Ibram X. Kendi was in Washington this weekend for the National Book Festival talking about his monumental history of American racism, “Stamped From the Beginning.” Winner of a National Book Award, “Stamped” is an extraordinary work of scholarship that traces the depth of racial hatred in this country and our intricate methods of perpetuating it.
“Consumers of these racist ideas,” Kendi writes, “have been led to believe there is something wrong with Black people, and not the policies that have enslaved, oppressed, and confined so many Black people.”
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the books we read, especially at a young age, help create our conception of the world and other people. Growing up in the blindingly white suburbs of St. Louis, I didn’t know any African Americans. There weren’t any black children on my street or in my class at a Christian kindergarten. It was the sort of cultural vacuum in which kids could suck up enlightened or toxic ideas about others.
Which is why I’m particularly grateful for the first books my parents read to me. Half a century later, the warm images of “The Snowy Day,” by Ezra Jack Keats, are still vivid in my mind. Published in 1962, Keats’s picture book was the first time I’d seen an African American in the center of his own story. And “The Snowy Day” contributed to my own story in the most positive way. There was a child like me, making snow angels, sliding down a hill, looking at his footprints — crunch, crunch, crunch.
Looking back, Keats (1916-1983) said that working on that book turned his life around. Millions of other lives were touched — and are still touched — by Peter’s joyous winter day.
“None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids — except for token blacks in the background,” Keats wrote. “My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.”
This week, the U.S. Postal Service started taking preorders for a set of four stamps based on Keats’s illustrations from “The Snowy Day.” The images, designed by Antonio Alcalá of Alexandria, Va., show little Peter playing outdoors in his red snowsuit. The stamps will be dedicated at a free ceremony open to the public on Oct. 4 at the Brooklyn Public Library in New York, not too far from Keats’s birthplace.
At a moment in our history when America seems torn between moving forward or slipping back into the morass of state-encouraged racism, these four postage stamps commemorating an old children’s book won’t pass any legislation or change any minds. A 49-cent stamp for one-ounce envelopes is no counterweight in the scale of American history. But these stamps are a sweet reminder of a child we met when we were all as pure as driven snow.
And needless to say, these are “forever” stamps, which, if nothing else, is the happiest metaphor you’ll read all day.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.