Letters to the Editor from September/October 2001

These Letters to the Editor are in response to Marc Aronson's article in the May/June 2001 Horn Book Magazine, "Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes." In the September/October 2001 Magazine, Andrea Davis Pinkney responded with her article, "Awards that Stand on Solid Ground."

Marc Aronson says he wants to debate the merits of what he calls “identity-based” awards — the Coretta Scott King Award, the Pura Belpré, and a new Asian American award. OK. Let’s have it out, as he suggests. But I think before we get to suggestions for “how best to foster the creation, reception, and dissemination of a truly diverse literature,” we need to examine more closely his arguments against strategies that are already in place. My focus will be on the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Award because that is the one I know best, but I think my points apply to the others as well.

Aronson’s argument about the CSK Award is full of flaws. For one thing, he ignores the full set of eight criteria by which the works are judged — including the literary and artistic ones — and focuses on the author’s “identity” as if that were the sole criterion. In some sense this is an insult both to those who select the winners and the winners themselves, as if anything written by an African-American could win the award merely because the author is Black, regardless of its quality. This argument echoes the uninformed and racist assumptions made about African-American employees and college students in the context of affirmative action initiatives; i.e. “she got the job/she was admitted to this school only because she was Black, not because she was qualified.” He argues that, in selecting the awardee, ethnicity comes before talent. Isn’t that a bit like saying that, in selecting the Newbery and Caldecott Award winners, nationality comes before talent? After all, one must be a citizen or resident of the United States to win either of those awards. It seems to me that, no less in one case than the other, the cultural identity, ethnicity, or nationality of an author or artist is merely a necessary but not sufficient condition for winning the award.

Aronson’s argument that the existence of these awards is an excuse for people not to read African-American or Latino literature, or for librarians not to buy such literature, is also flawed. In the racialized society in which we live, those attitudes exist and are in no way dependent on the existence or nonexistence of the CSK or the Belpré Awards. They are expressed (or carefully not verbalized, but acted on) in teacher education classes — and probably schools and libraries — all over the country all the time. Resistance to this literature is a fact of life.

In expressing his ambivalence about the newly established Sibert Award, Aronson accuses members of Newbery committees of an aversion to nonfiction. His statement is based, I infer, on the infrequency with which nonfiction books have been awarded the Newbery Medal. And yet the fact that no African American has won the Caldecott Medal since 1977, and Christopher Paul Curtis in 2000 was the first African-American Newbery winner since that year, does not seem to him a strong enough argument for the CSK. Like the Sibert, the CSK and similar awards were established out of a desire to recognize and celebrate unsung excellence.

At the heart of Aronson’s argument is actually the assertion that white writers and artists should be eligible to win the CSK, the Belpré, and other such awards. That is simply another manifestation of a long-standing and continuing debate over acknowledging the differing perspectives writers and artists bring to their work, in large part because of the different ways they have been acculturated in our society. Creating African-American or Latino literature is not just a matter of craft, but also of representing and illuminating the distinctiveness of the experiences of those parallel culture people. It makes sense that those best able to illuminate those experiences would be those who have been closest to it. The CSK and the Belpré are about recognizing that cultural distinctiveness and celebrating literary and artistic excellence created by people who have “talked the talk and walked the walk.” Encouraging and acknowledging that excellence with awards is no less effective a strategy when applied to the literatures of diverse peoples than it is when applied to nonfiction. Let the celebrations continue!

Rudine Sims Bishop
Columbus, Ohio

Mark Aronson believes that the Coretta Scott King and the Pura Belpré Awards are based only on identity factors and not the selection committees’ judgments of literary excellence in conferring their choices. There is a difference in the way a member of a Parallel Culture community writes about the community through her own experience from the way one outside of that community might write about it. Race and culture and social consciousness give Parallel Culture artists and writers unique insights.

