Rush Revere: Victor Vanquished by Tiny Bookstore?
On June 19, the We Act Radio program interviewed Teaching for Change staff and allies about the attack by Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh had told his listeners earlier in the week that Teaching for Change is racist for featuring children’s books by and about people of color.
We Act Radio broadcasts from the heart of historic Anacostia in Washington, DC, “beaming truth directly into the corridors of power on 1480AM.”
Here are excerpts from the We Act Radio program.
Joanne Rowling was not always a hugely famous author of books and movies. And when her first Harry Potter book was prepared for publication, she used her initials, “J.K.,” instead of her given name, because her publisher knew boys were less likely to read a book written by a woman. In addition, the author has explained that she wrote Harry, not Hermoine, as the main character for the same fact of mainstream publishing and educational life: Girls are expected and encouraged to read books about boys, but rarely the other way around. “Normal” books, in other words, are written by and about men; with rare exception, books written by and about females are set aside as optional girls’ literature.
A similar set of expectations apply to mainstream publishing in regard to race and to sexual preference: Occasional titles by and about persons of color are now included on reading lists for diversity’s sake, and a rare book about a queer person might appear in a curriculum, if it can survive challenges. But mainstream, required, encouraged reading – the “normal” stuff – is still about straight, white people, usually boys, with no physical or mental disabilities.
This affects the world views of all children and particularly impacts the formation of identity for those children who still rarely, if ever see themselves reflected in youth literature.
“American children are growing up with a distorted sense of reality: white children see themselves reflected endlessly” in children’s books, says author and activist Children’s author Zetta Elliott, “whereas children of color rarely see themselves at all.”
Since 1985 the Cooperative Children’s Book Council has been reviewing and documenting the numbers of books published in the United States for children each year and noting which ones were written and/or illustrated by African Americans. They now track other non-white authors and characters. Most recent statistics found that nearly 95% of books published for children each year are still by and about white people.
Attempting to address this situation, Teaching for Change shares the work of authors of color, through its programs and bookstore, and highlights children’s books illustrating diverse people and lifestyles. Teaching for Change authors and staff members have participated in the Education Town Hall numerous times.
The June 19 edition focuses on challenges in their work and on the campaign they’ve joined called #WeNeedDiverseBooks
Why Teaching for Change? and Why not Rush Revere?
Thomas Byrd, host: Thank you for joining the Education Town Hall. This is your humble servant and host, Thomas Byrd.
It is an honor and a pleasure and a privilege to have on the line with us Deborah Menkart, who is the executive director of Teaching for Change. We also have Zetta Elliott and Enid Lee, who are authors and can tell us more about their books as we get into this conversation. Thank you all for joining us.
I wanted to have you on because of this controversy — which I think is a low blow to Teaching for Change — initiated by none other than Rush Limbaugh, who stated that Teaching for Change is a racist organization because they don’t stock his book in their bookstore.
Folks, Teaching for Change runs the bookstore at Busboys and Poets on 14th Street, here in DC…I want to get your version… Please share with us and the genesis of this controversy.
Deborah Menkart, Teaching for Change: Thomas, thank you for having the conversation. This is why your show is so important.
Teaching for Change, as you mentioned, owns and operates the bookstore at Busboys and Poets (14th & V) ever since it opened in 2005. Andy Shallal, who had been a board member of ours, asked if we would partner with him to run an independent progressive bookstore because he knew that [it was] part of our mission [to promote progressive literature.]
Our overall mission is building social justice starting in the classroom. And part of that means providing progressive teaching resources, resources for children, parents, teachers and the broader community.
We’ve run what’s become an extraordinary bookstore, a destination for many people looking for progressive books. But we’re struggling, and we’re not sure that we can continue. And so now when we have author events, we tell participants: ‘We need your support to keep our doors open.’
The controversy arose because he [Limbaugh] heard my talk on CSPAN-BookTV. When I introduced the [June 9] event, I shared our commitment to feature children’s books that are by and about people of color. That has led to the fact that 90% of the children’s books that we sell fall in that category. I mentioned that we work very hard to find those titles. The easy thing would be to take the NY Times bestseller list, but that’s not the route we take.
And two books that happen to be on the bestsellers list right now, that we do not carry, are by Rush Limbaugh. That’s what sparked him to both accuse us of being racist for prioritizing books by and about people of color and to question our integrity for not carrying his book.
One of the things I’ve noted is that the words “race” and “racism” are triggers to get people misdirected. Sometimes it’s a genuine misunderstanding of what racism is. In some ways, I’m not surprised that he has used that word and that people have fallen for it.
I think that one of the things that is helpful is that we have to make clear that racism is about power and the ability of one group of persons, based on their race, to control things like publishing and so forth.
I think we need to use this occasion to help clarify what it is that is commonly misunderstood or misrepresented in our society. What Teaching for Change is doing is reversing trends of racism by ensuring that people of color have a voice and that their lives are represented in reading materials.
