sister/outsider by Zetta Elliott
Zetta Elliott is a writer/educator, currently teaching African American literature at Hunter College and Bard High School Early College. Her plays have been staged in New York, Cleveland, and Chicago, her poetry has been published in three anthologies, and her essays have appeared in School Library Journal, Horn Book Magazine, and several scholarly journals/anthologies. Her first picture book, Bird (2008), won the Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award and the Paterson Prize for Poetry for Young Readers. Her self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was re-released by AmazonEncore in 2010. Zetta describes her work as black feminist cultural criticism.
Visit Zetta’s site at http://zettaelliott.wordpress.com
“As a black feminist writer/educator, I work in fields where women constitute the majority. As a children’s book author I work with teachers and librarians, almost all of whom are female; as a feminist I find that most of my scholar/activist/artist peers are women. All of my writer friends are women; all of the book bloggers in my online community are women. Nearly every door I’ve passed through has been opened by a woman, and I feel blessed to belong to such a strong, supportive community.
When I learned that the goal of this blog was to “celebrate and reaffirm the depth and breadth of women’s involvement in literature,” I knew I wanted to participate. Yet when I reflect upon my involvement in the literary world, I find that little of my time and energy has gone toward addressing “the fundamental wrongness of gender disparities.” When everyone in your world is female, gender tends not to be the focus. For me, the main problem isn’t that men are impeding my progress as a writer. The truth is, behind every door that has been closed in my face…there’s another woman.
Sometimes that woman looks like me, but more often than not, she doesn’t. She belongs to a different race, a different class, and a different culture.
I often remind my students that power isn’t absolute—it’s relative. I certainly don’t think of myself as powerless, and I assert my unique voice every time I sit down to write an essay or novel or blog post. Yet I’m very aware of the power differential that separates me from the women who work in publishing. As gatekeepers they determine whose book gets published, promoted, and put on the shelf. Women editors may not earn as much money as their male peers, but that doesn’t mean they’re mere puppets or pawns. Women in publishing make decisions every day that affect millions of women and girls who read, write, and teach literature. I suspect that teams of women were behind the publication of most of the books I hold dear.
When I think of my many disappointing encounters within the publishing industry, I don’t generally attribute the outcome to “disloyalty.” I don’t feel “betrayed by a sister” because as a black feminist, I know women’s history well enough to realize that “sisterhood” isn’t (and has never been) automatic. I also understand that publishing is, for the most part, a business and women who are drawn to the large publishing houses that operate on a corporate model are not likely to value my black feminist perspective.
I did have a moment last month, however, when I wondered whether some women in publishing have learned too well from their more powerful male colleagues. Whatever happened to “Lifting as We Climb”? Of course, that was the motto of the National Association of Colored Women—a group started, at least in part, because the General Federation of Women’s Clubs was racially segregated (ironically, their motto was “Unity in Diversity”).
I don’t mean to suggest that publishing is a white women’s club, nor is it my intent to diminish the very real obstacles faced by women writers. I do feel, however, that when we talk about women in publishing, it’s important to consider who’s climbing, who’s lifting, and who’s being left behind.”