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When one examines books for young people published during the first half of the twentieth century, it is clear that there was little or no multicultural literature within the United States available to young readers. Young Americans could more easily read about cultures of those in distant lands than they could about the various racial, ethnic, class, or religious differences within their own neighborhoods or nation. Undoubtedly, each of these groups of people had their own stories within their cultures, but the publishing community was not yet making these stories available to the larger dominant culture. Of course, there were selections from folktales and other forms of traditional stories in the mainstream of children's literature, but realistic portrayals of other than white middle class suburban life were generally unavailable. As a result, large numbers of American youth, not just those of color,(1) could not recognize themselves in the literature supposedly created for them.
CONTRIBUTIONS OF FEMINIST SCHOLARS AND CRITICS
The work of feminist scholars and critics seems to be a logical beginning for discussion of multicultural literature for children and youth. Women have dominated the field of youth literature as editors, librarians, teachers, and mothers and most of ten served as direct intermediaries between children and books in spite of the male-dominated centers of money and power in the publishing community. As Alice Kessler-Harris (1992), the director of the Women's Studies Program at Rutgers University, writes:
An approach that respects and incorporates diverse cultural traditions
is essential to the women's studies enterprise.... Without a commitment
to multiculturalism, it would be impossible to separate what is gender
specific from what is culturally particular. (p. 795)
In many ways, the history of the development of multicultural literature for children is similar to feminist theories in that a primary focus is on the subjects' need to define themselves rather than be defined by others. African-American feminist literary critic Barbara Christian (1985) elaborates on this point:
As poor, woman, and black, the Afro-American woman had to generate
her own definition in order to survive, for she found that she was forced
to deny essential aspects of herself to fit the definition of others. If defined
as black, her woman nature was of ten denied; if defined as woman, her
blackness was of ten ignored; if defined as working class, her gender
and race were muted. It is primarily in the expressions of herself that
she could be her totality. (p. 161)
Correspondingly, how must young people of color react to be defined by others when they are also of ten poor, working class, and of ten female as well as powerless. Young readers frequently lack even the very basic powers of expressive language which allows one to define and create oneself.
ISSUES OF MULTICULTURAL LITERATURE FOR YOUTH
A number of issues arise when examining multicultural literature for young people. First is the concern about insiders versus outsiders, whether these stories are by or just about members of the minority culture.(2) Historically, the majority of works about African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and other minorities have been written by those outside the culture. This can be positive in that it introduces greater numbers of young readers to cultures other than their own, but it can be negative if the cultural content is biased, misinformed, or inadequately comprehended. In recent years, more and more critics have indicated that only those who are members of the culture or insiders can truly represent their culture in literary works. One cannot deny that children's and young adult literature would benefit from greater numbers of racial and ethnic minorities writing for young people. The belief that only one of a culture can write authentically about that culture, however, would deny the very nature of aesthetic composition and perhaps eliminate the whole field of children's literature which is, of course, almost always written by adults. It is true that adults were once children, but, nonetheless, the insider argument, if carried to its logical conclusion, would result in a literary canon composed solely of autobiographies. It is no more reasonable to expect that a single African-American author, of ten from middle-class society, can, because of his or her cultural heritage, get inside the characters and situations of all those who share skin color or national origins any more than a single Caucasian author could adequately recreate the lives of all those many different peoples who share that identity. It is also true that outsiders, largely white women writers of the early twentieth century, paved the way for the multicultural children's literature both by and about various peoples available today.
Another issue is that of uniqueness versus universality. In one sense, all literature is accessible to others because it deals, in some way, with the commonality of human experience. It is equally true, however, that each character is a unique being shaped by a myriad of factors, not just by race, color, or ethnicity. In the beginnings of multicultural literature for children in this country, universality and commonality were stressed. Lyn Miller-Lachmann (1992), in the introduction to Our Family, Our Friends, Our World: An Annotated Guide to Significant Multicultural Books for Children and Young People, describes two parallel trends in recent publishing about minorities in the United States and Canada (p. 9). One is the type of book in which the minority characters are "essentially indistinguishable from middle-class white ones.... In such books, images of minorities are positive, though little of their heritage is shown" (p. 9). What these books emphasize, therefore, is not people's differences but their similarities. At the same time, there are many more books about minority characters which "focus exclusively on questions related to heritage, conflicts and issues within the minority community, and culturally specific developmental issues" (p. 9). Miller-Lachmann points to books about African-Americans dealing with class differences based on skin color, body type, or hair, or stories of immigrants in which distinctions are made based on the time of arrival in America or the region of the home country from which they came. Only when both of these types of stories are available for all peoples and in large numbers will literature for young people be truly multicultural.
A third and very controversial issue is that of literary or aesthetic criteria. Members of the dominant culture have of ten excluded works by talented minorities on the basis that they do not meet accepted literary standards without recognizing or acknowledging that aesthetic standards are themselves cultural. Molly Hite (1989) writes:
Stories in the modern sense are always somebody's stories: even when
they have a conventionally omniscient narrator they entail a point of
view, take sides .... One immediate consequence is that even though
conventions governing the selection of narrator, protagonist, and
especially plot restrict the kinds of literary production that count as
stories in a given society and historical period, changes in emphasis
and value can articulate the "other side" of a culturally mandated story,
exposing the limits it inscribes in the process of affirming a dominant
ideology. (p. 4)
INTERACTIVE PHASES OF CURRICULAR REVISION
Peggy McIntosh's (1983) "interactive phases of curricular revision" describes the study of history as progressing from (1) "Womanless History" to (2) "Women in History" to (3) "Women as a Problem, Anomaly or Absence in History" to (4) "Women As History" and finally to (5) "History Redefined or Reconstructed to Include Us All" (McIntosh, 1983, pp. 1, 3).
Phase 1: Cultural Conformity
If one substitutes "cultural diversity" or "people of color" for women" in the above statements, the first phases at least seem to be a fairly accurate representation of the history of cultural diversity in literature for young people during the first half of the twentieth century. In phase one, the dominant white middle-class culture is presented as if all the world were one homogeneous group or at least as if all those who differ are unworthy of inclusion and, therefore, remain invisible. This deletion of significant portions of society in the literature presented to children has been a serious distortion of the understanding of the world.
Phase 2: People of Color in History
In phase two, a few people of other cultures are included in the mainstream of children's literature, but these few are those who have "made it" in the white, middle-class world--that is, those who are acceptable within the standards of the dominant culture. This phase supports the old fashioned melting pot notion of culture which assumes that the aim of all peoples is to become just like everyone else. Of course, the "everyone else" of this statement are those who dominate the social and cultural products of the nation. Thus a few biographical and fictional accounts of exceptional members of various peoples outside the dominant culture are presented to young people to demonstrate that it is possible to adapt oneself to, and achieve success in, the white middle-class world. This may have been a necessary step toward the acceptance of multiculturalism in children's literature, but it also carried with it the not so subtle message that one must repress aspects of a personal heritage and accommodate oneself to the acceptable image of American society to be included. In becoming visible to the world, it was necessary for people of color to maintain the invisibility of much of their own culture, that with which unrepresented populations of young people might have identified. The acceptance of this early stage of cultural diversity in children's literature assumed both this kind of denial of cultural uniqueness and a kind of didacticism which conveyed that if only one tried hard enough, he (or sometimes she) would "make it" in the white middle-class male world. Feminist scholars note the special difficulties encountered by women of color in that white …