Black Representation Matters In The Books Our Kids Grow Up With
For those of us who know how it feels to have our identities rarely reflected in mainstream society, it's a joy when we do.
Representation does matter. Frankly, it's ludicrous to me that anyone would say otherwise.
But of course, there are those who believe that issues concerning racial identity are unimportant. They insist that the calls for greater BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) representation in books or on television are pointless whines from folks of colour who are unnecessarily hung up on race.
As the author of a children's book that features a young black boy named Riley who discovers that he can indeed be anything, I know firsthand just how impactful it is for children of colour to see images that reflect their identity.
But as a woman of colour, I've always recognized the significance positive cultural representation — or perhaps, more specifically, the impact of not having that representation. Because, as my Jamaican mother would say: "He who feels it, knows it."
In my early days at school in the U.K., I was exposed to books including Meg and Mog and Funny Bones, and as I got older, I was introduced to the works of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. But I never saw any black characters in the books I read at school.
I know that history lessons in high school included topics such as the Second World War and the Battle of Hastings. But black history made no appearance in my school's curriculum.
Fast-forward to adulthood, specifically parenthood, and I know how it felt to have my young children start making observations about race. In particular, I recall my surprise when my daughter, at the age of four, came and told me that she and her brother were the only kids with "brown faces" at their new preschool.
Additionally, I spent over a decade working as a journalist-turned-editor for The Voice newspaper — the U.K.'s leading black publication. In that time, I read about, wrote about and talked about countless issues concerning black identity.
Whether we were covering the importance of young black girls having access to dolls that reflect their image; the plight of a Rastafari schoolboy who was ordered by his school to cut off his dreadlocks; or the way in which black media is frequently snubbed by PR firms, we did so knowing that for countless people of colour, black representation did — and does — matter.
So when I decided to write a children's book, it went without saying that my lead character would be black.
As a mother of two black children, it was important to me that my first foray into the world of children's books should represent my children and the many children throughout the world, who often don't see themselves reflected in the books they read.
Since releasing the book last year, that which I already knew — namely, that representation does matter — was re-affirmed over and over and over again.
One mother told me that the imagery in the book had helped to empower her daughter, who was having a hard time at school because she was the only black child in her year group. Another parent told me her son was thrilled to see a character that reflected his image; and one schoolboy wrote me a letter, saying the book had helped him decide that he wants to be a pilot when he grows up.
A particular high point came earlier this month when I learned that a young boy had chosen to dress up as my lead character, Riley, for his school's celebration of World Book Day.
His mother got in touch with me to let me know how excited her son was to bring the book to school. She went on to thank me "for giving us all the opportunity to represent our race and culture," adding: "It means everything."
It really is true that "he who feels it knows it." For those of us who know how it feels to have our voices, our stories, our history and our identities rarely reflected in mainstream society, it's a joy when we do see ourselves reflected in a positive way.
Because for us, representation matters.