A Response to Zetta Elliott’s “Minstrelsy is the New Black“.

One of the most hard-hitting, unapologetic movies I have ever seen is Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.” I was just out of college when I watched it on the big screen—young, angry, hurt, and even though I wouldn’t have admitted it then, a little bit afraid. At that point, I thought I’d learned everything there was to know about racism. But at the end of the movie is a cinematic montage of the representation of black characters in film throughout American history—variations of Stepin Fetchit, Buckwheat, Mammy, and pickaninnies. I watched those scenes through a stream of tears. I had a deep visceral reaction and it forever changed my understanding of how racism white supremacy truly functions in this country and in the world.

This is when I began to question if blackness itself is performative art in the presence of white onlookers.

In mentioning my book within the context of minstrelsy, Zetta Elliott is suggesting that my novel is merely a “black face”—complete with its popping eyes, oversized protruding lips, and “yes massas”; that black writers telling stories featuring children and the trauma in their lives, regardless of the stories’ origins, are performing for the White Gaze. While I certainly can’t speak for every black writer and their intentions, but based on my own work and experiences in understanding and loving blackness in all its complexities, nothing about my work speaks to the Mantans of the American entertainment world. Truth-telling, providing context within the story, and humanizing black children is my main focus. A far cry from minstrelsy.

While writing American Street, I researched violence committed against black teen girls. There were one too many stories. In most cases, there weren’t enough details in these news reports to make it a legitimate story. The short lives of these teen girls were relegated to a date, time, location, and a vague description of that single fatal violent act. One such story literally hit close to home several years ago in 2009.

A block away from where I spent my teen years, 14 year-old Sabrina Matthews was killed in her own bedroom. As weeks and months progressed without a suspect charged in the case, only then did the details of Sabrina’s life and family begin to unfold in the newspapers. The case went cold for nine years until this past November. A 24 year-old man was charged in her death. Rashon Venable was 16 at the time of the murder. I cried when I discovered that story. I’d been checking the family’s Facebook page memorial for years.

Within the story of Sabrina’s murder is also the story of a sixteen year-old Rashon and if I peel away at the layers, there’s also the story of a family struggling with poverty, institutional racism, more violence, and more trauma. And somewhere within those layers is also the story of an unrealized dream. Sabrina’s parents were from Jamaica. They were immigrants who had worked hard and made enough of a living to move to the middle class neighborhood of Cambria Heights, Queens.

In 2011, I started to write a young adult novel inspired by Sabrina’s story. But I’d already proclaimed to the world that I was a science fiction and fantasy writer. Looking back now, this box I placed around my writing life was a shield. It relieved me from telling a certain kind of truth in my art—that violence was a major part of my adolescent life.

At that time, I was submitting my work to agents, learning about the industry, meeting authors, and workshopping. If I told a story inspired by Sabrina Matthews, I would have to present her bloodied body to the world—the all white world of children’s books. I’d already had a number of personal experiences to understand the White Gaze—how in presenting black art in all its messiness and complexities, a white audience will take from it what it wants. I knew that they would want the violence and the trauma—black bodies in a constant state of duress.

As a Haitian, I am a firm believer in the vodou tradition. This is how I strive to decolonize my imagination. Vodou faith is sprinkled throughout American Street. My inclusion of Papa Legba, guardian of crossroads and doorways, is intentional. I wear a pendant of Papa Legba’s vévé. This is to acknowledge that as an artist, I am always at a crossroads or a doorway. It is also to help me decipher doublespeak in an industry that talks out of two sides of its mouth. (Calling for diversity, for example, but continually publishing dehumanizing images of children of color.) Our Papa Legba opens doors. The same doors Joseph Campbell refers to when following our bliss.

When the opportunity presented itself, Papa Legba had swung open a door and on the other side was something like Sabrina’s story still waiting to be told—that of immigrant families, and my own inclusion of violence against girls and trauma begetting trauma. This was ultimately my story to tell. It resonated so deeply with my own life on so many levels that I was afraid to write it. I was afraid of what the White Gaze would do to my black children’s bodies on the page. But in my African-centered personal world view, storytellers respond to their audience, not the other way around. If this audience is indeed the pervasive White Gaze wanting to be entertained, to stare down at bloodied black bodies on the page, to pick away at their own guilt-laden wounds, do I, or any other black writer, tuck this story away like dirty laundry?

