The Writer's Page: "Why Don't You Write About White People?"

While I was an active writer in the 1970s and 1980s, I was invited to speak to children in many elementary schools around the country. Most of the students, in the third to sixth grades, were white. The children were interested in my work and the images that were all of African Americans. Two of my books — Lillie of Watts Takes a Giant Step, in which Lillie gets into trouble at school for talking about Malcolm X, and Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World (winner of the 1987 Coretta Scott King Author Award), where Justin is hurt to know that his great-grandfather had been called a nigger (plus “The Silent Lobby,” a short story about ­Mississippi voting rights) — always brought about discussion and many questions. But I was often asked, “Why don’t you write about white people?” My answer: “I write about what I know best.”

Today when there is so much media discussion about “critical race theory” and the attitudes that have brought much division in the nation, I wonder if those white children were asking me to give them images of people like them who were also acting for change.

In 1996, during the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), I spoke to the group about writing and the definitions of black and white in this country. I talked about the struggle to end racism and racial superiority. I wanted to emphasize that white writers must attack this subject for young white readers.

There are white writers who have explored this subject of racism and racial superiority but through the eyes of African Americans: biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer; and stories such as Words by Heart, Amazing Grace, and The Moves Make the Man. But what about the heroes, heroines, protagonists, and antagonists who have all lived in this nation where slavery existed and racism still exists? Where are the stories about white people like John Brown, ­Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, Michael Schwerner and Andrew ­Goodman, Frances Ann (Fannie) ­Kemble, Virginia Foster Durr, and the little-known young girl who, under threats, gave water to wounded Freedom Riders when their bus was bombed?

There are too few white characters like Harper Lee’s Jean Louise, Jem, and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. White children, I believe, will welcome characters like them who will inspire them, answer their questions, and speak to their confusion, fears, and guilt about racism. More stories about white people who have participated in actions to end slavery and discrimination and present-day racism are needed so that children will have stories to expand their thoughts and memories about the issues of this vital debate. Without these stories, they will have no expansion of their intelligence. And without intellect there can be no new creative action.

“Critical race theory” has caused some parents and teachers to say that the true answers in history for children will make whites feel inferior. This is partly because whites who expanded their intellect to reject racism are hard to find in children’s books.

However, there were foreign philosophers and businessmen who helped Thomas Jefferson, an enslaver who later became president, shape the words “all men are created equal,” which made the Declaration of Independence appear to respect all humankind. There were white men and women abolitionists who helped President Lincoln sign the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery. And many whites joined the struggle that helped President Lyndon Johnson sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act that ended some racist activities. Think of the people of all races who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Throughout the history of this nation, there have been images of the struggle to end racism that were exciting and sometimes grievous.

Those of us who make images must be true to truth. Sometimes words of truth penetrate with pain. In ­reading the truth, white children will feel some of the pain today that African ­American children have felt for many years while living this history of racial divide. That is true for the writer as well as the reader. But we can go on writing and reading if the stab comes with love. I implore you white writers to respond to the debate about “critical race theory” by creating books that help white children discover themselves in the white heroes and heroines who struggled to make this nation live up to the promise that “all men are created equal.”

From the March/April 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Mildred Pitts Walter

Mildred Pitts Walter is the author of twenty-one children’s books; several short stories; and an autobiography, Something Inside So Strong. A member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), her oral history is part of the Civil Rights History Project and available via the Library of Congress.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Cynthia Waring

It warmed me to read this article. I am a white person who has a great great uncle who helped educate ex-slaves after the Civil War. He was also Poet Laureate for the Anti-Slavery movement. His name was John Greenleaf Whittier. He also had his place of business burnt to the ground for writing what he did by those in favor of keeping people enslaved. I would very much like to write an article about my Ancestor for your readers. Please let me know if you are interested. Cynthia Waring

Posted : Apr 24, 2022 01:41



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.