Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Why Host An African American Read-In?

Two years ago through my awesome professional learning network on Twitter, particularly thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, I found out about the National African American Read-In.  This event is sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Black Caucus of the NCTE and has been held since 1989. You can find out more on the NCTE’s African American Read-In site. The more I read and researched about the Read-In, the more convinced I became that I needed to host one at my library!

And yet I knew that when someone thought of my small town (population around 17,000 - but that’s being very generous, really) they might ask themselves why I felt an event like this was a perfect fit for my patrons.  According to the 2014 census the African American population of my small mountain town in New Mexico is .07%. For New Mexico as a whole, the African American population is 2.5%. That, of course, was exactly why I thought it was a perfect fit.

It is White people’s racism that makes us think African American literature is only for African Americans.  By that same account, it is our work as White people to dismantle this misconception.  No one assumes only White people will want to read Shakespeare or, say, Emily Dickinson.  We are taught those works are universal, they are for everyone. But too often, racism tells us that books by Native people or POC are only for the members of those groups.  We conveniently forget the windows element of “doors and windows” and assume that means minority groups have windows into the White experience.

The African American Read-In was the perfect chance for my libraries to open some windows.  And to share some great books - of course. For one week, we designed all our programs for 0-5 around books and songs by African American artists and writers.  We sang and danced to Ella Jenkins songs and read Langston Hughes poems at Toddler Time.  After school, we lined the spaces of our reading circle with books by African American authors and read picture books by Jacqueline Woodson and N Joy out loud. In the second year of our celebration, three local AP English classes visited from the high school and spent an hour reading picture books.  We designed a program for our homeschool book club around Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach.

Because I had a clear vision of how I wanted these programs to happen, getting staff buy-in wasn’t really hard.  Instead of vaguely hand-waving “let’s do something for Black History Month, I guess?” the African American Read-In gave staff some real direction and a framework. From there, it was easier to see why we were doing this - and measure impacts.

In each of these programs, we talked to patrons about the African American Read-In and we shared bookmarks we’d downloaded from the NCTE toolkit.  We always had piles of books (for all ages) by African American authors and illustrators on hand and encouraged them to check them out or even just browse through them. One thing I trained my staff on in preparation for these events was that we wanted to be deliberate about these programs.  I didn’t want to present it as an incidental program - I wanted patrons to understand that planning and thought had gone into these events, that our library was choosing to promote and spotlight this work. I agree that we, as White Librarians, need to do more than just talk about and use these books during Black History Month.  But I also love that the African American Read-In takes place in February.  It’s a way to do more than make a display but to put the titles in hands and in action. Every time we saw how children laughed or were entranced by this work, it was a reminder that these books are for everyone during every month of the year. Using them, programming around them, thoughtfully choosing them, watching patrons embrace them made a much stronger impact and meant so much more than just putting them out with a “It’s February, You Know The Drill!” sign.

This year, during one of the AP English classes sessions, a particularly intense boy suddenly started waving his hand around, calling me over.  It was such an elementary school gesture for a senior in high school to make, it made me smile.  When I walked over to him, he had two books spread out in front of him, a juvenile non-fiction book and picture book.  

“Look,” he whispered, gesturing at them both insistently, “they are both about - about - Gullah.” He was especially proud that he had made this connection and he was grinning at me.

I realized this very smart almost 18 year old boy had never heard of Gullah before.  “Yes,” I said.  “Gullah is a language and a group of people.” He was nodding but had already looked away and was reading the notes in the books.  He mostly, I think, just wanted to show me what he’d found.  He was already back to the books.

This encounter is why I knew the African American Read-In was valuable, essential even, to my patrons.  Windows matter.  So do White librarians unequivocally standing up for the concept that these books deserve a place in our collection and our programming because they are relevant, useful, and even joyful for everyone. Promoting and programming for the African American Read-In has been eye-opening for patrons and staff, which was another goal.  It’s on White librarians to start the progress and push forward on the idea that books by African American authors, any by Native writers and other writers of color, are for all our patrons: no matter where we’re located.