If I’m to present a certain truth about the full experiences of black children and include my own stories as a teen—fighting, dating low level drug dealers, bearing witness to violence against other girls—I have to remove the White Gaze from both my story and my creative space, regardless of my editorial team. Their editorial presence cannot possibly add any layer of truth or authenticity to my story. They are there for clarity of language and to chisel away at plot. And I, as the storyteller, am not merely a face. I bring bones, blood, and memory to a story, especially if it centers violence and trauma. I don’t write from an intellectual space or from an Ivory Tower gaze. My specificity in story comes form day-to-day lived experiences. This violence, this trauma, this brokenness has always been a breath away.

Many teens of color in urban areas are trying to wrap their minds around what happened to the Sabrinas, Rashons, Trayvon Martins and Rachel Jeantels of their world. The news stories can never make sense of the emotional landscapes of inner-city violence, generational trauma, and the long-lasting effects of slavery and colonialism.

So I take my cues from black artists like Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall who present black bodies as they are within overwhelmingly white art institutions. They are funded by white tastemakers and their works are viewed more often than not by white audiences. I also look to Ava Duvernay who has been given the classic story A Wrinkle in Time, written by a white author and featured absolutely no children of color, to reshape into something truly empowering and meaningful. Or Ryan Coogler who has done and will do wonders for both the Rocky and Black Panther franchises. Both these instances feature white producers and funders. And their stories are not any less black, or authentic, or relevant because of it.

What matters most is that we black content creators within all-white industries take the helm and steer the ship to tell stories that are true and humanizing—narratives that pull from lived experiences and are based on a deep love for black people. There are no ManTans in these situations. And there is nothing new about this sort of blackness, nor can it ever be relegated to the realms of minstrelsy, no matter how many white people are seated at the creative table.

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This lecture was an extension of my 2013-14 graduate thesis for the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I spent two years studying middle grade and Young Adult fiction that either featured black girls as the main characters, or as secondary and even tertiary characters. I focused on speculative fiction–magical realism, science fiction, and fantasy. After reading several books, I began to notice some unsettling things about how black girls are sometimes portrayed.

In both the thesis and lecture, I point out stories that are empowering and uplifting. I’ve included both the actual thesis and an audio of the lecture, including images of the PowerPoint presentation.

IMG_0641

That lovely photo is by Haitian American photographer extraordinaire, Fabiola Jean-Louis.

Ibi.Zoboi Critical Thesis

 

Also, here is a PDF file of the PowerPoint presentation with images, statistics, and lists of strategies and takeaways for creating empowered brown girl characters in speculative fiction stories. This can also serve as a guide for recognizing the ways in which stories either empower or disempower girls of colors depending on a number of factors.

BROWN GIRL IN THE RING_ MAGIC FOR THE MARGINALIZED

I hope this can serve as one of the many resources for the continued conversations about humanizing representation of children of color in books.

Thank you for reading, listening, and viewing!

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Today marks the 7th anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. a day that strengthened my resolve to continue telling the stories of my beloved Haiti and Haitian people. I am so grateful to be able to do just that with AMERICAN STREET.

I’m giving away two stacks of amazing books featuring Haiti and Detroit!

Stack 1:

  1. Signed ARC of American Street
  2. Haiti, My Country by Rogé
  3. Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney
  4. A is for Ayiti by Ibi Zoboi
  5. An anthology featuring writing by Haitian teen girls in Port-au-Prince and Haiti with a a forward by Edwidge Danticat. 

 

Stack 2:

  1. Signed ARC of American Street
  2. Eight Days: A Story of Haiti by Edwidge Danticat, Illustrated by Alix Delinois
  3. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
  4. A is for Ayiti by Ibi Zoboi
  5. An anthology featuring writing by Haitian teen girls in Port-au-Prince and Haiti with a a forward by Edwidge Danticat.

Enter below for a chance to win. Retweet and share on social media @ibizoboi. Winners will be selected Monday, January 16 at noon. International entries welcome.

