There is no diverse book

If you have ever attended any session where I have presented and the topic of diversity has come up, you know I am quick to tell attendees that I do not give out diverse book lists. Here is my reason why: there are no diverse texts. It is in the transaction (Rosenblatt, 1986) between the reader and the text that a text’s diversity is realized. The way we have framed the word diversity creates a binary—diverse or non-diverse. Using the word diverse to describe texts also creates a default position, because one must ask diverse for whom or diverse from what? The word diverse as it is currently used centers heteronormative whiteness as the default. We also lose sight of the big picture. Any diverse book list would have to have a variety of races, abilities, gender, etc. represented. So, if you find yourself holding a book list and notice that the creators have simply compiled a list of non-white authors, know that you are not holding a diverse book list.

Meaning is revealed within context. The call for diverse texts is a response to the overwhelming underrepresentation of individuals from minoritized groups as well as the underwhelming number of publishers publishing own voices, and this is laudable. That is its context. However, allowing diversity to be framed in a binary fashion or labeling any single text as diverse stands in direct contradiction to the intended purpose of the call for diverse texts. A binary lens of diversity only further others the narratives of individuals from minoritized groups.

I, much you like, have heard individuals refer to Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishops (1990) work citing the need for all readers to have access to Mirror, Window, and Sliding-glass door texts. It impossible to know which one of these roles a book will take on until it is in a reader’s hands; when it is placed back on the shelf, it has the power to take on a different role. This is the beauty of good literature—it cannot be placed into one category or relegated to the “diversity and inclusion” shelf of your library.

I also question if many diverse book lists consider who is telling the story. Narratives written by individuals from non-minoritized groups about people from minoritized groups run the danger of being filled with stereotypes. My issue with book lists is not the lists themselves; it’s how the lists are used.

A hammer is just a hammer until it is placed in the hands of master craftsperson. The power does not reside in the thing itself; the power is realized as the tool is used by an individual with expertise. Again, my issue with book lists is not with the lists themselves. I do not care where a booklist came from or how many awards the books on it have won; educators are still responsible for applying their expertise and critical lens to texts.

What now

What if we no longer thought about individual texts as diverse or not diverse; instead, viewed texts as existing along a continuum and how individuals from minoritized groups are represented in those texts. As the reader moves from one end of the the continuum to the other, he moves from texts that affirm his life and experiences toward those that affirm the lives and experiences of those different than the reader. The reader also comes into contact with texts that help to develop his ability to empathize with others. Notice I said develop the ability to empathize. We cannot read one book that features individuals from a minoritized group and state, “I now have empathy for insert group here.” Connecting to Dr. Bishop’s work, the reader moves from texts that serve as mirrors to texts that serve as windows and sliding-glass doors. This approach centers the reader, not the text; because one cannot determine where a text falls on the continuum without first considering the reader.

I am intentional about not saying that as the reader moves from one end of the continuum to the other, he is moving from less diverse texts to more diverse texts, because this, too, centers the reader in such a way that it others the narratives of those that are different from the reader. It’s a continuum-not a progression- because students are constantly moving (reading) back and forth along the continuum. Over time, they are able to see the diversity of the collective texts they have read.

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Our classroom libraries, therefore, must contain a variety of texts, allowing each student to read across his or her continuum. All readers should be able to find texts that affirm their lives and experiences. All readers should be able to find texts that affirm the lives and experiences of others.

Those of us who are children’s literature enthusiasts tend to be somewhat idealistic, believing that some book, some story, some poem can speak to each individual child, and that if we have the time and resources, we can find that book and help to change that child’s live, if only for a brief time, and only for a tiny bit. On the other hand, we are realistic enough to know that literature, no matter how powerful, has its limits. It won’t take the homeless off our streets; it won’t feed the starving of the world; it won’t stop people from attacking each other because of our racial differences; it won’t stamp out the scourge of drugs. It could, however, help us to understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference. When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human.

-Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop

Surrounded by Witnesses

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. . .” – Hebrews 12:1

The last few weeks have caused me to question almost everything I thought knew about teaching, learning, and leadership. I’ve questioned myself, and I’ve questioned the world I’m navigating with students. Don’t get me wrong, we should constantly question the ‘why’ behind what we do, but it is quite unpleasant to question the foundation of that which you have dedicated your life to doing. So I decided to do what I always do when I find myself in one of these moments—go for a run. And in between the rhythm of my heartbeat and the rhythm of the bass, I was reminded of true foundation of why I do what I do.

A little over a month ago, my school said goodbye to a giant, a woman who dedicated over twenty years of her life to one school, one community, one race--the same race that I’m running today. And in thinking about her, I was reminded of each of the other ‘witnesses’ who did the work of running the race before me. In moments of frustration, it’s easy to lose perspective. It’s easy to forget that the call to do the work and the struggles that accompany it are not new. It's the same call answered by those that saw brown bodies spat upon and cursed for daring to ask for what was theirs; those that had homes bombed and lives taken for daring to read the written word. We walk in the footsteps and under the gaze of those who have gone before us, beside those who are navigating the journey with us, and before the next generation of runners occupying the seats in our classrooms.

So, if you find yourself like me—questioning, look to those witnesses who have gone before us. The teacher that showed you the impact one teacher can have on a student’s life. The teacher that made Friday’s bittersweet and Monday’s a little brighter. The teacher that believed every student deserved a shot, a chance to be his or her full self. Those that came before for us ran in the manner they did because they knew that the race is bigger than any one person. They realized that it’s not about seeing the end of the race, it’s about what happens when you hand off to the next runner.

Run the race set before you with endurance, because one day we shall move from runners to witnesses.

 

 

 

Copyright ImagineLit 2015