Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The new season of "Mad Men" begins Aug. 16

And Don Draper better move over cause there's a new executive running thangs!

Yes, I brought my martini to work. What!?
Check out MadMenYourself.com.

The problem with black faces and books

Why would a young adult (YA) book about a black girl with features that reflect her African ancestry and hair that is short and natural have a young, white girl with keen features and flowing tresses on the cover? Folks around the Web (Read this great summary at Chasing Ray) are asking that question about the US release of Australian author Justine Larbalestier's latest book, Liar, a thriller about a teenage pathological liar.
The answer, according to Bloomsbury, the book's publisher, is certainly one we've heard before: Black faces don't sell, particularly dark ones framed by nappy hair. Beauty sells and black faces are not beautiful. In a post about the controversy on her Web site, Larbalestier mentions a positive review of Liar that brands Micah, the protagonist, "ugly," though there is nothing in the book that describes her as such. Apparently, it is her blackness and nappiness that offends.

The author (who, btw, is white) writes in her post about fighting for a different book cover and losing the battle. Though several images of young girls were considered, and not all of the faces were white, none actually resembled the protagonist. Larbalestier is disappointed, not just with her experience, but with the fact that this cover bait-and-switch is not uncommon:

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I've told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don't sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won't take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can't give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they're exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don't stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

The notion that "black books" don't sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them4 Until that happens more often we can't know if it's true that white people won't buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with "black covers" don't sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with "white covers." Read more...

It is not just black girls whose faces are deemed inadequate, Trisha at The YA, YA, YAs points out:
My first reaction to the Liar cover controversy: That's shameful. An eye-catching cover, to be sure, but to use the picture of a white girl who blatantly does not match the narrator's description at all? So. Wrong. Even more so now that I've had a chance to read the book.

My second reaction to the Liar cover controversy: Well, hell, it's not as if it's unusual for Asian-American characters to have their race obscured on book covers. Granted, not whitewashed like this, but hidden nevertheless. This might sound really callous and I sincerely don't mean to diminish the importance of the original discussion or of Bloomsbury's deplorable actions, but there you go. Read more...

I was once a young, black girl with a voracious appetite for books. I still love them and I try to instill a bit of that bibliophilia in my nieces and nephews. Books are so powerful. They can uplift, teach, entertain, save...There is a reason that books and the ability to read have historically been withheld from oppressed peoples. Books can damage, too. If I hand a copy of Liar, with its cover that implies black physicality is "less than," to a young, black girl, already struggling with her self-worth because of a society that is still race and gender-biased (and because, you know, that's what teens do), --what will that do?

My first instinct is to call for those of us who believe in anti-racism to boycott books with cover art that disrespects people of color. But what good would come of that? Soon, publishers would be saying that books featuring protagonists of color won't sell even when their covers are emblazoned with acceptable-looking white folks. And also, authors like Justine Larbalestier, who actually makes an effort to write inclusive books with characters of color (see below), will suffer. That's not fair. It seems the best thing we can do is what we are doing now. Talking about the inequity loudly so that everyone can hear, and writing to publishers to let them know that we notice what they are doing and we don't like it. And here is the important part--all this talking, complaining and taking to task can't be done solely by parents of color, or parents of children of color. We desperately need the voices of white allies--those good people who publishers think find black faces distressing and off-putting. We need you to be vocal. but here's the other thing--we need you to actually buy good black literature, and literature featuring other people of color, for yourselves and for your children. We need to prove to the publishing industry that they are wrong for thinking the worst about people who read and buy books.

Larbalestier concurs:

But never forget that publishers are in the business of making money. Consumers need to do what they can. When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you? If you were upset by the US cover of Liar go buy one right now. I'd like to recommend Coe Booth's Kendra which is one of the best books I've read this year. Waiting on my to be read pile is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, which has been strongly recommended to me by many people.

