You probably know Taye Diggs from his films “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and “The Best Man” or his stage work in the Broadway musicals “Rent” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” But the accomplished African-American actor has a burgeoning side career as a children’s book author who isn’t afraid to tackle the issue of race.
His 2011 debut, “Chocolate Me,” was based on a poem he wrote about his own experiences growing up black in a predominantly white neighborhood. This year, he published his second book, “Mixed Me!,” which follows a young boy who is coming to terms with his interracialism. Diggs found inspiration for the rhythmically written, colorfully illustrated story in his now 6-year-old son, Walker, who he fathered with his now-ex-wife, actress Idina Menzel, an American-born Ashkenazi Jew. Recently, Diggs sat down in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown to have an earnest discussion about race and fatherhood – and why he still has to show off his six-pack on Instagram when us Dad bod types are finally having our moment in the sun.
Nevin Martell: Why did you feel like you had to write “Mixed Me?”
Taye Diggs: When Barack Obama first became president, people were so quick to say, “Oh, now there’s no racism. We’re good.” But it almost has had the opposite effect. Since there are so many mixed kids out today, some people assume there’s no need to talk about it. I want to make sure that we do talk about it and that we lean into it.
NM: How did you adopt the worldview and create the voice of a mixed race child?
TD: I drew from what I knew from my friends who were mixed and what I was seeing was happening to my son. Trying to inhabit my son’s voice also helped keep me on track with what really matters at that point in life. I love the idea of a young person running around not giving a care about things, but then being reminded, “Oh, this is what you should care about” and then responding. One of the main points for my son growing up was people reacting to his hair and commenting on it. Even when people would come at him with a positive energy, he would still see it as a foreign energy. He didn’t necessarily want that attention, people pointing at him and wanting to touch him.
These days, luckily enough, he’s at a school where most of the kids are mixed or ethnic. What people like me and [illustrator] Shane [Evans] grew up with, kids don’t deal with now. But in the same breath, I know that at some point, someone is going to say something to him that will be off-color or challenge him to either stand up for himself or draw up some boundaries.
NM: Before you wrote it, had you read any of the other children’s books focusing on multiracial characters, such as including “Black, White, Just Right!” by Marguerite W. Davol and illustrated by Irene Trivas, “Black is Brown is Tan” by Arnold Adoff with illustrations by Emily Arnold McCully and Phil Mandelbaum’s “You Be Me, I’ll Be You?”
TD: I read some of them afterwards, because I didn’t want to be influenced in any way as I worked on my own. It’s a double-edged sword. When I introduced “Chocolate Me” to my son, it turned the lights on and he realized, “Oh, there are chocolate people and vanilla people.” I don’t know how I feel about that, because he was cool up until we read the book. Then he started to point people out – not with a negative spin – because he realized they were these different flavors.
NM: What do you worry the most about as a father?
TD: The unknown. There is negativity in the world and he is going to get hurt. But not knowing when, not knowing how, that’s what’s scary.
NM: I worry so much about what will happen when my son is subjected to racism. Because though I will care deeply, work hard to get through the issues around it and try to empathize with him with my entire heart and soul, I still won’t know what he’s going through on a profound level, because I have never been subjected to racism.
TD: I hear that often from the white counterparts in relationships. Don’t worry, you’re going to be included by virtue of the fact that he is your boy. Whatever he is going through – as awful as it may be – you’re going to go through it, too. At the end of the day, that’s all you really need. Whether it’s about race or anything else he goes through.
NM: On the behalf of fathers everywhere, thanks for making us look bad. The Dad bod finally comes into to fashion this year and yet your Instagram photos show you with your shirt off so everyone can see your six-pack. Thanks for re-raising the bar. Plus, your left arm features tattoos based on sketches by your son. Does he even understand what you do at this point and does he think it’s cool?
TD: He does know what I do and he doesn’t really care. To him, I’m not a cool dad. When I tell him I’m a cool dad, he doesn’t believe me.
NM: I’m going to remember that when I’m having a low moment as a parent. So what does he think of “Mixed Me?”
TD: He sees himself in it and he’s digging it. He’s only 6, which is young, but his views and understanding are pretty sophisticated. He’s already entered the too-cool-for-school phase. He’ll keep things low key when we’re reading it together, but then in life it’ll come out that he gets what it’s about. That’s when I know he’s listening and he’s proud. The other day, I was at a Barnes & Noble doing an event and he was in the front row. His face really lit up at certain parts, which was very cool.
Nevin Martell is the author of several books, including Standing Small: A celebration of 30 years of the Lego Minifigure and his most recent: Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. He tweets @nevinmartell.
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