This past weekend I was privileged to attend the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College. I went to a lot of the sessions and was practically drowned in ideas and information; there’s a lot to process, and I’m only just beginning to look over the notes I took. With that in mind, I’d like to discuss a talk I attended entitled “Extolling or Exploiting?”
Richard (Rich) Michelson is Northampton’s poet laureate. He’s also the author of over a dozen children’s books, many of which have won awards including Amazon.com’s 12 Best Children’s Books of the Decade. His presence was humble, friendly, and unassuming, broken only when he began talking about a topic very sensitive to him, the question and stipulations of who is allowed to write what.
To provide some background, Michelson is White and Jewish. Many of his books explore the lives of Jewish children. Quite a few of his books also feature African-American characters.
In 2008 his book As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Towards Freedom was published. It tracks the paths of both men, respected spiritual leaders, and the journey that drew them to march together in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. The book features an introduction by Martin Luther King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and was the book to receive the aforementioned award from Amazon.com.
The Coretta Scott King Award is awarded for books about “the African American experience, that are written for a youth audience (high school or below).” In spite of appearing to fit the description of the award perfectly, Michelson’s book was not even considered. There were two reasons for this. The first was that Michelson was not African American. The illustrator, being Latino, was also ineligible.
As he recounted this series of events a slight tension arose in his voice. As Good As Anybody was and is, well, as good as any of these other books. It documents the life of a prominent African American individual and the great deeds he undertook in his life. The issue here lies in the ethnicity of the author.
So he asked us, does intent matter? The Education of Little Tree is a novel that recounts the fictional memoirs of a Cherokee boy. The author, Forrest Carter, was revealed to be Asa Carter, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Prior to that being revealed, however, many praised the work, Oprah Winfrey going so far as to promote it on her show in 1994.
Rich Michelson is a White Jewish man, and he wants to tell stories about African American history. By doing so, is he robbing African American authors of that niche market? Are editors maybe more comfortable dealing with him than they might be with Black authors?
I don’t have the answers, and from what I can tell Michelson doesn’t claim to either. He believes that we can all write what we want, but it’s up to society to determine whether or not they deem your writing “appropriate.”