Holdin’ Out for a (Nonwhite) (Funny) (Fictional) Hero

I start teaching summer camp in a week, and because my bosses are supportive and (usually) say yes when I ask for things, I now have a few precious dollars at my disposal to spend on books.

Specifically, books for my students to use as a springboard for a design project. I love this assignment: I ask my students, ages 8-15, to read a classic children’s book and then design the sets, props, costumes, lights, and sounds that they would create, if they had huge resources and could dream big. I love seeing how their brains have translated beloved stories into concrete ideas: Snow White, Charlotte’s Web, Cinderella. I howled with delight the year that my older teens gave me their take on Robin Hood, influenced by too many action films and a vague understanding of the financial crisis; some of the costume designs for James and the Giant Peach were imaginative and playful in a way some working professionals might envy.

But let’s face it: you can’t phone in the same stuff every year. You need new material, and so I started researching children’s books. My initial qualifications:

– It must be FUN. This is summer camp. I’m not making them slog through anything that feels like school.

-It must be FUNNY. This is mostly just personal preference: I’m passionate about comedy and I love very few things more than a kid getting the belly-laugh-snort-giggles.

– It must be DESIGNABLE. Something with characters that kids could design costumes for, something with locations that kids would enjoy creating sets for, etc.

– It must be UNIVERSAL. Something that my eight-year-olds can read and understand, but that won’t seem too babyish for my fifteen-year-olds.

Okay. So far, so good! The titles began to stack up: The Paper Bag Princess! Added to cart. A princess outwits a dragon, learns that appearances are not as important as character, and decides that she’s rather not be saved by a stuck-up, vain prince after all. Meet the Dullards! Flavors of Roald Dahl, but for the picture-book crowd, where a boring set of parents bent on beige walls and sliced-bread values can’t seem to repress their children’s urges to draw with crayons or imagine the circus. A whole slew of amazing, funny, wild and wonderful books featuring animal or other non-human protagonists: the Pigeon books, Skippyjon Jones, Max in Hollywood, baby! The Day the Crayons Quit!

And then I took a break from this research project to look at the news, and that was when I realized my mistake.

*

Fifteen year old Dajerria Becton was thrown to the ground by an armed police officer this weekend in the small Texas suburb of McKinney, her arms pinned behind her, her face slammed to the ground. A man named Eric Casebolt knelt with his knees on top of her as she screamed, as he sweat through his gear, moments after ducking and rolling and screaming with all the severity of the final scene of any action movie, moments after drawing a loaded gun on some teenaged boys. Click another news site, and you’ll get another opinion: endless debate about whether the teenagers were allowed to be in the gated community in the first place, whether or not there was weed and loud music involved in the disturbance complaint, whether or not the incident was racially motivated.

The last sentence is the one that hurts my heart to type, because you watch that video and — my god, of course it’s racially motivated. The white kids are milling around, filming on their phones, virtually ignored. The black kids are handcuffed, thrown down, screamed at to get their asses on the ground. The country takes notice. We tweet, we facebook, we write, we think, we feel. Many people feel weary, exhausted. This is an old story. We’ve heard this one before.

Eric Casebolt has resigned. It’s not enough. I don’t know what is, but it’s not enough. You don’t draw your gun at a group of teenagers at a pool party where you’re responding to a noise complaint. You don’t. You don’t. You don’t. You don’t draw your gun. At children. At a pool party. 

*

I read voraciously as a kid, and my favorites were stories about girls with a streak of rebellion and a taste for adventure: Harriet the Spy, Eloise, Mary Lennox, Sara Crewe, Matilda, Pippi Longstocking, Ella Enchanted, Catharine Called Birdy, Charlotte Doyle, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew. Any of the girls in the E.L. Konigsburg or Zilpha Keatly Snyder books, who slept in museums or crafted seances; the girls created by Judy Blume, so vulnerable and so much like me. Entire series of women protagonists who got things done: The Boxcar Children and the Babysitters’ Club and the American Girls.

Girls who read, learned, climbed trees, fought back, solved mysteries, fell down, got back up, struggled, persevered. Girls who survived crazy hardships or learned valuable lessons.

Girls who looked just like me. Brave girls. Smart girls. Funny girls.

White girls.

I read some books about black girls too, of course. I read a book about Harriet Tubman, and a book about Sojourner Truth, and a book about Phyllis Wheatley. Clara and the Freedom Quilt. Addy, the American Girl. I’m sure there must have been some Asian girls and Hispanic girls in there too, although I can’t recall any at the moment.

