FEATURE

New Voices, New Visions

A conversation with Daphne Muse.

More than 30 years ago, Daphne Muse began collecting children's books by Black authors to use with her 1st grade students in Washington, D.C. The search quickly became a passion that led her to a groundbreaking career as a writer, editor and scholar of multicultural children's literature.

A former editor and publisher of the Children's Advocate newspaper, Muse has written for a variety of literary, education and news journals and served as a children's programming consultant for PBS. Her own television forum for current voices and issues in children's literature, Read On: Books for Children and Young Adults, is broadcast throughout the San Francisco Bay Area on the cable network of California State University at Hayward.

Among the numerous books Muse has edited for children and young adults is the anthology Prejudice: Stories About Hate, Ignorance, Revelation, and Transformation (Hyperion). Her Multicultural Resources for Young Readers contains critical commentaries on more than 1,000 books.

Muse spoke with Teaching Tolerance director Jim Carnes by phone from her home in Oakland, Calif.

 

How do you respond to the view that multiculturalism is really all about tribalism and dividing people into special-interest camps?

People have to function in their own interest before they can function in the larger world. I don't see multiculturalism as tribalism. A nation can only be as strong as the villages and communities of which it is made.

Seeing your own experience affirmed in literature gives you tools for understanding what's beyond your world. Before I went out into the world, I had a sense of what the world was beyond my block because I read about the world. I lived in Washington, D.C., where my father was a butler who worked in a lot of different embassies. He once spilled wine on Richard Nixon, but that's another story!

The city piqued my curiosity. I was in school with a girl from Ethiopia. I'll never forget wondering, "What does Esther read?" I was in the Girl Scouts and I wondered, "What do the Swiss Scouts, English Scouts read?" Seeing beyond your own world enhances your critical thinking skills. I think young people need to be reading globally: Polish, Israeli, Brazilian, Ghanaian stories, as well as those by North American authors. These different voices help us navigate through the world.

But the tourist approach to literature -- relating to people as if they lived in a travel poster -- undermines the fact that these people have values, intellect and standards, and that their rites of passage are not static but are integral to moving that culture forward. Everyone recognizes that technology changes and the economy changes and even the language. It seems harder to convey the fact that culture changes, too. Literature has to capture that dynamic quality of culture.

 

What makes multiculturalism more than just another passing educational and publishing trend?

We have to keep reminding teachers that multicultural literature is American literature. It simply includes voices that have not traditionally been heard. Many people see the 1960s as a kind of jumping-off point, but I try to demonstrate in the time line at the beginning of Multicultural Resources for Young Readers that this literature actually goes back to African American Sunday School books from as early as 1817. Considering the Cherokee and other Native American newspapers that appeared in the 19th century, I hope someone will research the possibility that they published stories for children. I suspect that they might have. Hopefully, we can begin to identify even ancient literature that has been left out.

There are now African American and Latino, Asian American and Native American books that have become "classics." They have an audience that is passing them on. Think about Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry -- that book is in its second generation of readership. Hundreds of children show up to hear Taylor, Virginia Hamilton, Lawrence Yep and others speak. Their books are being analyzed and critiqued. They are now a part of major curricula throughout the United States. As I began to work with the San Francisco Unified School District on their reading list, I said, "You don't want to kill the classics; you want to expand them."

 

According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center, of the 4,500 children's books published in 1995, fewer than 350 were created by authors and illustrators of color. What are your thoughts on that disparity?

The vestiges of colonialism remain. There's a paternalism that regards certain people as weak, as though they need help from outsiders in developing their identity. I push for creating more opportunities for people who are a part of underrepresented cultures to write the books themselves.

It pleases me when I look at books now and see the more accurate portrayal of people of color, and I see that these characters are very much in the foreground, not just in the visual placement but in the thematic placement as well. This is not true for everyone. You still don't get much written about contemporary urban Native American characters, and the "recent immigrant" is still the box many Asian American characters are in.

Now that we have the emergence of people clearly identifying as biracial or multiracial, that's going to add a different dimension to literature because we will get more and more books that include those voices. I urge biracial and multiracial people to break out of the "half White/half Black" formula. Halving yourself doesn't quite cut it.

I don't see enough stories that mine the curiosity and the imagination and the problem-solving capabilities of young people. I also want to see more power coming from community and not just from individual "shining stars," which I find especially true in African American literature. Writing about heroes and heroines is important, but no one achieves singularly.

 

Some critics of multiculturalism view it as anti-White. How can teachers affirm the identity of White students within the context of cultural diversity?

About 15 years ago, I was doing a workshop and there were a couple of White teachers in the workshop who felt very uncomfortable. They said, "We don't have culture." I was floored. I said, "Then who were all those people I was studying in high school?" I grew up on a literary diet of European and Euro-American writers.

