Speech delivered by Brenda Randolph, November 10, 2021 (View awards ceremony)
Thank you to the National Coalition Against Censorship for this award. Thank you to Dr. Evelyn Rich, Harriet McGuire and the African American Institute for your support. Thank you to my African studies mentors and colleagues at Howard University and most of all, thank you to my family.
I am grateful to NCAC for giving me the opportunity, through this award, to promote the authors, and illustrators recognized by the Children’s Africana Book Award and Read Africa projects. My non-profit Africa Access, African Studies at Howard University and the Outreach Council of the African Studies Association have worked together for over 30 years to promote books that tell more than a single story about Africa as Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie so elegantly put it.
In 1970, I spent months in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania photographing the city – the shops, roundabouts, parks, restaurants, mosques, and churches. Photographing the people, kids playing soccer, vendors selling tea, fishermen sailing dhows on a sparkling green/blue sea. My goal was to publish a book that countered the dire images of Africa so common in children’s books in the U.S. A book that inspired pride rather than pity, that highlighted African agency and ingenuity. That book was never published, I could not convince a single U.S. publisher that a book like this was needed.
In her book, Censoring Reality, award-winning author Beverely Naidoo describes the censorship she faced in South Africa when trying to publish books that revealed the reality of state-sponsored racism. My book project and Naidoo’s, faced a common foe, gatekeepers, censors who suppressed authentic voices describing their African life experiences, their histories. Naidoo circumvented her South African censors. Her 1985 book, Journey to Jo’burg, banned in South Africa became a classic around the world. It was unbanned in 1991 when the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and “a world united” broke the chains of the apartheid state..
That same year I read the book, Galimoto by Karen Williams and Catherine Stock to a class of 2nd graders in Maryland. Galimoto is about a little boy in a town in Malawi who wants to make a wire toy car like the big boys in town. After I read the story, a little girl, a recent immigrant from Liberia, pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, Please read more books like Galimoto to my class. These children don’t know anything about Africa. They say horrible things to me. Galimoto shows what Africa is really like.” Nineteen years after my experiences with US publishers, I finally had a book about urban Africa to share with children. US publishing gatekeepers were opening the gates to African realities, but just a bit.
A recent article in Publishers Weekly pointed to a systemic problem in the publishing industry — a workforce that a Publishers Weekly editor described as “overwhelmingly white at every level. True lasting change will only happen when the industry decides to diversify its staff and stop assuming that authors of color are less desirable and marketable.
But I do see progress in the industry. I am especially excited by the increasing numbers of books from writers who are children of African immigrants. Born in the U.S., but attuned to their immigrant parents’ cultures, their books bring fresh depictions of Africa that speak to American youth, many of whom are seeking characters who look like them. Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi, Elizabeth Zunon and Tochi Onyebuchi have published several books. And there are exciting new writers on the horizon like Safila Elhilllo.
I truly appreciate this award and virtually I share it with scores of African studies scholars who write reviews of children’s Africana and work year after year on the CABA selection committees.