Synopsis: So much literature is written by white authors – of the past and present – that it’s not always relevant to young people of color, immigrants or those from non-western backgrounds. Our guest, an award-winning author, says it’s time to hear from different voices in literature – beginning when children just start to open books. We’ll hear how she became a writer, and get a peek inside her memoir of growing up in two worlds – written entirely in verse.
Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Jacqueline Woodson, award-winning author of “Brown Girl Dreaming,” a memoir written entirely in verse.
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Diversity in Literature
Marty Peterson: When you read a novel or a biography, do you put yourself in the place of the main characters? Do you identify with what they’re going through and feel their disappointment, pain, joy and fear? An accomplished author can conjure up those feelings in an audience, especially if the reader is like the characters in the story. Unfortunately, most popular literature in the US is written by white authors who tend to depict situations and characters that they themselves are familiar with. Diversity in writing is lacking in this country, and it’s something that African-American writer Jacqueline Woodson is trying to change. Woodson is the best-selling author of Brown Girl Dreaming, the 2014 National Book Award winner in the Young People’s Literature category. The book is a memoir of Woodson’s childhood growing up in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York in the 60s and 70s. And the first thing you notice as you begin reading is at the book is written entirely in verse.
Jacqueline Woodson: I actually didn’t know in the beginning that it was going to all be in verse. I started, my mom died suddenly and I knew I wanted to kind of figure out who she was before she was my mom. So I started just writing down memories… tons and tons of memories. And I also wanted to figure out how I became a writer. I know I didn’t just wake up one day and say ‘I’m gonna be a writer.’ So I just started writing stuff down, and I realized that it’s how memory comes. It comes in these small moments with all this white space around it. And as I was starting to really write the book, I knew the shape the book needed to take to really get into my own mindset and the mindset of memory and memoir.
Marty Peterson: Woodson says she got the writing bug early and was fascinated by words and what they can do.
Jacqueline Woodson: I was sure I wanted to be a writer by the time I was seven. And I think when I was really young, I realized that letters become words and words become sentences and sentences become paragraphs. And that was around the time I was seven. And that was amazing to me that this organic process made you a writer. And so, it was really empowering. It made me feel that this was something I really could do, I loved doing, and it made me feel really powerful doing it.
Marty Peterson: Woodson writes powerfully of her father Jack, a northerner who spent time at Woodson’s mother’s home in South Carolina. He was angry about how African-Americans were treated in the South. And in this excerpt from the verse Journey, Woodson writes that he wanted nothing more than to get himself and his wife back up north.
You can keep your South, my father says.
The way they treated us down there,
I got your mama out as quick as I could.
Brought her right up here to Ohio.
Jacqueline Woodson: The history of African-Americans in the south has been one of revolution and rebellion since we got here. I mean, slaves were not just sitting on the plantation. They were running away, and killing the master, and you know, figuring out how to make a way out of no way. They were gathering and making plans and leaving. And then the Civil Rights Movement was all about resistance. And so I think that history of resistance is one that’s very common to any people who have historically been oppressed or people have tried to oppress. And our family, I don’t think we were anything extraordinary. We were just part of a system that was against the system that was in place. You know, we came from a long line of people saying ‘We are better than that. This is not who we are. We are not going to let others define in a way that’s negative to who we are.’
Marty Peterson: Woodson’s own memories of Greenville and her grandparents’ home with those of the child who hadn’t felt the same Jim Crow oppression that her elders had.
Jacqueline Woodson: As a child there were things I wasn’t able to see that the grownups did see. And to me it was the red dirt, it was the pine trees, it was my grandmother’s voice, it was the food, it was the neighbors, it was the sitting on the porch. It was all of the atmospheric stuff, it was the love and that is what came through to me. That’s what I saw.
Marty Peterson: When they were in Greenville, her mother taught her lessons about how to navigate the system but still maintain her dignity and self-confidence. Although her father said that his kids weren’t going to sit in the back of the bus, her mother ushered her children to the rear, but made sure they knew it wasn’t because they were beneath anyone else.
