Cultural Selection and Personal Geography

On April 18, 2009, Walter Dean Myers delivered the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture, “The Geography of the Heart.” In his speech, which may be read in “Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children” Volume 7, Number 3, Myers walks back through the defining passages of his life. As he takes the reader back in time, Myers identifies various geographies that defined his life. These include the physical, cultural, societal, and personal geographies. When we take all of these into account, we are able to begin to view what shapes and defines us. Myers explains:

The new geography defines our positions in the world not by the usual topographical references, but rather, by the socioeconomic factors which allow us or prevent us from recreating our particular social segments in a positive manner. To say we live in New York or San Francisco is no longer significant because those geographical references fail utterly to describe where we are in relationship to American culture. It is far more accurate to say that I am in a position that I cannot perpetuate my family history because there are no jobs available for me to build an economic base or that my family has become so dysfunctional that recreation cannot be positive.

Think of the community in which you live. Now, move closer in and look at the families and the children. What are the means available to them? What are their daily experiences? What are the choices they are making? Are they true believers in the education that is offered them? Are you? What do we need to do to improve their education so that they are able to participate in the American economy?

Myers vividly points out:

The opportunities of economic globalization in a world that is divided into the G20 entities and nations approaching stark desperation, is changing the world. We ship those jobs abroad, jobs which at one time represented the ladder poor Americans climbed. Globalization is irreversible and results, considering the world’s economic demography, in the very simple idea that to imply or train the full range of our American population, is not a sound economic concept when cheaper labor can be found overseas. The poorest children, often African American and Latino but increasingly Caucasian as well, are simply not needed under this scheme. This damning reality is the beast lurking in our streets, capturing the hearts of our young.

What can we do? Do we dare sit idly by watching and waiting for another shift or change to happen to us and our children? Or do we become leaders who are willing to continue learning and putting that learning into action that supports and uplifts our community? Again, look around you. There are so many areas in the community and in our schools where we may be effective. We must decide how we will accomplish this, and we do not have to do it alone.

In the library and in classrooms, we have opportunities to select materials for our readers that may shape and define their lives. Many times we look to the make-up of our communities to fill in the gaps by providing reading materials that will enrich culture and being. For young readers and those who have difficulty reading, books or other materials that are related to their culture are important to give readers a boost. Yet, Myers believes that additional reading materials are necessary. He said:

But I’m adamant in believing that we can’t restrict reading only to books that share a congruency with the reader’s immediate life. We have to stretch the boundaries and increase the reader’s cultural awareness.

Taking personal geography into account, Myers recommends that children should be given the opportunity to stretch their boundaries through reading, and as he stated later in the lecture, that takes them to a universal understanding of love and meaning that all people experience. This is something he does with his books, as do many other authors. Yet, in his lecture, Myers provides an excellent explanation and identification of where we should be headed as a whole.

Like Myers, let’s love what we do. Let’s reach out and discover who the children are and travel with them through their experiences in our classrooms and libraries. Let’s help to build strong, capable children who will be able to survive and succeed in the American economy.

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