Wednesday, 15 November 2017
INCLUSION AND EMPOWERMENT (from my book SONO NERO E SONO FIERO, available on Amazon)
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
As an engaged reader and a literature scholar, I’ve long been concerned with representation and with its role in empowering some people and disempowering others. When I became a mother, addressing and redressing representation became even more urgent, especially due to the omission or distortion of Blackness in the realm of entertainment and educational tools for young children. Trying to counter this particular form of white normativity in my children’s life has translated into a daily practice of what I like calling “domestic micro-activism”, for example by purchasing Black dolls, finding books and films featuring Black characters, forging an appropriate vocabulary to discuss representation with my children, and, last but not least, writing our own story. Inspired by Toni Morrison’s famous exhortation, I resolved to write the books I wanted my children to read.
This is my first children’s book, part of a larger project still in progress. My writing builds on the shortcomings of diversity in contemporary literature for young children and is based on the belief that self-identification is paramount to empowerment. I try to address three basic needs: the inclusion of figures with whom Black children can identify, the need of stories mirroring the experience of Black children growing up in Europe and of children with a history of adoption, and the need of both fictional and historical role models and heroes. It goes without saying that the effort of endorsing diversity in literature does not only serve the interests of minorities (white kids, too, need non-white heroes), and such writing aims to be a child-oriented exercise in Critical Whiteness. In fact, the absence of non-white superheroes in the imaginary and historical landscape offered to our children pairs with a vision of the world based on white supremacy. This alone should be enough to persuade ourselves of the need to put diversity on the agenda.
“Hey, that’s me!”
My five-year-old twins respond with enthusiasm when we look at picture books featuring children who look like them. The main markers of resemblance are gender, skin colour and hair type. Age does not seem to be particularly important: they can identify with a younger or older child, as long as they are Black and of the same sex. Time is only marginally relevant (that me can live at the time of dinosaurs), while setting becomes increasingly meaningful as they start making sense of geographies and diasporas.
Contrary to what I experienced in my childhood, empowerment features very clearly on the agenda of contemporary literature for children. The implicit message in the majority of stories I read to my five-year-olds seems to be: You can!
Anyone who has ever read to children will know that a child experiences a sense of empowerment and even grows in self-confidence any time the protagonist of a story successfully overcomes obstacles, defeats the bad guys or simply accomplishes an achievement. However, for this to happen, for the sense of empowerment experienced during the reading to be transposed into an actual growth in self-confidence, that is, for the story to go beyond itself and become productive in the life of a child, the child has to be able to identify with the main character. However, with the exception of stories featuring non-racialized imaginary creatures or anthropomorphic animals, for many young recipients this kind of identification is hindered by the fact that over and over again they cannot find any indication of resemblance with the protagonist. For non-white children growing up in predominantly white societies, the pervasive whiteness of the narratives they are offered can lead to a sense of disempowerment. That also goes to the detriment of white children, who are being empowered in a racialized way, conveyed white normativity and emboldened in a sense of white righteousness. In a nutshell: without inclusion, empowerment is not achievable.
Inclusion, by which I mean a host of really diverse characters and roles, has advanced a great deal with regard to gender, but has advanced very little indeed with regard to race: whiteness is the norm, while non-white characters, if present at all, are secondary (read: subordinate), stereotypical, exotic, or even grotesque.
All children need to find in books positive models of diversity reflecting the reality of the global world rather than transposing old colonial stereotypes into new forms of othering (such as the exotic Disney characters or the popular misrepresentation of Native Americans and other First Peoples). The diversity conveyed in this collection of rhymes and poems is primarily inspired by my own children. Some rhymes use their names and tell their personal stories, while others are more general in scope and approach. However, all have been written with them in mind, to fill up the gap that leaves them and families like ours no place in poetry.
The title poem, Sono nero e sono fiero, opens the collection by celebrating Black people’s history of resistance to oppression. It is purposefully marked by gender in that it is a twin poem told in first person by a boy and a girl, each one evoking their same-sex heroes (if gender normativity is maintained in the traditional pairing of male and female – superheroes and princesses – both sides are depicted in their heroic role). Another poem in the same section, Bottoni magici, challenges physical normativity by inscribing bellies with protruding navels within an ethno-historical frame where such bodies are seen as the norm. Nenè of the Maroons builds on a personal connection with the legendary figure of Queen Nanny. When my husband and I brought our daughter home from Haiti three years ago, she came fighting, and she fought with such a determination that did not allow us to forget that hers was a story of deprivation and uprooting embedded in a larger picture of old power relationships between Blacks and whites, something that also called into question our legitimacy as her parents. That is how I started seeing her as a baby warrior and nicknamed her Nenè of the Maroons. I started telling her about this ancestor of hers, who also lived in the Caribbean and fought against being uprooted and sold and subjugated and who finally succeeded in taking her destiny in her own hands and founding a free Black community on the mountains of Jamaica. Believe it or not, this did help her in her way to forging a sense of identity and self-worth.
The ones mentioned are only a few examples of the motivations and thoughts behind the poems. Many people (mostly whites) are uncomfortable with thematising skin colour, not to mention race issues. I am, on the contrary, strongly against colour-blindness and I believe that children have the right to a taboo-free and non-edulcorated approach to race as an aspect of socialization that affects our life and our place in the world. Sociologist Colette Guillaomin expressed it bluntly: “Race does not exist. But it does kill people.” This polemical statement goes back a couple of decades, but it is sadly still true to the bone. If we want for our children a different and bright future, we cannot allow ourselves to remain silent on the topic. If one day my children tell me I have made too much of those issues, I will be happy. It will mean that something has eventually changed.