The African American Read-In was our first push forward at my library, but it won’t be our last.  I urge you to look at your community connections and your programs and see how you can participate in the African American Read-In next year.  It’s not too early to start planning now. 

Here's some pictures from our Read-Ins!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Hannah and Allie Talk Jewishness and Whiteness

Guest Blogger Hannah Gomez and Allie Jane Bruce. Thanks Lisa Nowlain for the images!
Allie:  Today we're joined by Hannah Gomez, a librarian, reviewer, WNDBer, blogger, and Deep Thinker.  Hannah, thank you so much for joining us for a conversation on Jewishness and Whiteness and how they intersect (or don’t) here at Reading While White.  We’re all so grateful.  And while this is a me-and-you conversation, I want to name at the outset that Sam is also Jewish--I’m not “the one” Jew on this crew!

I just started reading How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America by Karen Brodkin.  I barely finished the Introduction, and already I’m like YES.  On p. 3, she differentiates between “ethnoracial assignment” and “ethnoracial identity”--the difference (if there is one) between how the world sees us, and how we see ourselves.  So here’s my question for you: How do these two concepts manifest in your life?

Hannah: Oh wow! I love new terms like that. I definitely think about that a lot, and how concerned I get when people misuse “race” and “ethnicity” as if they’re interchangeable (like how people seem uncomfortable with the word “sex” and use “gender,” even though those, too, are not the same!). Race is what you are, and it’s the biological* thing that you can’t shake - unless you have a LOT of money, you can’t really alter your appearance significantly enough. Ethnicity, though, is culturally based, and it can be chosen or rejected, held onto or forgotten. So I think Brodkin’s terms are similar.
I was adopted, so I can’t speak to all my family tree, but from what I know, I am not genetically descended from any branch of Jews. That said, I was raised by an Ashkenazi Jew as a Jew, and as such my ethnic and cultural upbringing were tied to American Ashkenazi culture--at least from my mom’s side. That being said, when I spout out the Yiddish terms that are 100% natural things to come out of my mouth, people find that jarring, because while my racial identity is technically biracial (half Black, half White), I am no Nella Larsen. I can’t pass, so what people see when they look at me is not all that I am. So my ethnoracial assignment, I guess, is Black, mixed, or of color - and in the US, I am assumed to be African American, at least by White and Black people. Latinx people, especially if they hear me speak Spanish, ask if I’m Cuban, Dominican, or something else Caribbean. My ethnoracial identity, though, has more pieces to it, and I didn’t grow up a part of a large African American community. I grew up in Tucson, and my father is Chicano, so my social surroundings were definitely more Chicana/o and Jewish than anything else.

I think that’s why I often get, especially from Jewish friends, the “compliment” that “Sometimes I forget you’re Black, because you’re just Hannah to me.”

*I know race is commonly described as not biological at all, and a total construction, but that’s a derailment used to excuse racism. Race is real because society made it so, and when I say here that it’s biological, I mean it’s the thing that, for the most part, manifests in your genes with regard to appearance.

Allie: Yikes.  I’m so sorry.  The density of insults-per-words is ridiculously high there--you’ve got “Being Black is bad,” “I’m going to casually erase a crucial component of your identity,” and “I deserve a medal for having said the previous two things.”

My mom’s side is Jewish (Ashkenazi, reform) too, but it was a much bigger part of her childhood than it ever was mine.  We did Christmas and Chanukah, Easter and Passover, and I remember eating apples and honey on Rosh Hashana, but that was pretty much it.  She definitely brought some cultural elements into the mix, though; she still has a compulsive need to feed people at every moment.  I refused to try lox over and over as a kid, bewildered as to how anything so bright and slimy could possibly taste good.  When I finally tried it as a teenager, something very deep in my gut said “this is RIGHT,” and I’ve been eating lox ever since.

