"Keepin' It Real": Walter Dean Myers and the Promise of African-American Children's Literature

Article excerpt

Let us hear the questions in their hearts and let us hear them with our hearts

Let us celebrate the children (Myers, Glorious Angels, n.p.)

One afternoon not long ago, I spent over three hours with a group of diverse colleagues deliberating on how space is negotiated in light of post-structuralist theory and philosophy. After class, I felt stimulated by the theoretical constructs at which we'd arrived. But as my mental "high" subsided, reality crept back into my thoughts. I began to consider how many young black men had fallen victim to a violent crime while I mused with novelty over "the production of space." How many young black women under the age of 16 had been impregnated during those three hours? In the throes of what I diagnose as "black intelligentsia withdrawal," my deliberation on space came crashing down to terre/firma; our discussion had not changed a thing that is happening around me in "real" space. As a black man, I find this a particularly disheartening and disempowering sensation; often, while many of my colleagues retreat obliviously to coffeehouses to continue their discussions of theoretical matters, the pressures and realities of real "space" invariably seem to prevent me from enjoying such leisure. I frequently find myself in the midst of "intellectual" discourse wondering how, if ever, these battles will genuinely affect realities outside of the classroom. While post-structuralists skeptically contest the notions and test the certainties of what is "real," I would be quite tickled to observe them trying to explain their "theories" to folks that I grew up with - people who are facing - very "real" problems. In short, time and reality, theory and practice are very tangible issues that I wrestle with consciously.

The clock is always ticking, in my estimation, at a faster pace for black folks, especially for black children. Without question, literary critical theory has opened up a vast space to unlock the discursive values of texts for their usefulness, timelessness, and function. But how can literature and theory be combined in their most cogent form, to exact change in social practices? In short, how do we use literature to facilitate liberatory struggle?

One underexamined, overlooked, and neglected domain exists in the area of children's literature. This fertile genre provides us with a means to engage the minds of the proximate generation before they are swept away by the whirlwind of indoctrinated misinformation promulgated by mass media - the agents of mediated images and hegemonic ideology. In the area of children's literature, we - as scholars, thinkers, educators, and parents - can transform theory into practice that will enhance the developing critical minds of our collective future.

If we want to theorize about how gender and race are mere social "constructions," we must then accept that these same social "constructions" have manifested and asserted themselves in very real ways. In order to defuse the punitive damages wrought upon society by these constructions, we must actively engage in deprogramming destructive ideologies before they crystallize within the mind set of the next generation. Certainly, television and cinema are viable alternate resources, but neither can replace the active interrogatory processes that germinate from the engagement with a malleable literary text. While a television show can passively socialize a young mind into accepting a mediated image of reality, children's literature allows young minds to participate in the production of space, to create their own realities, both real and imagined. When children and young adults create images, this activity brings forth a sense of agency that reflexively evokes power, for when we create an image, we can create our own realities and our own selves. Television - in its breakneck thirty-minute conflicts and resolutions - and film - in its two-hour, multi-million-dollar productions often deny and suppress the active production of images because the medium is already ever-present for its spectators to see, absorb, and accept. …