The following article is excerpted from a presentation made to an audience of booksellers and publishers at the annual convention of the American Booksellers Assn. Boyd's speech introduced an afternoon of workshops on selling multicultural children's books.
During the time that I was growing up in the South Side of Chicago, the eldest of three children, there weren't books about black children and their lives. At least I didn't find any. My father came from a fairly wealthy, well-educated black family in Chicago, and my mother came from a poorer family, but she struggled, with her sister's help, to get a college degree and become a teacher.
We lived in a little row house on 61st and Indiana. On Saturdays I walked down 61st Street and under the El train to what I used to call the Little Library. It was so small. Two of the oldest black librarians I've ever seen in my life worked there, in that tiny, tiny library with linoleum floors and leftover books, from the white libraries. That's what they used to do in Chicago: We would get the leftover books and you knew it because you'd see the names and everything in them. But my mother said it doesn't matter where they come from. It doesn't matter if they're left over, or ripped, or torn, because they're books. And if they're books and there's something in them, then you can learn. I ran to meet Heathcliff on the moors, although I had never seen a moor. I raised boys like Jo in "Little Women." I rode horses. I lived in the Little House on the Prairie. In fact, when that series ended, I remember going to the library to get the next book, and the librarian said there were no more. I fell on the floor screaming--I couldn't believe this world was closed to me. And she said, "I have a book I've been saving for this moment." That was how she started me on horse stories, so although I never owned a horse, rode on a horse, or ever even \o7 saw \f7 a horse, I did in those books.
That's what those books gave me. But I never saw my mama and I never saw my daddy in books. I knew that we blew bubbles on sunny Sunday mornings on the back porch. I knew that we children always played school. I knew that we always worried about doing well in school. I knew that we avoided broccoli, and spinach and liver. In the old homes there used to be a grate that led down to the basement. When we had things like liver, broccoli, cauliflower, or spinach--and Mama believed in all that stuff, including cod liver oil--we would wait until she left the room, and we would slide it to my sister, who would dump it, and then collect three cents to a nickel from each of us afterwards.
Now these things all happened. We dreamed; we celebrated accomplishments; we went on picnics. We lived rich, vibrant lives, despite the adversities, but I didn't see that in the books. And from family stories, I soon learned that being black meant that my life would be tough. That was simply a reality. Did I notice what the books were like? Yes, I did. Did it make me feel bad? Yes, it did.
I had my first interactions with whites when I went to high school. I had none before that because, you have to understand, that is the nature of a ghetto. It was an interesting time. I fought for civil rights in high school, organizing three other girls--a white girl, a Jewish girl and another black girl--to try to keep 200 white families from fleeing the lovely middle-class community that black middle-class families were moving into. All summer we went from home to home, and they all left.
I remember those days, and I remember looking for books that talked about girls who did anything like that. A few books began to appear, but I don't remember much about them, because I was much more excited about the commercials on television that showed black families, brushing their teeth, using soap. We had never seen that before. It was amazing. We would all gather around the television to watch and say, "Wow look at that!" Suddenly we were visible.
I dropped out of college--the semester after I had Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks as a writing instructor--and joined the civil rights movement. I worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a paid organizer in Mississippi, Alabama and Chicago for the grand sum of $37.50 a week. Well, I looked for books then, too--multicultural books. There were some, but not many.
When I married and moved to Berkeley, Calif., for the first time in my life I taught white children, Latino children, Asian and Indian children, children from middle-class families, all kinds of children. And then, the anger hit. I did not have the books I needed to build the bridges that I was determined to build from child to child. \o7 I did not have the books. \f7 And the ones I saw made me mad. I knew that all people of color didn't live in ghettos; they didn't all look alike; they didn't all do the same jobs. Where were the ordinary stories that enrich all of our lives?