With America on fire, and police crime against Black Americans now entering its umpteenth decade, it may seem like reading children’s fiction is as useful as a teardrop on an inferno. But last week, when novelist and poet Jason Reynolds — who’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the US — spoke as keynote at a conference for school librarians, it became clear to me that reading fiction by modern Black American authors is probably the perfect place to start in fighting racism. Especially for white families like mine. Racism, he says, is a virus: one that’s transmitted in childhood unknowingly and spread invisibly.
During the talk, which came just two days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Jason gestured to his own hair — dreds — and his tattoos, his black clothing and his tall stature, and said, “Look at me. In any other setting, y’all are afraid of me.” (See the keynote here https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=jason-reynolds-ibram-kendi-in-conversation-slj-day-of-dialog-2020-antiracism)
And white fear doesn’t start when Black men are grown men. See this from US reporter Eugene Daniels: “Imagine being in elementary school & your teachers telling your mom how scared they were of you when you walked in class,” he wrote. “As a child.”
Books deliver empathy
Fear. Suspicion. Dislike. Aversion. These emotions can’t thrive in the presence of empathy. That’s what fiction achieves: it’s an empathy delivery device, creating a magical set of conditions where you the reader – or you the listener – experience what’s unfolding for the main character as if you yourself were that person.
By using five-senses detail, the author lures your brain into a sensory state, so it’s as if you’re the one biting into that mouthful of cupcake the main character has in her hand. You’re the one feeling the slap of the track on your shoes as you run laps.
You’re the one who feels sick and angry when you encounter everyday racism: like the teacher who “forgets” to invite you to the school’s Young Captains ceremony, even though you’re Captain of the school’s Step Team.
You’re the one confused when a librarian hands you a gritty novel of inner-city Black heartbreak, assuming that your Blackness means you’ll identify with the disadvantaged, fatherless main character (you’re the son of a Fortune 500 CEO).
Fight racism in your family
If you’re white, handing your kids great books by modern Black American authors is a huge step you can take right now to cultivate empathy in your children. Here’s some awesome Black fiction to get you started.
There’s an even more comprehensive list here below, comprising children’s writers of color and other authors from a huge variety of communities, from ProjectLITComm
These books can help you, within your family, to combat the racism that’s in the air, like it or not — like that story about the fish who didn’t know what water was. The invisible privilege that white children enjoy in most environments is water, too. But the real enemy here is racism itself, and it will take a lifelong, proactive effort for you to combat it, especially if you’re white.
That means taking active antiracism steps like calling out your family members, neighbors, friends or taxi driver when they drop a racist comment. Try it. It’s freeing. You may not be able to change minds, but you can try. Are you trying?
Do you know the racial justice organizations near you that work to change minds and fight racial bias?
Have you opened your wallet to them?
Why is there a picture of football trading cards on this blog post?
When my kids were very small, a football (soccer) trading card had somehow made it onto our kitchen table. “I don’t like brown people,” my five year old said casually, looking at the picture of the athlete. I wasn’t sure I’d heard them right. Where had THAT come from? Turns out it had come from school, a racist comment dropped by a classmate.
We immediately had The Chat: about how millions of people have been treated very badly and even killed because they have skin that’s brown. My kid burst into tears, saying, “I didn’t know…I didn’t know!”
I’m not painting myself a hero for doing This Very Basic Thing: intercept racist comments immediately. Talk about racist ideas. Blast them out of the water. This is so basic. The thing is, antiracism is a proactive, tiring fight that needs us to do much more than the basics, although they’re a good start.
That’s because racist ideas — breathtaking, unfounded, cunningly constructed ideas not only of non-white inferiority, but of white supremacy — are the foundation stone of empire, the wealth of nations, and the flaming catastrophe that is modern capitalism. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book on this topic is a must-read. There’s even a children’s translation of Dr. Ibram’s book, STAMPED: RACISM, ANTIRACISM AND YOU, for your kids to read, co-authored with Jason Reynolds. It’s in the ProjectLITComm graphic above. Go get it.
Because racist ideas have been force-fed to white Americans in particular, it means I have a lifelong struggle in me, too, to find and fight the racism inside. I used to think, Well, I can’t be a racist, I’m a children’s author. But now I see that, as children’s author, I’d better work harder to find the racism in me and fight it every day.
And I need to do the work, too, of being a genuine ally, not a bystander, to my fellow Americans: they’re fighting for justice, dignity, and policing they don’t have to be afraid of.
That’s a good fight.
Sheila M. Averbuch is a former journalist and author of the thriller FRIEND ME for middle grade readers, publishing November 2020 with Scholastic Press US. Follow on Instagram or Twitter at @sheilamaverbuch