If I have to see another cuddly baby bear or adorable turtle with googly eyes on a greeting card wishing me Happy Birthday or Mother’s Day, I’m going to… just accept it. I mean, what other choice do I have? The card with the smiling, toffee-colored boy is like some brand of Yeti: I have yet to see one, and doubt such a thing even exists.
The lack of diversity in greeting cards started to pluck at my nerves 7 years ago, when I ventured out to find thank-you notes for my baby shower. Granted, there’s always Hallmark’s Mahogany line, but that’s just one option—and when has having just one anything ever been the American way? As a mom-to-be, I wanted more. I wanted representation, my real life reflected in the corny greeting cards we share on birthdays and sweet holidays. And once my cinnamon bun was actually out of the oven, the craving for this only grew stronger. I wanted to see versions of him on paper—in cards, in children’s books, in all the media around us—as he moved deeper into living a real life, not as an “other,” but as an actual part of this world.
Being able to see him — us — embodied in countless adventures and a full-color life is imperative.
Because having brown faces in the foreground counted, seen and relevant, strikes out against the usual erasure story that has persisted for decades, the one in which black lives don’t matter, they don’t even leave a mark.
Because despite the urgency that I might bring to my own message for this child—that he is worthy and important and dear—the predominate image of black people, especially black men, in this “post-racial society” contradicts my affirmations with a deafening and damaging chorus of thug, criminal, threat, worthless.
Because helping my son shape his identity while navigating through intolerance, discrimination and warped perceptions based on scrambled theories and unchecked fear becomes that much more frustrating and heartbreaking when the full spectrum of the black experience is not represented in the media surrounding us. It’s imperative because it’s not just a kid’s book or just a birthday card, but instead, tools that contribute to how children of color cast themselves in their world—forming how they see themselves and how others see them.
I remember reading The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats as a child. I can still see myself huddled in a carpeted corner of the public library in Montreal, flipping through the book. I was probably 7 or 8, and didn’t have the full language back then to underscore what it meant to me, seeing this brown boy in a red winter coat stomping through the white snow. But the fact that, 30-odd years later, I can still connect with the quiet pride and sweeping joy that I felt the first time I read that book means something. And that I can share that same book (one of the first that I bought as a mother) with my own brown boy is a triumph. But I want more victories. Beyond doors being forced opened, I want entire walls knocked down and rebuilt anew on a proper, upright foundation.
According to annual data collected by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the number of kid’s books published featuring “African-American content” went from 93 to 179 last year—almost double. But that’s 179 out of the 3,500 books that were published in 2014. That calculates to 0.05 percent. Not good enough. Not even close. Change that is set to the speed of molasses hardly feels like progress at all.
If, as the late children’s book author Walter Dean Myers wrote in a New York Times Opinion piece last year, “books transmit values,” then what message is being sent to children of color when most or all the protagonists in the stories they enjoy don’t look anything like them? You have nothing to add. Just sit over there on the sidelines and watch.
It’s not fair. More important, it’s not true. These children, our children, have much to add. They have imaginations and dreams and ideas and influence, and they deserve every opportunity to tell their stories of black lives in all its forms.
I absolutely treasure the experience of reading to my son at bedtime. It’s something I’ve been doing since he was in my belly. I will never get enough of the marvel that takes over his face as he listens to the words strung together and soaks up the colorfully illustrated pictures. His curiosity, comprehension, enthusiasm, and keen retention (no skipping words or passages, mama!) have already begun to intensify since he started learning how to read for himself. Soon—if it isn’t already happening—he will begin framing his life, who he is and the skin he’s in against these funny and fascinating stories that he so enjoys. And when he looks deep into the page beyond the words and doesn’t see his reflection, what story do I tell him then?
Nicole Blades is an author and freelance journalist who writes about motherhood and race, identity, culture, and technology. Her second novel, The Thunder Beneath Us (Kensington), will be published in Fall 2016. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleBlades.
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