Zetta Elliott, author of Bird and other children’s books:
What’s so amazing to me is that Rush Limbaugh cannot recognize his own privilege. Right? I mean, he’s a celebrity author already. It’s not that he’s an expert in children’s literature. As others have pointed out: He is a celebrity author. He got this opportunity. His book is available everywhere. It’s on the bestsellers list. It won a prize. This isn’t about censorship. It isn’t about exclusion.
The fact of the matter is that the store has a mission — I’m sure that Rush Limbaugh would not say to Christian bookstore: You have to carry books by Satanists — If the book doesn’t fit with mission of the store, it doesn’t have to be available in the store. And as Deborah said, it’s still available on their website.
This is a store that goes out of its way to be progressive and inclusive. But they have a right to curate their list. They have a right to determine which books they choose to promote. And because they are on the side of social justice they are looking at the publishing industry and seeing that writers of color make up less than 5% of the children’s book authors being published.
I am so honored that my book, my picture book, Bird, is a staff pick. And that they include my other books.
So it’s absolutely ridiculous for a man who is so privileged and has such an overwhelming sense of entitlement, that he can somehow now see himself as a victim, that he is being excluded from this one store that has a right to its own mission statement. It’s just absolutely ridiculous.
Jamaica Kincaid once had a fictional character ask, “How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?” This is what first came to mind when Rush Limbaugh called Teaching for Change’s bookstore “racist” for choosing to promote books by and about people of color….
For someone as privileged as Rush Limbaugh to claim he is the victim of discrimination is beyond ridiculous and clearly indicates he has no understanding whatsoever of the field of children’s literature and the true meaning of justice.
Debbie Reese, who could not participate live sent a comment in advance. Reese, an expert and writer about the representation of Native Americans in children’s literature, says:
Limbaugh purports to have heroes in his book that are not white. However, his “Native American” character, Freedom, is evidence of his ignorance of the concept of diversity. If he had a full understanding of Native people, his character would be of a specific tribe rather than the generic “Native American.” The character’s attributes are precisely those that are widely recognized as stereotypical.
Moreover, her name is illustrative of his agenda, which I think is intent on collapsing the “we” in “We the People” to a monolithic American that seeks to erase the ways that diversity can make the United States a society that truly embraces all its citizens and all of its history.
I work in schools, and it’s not only teachers, but kids actually want those books. So I think one of the things that teachers need to do is make those books available to students, despite some of the structured curriculum that we have. Because kids come back — kids of color come back — and ask, “Do you have any more books like those?”
Another conversation I had with a fifth grader: She said, “Why don’t you have lists of books that kids should read on your website? Books with people that look like us?”
The thing is that books with people of color are also important for children of all backgrounds. Books with children of color build bridges to children’s self and to others. And I’m saying that when we do work with schools, the work we have done through Beyond Heroes and Holidays, we have found the response. There is a public for it. We simply need to get the word out more.
The other thing, too, is that when we heard that so few children’s books have people of color — when you think that people of color make up 75% of the world. It tells you that what is being written about and offered to children is a very small part of humanity. And all children — all of our children, regardless of background — deserve better and a fuller picture of life.
Once you have the books with you, children flock to them. And children of all backgrounds flock to them.
We are concerned about questions of literacy. Children will struggle with books that are about themselves, simply because books work as mirrors to self and they see themselves in it. And I find this all across the country. In fact we don’t have enough.
Books for children that have people of color in them frequently are limited in what it is that they cover. There are so many more stories to tell about the lives of people of color. We need to keep writing. We need to get them out.
And this attack by Rush Limbaugh, I hope that what we will do is use it to highlight the need and also highlight the present and push forward on it.
I can say that if you go on-line and look up this diversity gap, Lee & Low has created an infographic that actually shows that the number of books about kids of color is decreasing. We actually peaked in the 1990s and its going down.
As we see the demographic changing, and children of color are the majority in our schools, we actually see fewer books being published.
I think that many of the barriers that exist are due to the fact that the publishing industry itself — the people who staff the publishing companies — are a homogeneous group they are overwhelmingly white and middle class. And if we don’t have a more diverse editorial staff who are acquiring and marketing the books — I can’t tell you how many rejection letters I get that say, “Oh, you write beautifully, but there’s no market for this.”
. . . It’s really, it’s what Enid said about 75% of the world’s population being people of color. It’s not about money, it’s really about power.
If you want to empower children of color you do need to give them books that show them that they are participants and makers of history and that’s what we don’t get.
Byrd: So it’s the same old story. I just want to make this comment. We keep the books out of the hands of the hands and the community.
ZE: It’s not even just keep the books out of their hands. It’s give them one representation only.
So we have a whole lot of stories about the Civil Rights Movement. Quite a few books about slavery. But where are the fantasy novels? Where are the time-travel stories? Where are the dystopian novels, the books that get kids so excited that they want more? Those are the stories they’re being denied. and those are the stories, in addition to historical fiction, that truly empower and alight the imagination of our kids.
[Referencing the message by a Limbaugh listener to Teaching for Change to “drop dead.”] Dropping dead is the last thing we are thinking of doing when it comes to promoting books by and about people of color. We are getting them into the hands of as many children and young people as possible because they touch the spirit and open the mind to a wider world.