Tag Archives: Black women

Interplanetary Women’s Day: Black Women Writers and Science Fiction and Fantasy

Next week I am going to be in Antwerp, lecturing to a Twentieth Century British Women’s Writers course.  Because the instructor for the course is the gifted and insightful Vanessa Joosen, the overall book list for the course is varied, ranging from Virginia Woolf to Kate Atkinson, Doris Lessing to Andrea Levy, and covering a wide variety of genres, including poetry, realism and fantasy for both adults and children.  I’ll be speaking about the UK’s Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015, Malorie Blackman, and specifically about her novel Noughts and Crosses (Corgi 2001).  Blackman is the only writer on Joosen’s list who has written in so many different styles; she has picture books about talking animals (I Want a Cuddle! Scholastic 2001) and imaginary play (Marty Monster Tamarind 1999), early chapter books including the Girl Wonder and Betsey Biggalow series, poetry (Cloud Busting Doubleday 2004), fiction dealing with the effects of technological advances (most famously, Pig-Heart Boy, Transworld 1999, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal—one of the only books by Black British writers to be so honored) and historical fiction (Blackman edited and contributed to the collection Unheard Voices, Corgi 2007).

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Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses depicts a dystopian world where the racial power hierarchy is flipped but racism still abounds.

But Blackman is best known for her science fiction and fantasy, which again spans various types, from technological futurism (Robot Girl Barrington Stoke 2015) to horror (The Stuff of Nightmares Corgi 2012), ghost stories (the gentle Grandma Gertie’s Haunted Handbag, Heinemann 1996, is for younger readers, but she does ghost stories for older readers as well), magical creature fantasy (Whizziwig Galaxy 1998), and transformation fantasy (the human characters in Animal Avengers, Mammoth 1999, can turn into any animal they want).  She has interplanetary science fiction with her Chasing the Stars (Doubleday 2016) and, her most famous series, the dystopian Noughts and Crosses.  Most of her main characters are Black (British).  She has spent much of her career trying to write Black children into books, but unlike some writers, she doesn’t usually focus on race as the main aspect of the book: “I wanted to write books about black children where race had nothing to do with the story – just doing all the things white children did in stories I read as a child” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/aug/23/malorie-blackman-teen-young-adult-fiction-diversity-amnesty-teen-takeover-2014).  Why shouldn’t Black boys have alien friends from another planet, and why shouldn’t Black girls pilot a spaceship, when white children did these things in books all the time?

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The first book in Virginia Hamilton’s series, with a cover by Leo and Diane Dillon.

Blackman is definitely the most voluminous producer of Black British science fiction and fantasy for children, but she is not the first to write protagonists of African descent into children’s non-realistic literature.  The American author Virginia Hamilton, who is today perhaps best known for The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (Knopf 1986) with illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, published a science fiction series beginning in 1978 with Justice and her Brothers.  Hamilton’s series, which includes Dustland (1980) and The Gathering (1981) was “the first science fiction series written with African American protagonists by an African American” (Back in the Spaceship Again, Sands and Frank, 115) for young people.  Hamilton’s protagonist, Justice, travels into the future and uses extrasensory perception to communicate with her brothers.  Like Blackman, Hamilton felt it was important that young people see themselves in books; according to her website, she viewed her writing as “Liberation Literature” (http://www.virginiahamilton.com/biography/) for young people.  The label recalls the Black Panther party, whose Liberation Schools tried to free the minds of young African Americans from the oppressive domination of white/European institutions.  Both Hamilton and Blackman provide readers, through their fantasy and science fiction, with alternative ways of seeing the world around them—ways of seeing themselves as active agents in that world, and even leaders.

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Zetta Elliott’s fantasy for middle grade readers about American children meeting ghosts in the UK.

