For Banned Books Week, a North Carolina bookstore owner on raising a generation of Black children that see themselves on the page.
[Editor’s Note: For Banned Books Week, we’re featuring commentaries from North Carolinians about the ways censorship is used to oppress. See here for another commentary about the recent surge in book banning targeted Black people and LGBTQ people.]
“But the world is big/ Big and bright and round/ And it’s full of folks like me/ Who are black, yellow, beige and brown/ Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you/ With the backlash blues” – Nina Simone – The Backlash Blues
Written by Langston Hughes as a poem, “The Backlash Blues” was set to a melody and sung by Nina Simone in 1966.
A political anthem then and a classic now, the song names the myriad injustices faced by Black people in that historical moment. It speaks directly to the oppressor – the government – “Mr Backlash.” It calls those in power to account for giving Black people second-class homes and schools and second-class lives. It is a fighting song for a people who have nothing to lose but their humanity.
“But the world is big/ Big and bright and round/ And it’s full of folks like me/Who are Black, yellow, beige, and brown..”
I have always loved this part of the song.
It informs how I think and feel about children’s literature. It reminds me why it matters for children and Black children, especially, to know stories and songs that introduce them to other children in other parts of the world.
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Nina and Langston name something powerful when they declare the world full of “folks who are black, yellow, and beige and brown.” They remind us that there are far more oppressed people in the world than there are oppressors. Across their various corners of the world, oppressed peoples are bound by a shared experience of suffering under structures of domination.
In the year that Rofhiwa Book Café has been in operation in East Durham, it has been my singular mission to expose Black children to books about Black children in other places and other parts of the world.
My curation prioritizes simple books over “overtly political” titles of the anti-racism inclination. Ours are books that capture the joy of Black childhood.
In little Akissi, who spends her days engaged in acts of mischief in her village in Senegal. Rocket, who takes the reader along to visit with his grandparents on their island home in the Caribbean. Jayden, who is so fiercely determined to grow a garden in the city. To read these books is to know that the world is big/ Big and Bright and round, and that it is full of Black children just like me.
If it is true indeed that an adult who understands themselves as part of a global collective is dangerous to those in power, imagine how dangerous the child is who knows quite early that they are never a minority even as they are minoritized?
The Black child who understands that even as they may be the “only” in their school, neighborhood or playground, theirs is never a singular experience because they are always part of a global community of Black children, bound by their shared experience of being alive in this time in their Black skin. I am invested in Black children knowing and internalizing the vastness of the Black world.
Nina and Langston entreat us to recall that there is power in recognition and that when we recognize ourselves in others, we are capable of developing feelings of solidarity. Collective action cannot happen without solidarity. This is why recognition is dangerous.
Introducing Black children to literature about Black childhoods across the world invites the possibility of a generation of Black children who do not possess a minoritized sense of self.
May we know and nurture this generation, arm them with the conviction that they are never the Other even as the world insists that their skin, their hair, and ten little Black toes are something to revile.