Both the Newbery and CSK Awards committees responded to the universality in Newbery medallist Christopher Paul Curtis’s rendering of a Black experience. They gave his novel Bud, Not Buddy their highest awards. Contrary to Aronson’s opinion, the CSK has always honored content. The integrated CSK awards committees have been responsible and reliable. The books they have chosen have been among the best. Occasionally, both the Newbery and CSK committees have erred. But to suggest, as Mark Aronson does, that CSK award committees are not as competent as Newbery and Caldecott, and the books not as deserving, is outrageous. Committees often have different opinions about books. And I believe it is wrong to besmear the extraordinary writing and art that has been and continues to be produced by Black writers and illustrators. It is the kind of biased thinking that proponents, like Aronson, of cultural pluralism pose as “the honest truth.” Rather than verity, Mark Aronson’s partiality reveals a fear of difference, and of Parallel Cultures providing their own views and appropriating manifestations of their considerable power through parallel awards.

There is nothing wrong with having an award based on African-American experiences. It’s not that we need it, particularly. We want it. Perhaps Mark Aronson should turn in his Robert F. Sibert Award. After all, it is a new award for informational books, and will likely contribute to stylistic balkanization of prose!

Multiculturalism is in no way a balkanization of art and literature. Rather, it thrives on the equal opportunity of all peoples of color to pursue their arts and awards on their own terms. It is the point of view of Parallel Cultures of which Blacks and Latinos are a part; and a vision of all cultures in a parallel or equal stance with one another. Our view is in opposition to the Mark Aronson view of cultural pluralism, which will recognize members of other cultures in the pluralistic literature as minorities. These so-called minorities remain marginalized within a dominant culture in the literature, which culture is generally white. The multicultural re-vision is of a Parallel Culture people who create stories and make illustrations in which the central characters are necessarily of that very culture and who express feelings, experiences, and hopes and dreams of that culture. I see nothing wrong with that.

Virginia Hamilton
Yellow Springs, Ohio

Marc Aronson raises a number of valid points in his commentary “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes.” Still, his central premise that identity-based prizes by definition invite scorn, ridicule, and prejudice is irretrievably flawed. I concede that a racial standard is not of itself sufficient to bring about meaningful change in the racist publishing circles Mr. Aronson describes or the myopic library systems to which he alludes. Mr. Aronson ascribes to the Coretta Scott King Award and the Pura Belpré two goals that I have not found in the guidelines or mission statements of either award: 1) to put pressure on the Newbery and Caldecott, and 2) to increase market share for multicultural books and their authors.

I very much agree that the Coretta Scott King Award is from a community to a community: it emerges from people of goodwill who will not let injustice stand and is sent out to people of goodwill who will not let injustice stand. Race is not a determinative criterion for either the sending community or the receiving community. The historical injustices Mr. Aronson glosses over in his first few paragraphs created a vacuum that militant advocacy groups filled. They defied literary oblivion by delving deeply into aspects of human experience that many “literate, aware” readers had chosen to ignore. I suspect the racial standard at the time gave [CSK Award founders] McKissack, Greer, and Carroll a temporary guarantee against cultural appropriation as pernicious as Pat Boone crooning/mining black songs for a profit. The author’s biography at the time did not predetermine validity as much as it ensured authenticity. They could not have imagined the complications this temporary solution would create for future generations.

The assertion that existing honors suffice and that sales will increase if content alone is recognized is both naive and deceptive. Myopic readers will remain myopic whether you send them same-race ambassadors or not: this is a lesson religious missionaries learned long ago. Conversion occurs only if the recipient of a message is willing to shift paradigms. The missionary’s ethnicity will skew only the catechist’s perception of change. More white writers, editors, and publishers taking on multicultural experiences and being rewarded for their liberal open-mindedness will not transform the economics of cultural segregation: greater supply does not make for greater demand. Only the recasting of desire as need and the promotion of brand loyalty will result in increased market share. In sum, Mr. Aronson’s argument persuades neither at the level of ethics or economics. Then again, I do not believe Lincoln abolished slavery or that Freedom Riders integrated Selma and Montgomery. (Manufacturing interests secured abolition and suburban sprawl spurred race mixing.)

Serge Danielson-François
Kansas City, Kansas

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