Clearly we do not live in a post-racist society. But I'd like to think that the publishing world is better than those many anecdotes I've been hearing. But for that to happen, all of us—writers, editors, designers, sales reps, booksellers, reviewers, readers, and parents of readers—will have to do better.

While visiting Larbalestier's blog, be sure to read her wonderful post, "Why my protags aren't white."

I've been asked a few times why none of my protags are white given that I am white. (So far that question has only come from white people.) I thought I'd answer the question at length so next time I get that particular email I can direct them here.

I don't remember deciding that Reason, the protagonist of the Magic or Madness trilogy, would have a white Australian mother and an Indigenous Australian father. I don't remember deciding that Tom would be white Australian or Jay-Tee Hispanic USian. But I made a conscious decision that none of the characters in How To Ditch Your Fairy would be white and that Liar would have a mixed race cast. Why?

Because a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. "Most books are so white," one girl wrote me. Read more...

Gates' 911 tapes seem to absolve Lucia Whalen, but is this case still about race?

Recently released tapes of the 911 call that resulted in the arrest of Harvard professor and well-known academic Henry Louis Gates reveal that, contrary to earlier news reports, caller Lucia Whalen did NOT mention race in her communication with the 911 operator. When asked by the operator the race of the men she saw, Whalen wasn't sure, but thought one may have "looked kind of Hispanic." Whalen was also very clear that the situation she was witnessing may well have been what it was actually revealed to be: A home owner returning from travel and having trouble with a door.
BOSTON - The 911 caller who reported two men possibly breaking into the
home of black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. did not describe their race,
acknowledged they might just be having a hard time with the door and said she
saw two suitcases on the porch.

Cambridge police on Monday released the 911 recording and radio
transmissions from the scene in an effort to show they had nothing to hide, but
the tapes raised new questions about how and why the situation escalated. Read

Given Ms. Whalen's very measured call, why did the situation at Gates' home intensify so quickly? And why, in James Crowley's police report, is Whalen said to be more confident about the race of the subjects and more suspicious than in the 911 call? Was Crowley's handling of the situation, as he described it in his report, consistent with what a reasonable officer would do when faced with a situation where even the reporting witness admits there may not be a break-in at all?

Of course, those who wish to believe that race played no role in this case are caterwauling "See! See! No racism! You people always jump to conclusions!" In comment threads around the Web, folks are holding up these recently-released tapes as evidence that those who claim race played a role in this case are wrong.

Hold on there.

It does seem clear that Lucia Whalen was wrongly vilified, but those of us who questioned her racial bias were not making assumptions without evidence. We were trusting widely-circulated, now-contradictory reports from Crowley, Gates and the media. And we still don't have resolution on what happened between Crowley and Gates. Likely, we'll never know without a doubt how much or how little race played a role in the professor's arrest. We only have what Gates said vs. what Crowley said. Even if the Cambridge Police Department chooses to release tapes of Crowley's transmissions, revealing an audibly agitated Gates, we can't know what happened in those first minutes that the officer approached the intellectual.

Those who think black people are stubbornly determined to find racism in this situation should understand this. Personal experience can be its own evidence. Every human being assesses situations based on facts and logic born of learning and experience. The black community's experience with law enforcement is unique and, yes, often tinged with racism. At least half of the black men I have spoken with--law abiding citizens all--know what it is like to be accosted wrongly by police officers. They know what it is like to "fit the profile." My own brother and his friends were once stopped on an interstate by a phalanx of police, guns drawn, because a woman at a hotel where they were staying thought four, young black men exchanging money couldn't possibly be college students settling up a hotel bill after a weekend getaway, but instead must have been conducting a drug deal. Imagine that. Imagine how quickly that situation could have gone wrong. Think of living with the prospect of that happening every day. Black men, no matter how educated and prosperous, do live with that.

And so, most black people, other people of color and anti-racist allies legitimately view the Gates controversy with suspicion. In most cases, it is a suspicion borne of real-life experience. It is legitimate. And the recently-released Gates 911 tape doesn't change a thing.


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