Hamilton and Blackman aren’t the only writers of African descent producing science fiction and fantasy for children; as Zetta Elliott pointed out in her School Library Journal article from 2011, “Magical things can happen to anyone, anywhere” (“A Storied Past” https://www.slj.com/2011/01/industry-news/a-storied-past-the-best-tales-are-often-found-right-inside-your-own-front-door/#_). Her recently updated list of speculative fiction by US-based authors can be found on her blog (http://www.zettaelliott.com/african-american-speculative-fiction-for-kids/), and it shows that the numbers of writers focusing on characters of African descent is increasing in science fiction and fantasy. Zetta herself writes fantasy with African-American characters, including the transatlantic The Ghosts in the Castle (CreateSpace 2017) which I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog. But the numbers are still small, especially outside of the US.  In Britain, science fiction and fantasy is still largely dominated by white characters.  Caribbean children’s literature is still a growth area, and although much early post-independence literature was either realistic fiction or folktales, there has been an increase in fantasy and (especially environmentally-based) science fiction; Diane Browne’s time travel fiction (A Tumbling World, A Time of Fire Arawak 2002) and Hazel Campbell’s Juice Box and Scandal LMH 1992) are two examples of books that paved the way for more recent authors such as Tracy Baptiste (The Jumbies 2015).  Nigerian American award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor writes science fiction fantasy for all ages based in Nigeria (Akata Witch, Speak 2017, is about a twelve-year-old girl).

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Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor expands the world of fantasy to include Africa.

Often, however, science fiction and fantasy with Black characters is seen as being only pertinent to Black readers.  As Darren Chetty and I wrote in our Books for Keeps article in January of this year, “While BAME readers need books in which they can see themselves, it’s also important to challenge the idea that books with BAME characters are only for BAME readers. All children deserve to have literature that opens up the world in all its complexity” (http://content.yudu.com/web/1mjdv/0A1mjdx/BFK228Jan2018/html/print/BfK%20228%20hi%20res%20single%20pages-rgb%20DPDF.pdf).  That article discusses the ways that Black authors often use canonical fantasy by white authors to broaden their audience.  In similar fashion, tomorrow also marks the opening of a film based on a canonical American science fiction fantasy novel, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1960).  The novel, written by a white author, is being produced as a film by Ava DuVernay with a multiracial cast including Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid playing Meg Murry. Reviews so far have been mixed—I’ll see it this weekend—but DuVernay’s efforts in opening up the universe to children of color in such a high profile effort may help publishers to be less reluctant about publishing authors who want to do the same.  So if you’re celebrating International Women’s Day today, why not make it Interplanetary Women’s Day, and open up your own universe to one of these authors.

Celebrating Vision: Faith Ringgold and Radical Black Art for Children

This weekend marks President’s Day in the US.  My undergraduate children’s literature students are spending the weekend finding a children’s book that details a US president’s interaction with people of color, because I wanted them to see what and who we do and don’t celebrate in this country.  However, I thought I would give the theme of presidents a miss this year; this weekend also marks the birthdays of two radical Black women visionaries, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, so I thought I’d celebrate them by looking at a Black woman artist who, like Morrison and Lorde, asked us to change the way that we see the world.

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Faith Ringgold’s “For the Women’s House” from 1971.

I began thinking about this because on Friday, Buffalo’s art museum, the Albright-Knox, had a free opening evening for their new exhibit, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985” (https://www.albrightknox.org/art/exhibitions/we-wanted-revolution-black-radical-women).   I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit, but for me, seeing Faith Ringgold’s activism and art contextualized put a new spin on how I understood her work for children.  A highlight of the exhibition is Ringgold’s 1971 mural, For the Women’s House.  The mural, which was painted for the women’s correctional facility on Riker’s Island in New York City, strikes the viewer long before she knows the story behind it.  A set of triangular panels formed into a square (similar to a quilt block, for which kind of art Ringgold is also known) show women of all races and ages working, creating, teaching and supporting one another.  Although the women mostly look directly out at the viewer, the mural is not confrontational; the women appear strong and calm.  According to the explanatory panel, the lack of confrontation is purposeful.  “In an April 1972 interview with her daughter, writer Michele Wallace, Ringgold described her goals for the piece: ‘If I hadn’t done it for the Women’s House then it probably would have been more political; but these women have been rejected by society; they are the blood guilt of society, so if this is what I give them, then maybe that is what we should all have.’”  The canvas may not have been aggressive—given that it was painted in 1971, Ringgold could have focused on many of the difficult political moments of the prior five years in the US—but it was (and is) political.  The idea that all women should have satisfying work that gives them the financial support and time to be creative and look after (and be looked after by) a family is what we all should have.

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Ringgold’s protagonist flies around the city, seeing people in unexpected ways.

Ringgold’s comments about what she creates for whom put her children’s books into a new context for me.  Seeing differently is always Ringgold’s aim.  For women prisoners, she painted a mural focused on the life that they could, and indeed should, have.  For children, she also creates visions of imagined worlds.  These visions often include fantasy: Tar Beach and Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, involve her protagonist, Cassie, flying through time and space to see the world around them and how history has affected them.