Mesi! Kenbe fem, pa lage! (Thank you and hold tight, don’t let go!)

Edited 1/16/17 at 5:40pm:

Thank you to all those who have entered this giveaway! Two winners have been selected. You can pre-order AMERICAN STREET here or add it to your Goodreads.

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I delivered the keynote address to the 2016 graduating class of Brownsville Academy High School. BAHS was featured on the news a few years ago for the innovative art program.

BAHS is also a “last chance” high school, or “over-age, under-credited” high school. The students are typically aged 17-21. They’re not ready to graduate high school, but oftentimes, they’re too old to remain in a traditional high school.

At the last minute, I decided to include some current events.

Good afternoon Brownsville Academy High School—administration, staff, teachers, parents, family members, schoolmates, and class of 2016.

Thank you Ms. Warren for inviting me to deliver this keynote address to what I know is a group of incredibly hard-working, determined, and brilliant young people. It is truly an honor.

Of course, in trying to come up with the words that I hope will inspire and launch you into your lives as independent young adults, I was at a complete loss. What could I possibly say that you don’t already know? You, Class of 2016, are children of the information age. The answers to every possible question that you can think of is at the tip of your fingers, on your smart phones. The world is literally in the palm of your hands.

In fact, you can probably Google me now and know that I am an author, a writer, a mom, an educator, as well as an immigrant. This is the image that I’ve presented to the world, complete with carefully chosen Instagram selfies with the right filters, and hashtags, and cutesy posts.

But what you won’t find on Google or Facebook or Twitter are the quiet, dark corners of my true self that I keep hidden from the world. I know Brownsville very well (Brownsville/East New York/Bushwick in the 80s that is, in the midst of the crack epidemic and the unprecedented violence that swept the whole city at that time). This is where I grew up after coming from Haiti. I know very well Sutter Avenue, and Crescent Street, and Bushwick and Knickerbocker Avenues, and shopping for school on Pitkin. I know Pink Houses and that diner on Linden Boulevard that’s been there for decades. This is where I was made—the ‘hood. I was part of it, but not of it. So this speech won’t be about how “I made it out.” I didn’t escape anything. I took it with me, and I keep it in the corner where it’s dark and where the sun has already set.

We all have those parts of ourselves where the sun has already set—parts of ourselves where it’s forever night, and they only exist in the realm of dreams or nightmares.

However, here in the sunlight, you are shining bright and are full of hope and energy. And you are still here, in Brownsville, East New York, East Flatbush, Crown Heights. These places you call home are not dark corners. This is where the sun shines for you and over you.

But again, this speech will not be about where I’m from or where you live and how far you have to go. This speech will be about sunshines, and sunrises, and sunsets.

So this takes me to a very recent event in the news that reminds me of an old saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

Some of you may or may not know, or may not even care, that United Kingdom, or Great Britain, has recently voted to secede from the European Union. If this was a History class, I’d ask you when in our American history has the word “seceded” ever come up? The Civil War? That war about slavery? Yep, that’s right.

But again, what does this have to do you with you? This is Brownsville, after all, a little forgotten corner of Brooklyn in the midst of gentrification under the guise of “urban renewal”, a fast-changing skyline, rising costs of living, closing schools, crime, underemployment, police brutality, and gun violence. Who cares what the British are doing, right?

But, unfortunately, I have to and already am delivering this speech in English. A majority of you can only understand me in…English. All of you had to read and write and understand your teachers in English in order to pass your classes and graduate. You have to fill out forms for college or jobs, and interview in…English.

I’m sure throughout your years here at Brownsville Academy, you were taught to think critically, to question everything, not just the stuff in books or what you have to learn in order to past tests, but to question your life choices, the world, and even the things that you think have absolutely nothing to do with you. So let’s think critically for a second about how it is that you and whoever you are as a young person in this school, in this neighborhood, in this Brooklyn, in this New York, in these United States, came to speak in English and use it as your primary language?

I’m sure even your dreams are in English. This ceremony is English. You walked to the song “Pomp and Circumstance” which is…English. Your graduation gowns, the way you wear a tie and shirt, the way you learned your alphabet, and math, and science, and what was taught to you as your history… English. If you’re from the Jamaica, or Trinidad or Guyana, or West Africa—Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia…ENGLISH.

