We Don’t Just Need Diverse Children’s Books — We Need Black Parenting Stories

Nefertiti Austin with her children
The Black parenting experience is missing from memoirs and books about raising children. We are all poorer for it.

A s I read Sarah Ackerman’s recent New York Times article — “Mirrors for My Daughter’s Bookshelf” — a few things became clear. Most importantly, I realized this article was not intended for me or any other Black parent.

Ackerman, the white mother of a Black adoptive girl, writes about the lack of representation of girls of color in the books she shares with her 4-year-old. “I started counting and discovered that only 4% of our books featured minorities as main characters,” she wrote, “and only one was a black girl like my daughter.” She goes on to compare the necessity of representation to mirrors; she writes on the value of seeing a reflection of oneself in the media we consume.

Black parents may see Ackerman’s mirrors metaphor as poignant — we are accustomed to this erasure by mainstream publishers and the industry’s inability to imagine that Black children dream of unicorns and fantasize about slaying dragons. But no Black parent will find Ackerman’s observations revelatory.

We’re well aware that our images are underrepresented in books, movies, and television shows; we often compensate by whipping out our trusty brown crayon to color in faces so that they’ll mirror our children. We look for dolls and action figures with phenotypically Black features, kinky hair, and brown skin that make dramatic play for our children realistic and fun. We seek programs that feature main characters of color with matching names, like Aisha, Pablo, and Tyrone in Nickelodeon’s The Backyardigans.

And we drive across town to the lone, independent Black bookstore or shop online Black bookstores to fill gaps created by the segregated publishing industry that maintains a glass ceiling for Black writers, regardless of genre.

Black parents are accustomed to erasure by mainstream publishers.

So while Ackerman is busy stating the obvious — there is a diversity gap in children’s literature — Black parents are busy reminding our kids that their missing images don’t make them any less real. Or worthwhile.

Like Ackerman, we know the importance of positive images for youth during their formative years. But that’s where the similarities between her and a Black parent like me end.

From the moment I decided to become an adoptive parent, I started thinking about the place my future children would occupy in the world. I wondered how much race would factor into their childhood experiences in the 21st century, because being Black carried specific — and often cruel — scrutinies. I made sure their earliest images were of people who looked liked them, so that they always knew they belonged.

Ackerman missed the boat on diversifying her personal library until, I would argue, it was too late. As a writer and teacher, she is, ostensibly, best equipped with tools to introduce her daughter to a world which reflects more than just white skin. Their bookshelf should have been ground zero for her daughter’s racial education and mirror for her entire family — not just herself.

Ackerman blames white privilege as being the cause of “a certain level of oblivion to the racial makeup of our book characters.”

If she weren’t a kindergarten teacher, I might buy that. But since she is a kindergarten teacher, part of a “workforce [that] remains more than 80% white, ” she is responsible for creating an inclusive space of tolerance, love, and beauty for the children in her midst. As an educator, she is — quite literally — in charge of the mirror that shapes young minds and consciously or unconsciously impacts their self-worth.

Ackerman should be well aware of the major physical and intellectual milestones kids achieve in kindergarten, be it phonemic awareness, obtaining gross motor skills — like tying shoelaces and playing hopscotch — or noticing for the very first time that their skin color is different from their peers. Her cultural competence as an educator should have been on high alert.

Gratefully, through the course of the article, she becomes “woke” to her former blinders — but white privilege isn’t her only villain. The “love conquers all” Kool-Aid consumed by many whites who adopt transracially is a dangerous co-conspirator. Diversifying her daughter’s bookshelf is just one, albeit important, step in making a difference.

Ackerman forgot that her beautiful daughter is Black and needs more than a mother’s love to situate herself in their neighborhood, at school, or in the world. All parents have this responsibility, but white parents who go the transracial adoption route have an extra — and profound — obligation to teach their children of color about their race and culture.

White parents who go the transracial adoption route have an extra obligation to teach their children of color about their race and culture.

Because in truth, what looks shiny and loving on the outside often belies the very fraught childhoods of Black children raised by white parents. In “3 Black Adoptees on Racial Identity After Growing Up in White Homes,” LisaMarie Rollins, a Black adoptee raised by whites in an all-white environment, shared that she had a tough time navigating her identity. She described her childhood as rather difficult, explaining that her parents’ attempt at raising her “colorblind” not only erased her blackness, but was ultimately unable to shield her from the “ideas of blackness” that others projected onto her.

I imagine that once Ackerman’s daughter leaves the security of her white mother’s privilege, Blacks and whites will treat her according to their perception of who they think she is, rather than who she says she is.

This complicated intersection of race, identity, and representation is why narratives written by Black authors offer Black children the best insight into their future. Our books also serve as essential resources for white parents in need of strategies to help their Black children negotiate all-white environments with their self-esteem intact.

Many of us have lived through being the only Black child in class or not being able to run through the rain with our pressed hair uncovered. We know how uncomfortable it feels to be the recipient of an off-handed racist joke or comment made by a friend or teacher and pretend not to hear it. We understand the ramifications of confronting said off-handed racist joke/comment and have language to express that type of anger and humiliation.

We have witnessed Black adults raised by whites stumble through the world unsure of who they are, after the cocoon of white privilege has ended.

This is something Ackerman and white mothers of Black children like her will never be able to communicate completely. And it’s why being able to access Black parenting memoirs is so essential.

We have witnessed Black adults raised by whites stumble through the world unsure of who they are, after the cocoon of white privilege has ended.

As a voracious reader, I have passed down my love of words to my children. We each have a library stocked with stories written by Jabari Asim, Faith Ringgold, Toni Morrison, J.K. Rowling, and Dr. Seuss. As an adoptive parent, our library includes adoption narratives, though the main characters are animals. Save for Heart Picked: Elizabeth’s Adoption Tale by Sara Crutcher, adoption stories about Black families who have adopted are almost nonexistent. Most adoption tales feature the transracial adoption experience, because the pernicious myth that Black people do not adopt does not warrant beautiful books that convey how much we love the children born in our hearts.

“Heart Picked: Elizabeth’s Adoption Tale” by Sara Crutcher. Image from Twitter.

I share Ackerman’s mission to ensure that the page mirrors my children, because “[w]hen books reflect back to us our own experiences, when scenes and sentences strike us as so true they are anchors mooring us to the text, it tells readers their lives and experiences are valued.” Ackerman took that nugget from “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” by Professor Rudine Sims Bishop. But this is something Black novelists, filmmakers, musicians, activists, and parenting writers already know.

We also know that “[d]iverse narratives add to everyone’s cultural competency, and the larger discourse on parenting,” I wrote in “Adoption’s #ParentingSoWhite Problem.” It is imperative for everyone to see more representations of “parenting” that go beyond the white experience. I called out the publishing industry for allowing “parenting” to be synonymous with “white,” denying writers of color the chance to write what we know about raising children. Instead of embracing our expertise, literary agents have advised that our unabashedly Black parenting perspectives are too narrow, meaning they won’t make any money for the publisher.

Given the praise for Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself by Ylonda Gault Caviness and Postcards from Cookie: A Memoir of Motherhood, Miracles and a Whole Lot of Mail by Caroline Clarke, I wholeheartedly disagree.

Black parents, artists, and writers have been combating invisibility since the Harlem Renaissance; modern literary gatekeepers should not be stuck in a 20th century model where white is a stand-in for everyone. When groups are not represented or held at the margins, their absence gives the impression that their hopes and dreams do not matter.
Diversity and inclusivity in literature is for everyone.

The mirror must be multi-faceted; children and parents of all colors must find themselves in the reflection.

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