a 2009 Smithsonian Notable Book for Children. Neesha's also a brilliant blogger--don't miss her provocative post on writing about the Other: "Hood Passes and Home Invasions."
In an online review of my young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, a mother recently wrote of her admiration for Genna, my black teen protagonist:
She is honest, intelligent, and level-headed for a young woman who has been snatched from the twenty-first century and thrown back to 1863. I'm sure most of us would have fallen apart, at least for a while, but [Genna] takes stock and adjusts to her surroundings. She's the type of heroine you want your daughter to read about.
Girls like Genna didn't appear in any of the books I read as a child, and it was important for me to create a character who embodied the strength and resiliency that I know so many urban teens possess. I also wanted to give Genna the opportunity to actively engage with history rather than passively waiting for something to happen to her. History was one of my favorite subjects in school, yet it wasn't until graduate school that I was introduced to the long, impressive history of black women. I asked Neesha to describe the relationship women of color have (or have had) with history:
Women of color have been systemically written *out* of history. I can count on one hand the celebrated women of color I know about, because I didn't learn about any women of color when I was in school. For people who don't actively search for the achievements and accomplishments of women of color, I'm certain that the default belief is that women of color have contributed little to nothing toward the evolution of our world. Which is, of course, a flat-out lie, as evidenced by the women of color who are making news headlines in the present--women like Aung San Suu Kyi and Mukhtar Mai who are embodiments of courage, vision, and resistance in the face of tremendous odds. Will their names go down in history books? Unlikely, since most people--even today--haven't heard of them. What gets coverage in our media and what makes news headlines is a barometer of what our culture values. Take a look at the headlines in any mainstream form of media. How many women of color do you see?
After five years of rejection, I did start to wonder if my representation of terrorism and racial violence might be to blame for my inability to find a publisher for A Wish After Midnight . I started the novel in 2001--before 9/11--and Genna does reflect on the execution of Timothy McVeigh and his reasons for perpetrating the Oklahoma City bombing. I'm now working on the sequel, Judah's Tale, which begins on September 10, 2001.
In Shine, Coconut Moon, Neesha writes about a South Asian teen who's facing an identity crisis in the months following 9/11. I asked her why she chose to address this traumatic historical event in a novel for teens:
When I was writing Shine, Coconut Moon, I decided I could not write about a Sikh family in a post-9/11 world without also addressing the events of September 11th, 2001. Everyone I knew then was deeply affected, and it was an especially confusing and disillusioning time for the teens I was meeting--particularly South Asian teens who were now thrown into the position of having to choose to either DEFEND their religion/identity, or DISTANCE themselves from it.
I wanted to zero in on the struggle to come to terms with 1) who you are, which is a struggle ALL teens face, combined with 2) how the world sees/labels you, and 3) navigating all of that within a context of (tacitly or overtly) sanctioned hostility toward those who look like you. That's a struggle I strongly identified with, having grown up in Canada in the 1970s. The racism I experienced during that time was very similar to the racism many South Asians (and anyone who appeared to be Arab or Muslim) experienced in the days and months after the September 11th attacks. I remember in the '70s we were busy clarifying to our white classmates that we were not "Pakis" because we were not from Pakistan--we were from India. As if that would offer us some sort of protection. After September 11th, many Sikhs started up a campaign to show the world how Sikh turbans were different from Osama bin Laden's turban, and that Sikhs were not Muslims and, therefore, were not terrorists. In other words, "I am not THEM! Please don't hurt me."
When we grew into our teens, we were still surviving--but now we were having to make decisions around whether we would stand up and be proud of who we were, or if we would abandon our identities in favor of assimilating with the very folks who'd slung racial slurs at us. In September of 2001, I saw much of this repeated around me. I deal with a lot of this in the novel as 17-year-old Samar navigates this new American climate. Before that day, she was simply an American. After that day, she had to prove it.
As we come up on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, I hope readers will search for stories that reveal a different perspective on terrorism--the unique point of view belonging to those women who stand at the intersection of race and gender.
Follow Zetta Elliott on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zettaelliott