5 Books(ish) on Race and Black History for Parents, and Children (12 and Under)
In this next blog, I will talk about texts I would show to parents — meaning books and poems I think parents will find useful in opening dialogues with the children on race and Black history.
This post is written in response to the parents close to me asking what texts they can use to discuss race and Black history with their children. The examples given will have a focus on Black / Black-racialised characters / people, but are for all parents and not just parents of Black or mixed-race children. White children, as well, and children and parents from non-Black ethnic groups will benefit, as it is vital that all of us read stories outside of our own ethnic group. When I said “diversity is a con” in an earlier post, that was in relation to workplace environments and not storytelling. Diversity in storytelling is a must. Storytelling is an excellent vessel for sending messages and literature is one of the most potent forms of propaganda there is.
Not all propaganda is negative and children’s literature is some of the best, as there are many that adults can benefit from as well, reading them alone in their own time.
There are other images of Black people we could see; it’s telling in this moment that the dominant voices are ones lost in jargon such as “white privilege”, “whiteness” and “structural racism.” I am guilty of that too, but we need to take down it a notch when appropriate. Whilst like-terms are good, I think when talking to children it is not always as useful. Children have this great skill that adults don’t, of seeing through society’s nonsense. Children’s books are excellent at taking big issues and cutting them down to size.
Sulwe (2019), Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison
To many, Lupita Nyong’o is a Hollywood actor, and a fantastic one at that but in Sulwe she shows her talent for writing. In my last post, I mentioned how Queen of Katwe was “about BLACK people. And by Black I do not mean me, I mean dark-skinned people.” This children’s book is no different. It follows the lead character Sulwe and it is about colourism (discrimination based on skin tone). As the darkest member of her family, Sulwe, a young, dark-skinned girl, thinks her skin tone makes her unattractive and wants to be lighter like her sister. “Sulwe has the skin colour of midnight” the blurb begins. “She is darker than everyone in her family and everyone at school.” This children’s picture book is about colourism, the evil step-sibling of the more famous, racism. The blurb continues “All she want is to be beautiful and bright, like her mother and sister. Then a magical journey in the night sky opens her eyes and changes everything.” Remember, colourism is still a subject that the Black community is uncomfortable talking about. It’s discrimination based on skin tone. It’s a form of discrimination I have seen mainly impacts women but there could be room for my own learning on this front. Moreover, it’s also prevalent in South Asian communities. When I went to India in 2016, I heard the locals refer to it as the “colour caste system” and your skin tone dictates how you can be treated, even within your family.
In essence, the darker you are the lower your social status and vice versa for lighter skin. Not only is colourism the evil step-sibling of racism but it is also the best friend of patriarchy. Just as the patriarchal establishment seeks to benefit from dividing people up by race, and the eventual racism, it also does the same thing via skin tone — through not-so-covert tactics (though if you know you know) like skin-bleaching creams and European beauty standards.
Sulwe was written to empower dark-skinned Black girls and to tell them that they are beautiful but I think it would resonate with anyone that has ever been bullied. Dark-skinned girls from South Asian backgrounds who have also been victims of colourism will find something in this book too. It’s a well-thought-out text with truly stunning illustrations. Above all, it addresses this vicious topic as something that we are not powerless to do something about.
It presents dark, Black, Africaness — as strong, beautiful, bright, celebrating Black womanhood and girlhood, through fabulous words and images. Lupita Nyong’o writes a text, illustrated by Vashti Harrison that says “Black Girls Matter” — “Black Women Matter” — “Dark Skin Matters” — for dark-skinned children (and adults) who have been made to feel unworthy of love on account of their looks. It presents all sorts of lessons, and is perfectly placed in the revolution for better representation in storytelling and publishing.
Appropriateness: Age 4–7 (but everyone will enjoy it)
A Portable Paradise (2019), Roger Robinson
Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise is the poetry collection of our times, truly encompassing this aura of Black British fever, especially in the ongoing injustices committed against us — from the Windrush crisis to police violence.
The poem ‘Windrush’ stayed with me, as did ‘Woke’ (on the continuous and changing forms of Black oppression). I think many would say this text is not suitable for children.
However, I also believe that in light of the recent events, society cannot continue to treat children like they are innocent (and stupid), protecting them from the world. Not all the poems in this text are suitable but I would start with ‘Windrush’, ‘Woke’, ‘Doppleganger’, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘(Some) Sweat’ — which would be a good start, in getting children to engage with these subjects.
