October 15, 2008

Island Fiction Redux

Island FictionThe introduction of the Island Fiction series by Macmillan is a development in Caribbean writing about which I care deeply. For the past twenty years I’ve worked with many children’s literacy programs, including the Poets-in-the-Schools program, and I’ve seen how children’s imaginations can be spurred or stunted, especially when they are growing up in environments that do not value reading.

One of the most heartbreaking incidents happened to me a few years ago when I walked into a classroom filled with children whose imaginations had been crushed by a system that had become a paper mill. I tried every trick in the book to stir their imaginations, but nothing worked. They were all extremely well-behaved and up straight behind their desks that were arranged in neat rows, but lived in fear of “Miss” (who watched me like a hawk) and looked over at her every time I asked a question.

What was even worse, they had stacks of books gathering dust over in a corner. And when I picked up one of the books, a shudder went through the room. It was as if I was now in trouble with “Miss” for touching one of the classroom ornaments.

When children grow up in environments like these that do not foster the habit of reading, then books become foreign to them. The habit of reading is also one of those behaviors that has to be modeled by parents, teachers, and leaders for it to become a communal pattern. The tragedy is that although this learned behavior make take generations to become part of the community’s fabric, it can disappear in one generation.

Yet, I’ve heard it said so often, “Why should the children learn to read anyway? We live in a post-literate society.” What’s sad is that the people who voice these opinions often send their children to private schools to learn the classics and to become producers of technology even as they condemn the rest of our children to become mindless consumers of technology. For even if it is true that we live in post-literate society filled with video games and text messages, someone has to be able to write the story lines behind these games that control the imagination of our children.

This control is something that parents from non-white cultures need to be on guard against. I used to shudder when my children used to watch cartoons because of the frequency of imagery (even in Disney!) that was tinged with racism. If you disbelieve me, check out the crow scenes in Dumbo.

We have to safeguard our children’s imagination and for them to see themselves as the active agents in their lives and not passive consumers. One way to begin is for them to read about and see heroes and role models who look like them or they may think that heroes only come in one color. The precocious James Baldwin realized this early in his life when he stated in The Price of the Ticket, “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7…to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians and, although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”

Luckily, my children were readers and we got them books with characters that looked like them. For this is how children begin to learn and imagine: with books and characters that look like them.

But this is not just for brown and minority children. It’s for all children to learn that humanity and the stories of humanity come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. It’s to free their imaginations.

Reading and the imagination go hand in hand. And it is only through the imagination that we can create a vision of freedom or create the self image so that we become the active agents in our own lives.

From the looks of it, Island Fiction is a step in the right direction and I can’t wait until the full series is published.

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