When I was a child, I loved to read. My mom would find me awake until the wee hours of the early morning, a blanket over my head, a flashlight in one hand, and a book in another. If the choice was to hang on the monkey bars or sit on the side of the playground and read, I was reading. Reading was my escape, and it fueled my creativity. I dreamed of becoming a writer one day.
However, there were very few books that spoke to me as a type A, non-athletic, girl. Every popular book was seemingly based on a white boy and his dog. I do recall the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and yes, I read every single one of them. But looking back, I realize they were speckled with racism. I tended to read the same few favorite books on repeat, craving something more and different. Even as a young white girl, I knew that our literature options were patriarchal, whitewashed BS.
White men did not produce great art and literature, white men produced art and literature that spoke to other white men, so they all just collectively agreed amongst themselves that it was great.
A lot of it ain’t that great. https://t.co/GjDIFu4q49
— Stevie Mat (@stevie_mat) November 2, 2019
I can only imagine how my Black and Hispanic peers felt. Not a single book we were forced to read had a character who looked like them. It wasn’t until high school that we read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn.” Perhaps you did, too? In both stories, the Black characters’ narratives (created by white authors) existed to further uplift the morality of the white characters. In any other literature we were assigned, the few and far between Black characters were either the criminals or the street-smart or athletic sidekicks.
Like many kids raised in the eighties and nineties, I had books like “The Secret Garden” and “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.” Later, my shelves were full of “Sweet Valley High” and “The Baby-Sitters Club.” I remember when I learned that Claudia was Asian and Jessi was Black. Finally, there was some diversity in the books I read, reflecting the diversity in the classroom I sat in every day. It wasn’t until “The Cosby Show” and then “Family Matters,” which ran on the ever-popular TGIF slot, that my generation saw Black families painted in a positive light.
Though all the characters in books and movies looked like me, as well as all of the toy options including popular dolls and action figures, these options didn’t reflect the diversity of students whom I learned beside and played with at school. Why didn’t our literature and history reflect our reality?
Speaking of history, we briefly learned about slavery and a few historical figures like Dr. King and Rosa Parks. These felt much like afterthoughts. We would uphold a few notable Black people, just one day a year or via one teeny paragraph, while highlighting the accomplishments of the wealthy and white all of the time. We carried thick history books in our backpacks, the pages filled with “facts” about white greatness and paintings of pasty-white dudes.
We can’t pretend that being raised to always consider the viewpoints, stories, and victories of white men isn’t a problem. For better or worse, whitewashed history brainwashes us, reinforcing the stereotypes and lies that white is supreme, that the patriarchy is moral and the standard, and that we should respect our Founding Fathers and the Pledge of Allegiance no matter what. (Newsflash: “liberty and justice” still aren’t for all, so why are we saying that?) Nevermind that Thomas Jefferson fathered many children with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved; that Columbus most certainly didn’t discover America; and that even though Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, many who were enslaved didn’t learn of it until Juneteenth.
Knowing what I know now — and I still have a lot to learn — I’m very thankful that my children have much more diverse media to learn from and appreciate. Furthermore, more and more parents are demanding that outdated and supremacist-driven history books are tossed in favor of true, complete, and accurate history. We still have a long, long way to go, but there’s also been notable progress.
Not only are books like Jacqueline Woodson’s “Brown Girl Dreaming” and Brandy Colbert’s “The Only Black Girls in Town” favorites in my house, but so are books that are teaching kids how to reject racism and fight it. My tweens are reading “This Book is Anti-racist” by Tiffany Jewell and “Stamped” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. These books are not only about Black people, but they are authored by Black people.
My kids have learned about Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker, and Misty Copeland, the first Black woman to become one of ABT’s principal dancers. They’ve watched “Black Panther” dominate the screen, and I can’t even begin to count the number of times they’ve watched “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse.” They have the soundtrack to “Jingle Jangle” memorized, along with having seen every single “Doc McStuffins” episode several times.
There’s so much Black excellence, and it is not limited to stereotyped categories of music and basketball. In my kids’ lifetime, our country had its first (hopefully of many) Black president. They will watch Kamala Harris take leadership in the White House. There are so many firsts happening now, like Georgia electing its first Black senator, Reverend Raphael Warnock, with some serious credit going to Stacey Abrams.
My kids are seeing Black people in many positions of power and positivity, both real or in fictional media. No longer are Black characters relegated to default roles: serving as stereotypes, such as villains or sassy, comedic relief. My kids know that Black history isn’t limited to a few popular figures, and is, instead, a collective of incredible people.
This new wave of racial diversity not only benefits kids of color, but all children. We want today’s kiddos to grow up not having to spend their adulthood like we have, unlearning stereotypes and inaccurate history. Instead, I hope that my children, and yours too, spend their adult years taking the accurate information they did learn and using it to fuel our continual fight for racial equity. The wealthy, white male “classics” and other white-centered media are taking a backseat. Their time in the spotlight is hopefully up, and we’re all better off for it.