Fear of a Black Mermaid
The latest Little Mermaid movie, starring Halle Bailey, won’t be released until 2023 and already there have been waves of protest about a Black actor being cast for what the outraged consider a “White" role. The same happened when Black actors were cast for the roles of "Rue" in The Hunger Games movie and "Hermione Granger" in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway, and when the Amazon series, The Ring of Power, featured a multiracial cast in JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth.
Why so much energy spent arguing whether a mermaid can be Black? Does casting a Black Ariel make it a "Black story"? And why is speculative fiction (and some of its fans) – a genre that includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror – so eager to subvert some conventions but so resistant to subverting others, including those related to race and ethnicity?
Watch this conversation about the importance of inclusive speculative fiction for young people - and all of us. What's at stake in the use of speculative fiction to nurture kids' imaginations and how do we do that work? We’re delighted to be joined by Tracey Baptiste and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. They also share kidlit recommendations!
EmbraceRace: The conversation tonight was spurred on by what's happened several times in the media back when the casting choice of a Black actress was made in 2019 for Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Again, there was more brouhaha about it when the recent preview came out of the movie. The movie has not even come out, people! This is a conversation that we've had in some way before. Back in 2017, we spoke to Zetta Elliott and to Marti Dumas who also writes for kids about Black mermaids, and they're both speculative fiction writers about this issue of the pushback when a story that is considered a White story gets recast and there's always pushback in why when this genre is so transgressive in some ways. We're really excited about the folks that we're going to have this conversation with.
Tracey Baptiste, she/her, is a New York Times best-selling author of books for children. Best known for The Jumbies trilogy, she has written over 20 fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels for readers from preschool to young adult. Tracey's a former elementary school teacher and is currently on the faculty at Leslie University's Creative Writing MFA program. Her last name is pronounced buhTEEST. Welcome, Tracey. It's great to have you.
And Tracey's joined by her good friend, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, PhD, she/her, who is an Associate Professor in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan's School of Education. Ebony is a notable expert on diversity in children's and young adult literature, award-winning author of the The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, which came out in 2019. Her most recent book is Harry Potter and the Other: Race, Justice, and Difference in the Wizarding World, which came out this year. Congratulations. Co-edited with Sarah Park Dahlen.
As always, we'll get into questions, but I thought it would be great to hear a selection from Tracey in some of her work. Tracey, I gave it to you.
Tracey Baptiste: Thank you. Thank you so much EmbraceRace for inviting me to talk. I actually decided that I wasn't going to start with my own work. I wanted to start actually with a poem. It is from the book Black Girl, Call Home, [by Jasmine Mans] and the poem is called "The Little Mermaid." And this is a poet who is responding to the backlash about the casting of Halle Bailey in the role, the same way that I did, but really far more eloquently than I did. It also goes into a lot of the things that I wanted to explore in the Jumbies series. Throughout the trilogy, I'm very much exploring the ideas of the other, Indigenous peoples, of what happened during enslavement and the transatlantic slavery, even though it's a fantasy for little kids. Here I go, hope I can do it justice. It is The Little Mermaid.
When they tell
the Black girl
she can't play mermaid,
what their people know
about holding their breath
About giving their bodies
to the current,
about all the things
Ask them about the girls
who lost their mothers,
and mother's tongues
under the sea.
And the danger
awaiting the stillness,
how there's always
and how there's always
There are mothers here.
Mothers who know grief
but have seen it too often
to give it such a name.
-2021, "The Little Mermaid," by Jasmine Mans, Black Girl, Call Home
EmbraceRace: Wow. Really powerful. When the casting decision was made, you wrote a piece in The New York Times, "Mermaids Have Always Been Black." Do you want to expand on that a little?
Tracey Baptiste: Yeah. I was considering actually reading a little bit from that opinion piece first, but I really felt that this poem really encapsulated it. I happened to be in The Bahamas on the beach when the whole thing happened. I was kind of very disconnected from everything that was happening in life, because that is a thing that I personally need to do from time to time. I need to go into the sea and disconnect from everything. That is a thing that enriches and nourishes me personally, and I have to do that fairly often. I was not really getting the entire story because I was disconnected. So, it took me a few days to figure out, "Oh, they're recasting The Little Mermaid. It's going to be a live action." Not really a live action if there's any kind of animation in it. And the actress was going to be this young Black woman.
