Recently, Maya Payne Smart over at Book Riot joined the chorus of those issuing repeated calls for diversity in books. I can’t say I disagree; we need diversity in our literature. We need writers from as many different backgrounds creating as many different characters as we can get. My views are likely to diverge from Ms. Smart’s however, over the matter of how we achieve that diversity.
Let me tell you a story. One of the first books I ever read in first or second grade was a short novel called Johnny Texas, the story of an immigrant German family and their son, Johann, who moved to Texas in the early days of that territory’s settlement in order to start a new life. Johnny had many adventures in his new home, some pleasant (discovering the cool sweetness of Mexican candy) and some not so pleasant (becoming trapped in the spongy sand of a snake pit, as the heads of the snakes reared up around him in a circle). Carol Hoff wrote the story, and it was first published in 1950.
Was I fortunate to have read Johnny Texas back then? You bet. It was one of the books that made me a reader. But, looking back, we who have read it were even more fortunate in the circumstances of its writing. Here is a woman, over fifty years ago, writing a tale about an immigrant family moving to a land populated not only by whites and Europeans but Mexicans, too. Given the diversity of her characters, I can’t help suspecting that she might have had difficulty finding a publisher. What I do know is that, in its own way, Johnny Texas was as groundbreaking a novel as The Secret Garden had been about fifty years before that in teaching us about people different from ourselves and the perils of prejudice.
My point? We have always been diverse in this country, more diverse than we’ve been given credit for being. Our problem has been two-fold: how to address specific instances wherein diversity is lacking, and how to foster creative diversity within society as a whole.
Addressing specific instances is easy enough. You see the problem, and you correct it. Take, for example, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My reverence for this show is nearly unbounded. It deserves its place on TV Guide‘s list of the 50 greatest television shows of all time. If I could, I’d make the entire series required viewing for every English teacher in the country. Week after week, its scripts revealed the extraordinary powers of word play, what language can do to make us laugh out loud or weep bitterly. But one of the biggest problems Buffy had was visible from episode one: there weren’t any black people around. It was 1997 in suburban California and there weren’t any black people. Yes, there was Bianca Lawson, who had tried out for the role of Buffy Summers, but was later re-cast as the slayer Kendra, who was called after Buffy briefly passed into death in season one. But Kendra was a one-off; the show remained solidly white throughout its run. Joss Whedon saw the problem and corrected it when he created the Buffy spin-off, Angel. Angel was a show set in urban Los Angeles, and Whedon cast J. August Richards as Charles Gunn, a street-wise tough guy who joins Angel’s crew in their ongoing efforts to destroy the demonic law firm Wolfram & Hart.
Fostering creative diversity within society as a whole is more difficult. Somewhat lost in Google’s announcement this week that it is not as diverse in its workplace as it would like to be is that it has already given $40 million dollars to various organizations that are trying to open up computer science to women. I laud the effort and hope it will help, but it strikes me as yet another instance of our society’s habit of throwing money at a problem, hoping to create a magic wand that someone will eventually wave to make the problem disappear. If Google wanted to diversify its workforce tomorrow, it could do it simply by hiring any number of women or blacks or Hispanics to fill clerical or administrative or public relations jobs. But such changes would be cosmetic, and that’s not what Google needs. What Google needs are software developers, programmers, and engineers. Workers in those fields need to be educated. They need to be trained. And that takes time. It also takes willingness on the part of potential workers to move in to those fields at an early age. Just because organizations are trying to interest women in computer science doesn’t mean that all women will be interested. A few will be, I’m sure, but if you check their backgrounds, I’ll bet you’d find that most of the interested parties had been interested in computers since they were children, and had kept that interest alive into their college years. Those are the people Google needs to find.
Google’s dilemma has a parallel in academia with the rise of African-American Studies departments in universities across the country in the 1980s. I was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in those years and saw the creation of such departments first hand. The dearth of people studying black literature and culture was perceived one day and, voilla, AAS departments opened up overnight; endowed Chairs were created; and certain graduate students were “encouraged” (i.e., pressured by their professors and their peers) to switch fields. The result was the creation of relatively-small bands of people somewhat unhappy with their lot because they were doing work that they hadn’t necessarily come to graduate school to do. If any great books emerged out of African-American Studies departments in those years, I can’t think of any. The greatest works emerge from our experience, our response to the environment in which we’re placed, not the environment itself. When LeRoi Jones (Imanu Amiri Baraka) wrote poems that dazzled me in ninth grade, he was nowhere near academia. Richard Wright was in Harlem when he began his novel Native Son, and only later received a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete it. That was a book I also read in ninth grade, and the memory of it has stayed with me. Wright had tremendous difficulty writing the opening scene of the book, in which Bigger Thomas kills a rat for his sister in the run-down apartment they live in in Chicago. Not until Wright got drunk one night did he notice the rats infesting the sewers where he lived. He went back and incorporated that experience into the opening pages of the novel.
If we want diversity in literature and in life, we can have it. In fact, it’s already here. It always has been. But it has to be nurtured. It cannot be created overnight. If you want writers and teachers of literature, you have to be as bold as Margaret Jefferson was with me and let your students read Baraka and Richard Wright in ninth grade, even if such reading is outside the curriculum. When they are working, you have to ask your students the only question ever worth asking in a classroom, and you have to ask it of them every day:
“What would happen if. . . ?”
When they answer it in their own ways, be it five minutes or twenty years from now, you’ll get the diversity you’re looking for.
We also have to realize that the achievement of diversity has its cost. Rutgers University denied Amiri Baraka tenure, despite his body of outstanding work. When I was at Illinois in that same year (1984) I was reading Lawrence and Oppenheimer by Nuel Pharr Davis in a back room of the English Library. That 1968 book was widely regarded as the best book on the development of the atomic bomb until Richard Rhodes published his masterful study of the subject in 1986. My professor, Dale Kramer, came up behind me and gave me a nudge. “Davis was my student,” he said. “Really?” I replied. “Yes,” Kramer said. “He wrote the book, and it’s wonderful, but the English department denied him tenure because the book wasn’t on an English subject.” My jaw dropped, and I realized in that moment that, however long I would remain in academe, my days were numbered there. The first thing you learn in graduate school is your raison d’etre: to make a contribution to human knowledge. Here was a man, Nuel Pharr Davis, who embodied that ideal perfectly, took that ideal far more seriously than anyone I’ve ever met, and yet he was denied the opportunity to continue his work simply because he dared to be diverse in his interests.
Yet Davis will always be remembered for Lawrence and Oppenheimer. He succeeded because somebody told him he could, and because he ignored those who told him he couldn’t, or shouldn’t. He also succeeded because he was doing work that interested him, even if it happened to be outside the field everybody wanted him to be in. He took the risk and took the consequences, but he succeeded the way Hoff did and Wright did and Baraka did, they way we all can: by doing the work that we wish to do, and encouraging others to do the same.
The truth is, the diverse kingdom we all wish to live in already exists. It was here long before us and it will always be here. The key to revealing more of that kingdom to our sight is in understanding that creative diversity also lies within us, within our intellects and our imaginations. That kind of diversity is literally part of our DNA. It can’t be counted by corporations looking to fill quotas, or created artificially by academic departments looking to slot graduate students into categories to fulfill some social or political purpose. It exists in us so that we may use it to live as fully and as generously as we can with the people we know, and the people we are about to meet.