I did a brief volunteer stint in Jackson, Mississippi, at an after-school program, and while I was there I felt a deep homesickness that often expressed itself as a longing for lox, which was not readily available.  Once, I drove half an hour to the one bagel place that advertised itself as having lox.  I was so excited--it was right there on the menu, “lox and bagel.”  I ordered it, repeating myself twice (the girl at the counter had never heard anyone order it before), and waited to savor it… only when it came, it was a bagel with veggie cream cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a piece of lox.  I was so upset.  I traded it in for the right combination: bagel, plain schmear, tomato, onion, and lox (they didn’t have capers), totally aware that I was probably fulfilling a stereotype as I insisted that veggie cream cheese and lettuce simply would not work.

I had a lot of interesting experiences in Mississippi, actually.  I was one of a few White volunteers at an after-school program that was 100% Black kids.  The kids were totally stunned when I revealed I was half Jewish.  When I left, a small group came to me and said “Miss Bruce, are you going back to Egypt?”  That’s a sharp contrast to here in New York, where everyone takes one glance at me and immediately knows I’m Jewish.  In retrospect (and with education) I’ve realized that I had no business being at that program in Mississippi; I would have served the world better by spending those months unpacking my own Whiteness.

Hannah: I refused to eat lox for the longest time, too! And I still won’t go near gefülte fish.

Allie: Me too!  I hate the stuff.  And the maror (bitter herbs) we have to eat on Passover.  I was usually the youngest at Seders, and I always wanted to ask, “Why on this night do I have to eat these damn herbs when I could be eating jellybeans?”

Hannah: Your point about unpacking your privilege only after performing some sort of community service or other “service” to the underprivileged speaks to me, too. I worked with low-income kids in a summer school program when I was done with college (and before, but in different settings) and didn’t realize until after I was done what a disservice I did them by assuming they all had internet access at home, interest in applying to fancy colleges, etc.

In my family, where my dad is Catholic, my mom is the Ashkenazi one but was raised a secular Jew, so we did the Christmas and Hanukkah thing, took off of school and work for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and had a (speedy) Passover seder. In college, I attempted to become more Jewish and even had a fellowship at Hillel and a Birthright trip, and looking back, I realize that it wasn’t really that I wanted to explore religion and theology but just that I was desperate to be accepted as a Real Jew since I couldn’t rely on “looking Jewish.” And I hated that whole year of college where I tried to do that. Now, although I went to Shabbat services with a friend once a month or so (she was converting, and I just wanted to try it out again) last year, I really find that secular Judaism, intellectual Judaism, and cultural Judaism are the only Jewish domains where I actually feel welcome and like my contributions, upbringing, and past experiences are valued without question. I work a few hours a week for our branch of PJ Library/PJ Our Way, and as a college student (prior to Hillel), I interned at our Jewish Federation. Whether I want to try religious Judaism or not, I am generally finding that the stares I get for not looking right, even to other Ashkenazi Jews, makes it not worth the hassle.

Allie: And that’s where we get into all this thorny business of race and Judaism and “looking Jewish.”  It’s so bizarre.  You are more educated in Judaism than I, and you’ve spent much more of your life practicing Judaism than I have.  And yet, I’ll bet if we stood next to each other and asked 10 people “which of us is Jewish?” 9 of them would point to me.  I have the complexion (light but tan skin coupled with dark hair) and especially the (dark, thick, curly) hair of a prototypical Ashkenazi Jewish person.

I’ve lived outside DC, in the midwest, in London, and in Mississippi, and I’ve never felt more Jewish than I do now--living in New York.  Everywhere else, I was another White person.  Here, I’m (often) a Jewish White person.  I’ve never had this experience before--I present as White AND as Jewish.  The one does not cancel the other out.

And here’s an interesting thing we share: The most hurtful experiences I’ve had that relate to my Judaism have come from other Jewish people, and it sounds like that’s true for you too (the ones who stare, or who’ll never really accept you as Jewish because of your Blackness).  For me, it’s the ones who call me a “fake Jew” or a “self-hating Jew” or “the wrong kind of Jew.”  Six days after I moved to New York, I went for a haircut, and the hairdresser (with whom I’d exchanged maybe 2 sentences) ran his fingers through my hair and proclaimed it to be “nice, thick, BEAUTIFUL Jewish hair!”  It’s hard to hear myself called a fake Jew after an experience like that.