And it seems so strange to me that people did not know that mermaids could be Black. It seemed to be a real surprise to a lot of people, but I grew up with people who were on the beach every weekend, people who were swimming in the Caribbean Sea all the time. My father is the best swimmer I knew. He would swim out to the fishing boats. In addition to that, I had always known that there were Black mermaids in the mythologies that I grew up with. Mami Wata, for example, is a West African goddess who became Mama Dlo when she came to the Caribbean with the enslaved. She was ostensibly a mermaid, but also the Dogon people of Mali have had mermaids sort of half human, half fish people in their origin stories. That's in their creation stories that people came from mermaids. So, there were mermaids first and then there were people.
And then we have the Khoi-san people in Southern Africa who also have cave drawings of mermaids in arid areas, in places that used to have water millennia ago and now do not. The idea that there could not be mermaids when mermaids belong to the ocean and the ocean does not have borders seemed so silly to me. And this really was the crux of the opinion piece that I wrote for the New York Times. It just seemed completely atrocious, but of course what I think and what I grew up with is not the same thing that other people think and what other people grow up with. They grow up with a very particular narrative that, unfortunately, really limited their imagination, so they were not able to expand their imagination enough to encapsulate someone who was non-White.
EmbraceRace: I'm sure most of our listeners didn't as I didn't know that history of mermaids. I find myself wondering what those who are now protesting about a Black mermaid would say if you said there can't be a White mermaid, because we've had stories and you offered those references and said, "What are you doing? We've had mermaids of color were much longer than we had White mermaids." I really do wonder what the response would be to that, but maybe we can get into it.
What is the context in which we're seeing this pushback on Black mermaids and Hobbits, among other things? How has fantasy fiction changed in recent years? We think about these things changing and sort of liberalizing people becoming more enlightened. What kinds of trends are you seeing?
I'm also wondering, as someone who is also very much into the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and fantasy in general. We read those. We enjoyed those tremendously. I know that you both did. What did we miss as young people of color who didn't see ourselves reflected, at least not in any way that we would necessarily want to be reflected in those? What did we miss even though we enjoyed them? What was at stake for us as young kids of color?
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas: Sure. It is such a pleasure to be here with my sister friend, Tracey, whose books I adore. My nieces, nephews, and my teacher education students and their students have enjoyed her books for more than a decade. Tracey, you gave us Black mermaids long before Disney saw it as a possibility. I thank you, my dear sister, for your vision, for bringing us The Caribbean, for bringing us Trinidad and Tobago, to bringing everything from your culture and from the depths of your soul, your heart, and your experience to bear against this terrible all-White world of children's fantasy that has actually been artificially circumscribed over time. Here's what I mean.
One of the things that we have been discussing as of late is how much publishing, Hollywood, and the landscape of the past couple of centuries... I wouldn't even say it's longer than that. Here in some of the most influential countries on the planet, so the US, UK, and other Western countries. How these powerful structures have worked to push out the rest of us, to actively suppress narratives like those Tracey writes and folklore traditions like those of Tracey and her family. I won't even say she draws upon it. It's her. It's her family. There are these traditions all over the world that now that we have an internet and we can talk among each other. We can now learn about books like the Jumbies series. We can learn about books like Skin of the Sea. We can learn about all these alternate traditions. And my good friends, I submit to you that publishing in Hollywood, the government, the school system, and everybody else are running scared, which is why we're seeing these book bans.
I was raised not knowing how to swim and without access to Mami Wata, and I see it as heinous, colonial, and chattel enslavement violence that was imposed. As I'm learning how to swim at age 45, I've been not only rereading the Jumbies and reading mermaid stories, I've also been reading scholar friends' books like Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora that is teaching me what Tracey's editorial shared with us. That was where I first heard of the fact that so many Western Central African countries and cultures actually were avid swimmers. In one book I'm reading, I learned that enslaved people, for the first few generations, were swimming and the enslavers could not swim. How are you going to swim in the 19th century if you had on a corset and some petticoats and all that? It was seen as improper for many women from those traditions, from those countries, from those socioeconomic classes to strip anywhere near a state where they could swim. I would say not only have we been excluded, Black mermaids have been hidden from us. This entire folkloric tradition has been suppressed and now I'm mad and I want to get all the mermaid books with Black mermaids there ever were.