Appropriateness: suggested 10+ (at the discretion of parents / guardians)
My Hair (2019), Hannah Lee and Allen Fatimaharan
“My birthday’s coming up so soon, I’ll need new clothes to wear. But most of all, I need to know, How shall I style my hair?” the book starts. “Will it be dreads or a twist out? Braids or a high-top fade?” it continues. In my experience it looks like little Black girls and Black boys are more likely to see animals or aliens than themselves in the books they read. For children starved of their own image and conditioned to hate their Blackness by society, My Hair by Hannah Lee and illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan is a welcome sight.
Moreover, it is vital that society see Black people represented as something other than “the best friend” or a supporting character to the white lead. Black characters centering their own stories in the same vain that white characters have centred their own stories since the written word began. Simply, how can we live in a society that boasts about its diversity, whilst simultaneously not promote that diversity in children’s storytelling? Reading My Hair, I saw a lot of these characters growing up. That was my reality. Whilst not all Black experiences are universal to all Black people, the narrative of Black hair is (mostly). In this moment of Black Lives Matter, in hindsight of the recent spate of white supremacist murders, we must remember that images that get made of Black people go all round the world. That whilst it is important to know the stories about racism, we must also know there are other images of Black people we need to see. The stories of Black hair are part of this, a very much more positive and upward-looking persona of Blackness (with its politics) that really leaves a smile on your face.
Appropriateness: Age 4–7 (but everyone will enjoy it)
‘Checking Out me History’ (2007), John Agard
‘Checking Out Me History’ is a poem by British-Guyanese poet and children’s author John Agard and it was one of the first poems I ever read. At school they told us that West Indian history began in 1492, when Columbus arrived with his soldiers. The history I learned at school was only in proximity to when a white man was present, as I did not learn what happened in the Caribbean before 1492 — not of the Caribs, or the Arawk peoples that lived on maternal grandparents’ homeland of Grenada. When we hear schools and universities talking about ‘decolonising the curriculum’, or UCL’s #LiberateMyDegree and ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’, this poem is in this thread of consciousness. It’s an indictment on a fundamentally blinkered white supremacist curriculum. Or if you want to be more politically correct, “Eurocentric.” In its marginalisation of Black and brown histories, that is a mandate for racism. The telling of history depends on who is telling the story.
“Bandage up me eye with me own history / blind me to me own identity” says the poem. In ‘Checking Out Me History’, audiences are pushed to challenge Britishness and what that means today. In our not telling the history of our nation, it sets Black and brown people on the outside of the history books, saying “White and the Rest.” Poet John Agard hand picks some of the Black characters that are lesser-known and puts them up against white historical characters from popular memory and he’s really only scraping the surface.
Appropriateness: Age 6+ (but everyone will enjoy it)
Unheard Voices (2007), Malorie Blackman
Collected by children’s author and television writer Malorie Blackman, Unheard Voices is a collection of fiction extracts, poems and personal recollections of writers and authors both dead and alive on the Slave Trade — from Alex Haley to Grace Nichols. This text was concocted for the 200th anniversary for the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1807), which was the legislation which ended slave trading, specifically, in the British Empire (slavery itself endured in the British Caribbean until 1833, formerly actioned in 1834). In collecting these writings, we see a commemoration of the inhumanity of slavery — “an inhuman trade in human misery and suffering…” Unheard Voices honours the past and looks towards “a future in which all peoples of the world may live together in freedom.” This is a text that can allow children a softer introduction into the Slave Trade, through poetry and other extracts on the subject, rather than the more visceral lessons which they should be learning about in the classroom. It will push parents to ask questions and open discourse on the Slave Trade with their children and younger members of their families. These are writings loaded with information but not too much that it becomes exhausting; from contemporary writers, not-so-contemporary writers and slaves-turned-abolitionist writers that lived through the time.
Appropriateness: Age 8+ (younger children: at the discretion of the parent / guardian)
In these five texts, there are elements of Black trauma but also Black love. There are children’s books, and books with extracts and poems that children and young people can look at. There are “riskay” titles as well, but no less texts with subjects that children will be seeing on television each day. I think parents need to give more kudos to their children where its due.
Children are not oblivious to the world, even if a parent’s instinct is to protect them from it. The world my parents grew up in is not the same world they raised me in, nor my twelve year-old brother. The world isn’t crueler, simply everything is being filmed. We are exposed to more, and so are children. Let’s not treat them like fools. We are in a moment now, which has the possibility to become a great movement across the UK. Let’s not waste this chance.