“If we do not write narratives where our kids can see themselves in imagined worlds, how can we begin to expect them to imagine themselves as accountants, as lawyers, as actors, as actresses, as singers, as billionaires? We have to create these worlds so that kids can start to imagine themselves taking over this one.” – Buhle Ngaba: Storytelling Can Change How We See the World [TEDx TableMountain]
A couple of months ago, during a book club session with a group of young people from Orlando East, I asked a young girl in the group why she hadn’t finished reading any of her books. She answered that all the books she was given were ‘too white’ for her. She said that, because of the worlds portrayed in those books – worlds of mansions and blue-eyed-blond-haired White people – she couldn’t finish reading any of them, even though she really wanted to increase her reading quantity.
As a person who has been working hard to get more young Black people to take reading more seriously, her statement came as a wake-up call for me. The problem for me was that, for as long as I could remember, I had been telling young Black people that reading is important – which is a statement that is true when taken on its own merit – without taking into consideration the fact that what they read is equally as important, if not more, as the act of reading itself. So, after she made me aware of this, I went out and began to actively search for books written for young Black people, and the search raised my awareness to an important fact.
In South Africa, books that portray the daily lived experiences of Black people, especially those of young Black people, are a hard thing to come by. This means that for the many young Black people who will be coming across literature for the first time, the heroes, inventors, pioneers and shapers of modern-day living they will be reading about look nothing like them, and live in places that look nothing like the ones they live in.
Now, besides the obvious boredom that reading such books will give to them, reading books that don’t portray the daily lived experiences of young Black people, and showing them as people who can overcome difficult situations, also has the ability to tattoo in their minds negative images of themselves and their role in the world. They end up seeing themselves as people who are unable to invent, take charge, and change the world. This develops an inferiority complex, and also, having such images of oneself has never helped anyone achieve anything of importance in the world.
The truth of the matter is that, although there are a few writers who have made it their mission to portray the lived experiences of young Black people in the literature they produce, much still needs to be done regarding the representation of young Black people in South African Young Adult (YA) literature. While writers like Buhle Ngaba, whose latest book The Girl Without A Sound is about a young Black girl searching for her voice, have written stories whose protagonist looks like a majority of the young people who are going to read it, many Black teenage readers still struggle to find images of themselves in the many books they come across.
This lack of representation in the literature they read has many negative impacts on the world-view of the young people reading it because, for many of them, literature is an opportunity to see the world they live in beyond the problems they face on a daily basis. It is an opportunity for them to live in worlds where, through hard work and dedication, the children of mine workers end up owning the very mines in which their parents used to work; a world where the sons of domestic workers and garden workers become the presidents of big nations. If, while reading these stories, they don’t get to see people who look and sound like them achieving any of these things, young Black readers end up believing that those types of successes and breakthroughs are only achieved by people who don’t look like them.
A lot of work needs to be done regarding the representations of young Black people in South African literature. Like Buhle said, how do we expect Black youth to be great in this world when they don’t see Black people being great in the ones they read about?