As an African-American young adult growing up during the late 1950s in the Bronx, New York, it took me some time before I finally understood the reason why taxi-cabs in New York City habitually would not stop for black passengers. When I wanted to hail a cab, I observed that drivers simply would not stop for me whereas, they had no problem stopping for the white person who had just arrived on the scene. Just five years ago, I had the same experience when a Chicago taxi-cab refused to take me (all dressed up and waiting in front of a well respected hotel) to my sister 's house, located in the Hyde Park section of the city. I have since been amazed at the number of identical narrations offered by outraged African-Americans, many of whom are members of the middle class, and some of them quite well known in literary circles. Journalist Ellis Cose in The Rage of a Privileged Class (1993), theologian and scholar Cornel West in Race Matters (1993) and poet June Jordan in Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union (1992), as well as perceptive white political scientist and author Andrew Hacker in Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (1992), all relate "taxi-cab stories"; all speak of the indignity suffered by African-Americans who attempt to hail cabs in various settings.
It comes as unfortunately no surprise then, to read a fictionalized version of a "taxi-cab story" as part of the narrative of Walter Dean Myers' young adult novel Somewhere in the Darkness (1992), in which the African-American protagonist Jimmy Little speaks of the difficulty of getting a cab in an urban setting. I am beginning to believe that one could form an entire volume devoted to such narrations- non fiction; but it would be a very unhappy volume indeed. Why relate this experience? Simply because I wish to illustrate what the lack of positive images and reflections of African-Americans can do to young and old, alike.
It's an issue about perceptions. From where do we derive our images of individuals and consequently, groups? Home, school, what we see, what we hear and significantly, from what we read.
This is why I feel that we must consider what comes across through the printed literature (as well as the electronic medium) as having the potential of altering perceptions and possibly, helping to change lives. It is also why such energies should be directed towards the young and impressionable. Several issues arise as central to the challenge of changing the stereotyped image of African-Americans through the vehicle of literature. Below, I offer six representative areas in which I feel that we need to see more literary contributions being made for the consideration, enjoyment and education of our youth. I emphasize that these are areas in which we need to see greater productivity and representation by both African-Americans, and also non African-Americans who write about the black experience in an informed and sensitive manner.
We need young adult works which offer:
These are but a few of the areas in which I believe we need to see greater literary productivity. It is clear that more offerings of the types mentioned would benefit both African-American young people as well as non African-Americans. Such contributions would go a long way towards establishing and reinforcing positive images of a still disenfranchised people. I recognize that more positive images portrayed in printed literature for the young are not the only remedies needed to dispel negative images. But these are possibilities which have the potential of helping to relieve the situation.
Perhaps then, that time will eventually come when I and my fellow African-Americans will be able to hail those taxis with the confidence that they will stop for us- and take us without hesitation to the locations of our choice.
Created July 11, 1997 and is continuously revised
SCILS, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey