In preparation for Monday, which is Martin Luther King Day, we have been talking to our five-year-old twins about who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, what he believed in, and how his efforts (and the efforts of many others involved with the Civil Rights Movement) changed our society.
The difficulty in explaining our nation’s sordid history to my children suggests how unnatural racial hatred is. We are not born to hate others based on perceived differences. My girls are a quarter South Asian, but look Euro-American with their red hair and pale complexions, making them look quite different from me. Interracial families are the norm for them, including their maternal grandparents, their parents, and many of the parents of their classmates — quite a change from when interracial marriages were illegal in some states until Loving v. Virginia (1967).
Their books, however, do not reflect this diversity.
There’s Dora, who’s better known for her TV show than for her sparsely-worded books, and also Not Norman, a cute story featuring an African American child that upsets one of my daughters because she cannot believe a child would be so cruel as to want to give up his pet goldfish for a more interactive pet (he learns to love his fish, of course). Otherwise, my twins’ fictional friends either look like they do — that is, like Fancy Nancy — or are anthropomorphic animals. One of our favorite books is President Obama’s Of Thee I Sing, which is a non-political children’s book, but it profiles diversity with a focus on adult role models, and so does not develop any characters for my children to get to know (I wrote about it here).
Many have decried the lack of ethnic minorities in children’s literature. Aimee Eubanks Davis makes the point that “Children’s literature (and all media, for that matter) should reflect American society’s broad mosaic because it enriches all of our lives.” I agree, believing that reading about children from diverse backgrounds promotes tolerance. Such connections through literature are all the more important because, for some children, the only opportunity they have to meet children of different backgrounds comes from books. We live in a country where residential segregation remains firmly entrenched (by income and by race), despite the fact that Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) declared race-based restrictive covenants on real estate unconstitutional. Segregation in education is also common more than half a century after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Clearly, racial animus remains, at least implicitly, if so many of us continue to choose where we live and go to school in part by the color of our skin.
The Civil Rights Movement had many legal victories through the courts and eventually through Congress and state legislatures, but change doesn’t happen through laws alone. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of every individual, starting in childhood. On some small but significant level, increased diversity in children’s literature could help bring us a little closer to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream, one in which people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
We’re not there yet.