So yeah, England was such a powerful force in World History, that it still affects you today, even as you sit here in this forgotten dark corner of Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Well, so…

I challenge you, Class of 2016, to think for a moment that maybe this has been the problem all along. That the sun never set on the British Empire. This English that has been so pervasive in your life (without your knowing) has been placed in the spotlight, in the sun. So much so that you have been taught to tuck away parts of yourselves into a corner—the real you, the “keep it a hundred” you.

The parts of you that found it hard to pay attention, to follow through, to set goals, to achieve them. The parts of you that take the English language and twist and turn it into something of your own making—the “On fleek,” and the “It’s lit,” or whatever you all say these days. The music that you make—the Drake, the Khalifa, the Future, the trap, the bass, the rhythm, Milly Rock on every block, the Waka Flaka, and Fetty Wap. All’a that. These have always been your fight against the Empire and it’s never-ending spotlight on your life, your sense of history, and sense of self.

Think, for a moment, Class of 2016, who are you stripped away of this English, of this Pomp and Circumstance, of these gowns and shirts and ties and sleek hair and high heels? What is the language you speak when you can’t quite capture those fancy English words just right? What have you created to take its place? What is the garb you wear when the world tells you that you are unrefined, unpolished, stripped away of English regalia—the caps, gowns, scepters, and crowns?

Your clothes, your slang, the way you rock your hair, your dances, are the many ways in which your true selves are creeping out of dark corners so that you, all of you, can shine in the sunlight, too.

You are trying to remember who are you are. You are trying to cast a light on what you’ve been taught is dark, hopeless—that place of nightmares where dreams don’t come true.

As I look out before me, I see a sea of brown faces. The world tells you that you are you are black. You are African American. You are African descents. Africa used to be called the “Dark Continent”—a forgotten corner of the world. Africa is where the British made most of their riches alongside their colonies in the Caribbean and even here in America. The Empires stole the African sunshine—from as far east as Kenya to as far west as Senegal—and stuffed it into a dark corner of the world.

And here in America, is where a new world was built in the shadows of the British Empire whose dominating sunshine lingered over slavery and segregation and racial violence and urban poverty and violence. Here is where the children of those dark corners still speak in English and have to fight everyday to remember the language that they lost, the music thrown overboard on slave ships, and the forgotten songs.

So now, I wonder, if the sun has finally set on the British Empire. What, Class of 2016, will you create in the world that will help you remember who you really are? In whatever career path you choose, what will you do to remember what you have lost? How will you pull your true self out of the dark corners where the sun has already set so that it can shine and cast a golden light on everything that you do?

Every mistake, every wrong turn on the road, every tragedy, every setback, pull them out of the corner and let them see the light of day. Take them with you and carry them on your back, or hold them high above your head. Tell your story. Don’t hide it. Take it with you on your journey. Let the world know that you have put up a fight against the mighty empires that were determined to mute your sunshine—violence, poverty, underfunded schools, unsafe communities, poor choices. This is the only way that you can truly shine. This is the only way that dreams will come true. Be your full brilliant self away from sunsets and dark corners. Shine bright like the greatest star of them all. Become the sun. Because you have always been the sun, hanging high over the Empires, because you and your history have always been the source for greatness. You will never set and you should never settle for anything less.

Shine bright class of 2016. Onward and beyond. All the way up!

Congratulations!

 

 

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At long last, the cover of American Street, is featured on YA Highway.

Here’s what I had to say about the cover:

When I first saw this cover, I gasped. AMERICAN STREET is indeed a colorful, chaotic, yet beautiful profile of one girl’s journey. The designers managed to capture the raw emotions in AMERICAN STREET through color. Graffiti encompasses much more than “urban” themes. It’s color thrown on a wall and the resulting chaos is magical. My character throws her heart, her fears, and deepest desires against the many walls that appear in her path. It’s chaotic and beautiful and magical. And there at the center is the golden hibiscus, an important symbol in Haitian culture. The Taino queen Anacaona was one of our very first revolutionaries. Anacaona means “golden flower.”

AmericanStreet_wBlurb-2

 

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