Thursday, October 18, 2018
JCUF VOL 5 NO 1 (2018) - EIGHTEEN: Writing the Black Canadian Childhood Experience
Looking back, it was definitely an exercise in narrative assumption, as I took the lives of adolescent bi-racial triplets (their mother was Scottish, their father hailed from Ghana) and tried to project their experiences with identity, school, family, relationships, and growing up...through story. This was my one of my favourite hobbies. This was my entertainment.
What "Eighteen" lacks in actual structure (at 294 pages long, it covers a span of 5 years of the characters' lives through first-person narrative from each of the three main characters), it makes up for in cultural accuracy through adolescent fodder. I'm somewhat embarrassed to share the immature aspirations of my childhood with a public audience, but always a little nostalgic when I remember how completely legitimate the storylines and character arcs were to me at that time.
This story represents what I thought life would and should be like; I was able to humour myself for hours and hours on end designing and plotting the hijinks of the Osei triplets and their jovial web of multicultural friendships over their adolescent and teenage years. Until they turned eighteen.
When I actually entered high school and was faced with a new social reality and constructive creative tools through excellent English classes and keyboard training, the novel came to an end and a new era of shorter stories and controlled structure began. Over the years, "Eighteen" has been edited for grammar and formatting, but I have left the thoughts, the dialogue, and the intention as pure as possible for authenticity sake. It reads and remains in the late 80's and early 90's, and reflects the realities of a young Canadian at that exact moment in time.
THE GENERAL THEME OF "EIGHTEEN": Siblings coming of age and redefining their identities and friendships as they transition between schools and living environments.
THE SOCIAL THEME OF "EIGHTEEN": Canadian adolescents learning to navigate culture, identity, and related social expectations and norms.
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published an article on the "Narrative Significations of Contemporary Black Girlhood" in 2010 that reminded me of my journey writing, and understanding the book "Eighteen." While finding books now with young Black characters and a multicultural array of friends is commonplace, looking back to the late 80's when my novel was initially conceived, that definitely wasn't the case. The NCTE authors outlined how there were only a "small yet noteworthy number of young adult African-American narratives that have undergone school-sanctioned literary canonization." Therefore, young Black girls (like myself, in 1988 when I began writing "Eighteen") would seldom encounter racially relatable characters in my Canadian classroom, let alone in a similar American classroom. To be an African-American at that time was to at least be partially acknowledged in media. To be a Black-Canadian, it was a reach just to find the American references!
Those images that did exist outside of the neighbourhood, family, or classroom, were of older Black men and women, often objectified, and/or frequently perpetuated negative stereotypes, according to the authors. From the onset of adolescence [and womanhood], Black children would have to form their identities without literature or positive media to counteract or explain the influence of common exposures to "risk and stress, and changes within a range of contexts such as school, and family." Cultural values were in development at this time, along with figuring out relationships...and schooling of course. The conclusion: that positive, cutting-edge portrayals of expression and identity formation for Black girls (in this particular assessment) were rare, but necessary. They needed these images. They needed something to round out their development, and did not have enough tools to reach for.
The NCTE article goes on to look at discussions from the 80's about Black females in rap videos, and the Black female experience in general, as "situated within multiple intersecting oppressions (racism, classism, sexism) along with growing tension and victimization". These were the most publicly obvious examples at the time, and the subject of many controversial debates. In the study, the writings of Sharon Flake, Rita Williams-Garcia, Nikki Grimes, and Jacqueline Woodson were analyzed. Black female protagonists in urban settings were observed through their decisions-making abilities, and situational depictions of their demographic. The study found that kinship identity was of utmost importance, as were relationships with boys, sexuality, etc. In these stories, "urban girls came to life," they were multi-layered, and spoke to the Black girls' human experience.
Before the late 90's era of urban fiction where Black females could see realistic representations of themselves in books, they were forced to compromise by investing in the lives of white characters, and projecting their own wishes and assumptions through fantasies. Looking at the progression of the novel "Eighteen," I can now see how even as the characters came of age, their access to cultural artefacts increased and their opinions on beauty, on acceptance, and their career goals changed with their ability to define themselves. Essentially, this novel served as my own discussion of Black Canadian childhood, and interpreted life as a Black Canadian adolescent, in the absence of reflective texts, programming, and media.
The NCTE article took a look at the above-mentioned authors and the ways in which they took the time to understand the Black girl's experience and what it meant for the girls who were able to access these books as entertainment, and also as tools for growth.
In the November 3, 2011 edition of The Guardian, Carlene Thomas-Bailey wrote that urban fiction author Teri Woods (who independently sold over 300,000 copies of her bestselling novel "True to the Game") said that many young Black women continually give her credit for their interest in reading. Woods told Bailey: "I have a lot of young women approach me and say that other that school books, this is the first thing they read cover to cover."
Teri Woods, and other emerging urban fiction writers in the 90s, noted that their books became popular because they reflected the reality of the Black experience, and that readers could identify themselves with the characters and specifically relate to their stories.