In 2012, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed 3,600 children’s books. Only three percent were about African-Americans. Asian and Pacific Americans were featured in two percent, followed by Latinos with less than two percent, and American Indians at less than one percent. I pulled those stats from a Washington Post article called “Characters in Children’s Books are Almost Always White, and it’s a Big Problem.” 

I put it out there on Facebook that I was seeking a children’s book featuring nonwhite protagonists, that was fun and funny, that was adaptable for the stage, that could be understood by eight-year-olds. And my smart, well-read friends turned in a trove of possibilities. So many excellent books! So many wonderful authors! But none of them seemed quite right.

The funniest stories featured white kids, or non-human protagonists. The stories featuring nonwhite kids all felt rooted in some kind of “other” — stories about the civil rights movement, stories that were adapted from slave folk tales, stories about accepting natural hair as beautiful. Stories whose major plot points hinged on their blackness or their “other-ness.”

Those stories are important, and those stories are necessary, and I am so glad those stories exist, and they should be created, and read, and put in the hands of children everywhere.

But that’s not quite enough.

Why don’t I know a single laugh-out-loud funny children’s book where the main character is nonwhite and that fact has literally nothing to do with saving the day/climbing the tree/inventing the space robot/learning a valuable lesson? After all, that’s stuff that white characters get to do in children’s books all the time. If you’re a white person, odds are that you’ve never consciously thought, “Huh. Cinderella is white, and so am I.” Because it has nothing to do with the story. We’ve never thought about her whiteness ’cause it doesn’t matter. Nancy Drew was an intelligent, spunky teen with an eye for detail, and being white had nothing to do with her ability to solve mysteries and hang out in spooky caves. Matilda’s telekinetic powers had everything to do with her love of reading combined with her terrible home life; I’m far too busy thinking about getting revenge on the Trunchbull to consciously consider her skin tone.

Maybe it’s like my post about Miss Piggy from last week. Maybe having a nonwhite protagonist is the same as having a male protagonist: it complicates the joke. It’s the extra thing that we collectively can’t quite process yet. Maybe that’s what’s happening here.

But I can’t help but think that if we raise our kids on a steady diet of “these are stories about kids like you” and “these are stories about kids who are almost like you,” it’s got to be a contributing factor to the other-ness. A small drop in the bucket of a collective idea about what is normal and what is not.

Don’t get me wrong, it does seem like there are books out there that hit the mark. There’s “The Snowy Day,” by Ezra Jack Keats, where the main protagonist happens to be a black boy, and that fact has virtually nothing to do with a story about walking around discovering the wonder of snow. There’s ‘The Hello Goodbye Window’ and “Stand Tall, Molly Lou Mellon,” both of which I will order on the recommendations of friends, because it seems like they might fit the bill. There’s a few others on that thread that I have to research a little more fully (and thank you, my Facebook friends, almost all of whom are my real-life friends: you are smart, thoughtful people and I treasure you).

My point is that it shouldn’t take an enormous facebook thread to find them. My point is that I should have read these books already. My point is that maybe if you, like me, has a job or a life where you have access to children, then we all need to work a little harder to find those voices that represent other ideas. My students are primarily white, and it is my responsibility to find stories where the black students feel represented — because come to think of it, in the two years I’ve had this job, I can’t say that I’ve done that before, and that makes me feel so deeply ashamed.

It’s not only that, though. I want my white students to build their empathy skills. I want my white students to find a point of connection between them and someone who might not look like them. I want my white students to read stories about non-white kids and not think “black” or “Asian” but rather “clever,” “smart,” “funny,” “silly.”

I suspect that it looked weird to that police officer, to see a bunch of black teenagers hanging out by the pool in swimsuits. Perhaps this person was raised on a steady diet of seeing black teenagers labeled “thug” or “poor” or “disruptive” or “trouble.” Perhaps those messages crept in at an early age.

I want to read stories with my kids where characters who aren’t white get to fight crime, solve mysteries, travel, explore, dream, dance, and grow. I want those characters to shine because they are awesome, not because they are other. I want them to get the giggles so hard they pee a little, and I want them to learn, on some critical subconscious level, that laughter is universal. That laughter is for everybody.

Maybe someday, when we see a bunch of black teenagers hanging out, we won’t think “black.” We’ll think “teenager.” We’ll think, “I remember when I was that age.” We’ll think, “kids.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 7.37.37 PM

This photo was pulled from @markusprimelives’ Instagram. He’s an incredible artist, and I encourage you to check out his work. I shared this image not only because it is powerful, not only because it is protest … but also because there’s something significant to me in imagining Dajerria Becton as a crimefighting superhero. I hope that someday it won’t look so jarring to our eyes, to see a young black woman striking a pose that we’d more commonly associate with Batman.

