“Representation matters.” This phrase has become widely popular in just about every sector of culture within the last decade. From movies and television shows, to politics, and of course, throughout literature, the gospel truth is that representation does matter. It’s this idea that people like to see and hear stories about people who look and sound and live just like them.
I am no different. As an African-American, an avid reader, and an educator, not only do I want to read books about other awe-inspiring Black people, I also want opportunities for my students to experience the same! Just as much as my kids can turn on the local radio and literally hear their stories being sung across the airwaves, I want them to be able to see themselves mirrored throughout the stories on the pages they choose to read.
This is why representation matters.
And this is why I selected a number of great books starring Black people! I wanted to string together a list of works that could easily captivate the minds of young readers, but would also resonate with them on a personal level. I figured a list of books like these might draw reluctant readers out of their shell, and into a world they never imagined they’d actually see themselves in.
But the question remains, “Why books?” And more importantly, “Why should children read books about things they already know?”
Here’s my answer: if through reading, a kid can transport themselves into a world they’re already familiar with, it will almost feel as if they’re no longer reading about someone else’s shoes, but instead, walking in them. Reading won’t seem like a job to them, just a journey. This is why readers will often admit they’ve gotten “lost in a book.” The words coming from the pages completely snatch them up!
So, when my kids from the Westside of Chicago read Kwame Alexander’s basketball book, The Crossover, they aren’t just walking in Filthy McNasty’s Jordan brand shoes, they’re running and dunking in them!
This is what we want— for our kids to see themselves, in action!
In class, I’ll often share funny stories from childhood with my scholars. These stories are usually pretty common amongst Black families, and speak to the average Black experience in America. All throughout my story-telling, my kids are nodding in agreement, laughing their heads off, and literally screaming phrases like “YAAS! I know exactly what you talkin’ ‘bout!” They’re familiar with the stories, and feel a sense of belonging as they engage with their own reality.
We want books to do this to and for our readers.
I want books like Big Hair, Don’t Care and Crown to show my little Black girls and boys that their hair is beautiful, no matter how kinky, curly, or nappy it might be. I want books like Nelson Mandela, The Undefeated, and March to inspire their young minds and challenge them to take action in fighting for what they know to be true!
I want my girls to read Dancing in the Wings, and truly believe they can make something of themselves by expressing the passion and rhythm and heart they have within. And for my fellas, I want them to feel motivated to work hard, to discipline themselves, and to shoot for the stars, after reading sports books like Home Court, Crossover, and Ghost.
The phrase “representation matters” is not just buzzword to me; it’s a must, a reality that I am constantly fighting for. I want my students, and students everywhere, to have the chance at seeing themselves in the books they have around them. I want every reader, regardless of their circumstances, life experiences, or reading ability, to have at least one opportunity to nod, laugh, and say, “YAAAS! I know exactly what you talkin’ ‘bout!”
This is why representation matters.