Authenticity is key, when it comes to urban fiction. Thomas-Bailey's article "Is Urban Fiction Defined by Its Subject--Or the Skin Color Of It's Author" noted that publishing companies have books presented to them that speak very differently to very different audiences for a reason. When urban fiction re-emerged in the late 90's, it was an era when Black authors were choosing to speak specifically to Black audiences, and the "content was shedding light on people who were, for many years, swept under the rug." Teri Woods described: "[Urban fiction is] showing you its world. It's giving you the whole lifestyle. If you want to sweep that exposure under the rug and pretend it doesn't exist, then that is not going to fix this problem."
While African-American authors and musicians were gaining underground momentum, as well as mainstream exposure for telling their cultural stories through hip-hop and urban fiction (aka "hip hop literature"), in Canada the Black experience was not as widely communicated or accessible. In Cheryl Thompson's 2007 Master's thesis "Situating Hybridity and Searching for Authenticity in Canadian Hip-Hop: How do we 'keep it real?' " she concluded that with the status of hip-hop in Canada at the time, the genre's dominant themes were actually "centred on the lack of definition of the Black, White, and Native Canadian identity, ownership, and how corporate annexation impedes the genre's ability to transcend."
Dionne Codrington, also navigating her Black female Canadianess through literature noted: "It was only when I read Maya Angelou, however, that I knew I had finally come home," in Concordia University's student publication, The Link, in her 2007 article "Black Women Writing History." With Angelou: "Even thought her portraits of Black women were not always gracious or glamorous, they were real..." continuing to say that "I was a young Montrealer of West Indian descent, far removed from their realities, but I heard them. Reading their novels was a conversation among sisters."
I can relate to the confessions of Black women from the U.S. and also here in Canada, expressing their love for reading, but the lack of recognition in books. Their appreciation for literature, but their longing for familiarity. So although I now scoff at the amateur construction and naive ideals of my young adult novel "Eighteen," I can also clearly recognize that its innocent composition was an exercise in necessity and survival. An eager reader, regularly tearing through Sweet Valley High, V.C. Andrews, Nancy Drew, Babysitter's Club, and the other popular texts for young girls of my era, I was thirsty for familiarity and had to call on my own creativity to fulfil that need.
Vanessa Irvin Morris wrote in the University of Pennsylvania's "Scholarly Commons" that urban public librarians were empowered by reading urban fiction, and discovering what their students and patrons read as part of their identity. Reading texts like "Eighteen" helped the librarians as they unpacked, questioned, and transformed their perceptions towards their library patrons, as well as how they began to modify their approaches to professional practice in the library such that they were more invested and involved in community life.
"I learned how to more gently regard my students' reading habits and effectively apply them to my pedagogical practices in the classroom as a means to encourage pre-service librarians to be active readers of what the patrons read as part of their professional identity," said Morris. Her study was created to understand what could happen when librarians read what the young folks were reading, as a form of "practitioner inquiry to inform their professional practices."
For librarians and teachers, urban fiction texts like "Eighteen" can be an example of transformative tools, as well as identity-forming guidelines for students. Marcelle Haddix and Detra Price-Dennis in the English Education journal, published by the National Council of Teachers of English (Volume 45, Number 3 in April of 2013) also noted that similar texts can prepare educators from a diversity perspective for critical encounters with literature, to help shape the learning of students.
The authors noted that written works depicting Black children were helpful, in: acknowledging multiple world views, honouring diverse backgrounds and student histories, and responding to racist ideologies and structures. They stated: "Critical encounters with literature can shape their learning," and that appropriate stories need to be selected to help students "interrogate interplay between race, gender, sexuality, class, language, and to examine how this interplay affects the lives of adolescent learners."
Students have shown to enjoy the non-standard use of language, familiar "slang," and references to real cities and neighbourhoods, in urban fiction. These texts help students to better understand how their personal histories can influence texts, and also provide "cautionary" tales to young readers, where necessary. Most importantly, the humanizing power of literature was acknowledged and how much it means for self-esteem and identity formation.
As a young writer, I attempted to form social reality through literature, and understand identity through a range of characters. I didn't have culturally-specific texts to rely on during the years 1988 and 1993 when I was writing, planning, restructuring, and projecting into the characters of "Eighteen." There were a few multi-racial television shows, and occasionally African-American characters in books, but it was the existence of Afia, Naki, and Kwame Osei (the triplets) that made me feel like I wasn't alone as a young Black girl, and that somewhere out there in Toronto there were similar kids doing similar things, and learning practical lessons about life. I learned through them, and through my imagination, as best I could. Looking back I realize that this story is probably more important to me, personally, than it will ever be to any other reader.
The technology in the text of "Eighteen" is outdated, the music, the practices, and even the city has changed since then. But what remains consistent is the need for self-reflection that other Black Canadian children are most likely experiencing, and the hope that there continues to be enough content and progressive narratives available for them. They deserve to feel confident, valued, and seen...and feel that their experiences are as normalized as possible, to help them get through the most confusing and internally challenging years of their young lives.
Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Journal of Canadian Urban Fiction.