So many Western Central African countries and cultures actually were avid swimmers... for the first few generations, were swimming and the enslavers could not swim... Not only have we been excluded, Black mermaids have been hidden from us. This entire folkloric tradition has been suppressed.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
Melissa, EmbraceRace: Yeah. That's part of the context. I was telling Tracey when we first talked before this webinar that my dad is from the Caribbean and he had been talking about this. A cousin who's in Dominica and my dad who's here, we're talking about a kind of Jumbie, basically called a soucouyant. And they were like a shapeshifter and they were like, "Oh, this person who was taking care of my aunt was a soucouyant and tried to..." Things happened and it's because she was a soucouyant. I was just listening to this like, "What is going on?" And my dad, a man of science, told me, "Don't approach the soucouyant." After reading Tracey's book, looking for a Jumbie that's for younger kids, it's a picture book, it goes through sort all the different kinds of Jumbies and Caribbean traditions and soucouyant was one of them. And I thought, "Wow, what if? How different things would've been if I'd had that book earlier?" Because I'm sure I've heard that before and it really stuck because I had just read Tracey's book afterwards and just was lost. Of course, they're merpeople. This tradition of being in the sea all the time and being calmed by the sea. It really makes a lot of sense, but it was a new idea to me.
Publishing has changed and it hasn't changed. It used to be, maybe when our older kid, or my niece and nephew, who are older than them, were reading middle grade novels. It was like Harry Potter was the thing, maybe Frozen came out. There's been so much fantasy stuff that's come out or written by people of color since then, and I just wonder whether there's more. We feel like there's more than there is because we hear about the ones that there are or there are a few that won prizes or something.
Have you seen a big shift in the publishing industry?
Tracey Baptiste: I don't know that there's been a big shift. I feel like there has been a shift. There's been a little bit of the door opening like this a little bit. I think that a lot of what we're seeing still, at least a lot of what I'm seeing when I look at... And these are great books. I'm thinking about Tracy Deonn's Legendborn. It's a terrific series. Or I like L.L. McKinney's A Blade So Black. And there are a lot of books that are like that, and a lot of them are doing the same thing, which is reimagining stories that have already existed. In Legendborn, you take the Arthurian legend and they are updated and there is now a Black Heroine. Blade so Black is Alice in Wonderland. Those are the stories.
And I think the reason that Tracey and L.L., for example, are taking this on is because the way to get the publishing establishment on board is to kind of give them something that they do understand with something that they don't understand and put that together. And then there you go, there's a sense of familiarity because the gatekeepers are White. They're 80%+ White, straight cisgendered male and female, and there's less of innovating of story that are more Indigenous, that are African Indigenous, that are Native Indigenous. There's less of that kind of story that's coming out because not only are the stories unfamiliar, because people don't know those stories, they're not familiar with the creatures or with the characters or anything like that. The editors and the agents are also not familiar with the structures of those stories. These are totally different story structures. The way that the story is told is different than people understand.
What you're finding is that people are taking established stories to and putting themselves on top of it and having to do this kind of manipulation so that it fits and so that it can get out into the public. What would be a real opening of the publishing industry, of media, of movies, of television and so on, was if there were the ability to have authentically African Indigenous stories or Native American Indigenous stories or Taíno stories. These kinds of stories that are those characters, those structures, and those were in the media and out for everybody to become familiar with. We're not there yet. I don't even think we're close to that. I think that we are still at this level trying to creep our way up, and I think it is definitely getting better, but it is by no means like a big, wide open embracing hug of what the possibilities are. The possibilities that we are seeing now, even though we are seeing quite a bit more and we are seeing quite interesting, extremely well told, beautiful, wonderful stories, are still not even close to what there could be if there was real equity and people could tell stories that come from ancestral places.
