School Library Journal was the center of controversy when it released the cover to its February issue on Twitter, featuring a White child holding a book with a Black child over part of their face. The lead story in the issue is titled, “Why White Kids Need Diverse Books.”
The online criticism focused on what some deemed “Blackface,” as well as the journal’s need to center Whiteness in a talk about diversity, particularly considering that February is Black History Month.
The School Library Journal Twitter account deleted their original tweet, and the editor-in-chief, Kathy Ishizuka, released a response to the controversy on the School Library Journal website. It was originally behind a paywall, which drew more criticism, but now it seems to be available to the public.
Regarding the image, she claims it was inspired by Rudine Sims Bishop’s Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Doors essay, and that:
“Any reference to blackface was not our intention. However, images are subject to interpretation, and a particularly distressful one, in this case. As the responsible editor, I regret the pain caused by the image and will seek to do better to maintain clarity for our readers.
As to the timing of our story, the effort to expand understanding and empathy through books seemed especially urgent to foreground now given the current state of the world and the marked rise in blatant racism and bigotry here in America. We stand by our decision to publish in February, which is also Black History Month.”
An exchange between two librarians on Twitter highlighted two very important points (and fallacies) about Ishizuka’s use of Bishop’s essay in her response:
One important element of the misuse of Rudine Sims Bishop’s “windows and mirrors,” is that BIPOC kids aren’t a monolith, so when a Black child reads a book with an indigenous, Hispanic, or POC character in it, that’s also a window, and it’s an important one. #slj
Replying to @marky_b_tweets
People also seem to equate windows, mirror, and sliding glass doors as teachable moments rather than lived experiences. White people don’t need to learn anything from Black stories, nor do Black stories need to teach white people anything. We are all meant to listen and respect.
Alex Brown, the Black librarian, historian, and author, quoted above, had a longer thread on Twitter (warning: contains swearing) about the issues not just with the cover, but with positing that books with diverse characters are meant to “educate” White people.
Many authors, educators, and librarians chimed in with similar messages, some directly to the (now deleted) tweet:
Replying to @sljournal
Black stories have value and meaning and power FAR beyond what they can “teach” white kids. And this is true for all other POC too, but to do this during Black History Month…choices were made, and all of them were the wrong ones.
The screenshot above is from a longer thread from library consultant Angie Manfredi, which you can view here.
There have already been consequences over the cover and (what many deem) unsatisfactory response from School Library Journal. The current Dr. Augusta Baker Endowed Chair (part of a Children, Libraries and Literacy Initiative of the University of South Carolina School of Information Science) withdrew their presentation in response to the cover, stating on Twitter, “The controversy over the February 2021 cover image has been disappointing and frustrating, to say nothing of being inequitable. The image and article are problematic, that’s one thing, but the Editor’s doubling down on social media about their “good intentions” and their non-apology that suggests that readers are simply misinterpreting said intentions is offensive and disrespectful. To have SLJ’s courses rely on the backs and expertise of Black and Brown EDI and LIS experts and then to receive this kind of response from the SLJ leadership team is ridiculous and the height of hypocrisy. SLJ needs to do better, but in the meantime, I cannot be associated with this kind of disregard for the people they claim to serve and represent.”
If you want to learn more about why this is such a big deal, or how to better engage in conversations around race, you can join the FREE program: The United Way of Illinois Equity Challenge.
“The United Way of Illinois Equity Challenge is a 21-week program that encourages Illinois residents to engage in racial equity conversations to gain a deeper understanding about the impact systemic racism and inequity have on our state and in our local communities. United, we can help create a stronger, more equitable Illinois economy and stronger, more inclusive Illinois communities.”
Kathy Ishizuka, the editor-in-chief of School Library Journal, has now released an apology addressing the issues with her original statement. In the statement, she has included the steps that she and the rest of the SLJ staff are committed to take and acknowledges that this is just the starting point. You can read the apology here.