Black History Month: YA Novels and the Invisible Teen

As we celebrate Black History Month, literary journalist, teacher and author Donna Bailey Nurse has written a two part blog series about the importance of literature that speaks to young black people. We're pleased to present part one!

donna-bailey-nurse-180.jpgOn weekend mornings, when I was young I would get up before dawn, take my blanket and pillow, and a book, and curl up on the living room sofa. There in the white gleam of the lamp I would sink into a blissful fugue, lost in the world of Jo March or Anne Shirley or Laura Ingalls. In retrospect, I realize that every one of those heroines was a blossoming writer who opened up the vast territory of my imagination, encouraging me to become a writer myself.

Those young women were my role models, but what they could not model for me was the experience of being black and female in a white world. Indeed, I occasionally came upon a word or passage derogatory to black people, though mostly we were simply invisible. I edged around awkward scenes on the page in much the same way I edged around them in real life: I blinded myself to my own invisibility.

This Black History Month I want to highlight the importance of literature geared to young black people; books that illuminate the world from the particular complications of their perspective, stories that -- in the absence of African voices-help young black people decide who they are and what they think; books that make them visible to themselves.

harriets-daughter-110.jpgWhen Tobago native M. Nourbese Philip published her novel Harriet's Daughter in 1988 this was precisely her concern. She was troubled by the lack of books reflecting the experiences of black girls in Toronto. Here, 14-year-old Margaret is inspired by Harriet Tubman who led hundreds of American slaves to freedom in Canada. Through Margaret's new friend we observe a childhood experience of exile. Young women hear the music of their own voices, revel in the power of female friendships and perceive how their harsh history uplifts, emboldens and inspires.

Walter Dean Myers is America's pre-eminent author of literature for black teens. Many of his non-fiction works celebrate role models, the accomplishments of figures like Malcolm X and Ida B. Wells. But novels comprise the bulk of his oeuvre. Most unfold in contemporary urban centres and concern the considerable challenges facing young black men. In the hugely popular Monster, for instance, a 16-year-old boy is charged as an accomplice to murder. 

Regularly accused of being too gritty, Myers says he merely attempts to write it like it is. "Kids read my stories because they find them familiar: There are familiar faces, familiar voices, familiar circumstances," he once said on PBS NewsHour. The most positive thing he offers black kids, says Myers, is "their own presence acknowledging them."

Of course, he also offers the gift of reading itself. As America's current Ambassador for Children's Literature, Myers is especially concerned for the fate of illiterate black men, many of whom he encounters in juvenile detention centres. "Reading is not optional!" he often says.

elijahofbuxton-cover-110.jpgAuthor Christopher Paul Curtis names Monster among his favourite books. Curtis, who lives in Windsor, Ontario, is a popular, decorated writer of young adult fiction. He received a Governor General's Award for Elijah of Buxton, a historical novel set in a settlement of former slaves outside Chatham.

Curtis says he writes with black readers in mind. His hilarious, picaresque tales feature young males coming of age during turbulent eras of American history. The Watson's Go to Birmingham --1963 unfolds during the Civil Rights Movement.

Curtis is one of my favourite writers. I admire the absence of earnestness from his portrayals of black struggles; I delight in the foibles of his youthful heroes. His cultural lessons are handed down in the form of proverbs, tall tales and quirky rules.

"I think childhood is a time when we find out who we are  and where we are in the pecking order," Curtis once told me. "(It's when) you're learning about yourself and your relationship to the world."

The ancestors can be heard whispering through the pages of all these books: "It takes a village to raise a child." In her biography of Henry Bibb, who established Canada's first black newspaper, Afua Cooper conceives the plantation as an extended family: The slaves "surrounded each other and cared for each other ... and (helped each other) survive the brutality," she says.

afua-cooper-120.jpgThe biography is one of two in Cooper's series chronicling the lives of enslaved children. The other, My Name is Phillis Wheatley, depicts America's first black poet. It earned last year's Beacon of Freedom Award.  

"One third of every slave population was composed of children," Cooper explains. "They suffered. They died. They were sold away from their parents. They experienced hunger and thirst and all kinds of physical and sexual abuse."

Cooper's books are meant to inspire young black readers: Phillis Wheatley and Henry Bibb demonstrate how two children "used literacy to write their way out of slavery." The message is clear: "Stay in school, get an education, help yourself."

 Or as Walter Dean Myers might put it: "Reading is not optional!"

Donna's interviews with Christopher Curtis and Afua Cooper are published in What's a Black Critic to Do? Next week she offers a rundown on some exceptional YA novels.

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