Jacqueline Woodson: And then she whispers, ‘You’re as good as anybody.’ So when you get to Selma and the marchers, people had to act within the system. She wasn’t going to, with three small kids, risk our lives for something might not create great change in that moment. But what she was going to do was get the message to us that we’re as good as anybody and that this is what you have to do sometimes to fight. Later on my grandfather talks about how you can’t be outwardly violent, but you have to walk toward a thing slowly, you have to resist something in a certain way. And I think that was the kind of message we were always getting. Like this is resistance: resist, resist, resist, and know that you are better than this.
Marty Peterson: Navigating the system for Woodson’s mother also meant learning to speak correctly and with authority. The author says that there were words that the children weren’t allowed to say in the house, such as ‘ain’t’ and ‘y’all’ without fear of the switch. But they were lessons that taught Woodson how important language was in the wider world.
Jacqueline Woodson: The language is power, and language is powerful. And I think she wanted to be powerful. I think she wanted us to know that there was a certain way to speak in the world that’s going to be acceptable, and get you looked on a certain way. I think for most people who come from other cultures, whether it’s a culture that’s not out of America, or African-American culture, or Caribbean-American culture, we grow up bilingual. So I can speak one way outside of the house, and I could speak another way when I’m with my friends, and I can lapse into a dialect that’s Southern when I’m with my Southern people. But my mother was teaching us the acceptable way to speak within the system.
Marty Peterson: Woodson says that providing books by culturally diverse authors is important for a variety of reasons, including making children understand that there are people who write and appear in literature who are like them.
Jacqueline Woodson: I think young people need mirrors to see reflections of themselves. I think they need windows to look into other worlds. Rudine Sims Bishop talked a lot about it in her writing about literature. We need these stories and we need to have people who look like the young people in the classroom to be able to walk into the room and show the kids who they can be. I’m part of a group called We Need Diverse Books.org, and its doing lots of work to try to get more people of color published, and more books that reflect the experiences of all children in the country and in the world. So that children who have different experiences, as Rudine Sims Bishop talks about, it becomes a window into a culture they might not otherwise get to be a part of. And for the children who are coming out of those cultures, it’s a mirror so that they see themselves reflected back. So people on the outside, they learn empathy, they learn tolerance, they learn that we are all human, and that we all have a right to be here.
Marty Peterson: Another reason diverse books are important is to change the way we speak about books and authors. Woodson says that stories about diverse cultures should not be spoken of in terms of white and non-white.
Jacqueline Woodson: I think it’s always qualified when its people of color, but when it’s white people it’s not qualified. So this book is about a black kid who lives in Chicago, and you know he goes to live with his grandma in New York City, but when it’s a white kid, this book is about a kid who lives in Chicago and goes to visit his grandma. And so race is always defined, it seems, when it’s non-white. And I think that’s where it becomes problematic. And if people figure out how to talk about literature that doesn’t reflect their own race issues, then books will become about more than just race. So it’s complicated, and I think that people just need to figure out how to approach literature and as literature for human beings.
Marty Peterson: No matter what race, religion, or culture a child comes from, Woodson says that he or she can identify with one of the major themes in her book: love of place and of family.
Jacqueline Woodson: We all negotiate family, and we all search for a home, and we all want to have that love of family, and we all have aspirations. And all of those things, every child has that and every grownup can look back on that. And it’s also a book about learning the importance of your family’s history. And I think that everyone has a family history that they might want to look into and share.
Marty Peterson: Woodson says that by writing about her experiences, she hopes to encourage others to delve into their family history and find a way to share their own stories.
Jacqueline Woodson: I would love it if readers can take away from it the desire to tell their own stories. And to talk to their elders, and to talk to their caregivers and to find out where they came from. I think history is so important. It’s so important to know where we came from so that we can have a sense of where we’re going. And we all have stories to tell. So I hope that people will read it and they can connect with it and by extension realize that they, too, have a story to tell and that’s grownups and young people.
Marty Peterson: To learn more about Jacqueline Woodson’s history growing up in two different worlds, pick up her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, available in bookstores and online. She also invites listeners to visit her website at JacquelineWoodson.com. If you’d like more information on books by culturally diverse authors, log onto WeNeedDiverseBooks.org. And you can always find out more about all of our guests at Viewpoints online.net.
Our show was written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.