On the beauty of black story(tellers)

Parents of black children do not have it easy. The world is an ugly place, but it saves its most brutal faces for black people. But even before all that, before our children learn of the violence, both casual and profound, that lies in their path, there are the awful silences. Children’s stories, in print, and on screens, are overwhelmingly populated by white characters and fail to reflect the diverse kaleidoscope of colour that we are trying to reveal to our children. As a child, this left me locked in an imaginative world that did not assign any particular value or import to my blackness. My blackness was there but it was never there in the stories I told as I played, and later, the handwritten stories with which I filled my lined A5 notebooks. Without saying it, the characters I wrote and played were white. Their lives closely followed the lives that I heard about and read about in stories.

My heart aches to think of that little girl, creating and dreaming, but without the colour of her real life. It is no accident that I am no longer able to create the fictional worlds I spent so much time in when I was a child. I am done with the white landscape of fictional worlds. I prefer now to write about my own life, in bold, flowing colour. I prefer to exist in the realm of the real, where the blackness I live in my real life anchors me and reassures me of my value and my worth as a black person.

But even as I am suspicious of fiction and of the dangers of whitewashing that lie there, I am very aware that my son is growing up in an entirely different world with respect to story. Yesterday, we took him to the mall for a reading of a children’s book. This wasn’t just any reading. It was a reading of a story about all the many ways one can say ‘hello’ in South Africa, read by the black South African woman who wrote it. As I listened to author Refiloe Moahloli read her book, How Many Ways Can You Say Hello?, and my son ran around the bookshop, I fought back happy tears: What was unthinkable when I was a child is now a regular Saturday morning in my 2-year-old’s son’s life. Moahloli is part of a growing tradition of children’s authors writing stories that consciously celebrate diversity and center black narratives in ways that were unheard of when I was a child. Her reading was part of a commonplace tradition of black storytelling (by black storytellers), which made it all the more remarkable.

When the reading was done, many of the children (of all races) gathered around the author to secure signed copies of the book. Those children will now add to their budding libraries one more story that reflects the world we all wish they lived in. And maybe they’ll be a few steps closer than we are to realising it.

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