As human beings, language is innate and emotional. How many of you have been moved by a song or poem, at a loss for words, stunned into silence? Language is inextricably tied to the human experience. It is the thread that we use to weave stories of the past into beautiful tapestries that we can pass onto future generations.
On a rainy day, I love nothing more than huddling under a blanket with a cup of tea and a good book. However, getting lost in a good book is also a privilege — as systemic racism has existed and continues to exist in our education systems and our literary systems.
The ability to connect the past to the future is necessary to the survival of the culture and traditions of different peoples. Cultures and tribes have been successfully telling stories and sharing traditions orally for thousands of years, yet we prioritize cultures with written records. Many of the beautiful histories of BIPOC people have been ignored and marginalized by the mainstream.
Have you ever wondered, what makes a book “good”? Who determines what books make it to the bestseller’s list, and which books don’t? It isn’t the result – as they would have you believe – of authors overcoming all obstacles to publication using only sheer talent and persistence. The bestseller list is carefully curated and the public only sees titles and authors specifically chosen for their potential to make money for the publishing industry.
A few years ago, when digital books started to gain market share, self-publishing was highly stigmatized. The big publishing houses were losing control over access to markets and the barrier to public exposure was eroding. However, as the manufactured stigma subsided, the self-publishing market began to grow, and it gave marginalized voices an access point.
Barriers in the publishing sphere go much deeper than merely blocking potential authors from publishing their work. Its roots are in the education system that segregates, demoralizes, and discourages BIPOC from the beginning.
It all starts with the Common School Act of 1850, which permitted the creation of separate schools under the guise of “freedom of choice” for race and religious reasons. However, it was used to enforce segregation. Black students and teachers were turned away from “public” or “common” schools and were forced into segregated schools that lacked resources. District lines were often arbitrarily constructed to prevent Black students from attending commons schools in the area.
The effects of segregation and underfunding of Black students and educators is still evident today. In 2017, a report found that Black students were less likely to be enrolled in higher level high school classes, twice as likely to drop out of school, are under-represented in gifted programs, and over-represented in basic-level programming throughout Ontario schools. Most recently, students at Toronto’s Africentric Alternative School, part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), did not have access to online learning platforms during the pandemic.
Black students not only lack access to resources, but they also face overwhelmingly white teachers and administrators who are reluctant to address racism, more punitive punishments, and they are discouraged from attending university.The link between education and publishing is glaringly evident when we consider how many of the “classics” assigned to students as part of the curriculum portray Black characters in terms and circumstances that are no longer relevant or useful in today’s climate. In Nova Scotia, the novel To Kill A Mockingbird was removed from the curriculum in 1996 and replaced with A Lesson Before Dying by African-American writer Ernest J. Gaines. Another common title assigned in English class, Black Like Me, is written by a white author!
Recently, we have seen a few significant events that are highlighting the systemic racism that exists within the arts. The Oscars have received pushback for not having enough diversity in nominations. After the re-examination of the racist themes in Dr. Seuss’ books, publishers decided to stop publishing specific titles. The name of a Chinese classmate was stolen by a white author to claim a national poetry prize, revealing a particularly troublesome kind of racism, a sort of recolonization of the publishing industry.
It is reported that 99% of Canadians are literate, yet nearly half of adults struggle with literacy, including native English and French speakers. In a country as developed as what we now call Canada, this disparity is alarming. However, this is the result of racist and unjust systems, and these systems were designed to create these results. The less people that have access to information or opportunities to contribute to the narrative, the greater control the few can exert.
Words are powerful. Words can start movements, end feuds, heal trauma, and wield pain. Words can be weaponized by people who understand their power.
Here are some ways to check your privilege and decolonize your bookshelf:
- Support aspiring Black authors and poets by joining us for our latest installment of BLMs Reads: Local Literature on Thursday, August 26, from 7:30 to 9 p.m.
- Check out Black Lives Matter – Sudbury for ways to get involved and sign up for the BLM-Sudbury newsletter while you are there.
- Expand your bookshelf and read more books by Black and Indigenous authors:
- Le totem des Baranda (2e édition) by Melchior Mbonimpa
- Manman la mer, suivi de Rendez-vous lakay by Djennie Laguerre
- Gold Pours by Aurore Gatwenzi
- Before the Usual Time: A Collection of Indigenous Stories and Poems, Edited by Darlene Naponse
- Check out the “Keep Your Eyes On…” section of the BLM-Sudbury newsletter for recommendations of new and upcoming artists.
- When you find yourself questioning the language and tone of an author or poet, sit with the feelings of discomfort. Ask yourself, how do these words affect me? How is my lived experience different from the author and how does that affect my perception of them?