Modern Griots Recap: A Is For Anansi

Source: Teaching for Change

“Why do I love children? I think it is because the child in each of us is our most precious part” – Walter Dean Myers’ Brown Angel: An Album of Picture and Verse

Despite the destruction of two storms in New York City, the A Is For Anansi conference carried on last weekend, and despite being slightly sick, I managed to attend. Organized by Jaira Placide, associate director of Institute of African American Affairs at NYU and author of Afrofuturism, Socialization and Political Uses of Fantasy and Science Fiction in Black Children’s Literature, and poet Rashidah Ismaili, the conference focused on the future and the re-imagining of children’s literature and education of the African Diaspora. Since this was only the second conference, the last one happened in 2010, Placide and Ismaili introduced the conference by discussing how it came to existence. Mentioning that June 16 is the Day of the African Child, the same day as the Soweto uprising in 1976, they emphasized how we are not paying enough attention to the books that children are reading.

There is a decades long history of people combating the lack of diversity in children’s books. One of the organizations highlighted was the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC), which began in the 1960s with the help of authors like Virginia Hamilton and George Ford. Articles from Brad Chambers, Nancy Larrick and Fern Gillepsie also discussed the absence of people of color in books for children. As Andrea Davis Pinkney said with statistics of lower class communities having only one book for every 300 children, we still have a long way to go with people of color and children’s books. Michelle H. Martin, author of Brown Gold: Children’s Literature and Culture, clearly emphasized the importance in her keynote address, “Who’s Bridge Are You?,” stating that by creating books for our children that reflect them, we are creating legacies, signs of hope, and as we have seen in cases like the ethnic studies courses in Arizona, it is political. Basically, the establishment want us to be mindless. Below are some highlights from the five panels in which each panelist gave a presentation based on the topic:

Perceptions and Realities: When Color Blinds and Reveals

The first panel on Friday gathered to discuss changing the perceptions, stereotypes and misconceptions of African people and the diaspora, including common ones like the noble savage, the primitive, the monolithic portrayal of Africa and white savior motifs. Other misconceptions that pigeonholes African diasporic authors are the notions that they are not able to write about other themes besides civil rights, slavery. and issues related to blackness. Author Varian Johnson, who is also an engineer and author of My Life as a Rhombus, spoke about the complex area between right versus responsibility of authors in putting black people on the covers of books. Speaking of civil rights, Deborah Menkart of Teaching for Change, centered on promoting books about collective movements and more local heroes, not only the heroes who are popularized, which teaches the significance of collective power.

Georgina Falu asked for more depictions of Afro-Latinos, saying that many Latinos reject their Black identity because they do not learn about Africa and their heritage. William Loren Katz also highlighted other groups in the diaspora, Black Indians, and how American history books tend to omit and distort much of Black historical figures, including The Lowry Band and George Applewhite, Coacooche, John Horse, Pio Pico, Jim Beckwourth, Bill Pickett, and Lucy Gonzalez Parsons. Another engineer, Christine Taylor Butler, spoke about her experience as an MIT interviewer and how she rarely sees people of color as interviewees and also mentioned how she has heard children say that they didn’t think it was possible for people of color to be at MIT or an engineer. Butler said that we have an “Armageddon on the kids” and what we need is more “boots on the ground” to fight it.

Fantasy: The Final Frontier

Moderated by author Zetta Elliot, the first panel on Saturday included speculative fiction writers and the importance of acknowledging the lack of promotion for black and other people of color characters in modern high fantasy. Although heroic archetypes, tall tales and other fantasy stories have always existed in Africa and the diaspora, modern publishers continue to want to place writers into the genre or realism, Vicky Smith of Kirkus Reviews referenced from Walter Dean Myers. To take it a step further, it is not only putting Black faces in fantasy, but also including cultural differences in those fantasies that the children will be able to relate. Nnedi Okorafor brought up her own history of love for speculative fiction and the surreal double conscious of growing up in a racist Illinois community and visiting Nigeria where most people are black. She views Nigeria as both modern and ancient — a place where modern homes lack plumbing and woman are carrying water on their heads while texting. She also detailed her struggle with publishers not knowing how to market her work and wanting to not put a black person on the cover.

