Note: I wrote and sent this email to Kathy Ishizuka, Editor-in-Chief of School Library Journal on the morning of February 4th prior to the release of the “About Our Cover” statement. The statement is not an apology and outright rejects the widespread intepretation of the cover as blackface/minstrelsy. Creators of racist media, whatever its original intent, don’t get to adjudicate whether or not the impact of that media is racist.
As a longtime reviewer for Library Journal and facilitator for LJ professional development course, including Equity in Action: Building Diverse Collections, I am writing you today to add my voice to those who have critiqued the February 2021 (vol 67 no 2) School Library Journal cover story, “Why White Children Need Diverse Books” by Drew Himmelstein, and particularly the accompanying cover illustration.
It is true that media created by people, and featuring characters, from minoritized communities should not be pitched by library workers as only for people from those specific communities. When I facilitate Equity in Action courses I caution my students not to assume that if they work in overwhelmingly white areas (for example) they are free to continue purchasing overwhelmingly white media. Or that media with queer characters is only enjoyed by queer people. The same is true for any marginalized identity or experience — we want our patrons to browse our collections and find as wide a range of identities and experiences as possible, inviting them to explore worlds both like and unlike their own. Marginalized people usually do this by default when navigating a world not organized around their experiences, needs, and desires. People whose identity and experiences align with the dominant culture often need more purposeful exposure; richly diverse library collections can create opportunities for that wide-ranging experience.
However, that does not mean that those around whom the dominant culture is already organized (in this case white children) should continue to be centered in these discussions. The SLJ cover illustration should never have made it past the concept stage. Minstrelsy and blackface — white people performing Blackness for white pleasure — are thoroughly racist practices with long, violently exclusionist histories in the United States. The SLJ cover evokes this history through the visual depiction of a white child casually trying on a Black child’s face by holding up the book cover to cover part of her own body. To place white children’s needs and pleasures at the center of a discussion about Black children’s stories — particularly during Black History Month — is an act of white supremacy. It asserts that the justification for stories about anyone other than white people is, first and foremost, about meeting the needs, or fulfilling the desires, of white audiences. That assertion does harm. SLJ owes the community an apology, and must take steps to address the harm you have done, as well as reviewing the process by which it happened, to minimize the risk of similar future acts.
Dear [LJ/SLJ Professional Development Team],
It’s with a heavy heart that I write to you today in order to withdraw from facilitating the upcoming LJ/SLJ “Equity in Action: Fostering an Antiracist Library Culture” course. I have made this decision following yesterday’s statement from Kathy Ishizuka regarding the February School Library Journal cover story, “Why White Children Need Diverse Books” by Drew Himmelstein, and particularly the accompanying cover illustration.
I wrote to Kathy yesterday morning [see above], before the “About our February Cover” statement was released, expressing my concerns about the timing and framing of the piece as well as the blackface implications of the cover illustration. Kathy’s statement compounds the harm done by the article and illustration in a number of ways. In it, she continues to center the priorities/perspectives of white librarians, asserts that encouraging white children to read about people and characters different from themselves is a “provocative notion,” and refuses to accept the validity of the blackface/minstrelsy interpretation of the cover illustration. The statement is not an apology, does not represent a first step toward accountability, and does not provide a concrete plan of action for ensuring this type of harm toward Black library workers and library users will not continue. In fact, it appears to reject the idea that this article and illustration are truly harmful.
These actions do not foster an antiracist library culture. They are a denial that the library world, including School Library Journal,are systemically complicit in upholding white supremacy. I cannot ask students in the Equity in Action course to trust the guidance of LJ/SLJ in doing antiracist work when the School Library Journal leadership not only sees no problem with centering white anxieties during Black History Month, and approved a blackface cover illustration, but has also doubled down on those decisions when Black librarians and their allies pointed out these problems. This is the opposite of the kind of behavior we need in order for antiracist change to happen.
In making the difficult decision to withdraw my labor from LJ/SLJ because of this situation, I am following the lead of at least two presenters, Dr. Nicole A. Cooke and Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, who yesterday withdrew from the Equity in Action courses in protest. I am willing to consider remaining involved in the “Equity in Action: Building Diverse Collections” course later this spring, as both a speaker and facilitator, but will need to see a meaningful apology, accountability, and a concrete plan of action from SLJ in order to participate. When it comes to assessing how successful SLJ is at meeting this criteria, I will be listening to Black librarians in the weeks ahead.
I realize this situation is not of your making, and am sorry that this impacts your work and our working relationship. I truly enjoy supporting the students in these professional development courses as they earnestly work to improve their practices and their collections. I hope that SLJ leadership takes action such that we are able to find a way to continue this work moving forward.
Correction 2020-02-05: In the original version of this letter I misidentified Dr. Nicole A. Cooke as Dr. Augusta Baker. Dr. Cooke is in fact the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair and Associate Professor, School of Library and Information Science, College of Information and Communications, University of South Carolina. My apologies.