Thursday, July 7, 2016

Bearing Witness: Reflections on institutional racism & sharing books with children

"Librarians: In a world where some folks want to build walls, you give kids the tools to tear them down." -- Matt de la Peña, 2017 Newbery acceptance speech
Grief and outrage, a combination of intense sadness and overwhelming rage have been swirling together as I've tried to process violent, disturbing news over the last month. I know that this is my space for sharing books for children. I also need space to bear witness to the crisis our society is facing, and to frame my work as a librarian in light of this crisis.

Police brutality and institutional racism are disturbingly intertwined. This week in Louisiana and Minnesota, two black men were shot by police, further examples of the longstanding pattern of disparate, unfair treatment of black people. These are not isolated examples. This violence is upsetting and unacceptable. All of us must bear witness and speak up against it. I am honored to share this painting by Christian Robinson, in response to these tragic events.
painting by Christian Robinson, shared with permission
It is essential that we recognize the injustice, to add our voice to the outrage caused by this violence. It is even more important that we take time to listen to people of color and honor their experiences, their feelings, their voices. We must listen to friend, to authors, to our students when they talk about the impact that these events have.

Jason Reynold's poem "Machetes" reverberates in my heart and soul, especially this week. He wrote it for and read it aloud during the Coretta Scott King Book Awards last month in Orlando, FL. Please read it in its entirety and listen to Jason perform it with powerful, raw emotion.
(written for and read during Coretta Scott King Honor acceptance speech, 2016)

if you listen closely
you can hear the machetes
cutting the air
in half
connecting for half a second with something
breathing and growing
breathing and growing
before being chopped
down like sugar cane in a Louisiana field
yes there are machetes everywhere
the sound of them cutting the air

chop CHOP
chop CHOP

we try not
to bend in the wind
try not to bow or bow
try to wrap fingers around our own
saccharine souls
and brace ourselves
for the

chop CHOP
chop CHOP

the machetes
cutting the air in half
coming for us

seems like folks like us be best
when we broken open
when we melted down
when we easier to digest

[read the full poem on the CSK blog]
My personal mission is to share books that build children up, that help them see that they are strong, that they are loved, that their imaginations can help them soar. My student Mahari, an African American 5th grader, loved reading Adam Gidwitz's fantasy novels, A Tale Dark & Grimm, In a Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion. Mahari also championed Kekla Magoon's fantasy novel The Shadows of Sherwood, with its strong girl protagonist Robyn, who is of mixed race. Perhaps these books were just escapism, but I'd argue that these fantasy novels gave him strength, gave him a belief that he had inner strength, like the main characters, as he faced challenges in his own life. We must give students a full range of characters, so they can see themselves in the books they read and walk through the doors to many worlds.

This crisis is real: our society is crippled by institutional racism, poverty and inequalities. The National Education Association just held a conference specifically looking at the issues surrounding institutional racism. I really like this video they produced, working with Marley Dias, the 11-year old girl who started the terrific social media project #1000blackgirlbooks. In sixth grade, she already knows that racism and other built-in barriers are “keeping kids like me from reaching our full potential.”

To be an effective educator and a just member of society, I must bear witness to the devastating impact of institutional racism and poverty, especially upon children who deserve to soar. Part of this is entering difficult conversations and listening to my students.

As a librarian and book lover, this means I work extra hard to find stories that reflect the experiences of people of color. This means I work extra to include, draw in and listen to my students of color. As educators, we must listen to our students, honor their voices and their lived experiences. We can help all of our students identify the causes of injustices, and support them as they write about, talk about, think about how they want to change the world.

I feel eternally grateful to have a community that supports this difficult work, that helps me understand how I must listen to my students, how I must think not just about my intentions but the impact. I want to end with Jerry Pinkney's acceptance speech for the Wilder Award:
"Librarians and teachers have the most important job... they are the keepers of dreams, the dispensers of possibility."--Jerry Pinkney, 2017 Wilder Award acceptance speech
There is a storm raging around us. We have to acknowledge this, bear witness AND hold a torch to create change. I am convinced that books help light the way, both in our souls and in our communities. We must take on this work and speak up for change.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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