This is a guest post by Michelle Martin, PhD, for the #31DaysIPBOC project. Dr. Martin is the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington Information School.
When I was five years old, two different relatives gave me the same doll for Christmas, a Black Baby-Go-Bye-Bye and a White Baby-Go-Bye-Bye. Both of them had a little pink car to ride in, and both had curly hair—black and blonde, respectively. As is often the case with “cookie cutter” dolls of the 1960s, 70s and sometimes still today, the toy company hadn’t given a thought to the fact that facial features of the Black doll should be different from that of the White doll. Hence, the only difference between the two was the skin and hair color.
Several weeks after Christmas, my mother, who always insisted that my brother and I thank the relatives from whom our gifts came (a tradition that my husband I have passed down to our own daughter, a generous writer of hand-written thank-you notes) asked me where the Black doll was when she saw me playing with the White Baby-Go-Bye-Bye. I told her I had put her away. She asked me why. I told her, “Because she’s too black.”
This is not a story of which I am proud, but I tell it because it illustrates how insidious racism is.
As a middle-class African American child, born in 1966 in South Carolina, who would attend all-Black schools until 7th grade and who was surrounded by excellent Black role models, I hadn’t even made it to school age without having absorbed and internalized these negative messages about blackness. I can’t imagine what my mother, who was dark skinned, must have thought when I told her, “She is too black.”
As much as we might want to hope and believe that these messages are dead and gone, we all know better. And it could very well be that my deliberate choice to become an academic with a specialization in children’s literature has a lot to do with helping children discover books that give them more options for positive self-reflection than the ones I had growing up and the ones they might find even now if their parents and teachers rely only on recommendations from the biased and economically-motivated algorithms of the Googles and the Amazons.
I earned my PhD at Illinois State University in 1997, and although that was a positive experience and prepared me for my career as a professor (now holding my second endowed professorship), it did not prepare me at all to understand the children’s literary history of my own ethnic culture. I didn’t have any coursework in African American children’s literature, didn’t have any African American professors, and graduated not even knowing what I didn’t know. To remedy that situation, I spent the next five years working on a book that really just started to backfill some of my own ignorance: Brown Gold: Milestones of African American Children’s Picture Books, 1845-2002. It was the first book of its kind and is still the definitive history of this genre for young children.
This book earned me tenure at Clemson University and helped me to find my research passion in academia, but an “extracurricular” project that I started developing in 2001 that has become something of a crusade for me is Read-a-Rama. Read-a-Rama (www.Read-a-Rama.org) combines my PhD in English Studies, specializing in children’s literature, with my M.S. in Outdoor Teacher Education (Northern IL University)—which resulted from a lifelong commitment to Girl Scouts and a love of the outdoors. The program, which has hosted 8 summers of camp for children ages 4-11, uses children’s books as the springboard for all other activities. Dr. Rachelle D. Washington has been my business partner for this venture since we started camp at Clemson in 2009. Our most important community partner since my move to Seattle to become the University of Washington’s Beverly Cleary Professor in 2016 has been Compass Housing Alliance, affordable housing for formerly homeless families. Read-a-Rama held camp at Compass on Dexter near the Space Needle in 2017 and 2019, and though we are hopeful 2020 can happen, Covid-19 might dictate otherwise.
But when Dr. Washington and I assessed the resources we already have, we decided that while schools are closed, we could open Read-a-Rama up to a wider audience and serve children an even broader range of children right where they are. In this full-engagement, hands-on literacy program, our mantra has always been, “100% engagement 100% of the time,” and Read-a-Rama Storytime keeps that commitment. Hence, just after quarantine started, we reached out to friends, family, colleagues and the families of former campers in South Carolina, Washington and elsewhere to log in every Tuesday and Thursday and two Saturdays per month to participate. In bringing Read-a-Rama Storytimes to life, we have been deliberate about lifting up the words and art of authors and artists of color, starting with Breanna McDaniel, author of Hands Up! Among others, we have hosted scholar and storyteller Dr. Nancy Tolson (@nancy_tolson), June Jo and Philip Lee, publishers of Readers to Eaters, who published Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix; Connie Schofield-Morrison and Frank Morrison, author and illustrator of I Got the Rhythm; and Puerto Rican American scholar Marilisa Jimenez (@Marilisa_Jimenez), faculty at Lehigh. Upcoming programs will host Carmen Agra Deedy, Cuban American author of Martina the Beautiful Cockroach, Traci Sorrell, Cherokee author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga and Ellenore Angelidis, founder of Open Hearts, Big Dreams, which publishes dual language books children’s to improve literacy in Ethiopia.
This past Saturday, in addition to having Connie Schofield-Morrison and her family share with the kids and families online, we also had a wonderful Atlanta blues musician and retired scholar–SaNa aka Sandra Jean Foster, author of The Healing Property of the Blues–come and play blues on her electric bass. She taught the kids the “rule for writing a blues song: Moaning (problem identification), Mourning (solution-focused), Morning (a brighter day). During the program, my niece, Taneshia and her 8-year-old son, Dai’jon, logged on from Hampton, Virginia, and Dai’jon pulled out his Avengers guitar and strummed a few lines for his online audience of about 35. Then that night, I got a photo from the Children’s Literature Association administrator, Jamie Reed, whose 7-year-old daughter, Katie, had attended the Read-a-Rama storytime. This White family lives in Chicago, and at their family campfire that night, Katie sat with her tissue box guitar we had made during storytime, strumming away and writing her own blues songs. THAT’S the power of Read-a-Rama! And if through Read-a-Rama, we can help kids embrace and enjoy both their own cultures and those they might have known nothing about before attending one of our storytimes, then all the effort of orchestrating these full-engagement literacy programs is time well spent.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Lisa Stringfellow (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).