I don’t know how to edit my sons experience of America in such a way that they are not assured of their place as white men. They are young, too young to understand what’s going on, too young even to repeat what they hear on the radio. They don’t know that there is a revolution happening, that across America we [read: white folk] are being woke, that they are standing in airports to fight for people they never met. There are kids on college campuses that look like me [read:white] demanding that buildings have different names, that teachers teach different. I know it’s not enough, it’s late, too late, but if you had been born to white southerns in 1980 [like me], if you had been a teenager in the south in the 90s, if you had heard [white] people, smart [white] people, [white] people that you know think, say, “I don’t know …I guess I never thought much about race…”
Look. I know it’s shitty. I’m saying it’s a little less shitty. I’m saying this is happening, and that’s something.
But my sons, my sons that are going to be white men one day, only have books, only have the pictures of books, and here, even in my favorite ones, is that same rotted core I grew up with. The one that if your white, tries to lull you to sleep. Because over and again, main characters are white.
I know people are trying. I get it. There’s [usually] at least one brown character with black hair. There’s one that could be read as East Asian. Sometimes names key us in that this one is Latino/a. I realize that the illustrators are likely white. The writers too. I realize for them it might feel like overstepping, that to draw a black main character might make some claim as to how the kid felt or acted and they don’t want to make presumptions. I realize that to depict a group of black kids would be to make a statement, whereas drawing group of white kids with one brown kid is just to draw a racially diverse neighborhood [as we like to imagine].
I realize that the only real answer is to have a critical mass of children’s books written by people that are not white.
But until that happens, what do I read my kids?
What bothers me particularly is that books I want to read, the ones with monsters and creatures and nonsense, are unequivocally populated by white kids. Marilyn’s Monster. Day Dreamers. Dream Animals. The Wonderful Things You Will Be. This Is Not A Book. Jeremy Draws a Monster. The Monster Returns. Andrew Draws.
The list goes on. But how do you combat it? Read only books with creature and animal characters? It’s a possibility. [Although I did realize belatedly that Veggie Tales has all of two female characters, one that is old, and one that is female in that she is desirable. Larva, funny funny funny and gross, follows a similar pattern).
We read Shane Evan’s Underground. [And if you have kids, you know we read it. And we read it again. And again.] And it’s gorgeous. Beautifully illustrated. But while I am happy to begin an understanding of our history here, and to grow on this knowledge, it still places black people on the margin. “Oh, here’s your distinct history over here. Now let me get back to the stories where people are learning and growing and having adventures.” I’m unsettled by this, by only having books which are main stream or black. Or [insert your favorite Other].
It’s what I remember from growing up: that there are people’s issues, and then are black people’s issues.
I don’t know how to reconcile that divide, not even on the small scale of making the choice for what we read at bed time. Maybe it’s unfair. Maybe I’m trying to rush to normalize blackness in America for the sake of my kids understanding of themselves and others. I want them to see Blaze [car cartoon, where there’s a black main character and a girl mechanic] and think that’s cool, that’s normal. White guys are not invariably in control. [Bob the Builder]. How do you unseat what’s settling into his mind each time he reads these books with white characters? How do you upset him from the position of centeredness, before he gets that historic mandate.