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Ringgold’s cover illustration begs the question: how can someone this arresting be invisible?

But Ringgold’s books also encourage readers to think about seeing the world around them—as it is, and as it could be.  In her fairytale set in the American south during slavery, The Invisible Princess, the reader (viewer) is instantly arrested by the cover illustration of the princess, with her large eyes and fantastic, halo-like cornrows.  But in the story, only the plantation owner’s blind daughter can see the invisible, but very real, princess.

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See what you don’t expect is what happens when you open your eyes: Ringgold’s illustration for “Eldora, Who is Rich”.

Ringgold did not write all the books she illustrated, but even the ones for which she did not provide the text have a focus on what can, and perhaps should, be seen if young people open their eyes to the world around them.  In 2006, Ringgold celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of a book of children’s poetry by re-illustrating it, literally re-visioning it.  Gwendolyn Brooks’s Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), a children’s book follow-up to her first adult collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), chronicled the lives of children in a working-class area of Chicago that had grown up as part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north of the US in the decades following emancipation.  The poems in Bronzeville Boys and Girls do not seem on the surface highly radical; they are about ordinary things that most children experience—like, for example, what you can get away with doing when company comes over and your parents aren’t paying attention to you.  But I would argue that this is one of the reasons why Ringgold chose to re-illustrate it, fifty years later.  So many children’s books in the US about African-Americans resolutely ignore the ordinariness of African-American childhoods.  Brooks in 1956 and Ringgold in 2006 asked readers to see the invisible.  This part of Brooks’ and Ringgold’s vision may have been aimed primarily at adult buyers of the book; but there are specific poems that urge child readers to see the world, to look up and out, to re-vision.  Perhaps one of the most obvious of these is in the poem, “Eldora, Who is Rich.”  The poem opens with an expectation of what a rich girl looks like, someone with “a golden head” (Bronzeville Boys and Girls, n.p.).  But Eldora, in the illustration by Ringgold, looks so much like the other children that until a reader completes the poem, it is not clear if the rich girl of the title is in it.  Eldora, of course, is African-American and not white (or golden-headed) as the children expect.  Change your expectations, Brooks and Ringgold argue.  See differently.  See new.

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Faith Ringgold and her daughter, the writer Michele Wallace, protesting the lack of Black Women Artists on show at the Whitney in New York, 1971.

Audre Lorde once wrote, “I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, ‘Why don’t they?’ And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change” (Black Women Writers at Work).  Faith Ringgold’s art, for all ages, demand that we ask why that joy should not belong to everyone around us as well.

Bodies, Power, Women, Race: How Children’s Books Depict Black Female Athletes, Pt. 2

Last week I looked at biographies of Black female athletes for older readers—and was largely disappointed at the way they depicted all females as defined by their looks, and Black females particularly as perennially unable to reach a male-set standard of beauty or female athleticism.  This week I am looking at picture books to see how they present Black female athletes.  Spoiler alert: books for older readers ought to look to picture book biographies as a model, as they are much less likely to concentrate on the female body in negative ways.

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Mark Stewart’s biography comments on Griffith-Joyner’s fingernails, fashion–oh, and she runs too.

Interestingly, I found that books with photographs rather than illustrations to be more likely to focus on ideas of femininity and what a female athlete should be.  Mark Stewart’s biography of Florence Griffith-Joyner (1996), part of the Grolier All-Pro Biographies series, is for a much younger audience than the Venus and Serena Williams biographies that I looked at last week (though perhaps not as young as a typical picture book audience—somewhere in between the two).  However, like them, Stewart’s story opens with a focus on his subject’s urban environment: Griffith-Joyner was born “in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California . . . a poor but proud community comprised mostly of African-American families.  During the 1960s, its residents protested against racial prejudice, and they often clashed with police” (8).  And even more than the Williams sisters’ biographies, Stewart spends considerable time on Griffith-Joyner’s sense of “style,” describing the “explosive colors” of her outfits and “super-long fingernails” (31).  There is even a two-page spread entitled “Designing Woman” (32-33), and a quotation from earlier Olympic medal-winner Wilma Rudolph in which she says that Griffith-Joyner “brings in the glamour” (37) to running.  Stewart, according to the blurb about him at the end of the book, “is the author of every Grolier All-Pro Biography”—most of which are about men.  That the white male author focuses so much of his time on Griffith-Joyner’s fashion sense, rather than her athleticism, is disappointing.

