by Eloise Greenfield
Why is it important to see positive portrayals in literature of black culture and family life? The simple answer is because the positive aspects exist. As with all other cultures and races, there are various ways of life, some positive, some negative. The problem is that, in portrayals of black life in various parts of the world, the negative aspects have more often been the focus of books and other media, and the positive aspects rarely seen. In addition, the intellectual ability of these same targets has been ridiculed and denied.
There are reasons for these denials, in books and other media, of the positive aspects of black life, and they must be addressed here in order for people to understand the mission of those of us who focus on the positive, or a balanced depiction, in creating children’s books.
For centuries, the enslavement of Africans and people of African descent in Europe and America was the mainstay of the economy and accepted by many people as normal. Unfortunately for the perpetrators, slavery in these places became illegal, because of the courage and ingenuity of the enslaved people and others who were dedicated to the freedom of human beings. Therefore, it became necessary for those who had benefited from the slave labor system to find other methods of subjugation and control. One method was the prevalent depiction of African Americans and others of African descent as being intellectually and socially inferior, and therefore, capable of handling only the most menial of jobs.
Africans and African Americans on the stage, in films and on television have been portrayed as objects of ridicule and intellectually inferior. Stereotypes in all of the popular media, including children’s books, were the norm for many decades and still have not disappeared.
Black family life has been the focal point of a plethora of attacks and is written about almost as if it is all negative, and especially as if it is more negative than these same problems in other families. Drugs and alcohol, neglect, desertion, and abuse exist in many white families, as well as black and other families.
On the other hand, love, support, protectiveness, encouragement, and education are not unusual in any one group, including black families.
The movement to allow African American children to know how beautiful, intelligent and worthy they and their families are, and their ancestors were, is an important mission for many of us who work in the arts and in other disciplines, as well. The opening in 2016 of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, DC, was a significant event for all ages, in this movement toward truth. The museum attracts so many visitors of various nationalities, from all over the world, that it is necessary to make reservations long in advance, in order to be admitted. There is a hunger among the people of the world to know the truth.
Children, regardless of their race and nationality, need to see themselves, their families and their ancestors reflected accurately in books and other media. The effect of the attacks on their culture can be psychologically damaging and weaken or destroy their self-confidence and their motivation to live productive lives. Children who don’t know their worth are unable to fully develop and use their abilities and talents.
Counteracting the damage that has been done over such a long period of time is an enormous task, but also a gratifying one, for those of us who are involved in this mission. Good books for all children can let them know that they are beautiful, intelligent and worthy of love and respect.
Eloise Greenfield was born in 1929 in Parmele, North Carolina and grew up in Washington, DC, where she still lives. A children’s author, poet and activist, Eloise’s work is widely praised for its positive depiction of African American experience, particularly family life. She has published over 47 books in the US and was awarded the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2018. This year, Tiny Owl will be publishing Eloise’s work for the first time here in the UK, Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me is a loving tale of a young boy and his dog, beautifully illustrated by Ehsan Abdollahi.
This short blogpost by Eloise Greenfield describes why she thinks it’s crucial for children to see themselves reflected in the books they read, and the importance of positive representations of black family lives. In her words, “children, regardless of their race and nationality, need to see themselves, their families and their ancestors reflected accurately in books and other media.” In light of the global success of Black Panther and, in particular, young people’s responses to the film, this need for positive representations of Black characters is patently evident. Indeed, the paucity of UK children’s books featuring ethnically diverse characters is currently being reviewed by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), and BookTrust will evaluate the number of children’s books created by authors and illustrators of colour. This long-overdue evaluation, funded by ACE, highlights the importance of children seeing broader and better representations of ethnically diverse characters, as well as books by BAME authors and illustrators.
Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me forms part of Tiny Owl’s wider programme to promote under-represented voices and cultures in literature, and to produce beautiful picture books for everyone to enjoy.
This blog is a guest post from Eloise Greenfield and Tiny Owl, and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.