- Jacqueline Woodson and Queer Black Fiction for Young Adults
Despite the invaluable contributions of black feminism, wider visibility of black women’s writing continues to prove difficult in academia and publishing. For example, in 2005, Jewelle Gomez discussed the absence of black lesbians from these arenas, despite the promise black feminism suggested thirty years earlier. “Only by telling our stories in the most specific, imagistic, and imaginative narratives,” Gomez insisted, “do the lives of black lesbians take on long-term literary and political significance.”1 Though Gomez acknowledges the relative success writers such as Jacqueline Woodson have achieved, she nevertheless laments that their work is not “primarily grounded in the lesbian context or community.”2 This critique warrants further examination, and I intend to discuss the presence and possibilities of Woodson’s work in particular. Gomez’s claim understands “lesbian” as a stable sexual identity, but if we employ Adrienne Rich’s understanding of the lesbian continuum as “a range—through each woman’s life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had a consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman,”3 we can see that Woodson’s work reveals itself to be one of the most popular, nuanced, and readily available bodies of black lesbian fiction today. And yet Woodson has escaped the considerable critical attention she warrants because her primary audience is children and young adults.
Dianne Johnson recently explained why African American children’s literature has evaded the considerable critical attention it deserves: the work is written for children, by African Americans, in a realm traditionally dominated by women writers.4 As a self-identified lesbian who often addresses queer issues [End Page 72] in her texts, Jacqueline Woodson takes this triple marginalization a step farther in its discussion of queerness. While wizards, vampires, and postapocalyptic warriors dominate the publishing market, Woodson maintains a realistic aesthetic, continuing the rich tradition of the problem novel to explore teen pregnancy, drug use, classism, racism, homophobia, and sexual abuse. Her body of work has made her one of the most well-regarded and highly awarded authors in contemporary children’s and young adult literature, garnering the Newbery Honor Medal, Coretta Scott King Awards, National Book Award, and the 2006 Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Library Association. In light of this substantial acclaim, critics of African American, women’s, and queer literatures have largely neglected Jacqueline Woodson’s work.5 As Norjuan Q. Austin notes in one of the few critical articles on Woodson, “Woodson’s status as a YA author effectively situates her outside of the canon of ‘traditional’ or ‘appropriate’ Black writing.”6 I attempt to emend this oversight by analyzing one of Woodson’s lesser known novels, The House You Pass on the Way, which does something few, if any, young adult books do: provides literature with a queer black adolescent subjectivity.
The critical investigation of children’s and young adult literature is among the liveliest areas within contemporary literary study, spawning numerous journals, professional societies, and even degree programs in education, library science, and literature departments. This scholarly attention proceeds, in part, from French historian Philippe Ariès’s controversial claims in 1960 that the modern conception of childhood did not exist in the Middle Ages. Consequently, the “child” is a social construction subject to ideological manipulation. As James R. Kincaid aptly explains, “Childhood in our culture has come to be largely a coordinate set of have nots: the child is that which does not have.”7 As the “not-adult,” the Western notion of childhood—informed by the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau—exists as the embodiment of innocence, naïveté, and purity. By examining the idea of the child, we see what society holds most important as we attempt to protect the child from certain knowledges, especially sexuality—both others’ and one’s own. The social effort to construct, protect, and educate the child makes children’s literature rich for critical investigation, leading Peter Hunt to deem children’s literature “an ideological minefield,”8 prone to simple conclusions, but open to complex difficulties. Thomas Crisp furthers...