Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.
Walter Myers writes in the New York Times that “Reading came early to me, but I didn’t think of the words as anything special. I don’t think my stepmom thought of what she was
doing as more than spending time with me in our small Harlem apartment.
From my comfortable perch on her lap I watched as she moved her finger slowly across the page. She probably read at about the third grade level, but that was good enough for the True Romance magazines she read. I didn’t understand what the stories were about, what “bosom” meant or how someone’s heart could be “broken.” To me it was just the comfort of leaning against Mama and imagining the characters and what they were doing.
“Later, when my sisters brought home comic books, I got Mama to read them to me, too. The magazines and comics pushed me along the road of the imaginative process. When I got my first books — “The Little Engine That Could,” “Bible Stories for Every Day,” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” — I used them on the same journeys. In the landscape of my mind I labored as hard as I could to get up the hill. I stood on the plain next to David as he fought Goliath, and tasted the porridge with Goldilocks.
“As a teenager I romped the forests with Robin Hood, and trembled to the sound of gunfire with Henry in “The Red Badge of Courage.” Later, when Mama’s problems began to overwhelm her, I wrestled with the demons of dealing with one’s mother with Stephen Dedalus in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read. I was a person who felt the drama of great pain and greater joys, whose emotions could soar within the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play, or find quiet comfort in the poems of Gabriela Mistral. Every book was a landscape upon which I was free to wander.
“In the dark times, when my uncle was murdered, when my family became dysfunctional with alcohol and grief, or when I realized that our economics would not allow me to go to college, I began to despair. I read voraciously, spending days in Central Park reading when I should have been going to school.
“But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.
“Books did not become my enemies. They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable. I stopped reading. I stopped going to school. On my 17th birthday, I joined the Army. In retrospect I see that I had lost the potential person I would become — an odd idea that I could not have articulated at the time, but that seems so clear today. Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map. During my only meeting with Baldwin, at City College, I blurted out to him what his story had done for me. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “I had to leave Harlem and the United States to search for who I was. Isn’t that a shame?”When I left Baldwin that day I felt elated that I had met a writer I had so admired, and that we had had a shared experience. But later I realized how much more meaningful it would have been to have known Baldwin’s story at 15, or at 14. Perhaps even younger, before I had started my subconscious quest for identity.
“TODAY I am a writer, but I also see myself as something of a landscape artist. I paint pictures of scenes for inner-city youth that are familiar, and I people the scenes with brothers and aunts and friends they all have met. Thousands of young people have come to me saying that they love my books for some reason or the other, but I strongly suspect that what they have found in my pages is the same thing I found in “Sonny’s Blues.” They have been struck by the recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are. It is the shock of recognition at its highest level.”