wearetheship
"We are the Ship" written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, the 2009 CSK author award recipient

There's talk in the literary blogosphere surrounding the Coretta Scott King Book Award. The reason for the debate: some folk think it's racist.

My first reaction: are they serious?

Unfortunately, they are.

A little background: The CSK was founded by two school librarians and is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. In 1982, the American Library Association recognized the award. Its mission: Given to African American authors and illustrators for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions, the Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream. Several prominent and emerging illustrators and writers have received the award including Julius Lester, Bryan Collier, Sharon Draper, Javaka Steptoe, and Angela Johnson.

On Editorial Anonymous, the blog of an unnamed children's book editor, there's this:

So there's a need to encourage stories, books, TV shows, films, etc that show all kinds of races as heroes, as heartthrobs, as neighbors. Encouraging people to see the world from points of view other than their own is a wonderful thing. Encouraging people to see people of all races as simply people is a wonderful thing.

But that's not what the CSK is doing. If the CSK were in charge, male writers wouldn't be able to comment on what it's like to be a woman. The CSK is saying that you cannot understand what it is to be black in America unless you are black.

Giving an award for creating art about the experience of race is a wonderful thing. But giving an award for creating art and being a particular race?

That's racism in action.

Hmm, that's racism? Really?

Do I even need to address the faulty reasoning that the CSK implies that male writers wouldn't be able to comment on what it's like to be a woman? I mean, really.

And hell, the CSK doesn't have to suggest that you cannot understand what it's like to be black in America unless you are black (for the record, that's not what the award suggests). I'll say it, because it's true. Just like I'll never truly understand what it feels like to be born blind or male. I can sympathize, appreciate our commonalities, and try my best at understanding, but it just can't be done. Sorry.

That's not to say that someone who is nonblack can't write fully developed, realized, and realistic black characters and vice versa. Great fiction/writing is a beautiful thing and I've already addressed that.

But that's completely off-topic and not what this debate is about.

Here's a well-articulated defense of the CSK written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, vice president and executive editor at Scholastic, which appeared in the September/October 2001 issue of "Horn Book Magazine." She's a black woman who's worked in children's publishing for more years than the young people she serves. In other words: she's a rarity. Here's what she wrote:

I have worked in publishing for sixteen years. I can count the number of black children's book editors on fewer than my ten black fingers. While there is a growing interest in multiculturalism, many publishing professionals and librarians don't push themselves to expand their knowledge. This is not because they make a conscious choice to ignore other cultures. In my opinion, it is simply a matter of out of sight, out of mind - another example of "unintentional neglect."

Similarly, many young people coming into publishing and librarianship come from predominantly white colleges or communities. Many times they have very limited exposure to people and experiences other than their own. Yet these are the publishers and awards-committee members of tomorrow.

Thank goodness there are awards such as the CSK and Pura Belpré, awards that shine a deserving spotlight on not only some of the best books of the year but the authors and illustrators of color who create them. For some of these young people just coming into the field, this will be as far as they seek to find the works of ethnic authors and illustrators. Fortunately, these awards give them a place to begin. Solid ground on which to stand.

Fast-forward, seven years to when I interviewed Pinkney. In reference to the popularity and acceptance of stories by black writers and/or about black children, she told me, "The doors are opening, but we still have a ways to go. Many stories are still not being told."

Trust I've sat in on my share of editorial meetings where the decisions about what books will be published happen. And almost always, I was the only person of color in attendance. This was not the 60s.

I asked Deborah Taylor, chair of the CSK Awards committee, what she thought about all of this. Here's what she said:

"One of the goals of the Coretta Scott King Book Award is to encourage African-American writers to participate in the world of children's publishing and to bring attention to the outstanding work they produce. As long as there are a relatively small numbers of African-Americans in the field, the Coretta Scott King Awards remain relevant as a tool to bring the proper attention to the work of these authors and illustrators and to provide them a much needed chance in the spotlight."

So if we're actually questioning whether or not the CSK is necessary in showcasing the works of black writers and illustrators and the stories of black people, the answer is an easy yes.

But is that what we're really concerned about? What's also implied in these arguments against the CSK is that “other” writers (white ones) are losing out because of their ineligibility. Sounds like a classic argument to maintain superiority to me. In this case, it's a stance that doesn't acknowledge the writers and illustrators that the prize actually helps/highlights. And why these writers and illustrators deserve help in the first place.

While Editorial Anonymous's argument is based upon the idea that in order to move toward a racism-free society we must banish anything that isn't all-inclusive, common sense tells us that the CSK is not at the heart of America's racist problem. The institutions and practices built upon racist ideologies are the problem. The CSK award program is not one of them.

So before we attack this award, let's spend our time trying to dismantle all the practices that made it necessary in the first place. Those are still alive and well. But folk don't really want to talk about race in this country. It's so much easier to attack the minority: one literary award out of many, most of which don't hesitate to neglect diversity.