Diversity in YA: Lessons from History

Did you hear the one about the future president and the slave poet?

It’s not that funny, actually. And it’s true.

It appears in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, a guidebook to Jefferson’s home state published in 1785. In the chapter on Virginia’s laws–and in the larger context of justifying slavery–Jefferson comments on what, to him, is an obvious proof of African-American mental inferiority:

“Comparing [blacks] by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, . . . and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. . . . Misery is often the parent of  the most affecting touches in poetry. — Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. . . . Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”

Phillis_Wheatley_frontispieceHaving disposed of Phillis Wheatley, an African-born slave poet whose Poems on Various Subjects (1773) was the first work of literature published by an African-American woman, Jefferson concludes: “the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

The spectacle of Thomas Jefferson, one of the post powerful men in America, taking aim at a lone female slave poet is sorry enough; the failure of Jefferson to recognize that the nearly universal illiteracy enforced by slave laws might account for the small number of slave poets demonstrates that this was not (to say the least) one of his finest moments. But systems of privilege will perpetuate themselves however they can, and if that involves constructing tortuous arguments to discredit a racial group’s literary achievements, so be it.

I was thinking about Jefferson and Wheatley in the context of the current movement for diversity in YA literature. What roadblocks stand in the way of a full recognition of diverse YA voices? What gatekeepers will seek to diminish the achievements of underrepresented groups in the field?

Orleans_comp12.inddThere are many answers to that question, but let me provide a single example. Recently I read Sherri L. Smith’s YA dystopian novel Orleans (2013), which narrates a young black woman’s harrowing adventures in a New Orleans that has been separated from the United States both politically and physically in the wake of catastrophic flooding and epidemic disease. A brilliant book, written in a rich language that vividly describes narrator Fen’s experiences in a society divided by blood type and ravaged by a new form of slavery, I’d put Orleans among the top YA novels of the past decade. But according to today’s gatekeepers—namely, many of the reviewers of the book on Goodreads—the virtues of Smith’s book are outweighed by her decision to adopt Fen’s patois in the first-person narration:

“It made [me] wonder, didn’t people speak proper English in Orleans before they were shut off from the world?

“Fen’s chapters are written with poor English and use the helping verb ‘be’ a lot.”

“Biggest problem I had was the language. Fen, while obviously educated, spoke what is referred to as ‘tribe’ in the book. It was mostly some reversed parts of speech and dropped words, but my brain had a hard time following along.”

“Fen’s narration was really hard for me to get into, and most of the time had me stumbling over sentences trying to parse her dialect. I understand that it needed to be written like that since it’s in first-person, because that’s how Fen speaks, but to me it just felt like a barrier. Instead of adding to the story, it held me back from it.”

That’s just a sampling. But the final review speaks volumes. Fen’s distinctive language, this reviewer writes, is a “barrier”; since it’s not the kind of language s/he’s accustomed to, it “held me back.” That Smith’s story is specifically about overcoming such barriers—the barriers of blood, the barrier of the Wall erected to separate Orleans from the United States—seems not to have occurred to the reviewer.

Obviously, there are differences between the historical example and the present-day one. But what both cases demonstrate is that the movement for diversity in literature is going to meet resistance; social forces that like to keep the barriers intact are going to line up to do so. Sometimes, those forces will have the power of the state behind them; other times, the power of industry or custom. But the barriers won’t fall on their own; barriers never do.

Which means that, if we truly believe we need diverse books, we’re going to have to be prepared to fight for them.


Joshua David Bellin has been writing novels since age eight (though his first few were admittedly very short). His debut YA science fiction novel SURVIVAL COLONY NINE will be published in September 2014 by Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Josh likes (in no particular order) gorillas, frogs, monsters, and human beings.

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