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Arts & Culture

Learning Colors With Black History

As a former English teacher and Ph.D. candidate, Whitney Wingate believes strongly that words, books and stories matter. So when she had her first child three years ago, it did not take long for her to realize that children’s literature left much to be desired.
There were plenty of books for all ages about figures like Johnny Appleseed and George Washington but far fewer stories about influential black men and women. And many of the stories about prominent black figures that do exist focus on figures that white mainstream America has deemed important, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. These observations inspired Wingate to create “An African American Book of Colors,” a children’s book that features poems about icons including Malcom X, Prince and Misty Copeland. Wingate represents each color with an African-American icon depicted by a child model wearing African prints reminiscent of the icon.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Wingate about cultural representation in children’s media and her plans to create more culturally-conscious children’s books.

Interview Highlights

On choosing which icons to include: I also wanted to choose icons whose aesthetic addressed more of their engagement with black communities than their engagement with perhaps a larger white community … As wonderful as Martin Luther King is, I didn’t want to choose him, because I felt that he was already represented in a number of multiculturalism programs. And while his non-violent practice was amazing and instrumental, I didn't want it to be that I was writing a book that would make white Americans comfortable or that would appease white sentiments. I really wanted to get a variety of perspectives of black identity. And some of them are not as comfortable.

On pairing icons with colors: I wanted it to be historically accurate as much as possible  – to choose people who actually had something to do with the colors that I’ve associated them with. For the color purple, of course Prince had recently passed away when I started thinking about this book, so Prince had to be purple. Red was Michael Jackson. I wanted to choose icons who represented their black identity, but they didn’t stray confined to it.

On the outfits worn by child models: I wanted to choose African-inspired prints. Especially like for instance with the Misty Copeland outfit. It’s Kente cloth. Kente cloth originates in Ghana, and it’s a cloth that was originally worn by well-to-do families and royalties. So aside from being visually pleasing and opulent, I also wanted to highlight the wealth of experience and history attached with each of these icons and their wardrobes.

On the current state of multiculturalism in media: I find that a lot of books that teach multiculturalism teach a very limited form of multiculturalism. And it reconstructs blackness or minority identities from an external perspective … I think we’re still a bit squeamish about having our children engage race, because we don’t want to have our children be preoccupied with these ideas of race. But in, let’s say for instance movies like Black Panther, to me that was a movie very much about interiority. There is a wealth of black knowledge that is hidden from an external perspective, but once you enter the inside of this domain, you end up seeing all of these wonderful resources. And I think we’re getting there. I don't think that we have as many internal Wakandans, for lack of a better term, who have access to movies, to books, who can present this idea that: Hey, there is a universe of resources inside of this cultural identity that we’ve attached with brown skin or blackness.

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