On "Who Can Tell My Story"

Last Thursday at a panel on diversity in children's and YA publishing hosted by Emerson College's Writing, Literature, and Publishing program, Kirkus editor Vicky Smith referenced the current #OwnVoices movement in support of books featuring diverse characters created by authors and illustrators from the same diverse group. For those in the audience unfamiliar with #OwnVoices, Vicky suggested they read a Horn Book Magazine article written by Jacqueline Woodson. Off the top of her head, Vicky couldn't remember the exact title of the article. Well, I don't blame her. It's completely understandable that she couldn't call up the title, because Woodson's eloquent and powerful essay was published in...1998.

You heard that right. Almost twenty years ago. Before hashtags even existed. But clearly the need for authentically diverse books is still acute. Woodson's essay could have been written today.

You've probably guessed that this article's title is "Who Can Tell My Story." I love that there's no question mark in the title. It's not a question. It's a statement. Woodson says that a white/not-POC writer who wants to tell a story about a family of color needs first to have become "a part of the experience." Metaphorically, the white/not-POC writer needs to come inside that family's house, their kitchen, and sit down to their table. If not, Woodson writes:
...how could she possibly know the language and the experiences and the feelings there? How could she know who they were when they took their outside clothes off at the end of the day and moved from their outside language to the language they shared with family and close friends? How could she know what made them laugh from deep within themselves... — and what made them cry — the stomach wrenching wails one hides from the outside world? And most of all, why was it this woman needed to tell this story?

Woodson continues:
As a black person, it is easy to tell who has and who has not been inside "my house." Some say there is a move by people of color to keep whites from writing about us, but this isn’t true. This movement isn’t about white people, it’s about people of color. We want the chance to tell our own stories, to tell them honestly and openly. We don’t want publishers to say, "Well, we already published a book about that," and then find that it was a book that did not speak the truth about us but rather told someone on the outside’s idea of who we are.

I remind you, again, that she wrote these words Eighteen. Years. Ago. Please take a few minutes to read the whole essay, listen to its message, and absorb its wisdom.
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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