It’s the “Why Can’t I Use the N-Word?” Argument.

Over at Editorial Anonymous:

“Giving an award for creating art about the experience of race is a wonderful thing. But giving an award for creating art and being a particular race? That’s racism in action,” and “If the CSK were in charge, male writers wouldn’t be able to comment on what it’s like to be a woman.”

Felicia Pride asks the question: “Is the Coretta Scott King Book Award racist?” My response was pretty much the same as Pride’s…seriously? The post at EA is further explored at Racialicious under the premise of writing what you know, something I’ll discuss in a later post.

The Coretta Scott King Book Award (CSK) is a children’s award given to “encourage the artistic expression of the African American experience via literature and the graphic arts, including biographical, historical and social history treatments by African American authors and illustrators.”

The fact that the purpose does not specify the “experience of race,”  as the post at EA indicates raises some questions. Does EA, a children’s editor, imply that there is not much more to the African American experience then race? Or are African Americans so consumed by their otherness we can’t help but talk about it? Are our stories not valuable if they don’t deal with race? Are the issues of race and racism what non-black readers expect from African American stories and novel?

The post at EA’s is a well meaning, but careless argument. She says that a cure for racism is to allow people of all races to create experiences different from their own through the act of making and creating art. But in her own words: “non-black people don’t get to imagine or portray what it’s like to be black.” That’s just not true. EA continues: “and my point is that humankind is never going to get over the idea of race if people of all races aren’t encouraged to think hard about what it’s like for others.” When I read this, I wanted to give the author a big hug.

The post, in part, accuses the CSK award of fostering a belief that it’s not permissible for non-black authors to write about the black experience. As if board members have any say over what gets published? But the award certainly sustains the careers of its authors who often win on multiple occasions. Often the seal of any award is an opportunity for the author’s work to obtain visibility.

Some of the other concerns from the comments section are that the CSK “ghettoizes” black children’s books, trains people (consumers, publishers and writers) to stick to the same types of black stories (all about race, family, and extraordinary ascension from a “street” circumstance) and, laughably, makes other children’s book awards bypass black authors because they have a “negro” only one all to themselves. And, also laughably, that these types of awards make it categorically impossible for black books to get shelved in the general fiction section;  sorry, but that’s not awards and foundations it’s booksellers.

Image from the ALA.org

Image from the ALA.org

White writers (and publishers I think) are certainly faced with a damned if you do, damned if you don’t equation. There will always be people of color who demand that their stories be told by people who look like them—not, however, award committees created to even out the playing field and encourage marginalized groups to continue to pursue art forms. The adult example of this is the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. I’d never heard of, nor would I be able to visibly find most of the books on that list anywhere else.

There is a feeling of aggravation that runs through me every time I pick up a book with African, Asian, or Native American characters and turn to the author photo and see the photograph of a white writer. The socioeconomic networks and connections which often assist the white writer on his or her journey to getting published can be unavailable to black and non-black authors.

For white writers, to include a person of color in their stories, requires an extraordinary amount of courage, empathy and the examination of (white) privilege. As one commenter/writer at Racialicious puts it, “you need to check your privilege, examine it, turn it inside out, revise and rewrite till you bleed, and then start again to create believable people with less privilege than you yourself have.”

There are writers who have done this well, Richard Price, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, David Simon (The Wire), Madison Smart Bell and writers  who do not. I’ll add, though the scales are certainly not balanced, that there are plenty of black artists, writers, film makers who depict white characters as evil and incurably racist.

If the author at EA wants to help, and as an editor, he or she can broaden what gets published, and who gets published. He or she can publish works about race which challenge the comfortable notions of race. The fight is admirable, but her approach is all wrong.

I’ll leave you with a commenter from the original post:

“It is the height of arrogance for anyone–particularly a bunch of well-meaning non-racist white people–to tell the CSK Award committee that their terms and traditions are racist, and that their award stymies progress.”

One thought on “It’s the “Why Can’t I Use the N-Word?” Argument.

  1. bitchphd May 22, 2009 at 5:57 pm Reply

    “non-black people don’t get to imagine or portray what it’s like to be black.”

    . . . and it’s all the fault of black people.

    Jesus. LAME. Someone needs to point out to this whiner that giving an award to a black author doesn’t mean that some deserving white author is being deprived. And that white people buy CSK books, too. Because part of imagining or learning what it’s like to be other people involves not being so self-involved that you think you’re being insulted or marginalized by the mfing CSK awards.

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