It’s been more than 20 years since Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? first hit shelves, but this month, it’s back on the New York Times bestseller list, part of a wave of books on racism currently experiencing a surge in sales.
After its original debut, Tatum tells GEN, “It became kind of a standby, a book that a lot of folks were using at the college level, in teacher preparation programs and in psychology courses like mine. But certainly, fast-forward 20 years, even though people were still reading it, still using it, I felt like it had become dated in some ways. So, I took up the task of updating and revising it for a 20th-anniversary publication in 2017.” That edition is the one so many readers are now turning to for insight on issues of race and identity at the adolescent stage when Black children begin to ask themselves whether they are safe in American society, and what kind of friends will understand what they’re going through.
GEN caught up with Tatum, now President Emerita of Spelman College, about what it’s like to see the book hit bestseller lists in the current moment, and why Black children in majority-white schools may be particularly drawn to one another whenever they finally return to school.
GEN: Tell me about the origins of this book, and in particular, that question that you kept getting, which gives it its title.
Tatum: When I wrote my book originally back in the late ’90s’, I was a professor of psychology, teaching a course on the Psychology of Racism. One of the things that the students often would say to me is, “Why didn’t we learn about this in high school? Why didn’t we talk about these issues in middle school?”
I started asking educators those questions, and teachers would repeatedly say that they just didn’t know how. They were not comfortable bringing up these sensitive topics — [they thought] maybe they’d do something wrong or cause more conflict. And for that reason, I started doing workshops for educators on…