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87 thoughts on “Holdin’ Out for a (Nonwhite) (Funny) (Fictional) Hero

  1. I appreciate your caring and equality promoting spirit, as I have grown up in a family with multiple black and white members. I am white. My sisters are black. Each one of those sisters would disagree with you on your storytelling of the pool party incident. Even a black male witness at the pool party would disagree with your comments. You must know the facts before you go diminishing the crime to be had by such the teenagers. That incident wasn’t even racially relevant. But of course you used it as fuel for your fire. When teenagers intrude, destroy and attack for no reason but for cahoots, they are wrong. People like you are the problem. Quit assuming “oh here we go again” and educate yourself.

  2. And it’s a funny thing. I’m guessing you all live in the North because, down here in Alabama we have all black schools, an all black section of novels in the book store, an all black aisle of hair products, ect. I live with racist toward me every single day because I’m white. But I sure can’t complain about it. Everything is two sided. Quite being blinded and see the world for how it really is. My black sisters are so disappointed and so am I.

  3. Very powerful. My three-year old daughter just chose a book from the library that brought tears to my eyes – “Something Beautiful” by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. It’s a little too young, I think, for your purposes, but it brought tears to my eyes, and made me so happy that my own beautiful daughter, would love this book. It echos with us, since while we may be white, we’re strapped, living in a neighborhood that is a little rough (okay, maybe more than a little rough, if I’m being honest). There really does need to be more main stream fiction, though!

  4. Hi, I’m new to your blog…
    This link (and the following excerpts from the original article) are for older students but I think it may at least help grant insights for you and your work as you consider multi-cultural/diversity representations and also connect you to some possible authors. I think it addresses the fact we can’t just be funny or romantic about our heroes and history… and that “universal” themes don’t have to be colorblind to be palatable. Fairy tales use to be ways “coding” the truth of abuse and they were transformed by disney to be “funny”.
    Your students could write their own narratives and put on a play about their encounters with prejudices… and make it funny and also show how people divide or come together…

    Anyhow… here is the link and some excerpts. Great job on you being sensitive to this and for helping kids!

    I hope I didn’t leave too long of a comment…
    http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/when-the-lights-shut-off-kendrick-lamar-and-the-decline-of-the-black-blues-narrative
    When the Lights Shut Off: Kendrick Lamar and the Decline of the Black Blues Narrative by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
    Excerpt 1:
    A few months ago I stood in my windowless, dimly lit classroom in Jamaica, Queens, a working-class neighborhood in New York City, and asked my new students, who were black and West Indian 20-something-year-olds from all over the borough, to tell me something about themselves. How often did they read novels? Who were their favorite authors? Hands flew up. A slim, unsmiling girl with wild hair pulled into a ponytail, spoke first.
    “I love to read. Right now, I read at least four books a week.”
    She then told us that she had so many books she had to keep them in her closet and they still didn’t fit.
    The image of her overflowing closet was captivating. I had another question: “Out of all of the books that you’ve read, can you tell me some of your favorites?”
    She paused to think, and then had to compete with the rest of class who began speaking at once, calling out titles I hadn’t heard of.
    “True to the Game II, the first True to the Game, Dutch, all the Dutch books, basically … anything by Teri Woods. Gangsta, Coldest Winter Ever. A Street Girl Named Desire. Baby Momma Drama. I read that in one night. I loved that, too. Do you read Flexin and Sexin?”
    “Miss,” one of them asked, “are we going to read those books or the kind they teach in school?”
    Excerpt 2:
    Of course, the grip of respectability is not at all new, and perhaps that is why to some extent the black authors who loom as literary lions today seem to do so not only because they are gifted writers but also because they performed dual functions, even when they were made uneasy by the confines of biological allegiances. The examples of such commitment run long: James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry with the Civil Rights Movement; Zora Neale Hurston’s relationship to ruralism and afro-agrarianism despite it being out of vogue; bell hooks, Jayne Cortez, and Ntozake Shange with womanism; Octavia Butler’s and Ishmael Reed’s radical world-building.
    The battle between marginality versus acceptance has long attempted to put a chokehold on many voices that would have told stories about those outside the talented tenth. Hilton Als, a critic at The New Yorker, wrote about this in his book The Women, as it concerned Alain Locke’s New Negro arts movement in the 1920s, for which “the New Negroes were roundly applauded by white publishers and patrons, who rewarded them with stipends, book deals, and no criticism whatsoever. What the New Negro was: a model of repressed and repressive colored middle class aspirations.”
    Excerpt 3:
    While some black writers busied themselves grifting in the post-racial world, other black writers were filling the vacuum by writing gritty, salacious urban fiction about fast cars, drug dealers, and women full of aspiration who were not afraid to use sex or guns to achieve their ends. These books — often busy with crime, light on plot, and initially messy with copy errors — are written by authors all too happy to be what Jonathan Franzen has called a “contract writer.” Utterly disinterested in mining any “discourse of genius and art-historical importance,” they instead “provide words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.” It is a business that has become so lucrative, so popular, that urban fiction authors such as Sister Souljah and Teri Woods have each sold close to a million copies of their books. Woods’s self-owned publishing company has grossed $10 million dollars since 2001, and eyeing her success, Borders Bookstore signed a deal to spotlight her imprint nationwide in their stores. These authors are no longer marginal influences. They are so mainstream that companies like Atria, Simon & Schuster, and St. Martins Press have signed some of them to six-figure, three-book deals. When asked to explain the success of her book Dutch, Teri Woods would tell Salon, “You want me to tell you why that book sells so well? Because Dutch is what every black man feels right now. Go to traffic court, dude. Go to criminal court — it’s fucking disgusting! It seems like white life is excusable, and black life is intolerable. […] I’m like this far away from injustice. I’m not going to let it go. […] It needs to be aired out.” In a time when no one was supposed to be angry, no one was supposed to look back, there were still millions of readers who seemed to think differently.
    As some literary black authors struggled to find a culture of readers who looked like them, their would-be readers seemed to be thinking the inverse of the question: where are the literary writers who are writing stories that sound like mine? The post-racial generation had created their own disconnect, and the authors of urban fiction were vampiristic. They saw a void and filled it — cheaply, but they filled it. They became the writers who were still speaking to black and Latino Americans who were slipping through the cracks, a group of people the new literary generation seemed reluctant to acknowledge as an audience or as subjects. And their failure to do so is what makes work that deeply and realistically deals with class (like the fiction of Z.Z. Packer, Junot Díaz, Edward P. Jones, the reporting of Jelani Cobb, the early music journalism of writers like Bonz Malone and Touré, the theoretical work of Tricia Rose and Greg Tate, and the poetry of Thomas Sayers Ellis and Nikky Finney) so necessary — and it is also why Lamar’s project is more relevant than ever.

