The Writer's Page: "At the Mercy or Whim of Others": Policing Protest in Children's Publishing

“I will not write another lament.”

That’s the first line of my poem “Room to Breathe,” which I wrote on May 29, 2020, the day a White Minneapolis police officer was charged with the murder of George Floyd. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I turned to poetry, since I couldn’t sustain the prolonged focus my novel-in-progress required. So far, I have completed over forty poems for a collection I’m calling American Phoenix (inspired by a friend’s comment: “America is a dumpster fire, but we will rise like a phoenix!”).

“I will not write another lament.”

I meant it at the time. After all, my first collection of poems, Say Her Name, had just been published in January and directly addressed the victimization of Black women and girls. Of course, it didn’t stop many people from diminishing or altogether ignoring the March 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police as she slept in her apartment. So I still feel compelled to write protest poetry — and last night I penned a series of haiku for Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a Black transwoman who was murdered, dismembered, and tossed in the Schuylkill River. Not by a cop.

I am tired of mourning. Writing has always been therapeutic for me, but right now, the combination of too much screen time and arthritis is making my fingers and wrists ache. It literally hurts to write, and so I considered withdrawing this essay rather than revising it one more time.

Late last year I wrote an author’s note for my picture book A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart. My editor felt it was too long, so I opted instead for a one-line dedication to Zion, the eight-year-old nephew of ­Atatiana Jefferson. They were playing video games in October 2019 when a White Fort Worth police officer shot and killed Atatiana through the window of her mother’s home. When I was invited to contribute to the rule-breaking-books issue of this magazine, I turned my author’s note into a longer essay. Rules don’t apply to all writers at all times. I argued that we must first consider who makes the rules since only then can we understand who gets praised for breaking them, and who gets punished. The editors appreciated my submission but suggested featuring my essay in a later issue.

Now, as I write this, it’s July. Coronavirus infections are surging across the country, and protests that began in big U.S. cities and small towns have spread across the globe, igniting a movement to end police brutality and the dehumanization of Black people. Some feel optimistic about this moment. I do not, but I have mostly kept my opinion to myself. Living under quarantine has made that fairly easy; as a middle-aged Black woman with asthma, I’m in no rush to go outdoors, and if I’m not presenting for virtual audiences on Zoom, then I’m alone at home writing.

I am tired of mourning. I am tired of raging. I am tired of hoping for change. I am also exhausted by the largely unproductive conversations we keep having about anti-Black racism in publishing. For over a decade I have written and spoken publicly about racial disparities within the U.S. publishing industry. Though many in the children’s lit community cling to the myth of meritocracy (“True talent will always be recognized — just keep trying!”) and favor narratives of gradual progress (“Things are getting better — just give it time!”), all studies show that the U.S. publishing industry is still dominated by Whites who are determined to hold onto — rather than share — power.

* * *

A Place Inside of Me is a poem I wrote twenty years ago that has finally become a picture book for older readers. Without referencing a specific event, I crafted thirteen stanzas that explore the range of emotions experienced by an African American child, starting with joy, moving through rage and sorrow, and concluding with self-love. It took more than persistence for this poem to find its way into the world; despite the critical acclaim that my first picture book, Bird, received when it was published in 2008, I was unable to get an agent and couldn’t find a home for my many other manuscripts. With no other option, I began to self-publish despite the penalty for operating outside the system.

Generations of Black writers have faced this same dilemma. In 1980 Audre Lorde phoned Barbara Smith and said, “We really need to do something about publishing.” Together they founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press “because of our need for autonomy, our need to determine independently both the content and the conditions of our work and to control the words and images that were produced about us.” As Black lesbians, Lorde and Smith knew that they had “no options for getting published except at the mercy or whim of others — in either commercial or alternative publishing, since both are white dominated” (my emphasis).

Poet June Jordan has also written about the “miracle” of Black writers existing in the U.S; after listing the varied methods of dehumanization imposed by White enslavers, Jordan reflects on the life of Phillis Wheatley and asks, “Come to this country a slave and how should you sing?” Denied by law the right to read and write, enslaved people had to overcome numerous barriers to see their words in print. Getting published generally meant finding a White person willing to vouch for not only the character of the Black writer but the authenticity of their work. Since the literary audience for slave narratives was overwhelmingly White and Christian, Black writers were further constrained by the genteel sensibilities of readers who were intrigued — even titillated — but also easily affronted by the violence inflicted upon the enslaved. In the twenty-first century, Black writers still have to be strategic as they craft their stories, since White-dominated publishers continue to favor pathology narratives and maintain their focus on a single White market.

* * *

In 2001, a dissertation fellowship led me to move to Athens, Ohio, from Brooklyn, New York, just a few days before 9/11. I would often take breaks from my research on lynching to write books for children; some of the stories were full of magic and others were realistic, but all had a link to African American history. My fellowship required me to teach a course based on my dissertation, and I found that many of my students were angry that they hadn’t been taught the history of lynching in the U.S. before entering college. When I told them I was writing a picture book on the subject, some of my students were alarmed, and so we debated when children might be ready to confront the ugly episodes in our nation’s history.

Despite my commitment to “teach the youth the truth,” I knew that certain strategies were needed to ensure that the retelling of a traumatic event didn’t shame or scare young readers. In Billie’s Blues, a little girl spends an afternoon with her elderly neighbor Ms. Marble, trying on fancy clothes and learning about blues singer Bessie Smith. The lynching of an African American soldier is mentioned in a blues song sung by Ms. Marble at the end of the story; few details are given, and the song points more generally to the reason she and millions of other African Americans fled the South for northern cities during the Great Migration. I’d had no reservations addressing the brutality of lynch mobs in my young adult novel A Wish After Midnight (which I initially had to self-publish), but in this picture book it was important to craft an entertaining story that told the truth without diminishing children’s faith in their fellow Americans.

