Friday, June 29, 2007

Something To Chew On

I don't check other blogs every day, but I happened to check American Indians in Children's Literature today and came upon the article in the enclosed link.

The essay, written by Lois Beardless, author of Rachel's Children is an unflinching and very clearly written review of a series of children's books by Anne Margaret Lewis; Tears of Mother Bear, illustrated by Kathleen Chaney Fritz, and Gitchi Gumee, also illustrated by Kathleen Chaney Fritz. It's a long essay, but it's worth reading and really made me think. Ms. Beardless makes a lot of very specific points.

It even prompted me to put a little note at the end of my Bear Maiden story, which was something I wrote around the time I was having a semi nervous breakdown/serious lapse in judgment, and right before I quit my last job as a techie and completely changed my life. Writing that story helped me to clarify where I was in my head at the time, and how desperate and trapped I felt. I had been told that often in Native culture you are adopted by an animal, and often that animal is something that's around you or that you are attracted to, maybe even before you realize that you've been adopted. A few years back, my father was traveling to the University of Taos to do a workshop; he met a Dine woman named Anna and bought a lot of jewelry from her. Anna got to be a family freind, and one of her rings made it to me; a bear claw. I've worn it ever since, not even thinking about it, but when I began to search for my soul, the symbol of that bear claw became very important to me.

Ms. Beardless asks the question "
Is altering or extending a legitimate aboriginal tradition for the purpose of marketing it to non-Indians any different than completely manufacturing a new one? Doesn’t it send the same messages of inconsequential presence about the Native American people of a region? Doesn’t it disregard our historic presence, our collective consciousness, our objections to such appropriation and abuse? And wouldn’t eyebrows be raised if the same practices were applied to Germans, Jews, or African Americans?"

My response to that question is that it has certainly already happened to Americans of African descent, in my opinion. There are a myriad of stories and myths about Africans that we didn't originate that are accepted as truth. The one story I know people really fought against was "Little Black Sambo" because it was obviously racist, but even so, people asked "what's the harm? It's only a story." But there many stories--to say nothing of entire textbooks disguised as "history"--that give half-truths, rumors and plain ol' blatant untruths written by people of non-African descent and have become accepted as fact. Even worse are the stories that were appropriated by non-African culture about our accomplishments as a people, watered down beyond recognition and spit back at us. We get to accept the validity of
Uncle Ben, CEO (yeah, that still pisses me off) or Aunt Jemima, but the fact that Pushkin and Dumas and possibly Shakespeare shared our heritage is not something that's well-known anymore. I had a professor at Pratt tell me, during my "History of Graphic Design" class that "for the purposes of this period (the Renaissance) we will not be talking about Africa, as there is no known written or *printed* contribution from there during this time." In front of my entire class. I was so floored I couldn't even begin to tackle my response.

These days, I have noticed a terrifying trend particularly noticeable in the younger generation; we as Americans of African descent have begun to believe our own "bad press," to wear it like a badge of honor and to live up to it every day. The stereotypes and myths that our grandparents fought so hard to dispel have become ingrained in the current culture. It's a sneakier problem on the "High Side" of The Divide, but I can tell you that Down in the 'hood, they believe the hype. It's why I have such an aversion to the word "Nigga" and everything that it represents. I've had discussions with many people of African descent, who feel that to use the word on ourselves somehow negates its power and awful heritage; who argue about censorship and how it curtails freedoms when we "ban" certain words. But in a strange way, reading Ms. Beardless' essay clarified my answer; that word represents a whole host of myths and stories that were not of our origination, it creates images in people's minds of what a "Nigga" is supposed to be, and now we even believe it. And very few people even realized it when it was happening. And sometimes I wonder if it's too late/ too far to change; if those of us with African blood have become our own worst enemy because we don't even know our own truths anymore.

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