I don’t recall reading books that featured many—if any—black children before the age of 10. If books did feature a black character, I’d brace myself for the inevitable racial slur that would lead to a “teachable moment” about racism, respect and “tolerance” the writer wanted to teach its young readers.
Between the portrayal of children of color in the books I read and media stories that often related the black experience to crime or poverty, I learned to live with feeling like I was an “other”—that my life was outside the norm. My experience as a black girl, or even as the child of immigrants, was never reflected positively in the media. Writing on my culture could usually be found in a geography text book.
Born in Scotland to Ghanaian parents, I grew up reading books that most other kids read: books by Judy Bloom and the “Malory Towers” series by Enid Blyton, the writer who was also responsible for “The Little Black Doll.” (It’s a book about a doll who is disliked by his owner until his face is washed pink—one I’d never read to my children.)
My life as a regular kid doing things with my parents and friends was rarely, if ever, reflected. When I did see a regular black girl on the front page of a magazine—not supermodel Naomi Campbell—I was mesmerized. I remember saving all of my money to buy one magazine that had a picture of a girl who could have been my cousin on the cover.
Yet none of this dented my love of my favorite childhood books then, or my fond memories of them now.
Not being represented also had an impact on how well my white classmates and friends knew me. I’d be asked if my food smelled funny or why my hair was how it was. Within the wider world, the lack of representation reinforced the mistaken belief that my culture had nothing to offer—maybe loud music … and dancing … and anything physical. The fact that I did well at school made me an “atypical” black girl in their eyes.
When I grew up, I became a journalist. I made a conscious effort to make sure the voices of the under-represented are included in on air conversations, no matter how uncomfortable their opinions made others feel. Why speak to the person who reads about an experience when you can speak to the person who lives it? I’m talking about the residents of the Gulf Coast who lost their homes—and they came from all walks of life. Or the former Guantanamo prisoners who wanted to speak out about what they saw and experienced, or the grandmother who protested against the invasion of Iraq because it stood against everything that she believes to be American.
In essence, I became a journalist to give voice to others and to myself. I wanted to find a way to be free of the context that demanded that how I lived my life and how successful, happy and respected I was depended on the color of my skin.
I have my own children now, and their father isn’t black. When my first child was born, I resolved to make sure that they would see their lives in the books they read, to counteract the questions about their identity other people would raise. They needed to see who THEY were: children of color with mixed heritage. I knew that by seeing their family configuration—or some version of it—in books, they would be assured and reminded that their experience, culture and identity was as normal—and as rich—as everyone else’s. Their identity didn’t and doesn’t center around being half of anything; they are everything both their parents are.
So I was ecstatic to discover the book “Splash, Anna Hibiscus!” by Atinuke, which featured a young girl of mixed heritage relaxing on the beach with her family in Africa. Such a simple, yet powerful idea.
I want all young kids to have access to books that put children of color front and center of a story for the same reasons. We all have our own version of “normal” and no one version “normal” is better than the other.
I was initially astounded at how much work I had to do to find those books. But I’m tenacious. When I asked local librarians and book store owners why there weren’t more books featuring children of color and their cultures, they all seemed very apologetic and even asked for my help.
I took the challenge on. I now have a large and growing library of books that have children of color at the heart of the story—and they’re all doing regular things, like going to the library, going to the beach, learning and laughing. My kids won’t have to expect a racial teachable moment in every book they read, like I did. And neither do yours. I’m sharing my findings with the growing number of parents of all shades, bookstore owners and librarians via my website.
So, why am I only focusing on children of color? Because I want the stories by Atinuke, Mary Hoffman and Grace Lin to be as readily available as books by Sandra Boynton or Mo Willems.
I’m not excluding anyone; rather, I’m making it easier for everyone to be represented and included
Photo Credit: @ToluBamwo from nappy.co