Like the majority of my stories, Billie’s Blues was rejected by traditional publishers, and so I published it myself in 2016; it wasn’t reviewed by any of the major outlets, which charge indie authors for reviews or exclude them altogether. That includes The Horn Book; as Roger Sutton famously opined in 2014: “The real problem is that most self-published books for children are pretty terrible…A related problem is that while many, many people want to self-publish their children’s books, far fewer actually want to read them…This is mostly because a) the books are pretty terrible and b) the books aren’t filling any kind of need that isn’t already being met by established publishers.” Without a professional review, Billie’s Blues wasn’t likely to be added to any public or school library collections and so it no doubt escaped the notice of most educators and parents who might have wanted to share it with children.

When I signed with agent Jennifer Laughran later that year, I shared with her my many unpublished manuscripts; A Place Inside of Me evoked a tearful response from her, but we agreed that it wasn’t suitable for the typical three- to five-year-old picture-book audience. As with Bird, I wanted to reach older kids who still appreciated vibrant illustrations but could handle allusions to the Middle Passage and gun violence. In the end, however, my agent suggested sending out some of my more traditional picture-book stories instead — simple, entertaining tales that featured kids of color but made no mention of racism. None was accepted for publication.

* * *

Then, on July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling was shot and killed by two police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The next day, Philando Castile was shot seven times by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. His partner Diamond Reynolds and their four-year-old daughter were passengers in the car and watched him die. My agent emailed me to say that her grief over these police-involved shootings made her think of A Place Inside of Me, that poem I’d written twenty years ago about the range of Black emotions. She wished the book already existed since it might help kids process their own responses to the shootings. Jenn suggested we send the story out to a couple of editors, and Grace Kendall’s immediate, enthusiastic response let us know we had found the right home for my book at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Only one line was removed from my original poem: I agreed to cut “like a raging hailstorm of bullets” from the stanza about rage. Initially Grace proposed using illustrations to link the stanzas in a story about a Black family attending a protest march or rally. I gave my approval but worried that forcing a protest narrative onto the poem would look like a gimmick. It stings to see children’s publishing professionals suddenly so eager to capitalize on the attention the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the issue of police brutality when Black writers have been documenting the violent surveillance of our community for decades. Yet Grace didn’t want to rush our project. And in fact, when I complained about the distant publication date, my agent reminded me that “unfortunately, the topic is not likely to be out of date anytime soon.” She was right.

Time passed, the first potential illustrator moved on, and Grace suggested we take the story in a different direction. Noa Denmon came on board and created a young female protagonist; animals were used to represent the different emotions the little girl experienced in her suburban neighborhood over the course of a day. The sketches were sweet, but something didn’t feel right. With literacy nonprofit Behind the Book I visited a class of middle school students in the Bronx who were grouped together because they all read at a first-grade level. Finding books for them was challenging since most picture books feature protagonists and topics that feel infantilizing to twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. We used Melena’s Jubilee for the class, a quiet story about a little girl who tries to be more generous to others after being forgiven for mistakes she made the day before. But I knew that A Place Inside of Me could offer educators a better option for older, struggling readers.

I shared my concerns with Grace; she welcomed my feedback and together we began to craft a narrative that was actually closer to her original idea for the book. We hit a few bumps along the way: after having two editors on other projects change my words without my consent, I wrongly accused Grace of doing the same thing with my poem. I soon realized the fault was mine — I had made the minor changes myself years ago — and she graciously accepted my sincere apology. During a subsequent phone conversation, Grace and I realized we were so concerned with giving offense to each other that we weren’t being honest about what the story really needed. We agreed to reorder the stanzas and that’s when the protest narrative fell into place. The protagonist would now be an older boy in an urban environment who loses a young Black woman he loved to police violence. His emotions evolve over time as the community comes together to grieve, demand justice, and heal. Noa agreed to the new concept, and her illustrations exceeded my expectations.

* * *

These days I don’t feel optimistic about the racial disparities in our society, but no artist would create if they didn’t have at least some hope. I’m not ready to give up on this nation of dreamers — I finally applied for citizenship in February — just as I never gave up on A Place Inside of Me. It can be hard to trust again when you’ve been betrayed in the past, but this collaboration has at least shown me how productive and rewarding the editing process can be. Will FSG make an effort to market the book to Black readers? I don’t know. Despite its obvious relevance, A Place Inside of Me has yet to receive any U.S. trade reviews; Say Her Name received only two reviews prior to publication and yet now appears on numerous anti-racist reading lists.

A Place Inside of Me exists because after almost two decades, I finally found allies in the publishing industry who respected my vision and my voice. But I am keenly aware that it could easily have remained a file on my hard drive for another twenty years. I still have over a dozen unpublished manuscripts and if someone looked only at my traditionally published books, they might think I was preoccupied with trauma. My complete body of work, which truly reflects my range and aesthetic, remains largely invisible because the books that wind up in kids’ hands are determined by the tastes, priorities, and values of people who don’t come from my community. I’ve had to self-publish most of my stories because Black writers remain “at the mercy or whim of others.”

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Also read Zetta Elliott's 2010 article "Decolonizing the Imagination."

Zetta Elliott

Zetta Elliott is a Black feminist poet, playwright, and author of picture books Bird (Lee & Low) and A Place Inside of Me (Farrar) and the Dragons in a Bag series (Random), among others.

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