I came to understand that what these women were saying was "We are 'generic.' You people have a sense of who you are." I said, "The irony is, I can't really tell you where my ancestors came from. I only know it's somewhere in Africa, but it would cost me a fortune to try to find out exactly where. Whereas, you probably could find out in a week, and with far fewer challenges." Our genealogical threads were unwoven during the Middle Passage.

Flannery O'Connor really had a way of writing about White people's identity, especially as it relates to class. An interesting way to introduce the topic of Whiteness might be to compare books in terms of the richness of the English language as it is spoken and used by people from different racial, ethnic and class backgrounds and sexual orientations. Do a comparison of the power of expression in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Lois Lenski's Strawberry Girl and Stacey Donovan's Dive, for example. That's one way you can incorporate difficult topics without singling them out as a "White poverty book" or a "gay/lesbian book." As classroom topics, classism and homophobia often create more problems than racism does. I hate going in the back door, but I know sometimes it's through the back door that you get to the front door.

 

You have noted that multicultural books are often "ghettoized" as tools for teaching young children of color how to read. How do you challenge that limitation?

I look at people like Alma Flor Ada, Eloise Greenfield, the Pinkneys -- some of their books are perfect for helping children learn how to read. And then I look at Joseph Bruchac, Laurence Yep, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, Gary Soto -- their works are for young people who relish the idea of picking up a "difficult" book!

There has been some interesting criticism comparing the works of Virginia Hamilton and Toni Morrison. When you look at Hamilton and Morrison, they both write in a very complex and compelling style -- they're both from Ohio, so I call it an "Ohio River tone" -- that's historically graphic: The ghosts of people's pasts dance with them constantly.

One of the best ways to prepare a young person to read Toni Morrison is to have them read Virginia Hamilton. Hamilton is not for easy readers, maybe with the exception of a few story collections. Her novels are not for challenged readers. In terms of vocabulary, complexity of ideas, thematic development, character portrayal and historical resonance, if a high school student can read Virginia Hamilton, Toni Morrison is a piece of cake!

 

Books that depict the realities of oppression often use harsh language and images. How can teachers help students come to grips with sensitive literary material?

We need more courses that help teachers teach literature -- not just "multicultural literature" -- in historical context. For example, a teacher can open up the question: "This book contains the N-word. How do you feel about that word?"

The teacher simply cannot present this language as "a passage from a book." These things send out alarms and parents go berserk. Students get riled up and feel uncomfortable. Part of the challenge is that it's not about trying to make everybody feel comfortable, because some of these are issues about which we are going to have vehement disagreements.

But I would propose a strategy of prefacing the work by saying "This novel, this poem, this play represents a time when this was the way some people used the language. Many of these terms are racist and sexist and classist and homophobic, but in order to remain authentic to the time, this language is used."

A few years ago, Clarence Major edited Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African American Slang. Using such a lexicon, a teacher could assign students to trace the origin of certain slang or explicit terms, how they came into the language, who introduced them. Keep in mind that in much of the music young people listen to, this same language is used there, maybe in different ways. For example, unfortunately, the B-word and the N-word have become terms of endearment for some. That's how some people greet each other.

So there are opportunities for having students reflect on things contemporary and things historical through this explicit and racist language. A teacher can say, "Now, as a student in 1999, if you were to write something reflecting your time, what might you write?"

 

What is your vision for children's literature in the next century?

In much young adult fiction, social realism issues have been taken on so boldly by so many writers, and yet the literature has not taken us as far forward as I think we should be. What I'm really pushing for is books that create new possibilities, books that talk about what life could be like beyond where we are. I'm not talking about outer space!

I don't think we focus enough on new possibilities. In a sense, we've worn out what is. If we say, "We don't want racism, we don't want sexism," then how do we write about communities and worlds where either those things don't exist or we're growing beyond them? Part of my purpose in doing the book Prejudice was to select stories that identified prejudice and also stories that looked at how people struggled to move and live beyond the boundaries of stereotype and racial ridicule.

There's a little exercise I have tried from time to time with groups of teachers that just doesn't seem to go anywhere, and I keep thinking maybe if I do it a different way, something will click. I say, "If racism, sexism, classism, homophobia didn't exist, what would your home look like? What would your block look like? What would your school look like? What would your community, your state, your country look like?" The fact that many teachers resist this little exercise and say "I can't imagine what that would look like" is profoundly troubling.

If you say you don't want racism, sexism … then what do you want? You know all these seminars that say, "Visualize the money and it will come!"? So, visualize a society, a nation beyond these divisions -- what does that look like?

As they have done in the past, books for children and young adults can play a major role in shaping the visions of future generations, exciting their passions and connecting them to the depth of human experience. While I'm very much vested in this generation of writers, both young and seasoned, I look forward to reading and hearing the new voices that will speak out, call out, challenge and, especially, honor women and people of color.