Wonderful people of the children’s book world are calling for more diverse books to place in grade schoolers’ eager, brand-new-reader hands. “We need diverse books!” these advocates exclaim, pointing to horrifying (2012) statistics exposing the staggering gap between the 37% of the U.S. population comprised of people of color, versus the 10% of books published for children with protagonists of color.
This is important, and it must succeed. The people behind the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement are (I stress) wonderful people, fighting a good fight to ensure that children see reflections of themselves within the pages that constitute their first steps in the world of literacy.
But we should not be stopping there. We need more than diverse children’s books.
We need diverse scholarship.
I’m coming at this from a literature student standpoint. I can’t say how many times I’ve been assigned to write an essay about a dead, white, male writer’s work. I throw my ten pages of analytically-founded opinion into the fray, where it is buried under dissertations, critical editions, and life-works, which all say the same thing at a basic level: “This author is worthy of scholarly attention.”
And sure, they are. I love T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Walt Whitman. Their poetry, among the poetry of their dead-white-male compatriots, has attracted many scholarly voices to the conversation because they are each unique, complex, and capable of entrancing generations with their words.
But: they are not the only writers who can do this. They are not the only artists whose work can incite decades of scholarly debate. What they are is well-known. Because each time they attract the critical eye, the identity is reinforced: Worthy of serious attention.
Good scholarship on any subject legitimizes the subject. The more papers get written about Shakespeare, the taller Shakespeare’s pedestal becomes. There’s nothing wrong with studying Shakespeare. But when Shakespeare is a required course for English majors, and courses about any diverse literatures are quota electives (i.e. you just need to take any two of these introductory “diverse” classes before graduation), who seems more important? Not the Phyllis Wheatleys of the world.
Diverse authors are sometimes considered less complex, supposedly making them less worthy of critical attention. Langston Hughes, for example, has a simplistic style that he didn’t develop obsessively throughout his career, maybe because he was a little too busy writing about the lynchings of his people. Why can’t we recognize that some writers were too concerned with the color of the hand holding their pens to ponder metaphysics and ars poetica? Why is one approach considered more legitimately artistic than the other? Is it because authors of color didn’t attract the critical eye earlier, falling far behind in the scholarly game from the start—not because they are not as good, but because at the time they published (or not published, in many cases), they were considered far less human?
Sometimes when I’m in a room filled with passionate conversation, I can’t hear my own voice in dialogue. When I go to an emptier, quieter room, though, I’m amazed by how loud I sound, even if I am speaking at the same volume as I was in the other room.
To my literature classmates who will move forth after graduation into the world of higher academia, please: recognize the power of your academic voice, and lend it to diverse scholarship, as many wonderful scholars in the generation above us have done. This should not stop at children’s books—though it’s a great place to start.