Hannah: There are parallels here with skin tone politics and intragroup racism in the Black community too, but that’s a post for another time and another blog…

I guess what I’ll end with is that every time I look at it, I still come to the conclusion that I feel Jewish and am Jewish, and especially that my politics and ethics and intellect are Jewish, so I can’t not be Jewish. But I still haven’t found a way to be a part of a Jewish community (at least IRL; I have found like-minded internet friends and websites) where I don’t feel like I have to either perform or do a lot of catchup work to understand what’s going on. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel any differently given the many different spaces I’ve tried to enter and then left, but I certainly hope I will someday.

Allie: Thanks again for this conversation, Hannah. Let's continue it in the comments section.  Have a wonderful Passover!!

Sarah Hannah Gómez is a former school librarian and currently works as a freelance writer and editor, fitness instructor, and project leader at We Need Diverse Books. She lives in southern Arizona. Find her online at shgmclicious.com and on twitter @shgmclicious

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Reviewing While White: Unidentified Suburban Object

By Nina Lindsay

Spoiler alert.  There is no way to discuss Mike Jung’s second novel here without fully revealing the twist that the industry reviews manage to dance around.  So here we go.

Now in seventh grade, Chloe Cho is pretty fed up with the microaggressions that result from being the only Korean American (even Asian American) in her school.  To add to the annoyance of constant comparison to famous violinist Abigail Yang, and ridiculous mispronunciations of her name, her parents ever more firmly refuse to discuss anything about their life in Korea, while her best friend, Shelley, seems to go overboard in helping Chloe explore her roots.  When a new teacher, Ms. Lee, becomes the second Korean American in the school, and assigns a project to explore family history, Chloe finally succeeds in pressing her parents for their story, and it is not quite what she expected.  Her parents, it turns out, are not only not from the United States. They are not from planet Earth.

The only known survivors from Tau Ceti Four, her parents escaped destruction in an experimental spacecraft her mother was developing.  Because of their very close physical resemblance to Koreans, they tried first to settle in Korea, but quickly found they stood out there too much because they “did it all wrong, everything from speaking the language to finishing a bowl of noodles. It was very, very uncomfortable” (p. 146).  So they found safety in a place where people don’t know any better: Primrose Heights, a super-white suburb somewhere in the United States.  Chloe’s father assures her that despite “all the stupid crap” she has to listen to, the alternative is worse. To this Chloe responds, “What’s worse than being surrounded by racists all the time?” (p.148-9)

Jung is very, very funny.  It’s this humor that allows him to explore the intersections of cultural and individual identity, friendship, and being thirteen with immense clarity through an unusual conceit. It’s when the twist happens, when we enter the surreal, that the emotional narrative starts to feel more real.  It may be, in fact, that White readers have more access to empathize with Chloe through this preposterous lens, since it seems so hard for us to otherwise see racism.

A few weeks ago, the Library of Congress announced that it would stop using the term “illegal alien” in subject headings.  It is great news, but tempered by the fact that the replacement phrases are negatives: “noncitizens” and “unauthorized immigration.”   Sometimes seventh-grade humor seems to best way to expose, live with, and struggle against this kind of absurdity.  Chloe does, as she returns to school with her new knowledge about herself, on page 153:

I trudged into the building and stopped at the trophy case next to the main office. If you stand at just the right angle you can see your reflection in the glass on the side closest to the front door, and I stared at myself. Kids’ faces appeared over my shoulder, some of them looking at me curiously, then were replaced by others. None of those faces looked like mine, of course. None of them ever had. That wasn’t anything new--people were always treating me like I was from outer space, and I’d never looked like everyone else, no matter how I acted or what I wore. Were things actually all that different now?

I can imagine a myriad of reader responses to Jung’s novel, including disquiet or discomfort, but Jung seems to make a safe place to explore them through his use of fantasy or surreality or absurdity ….or whatever it is you want to call this singular story.