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As someone who has loved the art of storytelling for all his short twenty-four years, on characters you are often told “it’s not about the colour of a their skin, but the content of their character” that keeps you engaged. Growing up I struggled to find characters like me in the stories I committed to. Malorie Blackman has been fighting the good fight for the best part of twenty years, but in one of my favourite literary genres, YA Fiction (Young Adults) , Black men are not a commonality. And that’s just the first layer. What about characters in coming-of-age stories for little Black girls? What about those children with non-White skin who happened to be dyslexic, dyspraxic, or even on the autistic spectrum? And this was one of the reasons I read Creative Writing. There were no characters like me growing up, so I started to write my own.
But reading young adults fiction, still even today, I see nothing much has changed. I’m still making the same comments I made when I was ten and twelve years old. Are there fewer authors of colour writing young adults fiction? Are there fewer Black and brown filmmakers wanting to make these films? Or is there a culture in the industry that what sells is “stale” and “pale.” And, you know, Wakanda and all that… but a Black Brit from Peckham has carried a trilogy of films in that little franchise called Star Wars. When John Boyega’s big Black face popped up in the first trailer for The Force Awakens, I cried. Diversity sells, but statistics in YA fiction are dire, whether we’re talking about the number of non-White lead characters or the lack of Black or brown authors getting published in this genre.
At its bones, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a young adults drama but it was pushed as art house / drama / LGBT Cinema… to sell tickets. And LGBT Cinema is not a genre. YA comes in many forms. YA is John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, and George Lucas’ American Graffiti, a film that’s so good that I forgave him for the prequel trilogy. But these films are still very White. Mean Girls, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Carrie Pilby, The Fault in Our Stars, Call Me By Your Name, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid – the list goes on.
YA is whitewashed. When it comes to LGBT representation, we don’t see the intersectionality. Moonlight has become the go-to film for representation of gay Black men. And even there, “gay Black men” are not the focus. It’s more about class, race, and gender than sexuality. Internalised rage from repressed emotions. Its depictions of masculinity, whilst sexuality is marginalised. And as a straight ally who loves films, I struggle to name (mainstream) films about LGBT identity that include Black / brown people.
Moonlight and Tangerine come to mind but you do end up having to look outside of British film and Hollywood; there’s a plethora in non-English speaking cinema – I think of South Africa’s The Wound and it’s really something special.
Well-meaning White people say “it’s not about the colour of their skin [yap yap yap],” and to say that comes from a vantage point of privilege. Most people look like you, since society was built in your image. When you look at the history of Black actors in Hollywood, at how much they had to fight –from Diahann Carroll (Claudine) to Sidney Poitier (To Sir, with Love), to Denzel Washington (Training Day), Spike Lee (School Daze) and John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), look how much it took to get Malcolm X made!
All this said, most of my favourite story characters have been White. In Carrie, from Caren Lissner’s Carrie Pilby I saw a version of myself. Hopelessly introverted with a love of literature and a realist approach to life. Blind faith? “Just go with it?” What the eff’s that? In Charlie, from Perks of Being a Wallflower, there were elements of child me. But neither Charlie nor Carrie had to contend with the first time they were called nigger when they were five years old, or being told “they were pretty for a Black girl,” as numerous Black women I know have been told time and time again.
Seeing yourself reflected in your environment is vital, and whilst we endlessly debate why we need to decolonise the curriculum, can we have a look at how media has often depicted African hair? And why we live in a society where texts like Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri are necessary into understanding the nuances of race. Or if you want something less academic, there’s My Hair by Hannah Lee. “Unruly” and “like weeds” are only two of the phrases I’ve heard Black people’s hair described as. How do you think these comments and perceptions impact teenagers and children?
These experiences are YA (including children’s literature), as are the ones in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or any John Hughes film or an Enid Blyton novel. Whilst here I am discussing young adult stories, this European-centric hetero-normative culture is rampant in almost every industry. From education to journalism, and especially publishing and arts.
Seeing yourself reflected in your environment is necessary. And to White people, it may seem trivial. But really, most people look like you. I never had a teacher that wasn’t White British. The stats in our schools are damning. The closest thing I had to a teacher that looked like me was Diepirye @drkukustr8talk – who’s a family friend. He was a lecturer at the University, just not my lecturer, yet, still gave me a leg-up in my reading, via a number of authors through debate, conversations and critical thought.
When we are small, we often have our imaginations and dreams bludgeoned out of us by teachers who have lost the ability to dream. To draw a picture, to write a story, to act and express yourself, is no match for science, mathematics, history, geography, foreign languages or “proper subjects.” And retconning a nice shiny A into S. T. E. A. M is not a good look.
It’s a big old world; and it’s cruel enough as it is, but if our children and young people can’t find themselves in stories, how will they ever be able to find themselves in society?