Toward a socially responsible literary theory: artistic engagement, historical inquiry, social commitment

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Date: Annual 2007
Publisher: Journal of African Children's and Youth Literature
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,494 words

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Taking the long view, children's literature is not in a favorable historical position in relation to human rights. In Western societies (e.g., the United States and many European countries), it has been the carrier of the white supremacy myth. It has perpetuated racial discrimination while inhibiting the inclusion and honest depiction of cultural "minorities." Fortunately, in recent years this record has become a subject of interest to children's literature scholars. But if we are to look unflinchingly at the past and avoid its mistakes, we need to work toward a socially responsible literary theory. In other words, we need a series of generalizations that can help us understand what happened, and help us reject the all-too-convenient trivialization of the historical record--the blithe insistence, for example, that racism has been merely "part of the times." What I'm proposing is a theory that helps us organize the connections between literature, social institutions, and history. It means combining the insights from critical social theory with a strong interest in the arts.

The most salient feature of critical social theory is the way it attacks inequality. And children's literature is the terrain where white supremacist (in contrast to culturally pluralistic) ideas have held a virtual monopoly. Critical social theory offers us a counter theory; it analyzes the social world, and does so in defense of social and economic justice. It interferes with white supremacy, but doesn't interfere with art, unless the institutional arrangements in the art world are discriminatory. Put briefly, my reliance on critical social theory stems from my interest in searching out the connections between equity and literature. My emphasis is upon the importance of contexts and especially historical experience as context.

Patricia Hill Collins begins her book about critical social theory by writing about children. In Fighting Words (1998), she tells of reading to second graders from a book about the community: "Let's visit our men at the firehouse," says the book. "The policeman is your friend." "Cross the street only at the corner." Some listeners responded with a blank look; some appeared to be angry. All were living in racially segregated housing "projects" and didn't see their connection with this book. When Collins turned her attention to her students' own community, she learned that one child's friend had been killed the previous day by falling down an elevator chute.

Perhaps this episode was tied to Collins's wider challenge. She was required to prepare her class for the third grade entrance test on community vocabulary, but her classroom resources were books full of smiling, affluent White people. If we reflect on what might have guided the school to better book choices, we realize the benefit of Elizabeth Cook-Lynn's guideline: cultural productions, she says, are "comprehensible only within the context of the economic, behavioral, and political forces of the culture from which they emerge..." (77). The resources in Collins's school could hardly be said to relate to the culture of inner-city project-dwellers.

After drawing our attention to this experience, Collins shifts to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A192351990