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Not enough to be a girl: Stauffacher and Couch’s biography of Althea Gibson requires men to support Gibson’s dreams.

Like the biographies for older readers, the picture books I found in my university and local public libraries (I visited two branches) about Black female athletes mostly concerned tennis players and track and field stars.  I’m sure a whole paper could be written on why this is; why Wilma Rudolph or Althea Gibson make better picture book subjects than the French skater Surya Bonaly or the American gymnast Dominique Dawes.  However, for now I will focus on what I could find, rather than speculate on what I couldn’t.  I want to start with a 2011 biography of Althea Gibson, written by Sue Stauffacher and illustrated by Greg Couch, both of whom are white Americans.  The book’s title suggests an attitude toward Gibson that highlights attitudes toward Black female athletes trying to succeed in white society; the book is titled Nothing But Trouble.  To be fair to Stauffacher and Couch, the book is exuberant (Couch’s illustrations which place a rainbow of color surrounding Gibson are quite striking) and make a concerted effort to highlight African-American success.  But Gibson is portrayed, as were athletes in other biographies I’ve covered, as wanting to be like a man; she wants to be “Somebody big, like Charlie Parker or Sugar Ray” (n.p.).  She is too wild to succeed in tennis until she meets jazz saxophonist Buddy Walker, who teaches her to conform to white society’s expectations: “With Buddy’s help, Althea realized she could dress up in white and act like a lady, and still beat the liver and lights out of the ball” (n.p.).

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Despite the book’s title, Heather Lang and Floyd Cooper’s Queen of the Track focuses on Alice Coachman’s athleticism rather than her queenliness.

Many of the picture book sports biographies mention the difficulty of being a female athlete, as Stauffacher and Couch do. White author Heather Lang’s 2012 Queen of the Track, about Olympic high jump champion Alice Coachman does at least put gender inequality in historical context; Lang writes, “In the 1930s, running and jumping weren’t considered ladylike” (n.p.).  And the rest of the text is relatively gender neutral—as in, if a reader imagines the book is about Albert rather than Alice, the text reads the same.  There are no comments about fashion, no diminutive adjectives, no negative comparison of Coachman to either male athletes or “proper” ladies.  The illustrations, by African-American artist Floyd Cooper, depict an athlete who knows how to use her body to purpose, whether she is in training clothes running, playing basketball in a dress, or dancing to jazz.

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Eric Velazquez’s illustrations for Anna Malaspina’s book about Coachman also highlight her strength and power.

Another biography of Coachman for picture book readers, also by a white author, Ann Malaspina’s Touch the Sky (2011), is similarly structured, with an admonition from Coachman’s father to “Sit on the porch and be a lady” (n.p.) early on, but with no further suggestion that Coachman’s gender got in the way of her dreams.  The text mentions Coachman’s long legs, but certainly not her outfits.  The illustrations by African-Puerto Rican illustrator Eric Velazquez, depict Coachman as strong and powerful, including in a text-free double-page spread of Coachman at the Olympics.  Both authors of these biographies write exclusively stories of strong women and social justice themes, according to their websites (http://www.heatherlangbooks.com/about/ and http://www.annmalaspina.com/bio.html); both illustrators are well-known for their depiction of African-American subjects.  Compared with books written for older readers, exclusively by white male sports writers, or picture books written and illustrated by white people only, these books focus on the achievements of female athletes rather than their “too masculine” or “unladylike” bodies or their need for male role models.

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Manchester primary school students attribute Holmes’s success to hard work, full stop.

I’d like to end my discussion of Black female athlete biographies with a book that is different from those I’ve discussed so far because it is written and illustrated by children—more specifically, multiracial schoolchildren in Manchester, UK. Britain’s Black Olympians (2012), published by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Centre, contains biographies of male and female athletes, but there is no material difference in the text based on the athletes’ gender.  The biography of middle distance runner Kelly Holmes, for example, argues that “Kelly was a very good runner because she trained all the time” (13).  The child authors in this book tend to highlight hard work, persistence and training—not gender or fashion or even anything to do with the bodies of the athletes.  Kelly Holmes is a good runner not because of her determination to be like a boy, her fashion sense, or even her legs, but because she trained all the time.  And that is the best way to teach young readers how to be a good athlete.