reading in the thick of race

Our reading group, which I help to facilitative every other Friday, is called Reading Around Race.  The "around" here means mobility as opposed to stasis.  But, really, we don't go around any of it, we go through it all, as together as we can be given our different positions in society, life paths, and roles within the university that brings us together.

This week, we read Honma's article "Trippin' Over the Color Line," which is a resounding critique of LIS as a discipline that doesn't acknowledge its own whiteness.  While I can pick at his conflation the academic side of LIS with the ALA (that demonstrate to me that his knowledge of the field is partial, though he is as well-informed critic as any field might hope to have), basically, his argument that silence around whiteness causes trouble in library and information science education and professional work is sound.  I think of the hundreds of local projects that contradict the overall characterization made here, but the overall characterization is not totally off base.

So, if I take seriously that whiteness is the issue, and that I am constructed as a white subject in this society... then what have I missed in my research and teaching?  I've worked on teaching quite a bit, but research has been slow to catch up.  Here's what I see:  while I do touch on race, class, and gender in all of my historical articles about children as readers in the U.S. from 1890-1930, I notice that my method, focusing on surveys or anecdotes collected by librarians or teachers, has some gaps.  Namely, in none of the articles about "Negro" children (from the 1920s) contain *any* quotes from these young children, in striking contrast to the articles about children being "Americanized."  Which really does suggest that the historical trend of creating "whiteness" was at work.  Italian and Jewish children, who were being Americanized and would soon be considered white, are quoted.  Negro children, who were not being Americanized (because they were already American, because of prejudices lingering from slavery, and more reasons no doubt) were not quoted.  And that means I have to do some more reading...

"African American Children's Literature:  The First One Hundred Years" by Violet Harris (who is right here at the U of I!) appeared in Journal of Negro Education in fall 1990.  When I was just starting college.    Harris writes about historical trends and shifts, creating some very useful categories, including the period from 1940-1978 which she calls "The Shift to Assimilation."  (Since my previous study stopped in 1930, I have work to do on this era.)  The valorization of prolific author Arne Bontemps makes me wonder:  what was the reception of Bontemps' work in Horn Book or among established children's literature experts?  Anyhow, the idea of "The Shift to Assimilation" itself raises questions related to the Americanization model that Honma critiques above.

I can raise a lot more questions than answers....  I have questions about why, when May Massee was editing Rebecca Caudill's writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she suggested that Caudill take out not only The N-Word, but all the references to people who were referred to by that word.  This is another, smaller research project I'm developing.  Which led me to read...

Randall L. Kennedy's article "Who Can Say 'N-----' And Other Considerations" tackles uses of The N-Word, the "nuclear bomb of racial ephithets," and answers by saying that the word itself is flexible in meaning and shouldn't be entirely censored.  And that it should be generally frowned upon, but its speaker should be able to defend his or her use of the word, using example of commedians or African American people speaking among themselves and reclaiming the word (much like "queer" has been reclaimed).  Still, it's a tricky topic, and you'll note I'm not using the word itself in this blog post, because, as a white woman, I don't want to participate even accidentally in the harm caused by racist name-calling.

An interesting blog post, by Emily Bernard (whose book I hope to read soon, about interracial friendships) gives some examples of when she, as an African American female professor, uses the N-word in a classroom situation, as a tool for teaching.  Which, she admits, does sometimes cross from intellectual to emotional ramifications, however hard she strives to keep it entirely intellectual.  She talks honestly about being defended and defensive in ways that are refreshing to read.

And finally, I read Willett's article on "Rifles for Waitie:  Rollins, Riley, and Racism" which is the story of African American librarian Charlemae Rollins urging editor Elizabeth Riley to urge author Harold Keith to change insulting and stereotyped depictions of African Americans in his book Rifles for Waitie, right after it won the Newbery Medal.  Keith changed some things, but kept other characterizations.  Willett points out that Rollins surely had more objections than she raised, but doesn't speculate about the choices Rollins made to such a degree that it's a little unclear whether the reader should think of Rollins as making choices.  Which she most certainly did.  There's also an odd "declaration of no ill intent" (p. 489) that just reads as weird, maybe because Willett is trying to defend Rollins and Riley as "not censors."  Later, Keith is also let off the hook ("should not be construed as overtly racist in intention" p. 493) in a way that, basically, predates the availability of Critical Race Theory as a tool for understanding that the idea of who is "racist" isn't an individual issue but is a social and structural one.   At any rate, Willett's article deals with a similar publishing incident to the one I'm curious about, and so there are all kinds of parallels I'll want to make when I'm writing about Massee and Caudill.

When I raise issues of race with my colleagues, I sometimes watch the discussion stay just this side of contentious and defensive, only because we know and trust each other to have good intentions.  So I need something about intentionality to be there, to assure that we talk at all and don't simply fragment into multiple segregated communities.  But even abstracting it like this is difficult if not impossible.  All I know for sure is:  these topics of race, racism, and the role of whiteness as a hegemonic cover story for racism are very hard to talk about.

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