Friday, October 28, 2016

#1000blackgirlbooks reading challenge

Earlier this year I came across this article about a young girl in New Jersey who was collecting books with black, female protagonists under the hashtag #1000blackgirlbooks.  Her name is Marley Dias, and she was tired of reading books about white boys and/or their dogs. We’ve talked in class about representation, both in watching MissRepresentation and with the election.  One area we haven’t delved into is literature. 
I was that bookworm child who grew up to be an English Lit major.  I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, and luckily I had a mother who made sure that most of what I got my hands on were books with female protagonists.  But, like Marley, I hadn’t been exposed to that many books about people of color.  We read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in middle school, but that was about it. 
                It wasn’t until college that I learned how much the study of literature was shaped by the stories of white men.  In junior year I took a class entirely devoted to reading Toni Morrison’s novels.  It was in that class that I developed a conviction that I not only needed to be reading more books by women and authors of color, but I needed to be actively encouraging others to do so as well.  Law school dulled that conviction a bit.  So, when I read about Marley’s quest to give other girls that looked like her heroes to read about, I was ashamed to look at the books that I had brought to Davis with me. 
                I own over 500 books.  I had taken a full hour to decide which of my favorites to bring with me.  As I looked around my bedroom I saw that of the 15 or so books I had brought along, only 2 novels written by women, and just 1 other was written a non-white man.  I was surrounded by books written by middle-aged, white men: Tolstoy, Lewis, Tolkien, Martin.  I made a promise to myself to pick out books to diversify my Davis library the next time I visited my parents. 
                A few months after the article highlighting Marley's bookdrive came out, BeyoncĂ©’s visual album Lemonade was released.   Of the many responses to the album, my favorite was the Lemonade Syllabus.  For it, Candice Benbow sorted through submissions from Twitter of books, poetry, movies, and more that further spoke to the themes of black womanhood that are found in Lemonade.  I looked at the list of novels, and didn’t recognize any names beyond Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston.  I felt disappointment in myself.  Here I was, 3 years after that class in undergrad, without having progressed any further. 

                So, I renewed my promise, and I challenge you to do the same.  Every other (nonacademic) book I read will be written by either a woman or a person of color, preferably a woman of color.  So much of what we believe as a culture is formed by so called “classic” stories.  But we get to choose what is classic.  If enough of us read books by people who are not white men, we can shift the standard, and, hopefully, make it so that there never needs to be another #1000blackgirlbooks campaign.  

7 comments:

Julie Maguire said...

Josie,

This post has opened my eyes to the total lack of diversity that exists on my own bookshelves. Almost all of my favourite authors are white males and, furthermore, the majority of the novels i find myself reading centre around white protagonists. I, like you, read very often and have never once considered what an issue this is. I have been so encompassed in following the 'Best-Sellers' lists I have entirely neglected diversity in my reading.

It makes me wonder if the issue comes subconsciously from myself or is it a much larger problem? Do I read these books because I believe I will enjoy them, or do I read them because they are the only things that have been advertised toward me and my peers?

Having read this post I shall definitely be making more conscious efforts to have more diversity in future books I read.

Joan Maya said...

Josie,

I think you and I would have been friends as little kids! I too was an avid reader growing up, and spent many a rainy Seattle day parked next to the heater reading a book. However, I found that since adolescence I have been reading books written by female authors of color. I had never really thought of why this might be before reading this post, but after some pondering I have come up with a couple of theories.

First, I went to an all girls high school that was adamant about instilling the students with pride in being girls and knowledge about different cultures. Also, all of my English teachers in high school were all women and two were women of color. I think these two factors combined to expose me to many books written by female authors of color.

Second, as a mixed woman I may have consciously or subconsciously chosen novels written by women I identified with or issues that related more to my life than what would be found in a book written by a white male.

For anyone trying to read more books written by female authors of color the list from this article is a great starting point (http://www.browngirlmagazine.com/2016/03/fifteen-female-authors-of-color-you-need-to-know/). On the list are Jhumpa Lahiri and Julia Alvarez, two of my all time favorite authors!!

Louise Trainor said...

Josie,

Thank you for this important reminder that what we read can give us an inaccurate outlook of society. I also read a lot as a child but I don't ever recall reading a book with a black female protagonist. This was not intentional, books of this kind were simply not marketed to appeal to children.

There is little to no diversity in my home country of Ireland. I grew up reading mainly books by Irish authors, predominantly white males. It never occurred to a ten year-old Louise that I should be exploring different ethnicities and cultures through my reading. As a result, I had an extremely narrow perception of humanity as a child. It is only when I reached my teens and started my second-level education that I began to fully understand the racial divides in some societies.

I came across this uplifting article yesterday which is very fitting for this discussion. British actress and self-proclaimed feminist Emma Watson is leaving Maya Angelou books in subway stations to encourage people to read more books by female black authors!

Louise Trainor said...

My link never sent in the previous comment: http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2016/11/09/emma-watson-is-leaving-maya-angelou-books-on-the-nyc-subway/

Anaaf said...

Based on where I grew up, my experience in could be different in some ways. As an Arab girl I got to real lots of books written by Arab writers, most were written by men but I would like to think that I have been exposed to a fair amount of female Arab writers.

Now here is where it gets tricky. I am ashamed to announce that white men wrote every single world classic book I have ever read, maybe a hand full were written by white women. White masculine hegemony cultural domination. This is a hierarchy male society, and it sadly shows in the literary work produced by white male authors. That is what was advertised to me as world classics.

Kyle Kate Dudley said...

This post is so important, Josie. I, too, have an un-diversified bookshelf, though I've loved Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Isabel Allende for a long time, those are literally the only women of Color who came to mind when I read your post. This is particularly important for me as I am an Educational Rights Holder for a young woman of Color and am constantly trying to send her books that will inspire her. I think to really inspire her, her books need to have protagonists she can fully relate to. I went to the 1000 Black Girl Books Resource Guide and have decided to print her Marley's Welcome along with some suggestions from the list that I'll send her if she's interested. She might say no (as she's a teenager), but I don't think so. I think she'll get as excited as I have.

(http://grassrootscommunityfoundation.org/1000-black-girl-books-resource-guide/#1458589376556-1fa71d56-6d86)

Earnest Femingway said...

I am late to the comment party on this post, but it is such a great concept I couldn't resist. I really think your personal challenge can be spread out to so many other aspects of culture. I think I am going to engage in a similar venture related to my music consumption. (I wish we even had the option with our academic books.)

I also wanted to comment on the phenomenon of classic stories; this sort of thinking persists not just in entertainment but in history as well. The mushy concepts of "importance" and "greatness" are too often associated with male acts, denying true history. Underlying all of this is the lack of acknowledgment and appreciation for women's roles in defining artistic genres and guiding history. The new movie Hidden Figures is bucking all of these trends. It is about three black women's role in John Glenn's successful first orbit around the earth and was written by a black women. Going to see it is a great opportunity to show this kind of entertainment has a ready audience, and that we want more of the same.