Books empower readers of all ages, but the ones that stick with readers all of their lives are often the ones they read as children. Activist and poet Mahogany L. Browne understands the importance of providing the littlest of readers with books about their strength, courage, and value. Her 2018 book Black Girl Magic followed a girl from childhood to adulthood, and her newest novel, Woke Baby, features an infant who is small but mighty. Here Browne shares why young readers deserve to see themselves reflected in the pages of the picture books they read.
You are a born in a city with people from all walks of life. There are short and tall people. There are small-statured and fuller-figured people. There are people with gaps in their teeth and birthmarks, pigeon-toed stances and good posture. Now picture the shape of the conversations those people have with one another. How their hands and eyes dance with a living tempo. How their laughter reaches both sides of their mouths. We are becoming so full in our understanding of humanity this way. There is no one way to be or live or think or feel. There are many ways to tell a story. There are many ways to hold a pencil. There are many ways to love. But if we have only ever lived in a field of books that ignored the many cultures that make up this world, what an absolutely lonely and bare stretch of land that would be.
This is the most poetic way I can talk about the lack of diversity in picture books. The fact is, my young Black daughter should not have to color in a book because there are so few representations of who she will grow up to be. As a young Black girl growing up, I did not understand my own tightly coiled hair texture was a spectacular miracle to behold. I hated my hair. Everyone in my first grade class pictures wore long straight ponytails with matching bows. Some said on the playground “I am like Cinderella and Rapunzel” and would let down their hair to prove it. I felt inferior because there was nothing in the books we read together that signified I too was beautiful! I too was present! This is how I began to hate myself.
In middle school, I turned to beauty salon manipulations that utilized lye and discolored my neck, a messy result of the sun and the chemicals on human flesh. This hyperpigmentation only made me hate my skin color more. Hate the texture of my hair more. Hate the very thing that made me my own person.
It wasn’t until I was 21 years old with a newborn daughter that I decided I would leave that kind of hate out of my vocabulary. I began to love my hair and found books like Eloise Greenfield’s Honey, I Love and Natasha Anastasia Tarpley’s I Love My Hair!. These two books became the literary foundations that I wanted to share with my daughter. These were that I didn’t have access to when I was younger, and books I didn’t know I needed. As I turned to these books in my twenties, I would become energized and rise to the occasion of loving my hair, loving my me. I discovered protective hair styles and realized my natural hair texture was closely related to a beautiful queen’s crown: something that stood up and at attention in a crowd.
This is the self-love I instilled in my daughter. I wanted her to understand her individual beauty was different from her classmates’ but was not lacking in its difference. I had Greenfield and Tarpley to remind her of this beauty whenever she was reading with classmates or on her own. And those are just two books. The problem is, those were all I had access to for a very long time. This is why our diversity and art cannot be considered a one-time deal. We cannot publish a couple of Black authors and think “DONE!”
We are required to evolve our understanding of cultures, our access to different authors and literature. Our support of marginalized stories in the mass market cannot lose its steam! There is no one voice. There is no one story. We are exceptional in our ability to consider a life outside our own. We are everlasting when we expand what the classics can be.
Mahogany L. Browne is a California-born, Brooklyn based writer, educator, activist, mentor, and curator. She has published several books of poetry, and she is an Urban Word NYC Artistic Director (as seen on HBO’s Brave New Voices), founder of Women Writers of Color Reading Room, Director of BLM@Pratt Programming, and facilitates performance poetry and writing workshops throughout the country.