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  6. Amazing post! You really opened my eyes about book characters and how most the time they are white. I agree with you that there needs to be more nonwhite protagonists so this generation and more to come can see that race doesn’t matter as much as heroic funny characters who make a mark on the world. Everyone deserves to be seen as people. Not something that happened in history. We need to understand that all races can be heroic, smart, funny, and worthy protagonists that can teach our children and even adults that white people aren’t the only ones in children’s books.

  7. I’m really inspired by this, what a great objective to try to get some eral diverse characters. It’s sad that they’re so hard to find.

  8. You hit the nail right on the head. Problems like this are all over America, especially in the movies. A lot of black actors get Oscars but usually for films where characters have to be black because they’re about civil rights or slavery or something. It’s very sad that the U.S. is STILL so whitewashed in practically every way. Even commercials. I have noticed though that there are more commercials featuring black couples or interracial couples which is good but sometimes I just wonder, did this commercial really have to have all white people in it? Even advertisements featuring white hands holding a product. I see them every day. Sorry, I’m ranting. Great blog post!

  9. … echoing positive sentiments of many commenters.
    Plus: I purposely cast an unlikely outlier (‘minority ethnic’ billionaire) as my debut novel’s protagonist – and attempted to flesh out 3D characterisations of black, female and other so-called, standard socially acceptable,widely used ‘labels’ without ever needing ‘to explain or highlight or use’ such labels.
    P.s. It’s not “funny” but The Trouble with Donovan Croft (mid-1970s) is a British book for children/anyone touching on similar, complex, ongoing battles… http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/sep/12/children-books-fiction-lucy-mangan

  10. What a great post.

    A little late, but Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams was one of my favorites as a kid, and I think it might fit the bill. Beautifully written and beautifully drawn celebration of an imaginative, creative child. All of her stuff is pretty great, but that one is the stand-out.

  11. What a great post.

    A little late, but Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams was one of my favorites as a kid, and certainly fits the bill. A beautifully illustrated and written celebration of the creative child. All of her work looks lovely, but that’s the stand-out.

  12. Pingback: Holdin’ Out for a (Nonwhite) (Funny) (Fictional) Hero | sinethembam1992's Blog

  13. Pingback: Holdin’ Out for a (Nonwhite) (Funny) (Fictional) Hero | Simone Samuels

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