Stacy Whitman of Tu Books and Lee and Low Books, has made it her mission to promote speculative fiction for children because often children of color do not read these books because they don’t see themselves in it. By the way, two new books are coming out from Tu Books, Hammer of Witches and Awakening, sequel to Tankborn (use code ANANSI for 25% discount). Artist and comic book creator, Ivan Velez, Jr., like Falu, mentioned the lack of Latino, including Afro-Latino, as well as  gender sexuality, and disability representation in comic books and how he makes an effort to change that in his own works, like Blood Syndicate and Tales of the Closet. Ibi Zoboi, who was at Oya and Anayanwu, was at the conference, and asked an important question about incorporation of African diasporic mythology and magical systems in speculative work. Velez spoke about how he teaches about different monster from around the world and religious systems like Yoruba in puerto Rico, while Orkorafor mentioned the masquerade which is throughout Nigeria. Elliot mentioned hybridity in her own work about an Afro-Panamanian girl learning Haitian Vodou and that she had a book proposal about magic in African-American literature, but it was rejected because publisher did not see it as relevant.

Children/Youth Panel: “If I Ruled the World”

In their presentations, middle-schooler River Johnson and high-schoolers Sirah Sow and Dariel Vasquez discussed their wishes to change the educational systems and publishing industry, including creating greater access to books and new media technology, connecting works from various cultures instead only European-based work,and promoting more literature about people from different African countries. Sirah made an important point in her speech about teaching children to read more like filters than like sponges.

Urban Landscape: Stories for a Global World, Realism and Dominant Images

In the panel, moderator Tony Medina and the other panelists demanded a re-visioning of what is considered urban literature and what urban literature can do. Some of the topics Medina asked readers to consider in the ever-changing landscape of urban cultures was invisibility and erasure in this genre and the expansion of the genre into other genres like speculative fiction, poetry, graphic novels in lieu of “keepin’ it real.” Library media specialist  KC Boyd explained the differences between street literature and urban literature. Urban lit. is more of an umbrella term for several subgenres, breaking the stereotypes of urban lit. only being associated with lower-class people of color. She detailed how she has used to urban lit. in her school to get young, at-risk students interested in reading. Author Coe Booth, author of Tyrell, asked people to not place urban literature and Black authors in a box, to connect with universal themes and not just that the character(s) is black. Speaking about ethnography, Terry Williams encouraged youth to create their own stories in diaries that he gave to them. One of his students, Errol James, came up with the idea of “underground intelligence,” which is a call to emergence and transcendence and a doubleness of a chance to escape from the conditions of poverty while also using the poverty to do so. The image for it is that of a manhole with an open cover, hinting at Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.


Africa Imagined

The last panel, moderated by Rashidah Ismaili, had a conversation on the old and new stereotypes of Africa. Vivian Yenika-Agbaw specifically went into dystopian novels and the depictions of Africa as a “wasteland” needing rescue from the West. Elana Denise Anderson, in both her poem “What Is Africa to Me?” and her speech, discussed her efforts to fight stereotypes of Africa. She will be creating her own book house there since the publishing industry is struggling and bookstores in communities throughout Africa can sometimes be hard to find. City Lore‘s Anika Selhorst presented the video below, and that there is a disappointing lack of books about individual African cultures for youth in addition to teachers who know very little about Africa beyond stereotypes. Also, did you know the father of the director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin, found City Lore.

The conference ended with a great performance from the Grammy-nominated and award-winning IMPACT Repertory Group. Other treats of the conference was a raffle, in which I won a a few books, including the Sankofa Journal and Velez’s Tales of the Closet, and a Leo and Diane Dillon poster board, and a table full of books to buy and reading materials. Placide and Ismaili plan to release a video of the conference as well as a documentary based on the two conference in the future, and hopefully they will have another conference in a couple of years, but start showing your support now.

Here is some other sources to look at:

Shadow and Substance

The Brain Lair

Carl Brandon Society

Museum of Black Superheroes

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