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Zetta Elliott Headshot

Trayvon -- Killed by an Idea

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In 2009, a year after the publication of my first picture book, Bird, I wrote an open letter to the children's publishing industry. I appealed to the overwhelmingly white and middle-class editors, marketers, and artistic directors in the hope that they would embrace diversity and work toward achieving true equity within an industry that purports to serve all of America's children:

We need books that can help to restructure environments and attitudes that are hostile to our children's survival. What I am trying to say to children's publishers is that the lack of books for children in our communities is a matter of life and death. I am not asking you to level the playing field as a "favor" to people of color. I am asking you to work with us in our efforts to transform children's lives. Isn't that why you chose this field in the first place?

Almost three years have passed and in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, I find myself wondering whether that urgent message will ever get through to the children's publishing industry. At this moment in history -- and in this particular political climate -- children of color are under attack. They are the most vulnerable among us, and they fight daily against forces that seek to distort, marginalize, and silence them. In Tucson, city officials have dismantled the Mexican American Studies Program that educated, empowered, and improved the academic performance of so many students. Their justification for eliminating classes (and educators) that taught young people about Mexican American history and culture? Fear that teaching young people about this country's long history of social injustice will foster "resentment toward a race or class of people" (read: whites). Yet for decades, the U.S. media has done precisely that by misrepresenting young black men as violent, predatory criminals.

In "Young, Black, Male, and Stalked by Bias," Brent Staples rightly observes that boys like Trayvon "know that in far too many settings they will be seen not as individuals, but as the 'other'... they are well versed in the experience of being treated as criminals." Some boys succumb to the stereotypes, but others manage to resist, insisting upon their right to define themselves. Yet how often do we get to see the black boys who are brilliant chess masters? Staples argues that "Society's message to black boys -- 'we fear you and view you as dangerous' -- is constantly reinforced," and he concludes that "Trayvon Martin was killed by a very old idea that will likely take generations and an enormous cultural transformation to dislodge."

Books have a vital role to play in that cultural transformation, yet few of the players within the children's publishing industry seem to understand that fact. Or perhaps they understand their power all too well and simply refuse to surrender the privilege that comes with dominance (the Cooperative Children's Book Center compiles data that shows white authors write 95% of the books published for children each year in the U.S.). And even when authors of color manage to beat the odds, we face other challenges--a reviewer of my latest novel, Ship of Souls, called one of my characters "a stereotypical black jock" despite my very deliberate effort to craft characters that accurately reflect the depth and diversity among black youth. The character in question, Hakeem Diallo, is a fourteen year old star athlete but he's also Muslim and biracial (with a Senegalese father and Bangladeshi mother); he's determined to graduate from college and secretly dreams of becoming a chef. The only thing stereotypical about Hakeem is that he's yet another black boy in a hoodie who gets misread, both within the novel and by a careless book reviewer. Brent Staples explains this seeming inability to see beyond type:

Very few Americans make a conscious decision to subscribe to racist views. But the toxic connotations that the culture has associated with blackness have been embedded in thought, language and social convention for hundreds of years. This makes it easy for people to see the world through a profoundly bigoted lens without being aware that they are doing so.

So how do we shatter this distorting lens when the children's publishing industry seems determined to uphold the status quo? Take a moment and consider how many members of the children's literature community spoke out about Trayvon. I can only think of two bloggers who clearly demonstrated an understanding of the connection between race, representation, and justice. I teach and I write, but too often feel like I'm preaching to the choir. I believe that the work I do matters, but it didn't save Trayvon Martin or any of the other youth of color who have lost their lives and their voices to what Audre Lorde called "the final silence."

Book Expo America is coming up in June. Publishing professionals will gather once again in New York City to discuss trends and debate the future of the industry. Imagine what it might mean if those same professionals took a moment to consider what they owe Trayvon Martin and all the other teens of color who don't see themselves reflected in young adult literature. Imagine what it might mean if they realized that a broader range of images in books might have created a different set of assumptions in the mind of George Zimmerman (or Anders Breivik). I wish publishers recognized that they have the power to help undo the distortions that are destroying our youth.