Representation – Our Duty as Writers

Osemome Ndebbio, a Nigerian author of children texts and stories, living in Alabama, United States writes about the duty of writers in portraying the black identity, right.

“The Bible is a book for men.”

“Why do you say so?”

“Well it only talks about men.”

I remember reading this somewhere. The writer stated that a little girl had made this statement.

Why would a little girl think that?

It is probably because she didn’t see any likeness to herself in the stories she’d heard or read in the bible.

As I reflected on what I had just read, I tried to think back to when I was a child. I read lots of bible-stories in bibles adapted for children. I attended my fair share of catechism and Sunday School classes. Okay, less than my fair share I admit. However, in all honesty, growing up you would not have been able to convince me that I was any different from Samson in the bible or from Superman in the movies and comic books.

Trust me, my brothers tried when we would role play and I would decide who I wanted to be. Then would come the battle of wills and wits as they tried to convince me that I could not be Superman or Batman or He Man, the master of the universe.

The Picture Book

My simple question to them was ‘why?’

Puzzled as if wondering why I could not get it without asking, they would explain, or should I say remind me that I was a girl and that I had to choose another role.

Often, the only other roles on offer where the villains or damsel in distress. Sometimes for want of anything better to do, I would play those roles, but they were not how I saw myself.

I wanted to be who I wanted to be and that was the person who was visible. The person I could idealize or idolize whoever it happened to be at the time. I did not know it then, but I was resisting being invisible, not being seen, recognized, and acknowledged in the narratives I was being exposed to.

I wanted to be Superman. It was not about gender. It was not about race. It was not just because he was portrayed as strong, invincible and the epitome of everything to aspire to. It was because he was visible and often my only frame of reference. Everyone knew him.

Occasionally, someone sharing my likeness, would come along in a narrative but who would have wanted to be like that someone?

Why would I want to be someone who was not portrayed right? Someone only presented as needing to be saved, poor, helpless, pathetic, wretched, dirty, ignorant, villainous, a nonentity, a non-person…

An add-on, an afterthought, an item on a checklist to pass the mark of having met the benchmark of inclusivity.

Early Readers Series

I grew up with a friend who used to cry because she did not have non-brown eyes or long, silky smooth void of black hair like the girls in books and movies. She craved the alien experiences she read in books and regarded the ones she lived as inconsequential and disposable because they were invisible and undocumented as anything worthy of being written about or acted out.

Until there came Nollywood.

Countless little girls want to be princesses. I will use the popular term. ‘Girls of color.’ My early childhood experiences ensured that I lived that term. But at home in my country Nigeria, I am not a woman of color. I am not a black woman. I am a woman. And then you can bring in my tribe but there are few less categories to fit into. However, on a global scale, ‘girls of color,’ considering that they do not see a lot of themselves in books wonder why they do not look like princesses. Some have nothing in their mind’s eye of what a princess like them would like.

Why is it important that as writers we change this?

When children expand their view of the world through the books they read, they adopt some of their core beliefs regarding their identity and value for themselves and others from these books. Narratives we are exposed to have the power and potential to positively shape and empower us or warp our mindsets and leave us feeling unworthy.

I have used and even sold some of the books that beginning readers read while learning to read. While these materials helped do the job, I could not help but want something more for beginning readers of color. I want them to see themselves in books as they learn to blend words together. I want them to see themselves in books created with them in mind and not with characters with their likeness or semblance added on for inclusivity’s sake.

Here comes Phonics Map. All the books (workbooks, early readers and picture books can be used by anyone) but the early readers and picture books depict settings and characters that reflect portions of our identity and heritage because we are no longer limited by our oral history. We have no excuse not to tell our stories. We have no excuse not to portray our likeness in the stories we tell.

Regarding the bible, the creator says we are created in his image and likeness. I can make the choice to trust in a divine motive regardless of what the narrative is.

But with other narratives one option is to continue wondering about its themes and bringing it under the scrutiny to ascertain if there be anything clandestine or not. The other is to in Toni Morrison’s words, ‘write the book I want to see.’ Here is to choosing the latter.

The Pee Bee Dee Muddle Fuddle – a picture book in the Phonics Map series launched on the 26th of September. It is about Zehi, a little girl who struggles with distinguishing between the letters: ‘p,’ ‘b,’ and ‘d,’ in words. Zehi’s resilience teaches kids to never give up. It is suitable for children learning the alphabet, learning to read, kids with learning challenges and dyslexia.

The book is available in ebook and paperback formats on Amazon.

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