I was walking by this massive community garden during a gentle drizzle. In the distance, I heard acoustic music echoing over the neighborhood. I loved the song. The timing was sublime.
I saw a white ladder all covered with water.
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.
The music was Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall'. Can you envision this setting? Can you smell the garden and the gentle drizzle?
Where was I?
The South Bronx. Echoing from a tenement window was Dylan. Not rap or bachata or salsa or r&b or merengue. Dylan. Is that "authentic"? Expected?
Do we expect kids in the South Bronx or Harlem to know Metallica and Hannah Montana? Or do we presume they only understand/relate to certain kinds of music and culture?
I think about the "urban youth" I've seen with their heads stuck inside Riordan and Rowling books. Do we assume they'd rather read books about teens "like them"? What does it even mean to be "like them"? Are they culturally situated (or segregated) first? And then human youth second?
I heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'.
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin'.
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter.
Another time I walked by that garden and then up Westchester Avenue towards the bustling Southern Boulevard. If I look carefully, I notice so many nuances. So many shades and shapes. Skaters. Tilted hats. Retro-punk. Retro-preppy. Nerd-styles with tats. I even see a redheaded young gal in 80s swag. And new styles yet unnamed.
I met a young woman whose body was burning.
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow.
I met one man who was wounded in love.
I met another man who was wounded in hatred.
Do we presume a black or latino boy in the South Bronx cannot easily relate to the lead female character in The Hunger Games? Do we truly believe they must prefer a book about a boy of color who loves basketball? A boy who must grow up poor and struggle to avoid the complications of street life? That may be very real for many, but is this the best basis for crafting stories and "relatability"?
Don't we risk reproducing the stereotypes that often frustrate youth and make them feel trapped?
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty.
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters.
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison.
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden.
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten.
Where black is the color, where none is the number.
And I'll tell and think it and speak it and breathe it.
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'.
Isn't it better to approach multicultural literature and story-telling with an eye on universal human themes that all adolescents tend to relate to? Or do we think these children only watch TV and movies with characters of the same skin color and cultural background? Do we think these children only listen to one kind of music in 2012?
If reading is about meeting new people and visiting new places, shouldn't we unshackle the teens of today and build them bridges upon broad human themes? Even if we dig into matters of despair and poverty with diverse characters, how do we avoid typecasting based upon museum-style, static notions of culture? Do today's kids even think about differences in the ways we believe?
If we can't envision settings and characters that break the typecasts and stereotypes, then we're in trouble as a species that needs stories for growth and reflection.
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.