What would be a real opening of the publishing industry, of media, of movies, of television and so on, was if there were the ability to have authentically African Indigenous stories or Native American Indigenous stories or Taíno stories... The possibilities that we are seeing now, even though we are seeing quite a bit more and we are seeing quite interesting, extremely well told, beautiful, wonderful stories, are still not even close to what there could be if there was real equity and people could tell stories that come from ancestral places.
EmbraceRace: I really appreciate the point about the structure of the story. We're talking about a structure of the story, we're talking about who writes the story, about whose story it is, all those sorts of things. We know that many of us, and you're saying now, as well as then, in my childhood people who are older, people are younger, there is. Most of us, certainly growing up in this country, were growing up with books largely written by White authors out of the UK, out of the United States, again, with a certain kind of set of structures but not others. And that didn't preclude us from enjoying the story, but clearly something is at stake
What is at stake for a young child of color who's reading the old White male written classics that are sort of much more familiar and predominant still. What difference does it make then if we did see the kind of opening up that Tracey's describing?
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas: Thank you for that question. I want to call the name of author and activist Zetta Elliott again. In 2010, she wrote a very important article for The Horn Book Magazine titled Decolonizing the Imagination: Afro-Urban Magic and The Door of No Return. In it, she speaks about growing up in Canada as a little Black girl and how reading those stories affected her. She is also someone who's been doing this work and writing the stories for a very long time. I think that one of the real challenges is that we have been carefully taught by publishing, by Hollywood, by schools, by our families and communities, by bookstores to believe that some stories are stories and some stories are... Well, we don't know what they are. If someone brings in a culturally authentic story to a publisher or an editor and an agent, often people who are unfamiliar with that cultural tradition, as Tracey noted, they are not going to know what to do with it. Now, one of the solutions for this has been, over centuries, to publish our own, especially in countries where we are the minority. That's one of the distinctions between, I would say, those of us who are BIPOC living in the US, UK, Canada, elsewhere in Europe, we've been a numerical minority. Soon we won't be.
The challenge has been that we have started our own presses over time, but there are two problems with getting that out. First, we have the amplification problem. Sorry, I'll translate out of academic speak. You have a problem of, okay. With Tracey having a book on Disney, we know that it's going to be carried, or should be carried, by Barnes & Noble, by Amazon, so that children across the country, not only children and their families, but librarians, incredibly important for the dissemination of children's literature, and teachers will know what that is. But if I start a press here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I can have the best of intentions, I can have culturally authentic literature, but the scope and the scale of the impact of that press is going to be important. But I need to keep that going. We have seen over time where we've had literary renaissance after literary renaissance. The Brownies' Book was a hundred years ago. W.E.B. Du Bois said, "We need authentic literature for Black children growing up during this heinous racial climate."
It was the Red Summer of 1919 that inspired him, along with Jessie Fauset, let me call my ancestress' name as well, to found this magazine. But it only lasted for two years. It was this monumental publication. It had all kinds of science fiction and fantasy, especially fantasy stories, but it was not able to be sustained. The problem is not that we don't have the creativity, our creatives have those stories. And this is not just for African diaspora culture, but the rest of us, capital R and U, all of the rest of us who are from non-Western traditions. The problem really is on the other end. It's a question of power and capital. Who has the power to disseminate stories so that every child has access? Who has access to capital so that we can keep presses going and we could sustain these authentic narrative traditions?
The problem is not that we don't have the creativity, our creatives have those stories... It's a question of power and capital. Who has the power to disseminate stories so that every child has access? Who has access to capital so that we can keep presses going and we could sustain these authentic narrative traditions?
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
Tracey Baptiste: No, that was amazing. To add to that, too, we are people who live and die on story. We are built for story. Just like in your regular life, you walk down the street, you tell a story about what it is that you're seeing as you're walking down the street. You have an encounter with a person and you make up a story about that encounter based on your own experience. That is just what we do as human beings. Human beings create stories out of everything, out of whatever it is. And the story that you are telling yourself about that encounter could be completely different from what is the actual story, because you don't know what the other person's side of the story is, so you're just making it up. We are constantly making up stories. We are used to story. We're wired for stories, and people who are in power are particularly bent on keeping a kind of story as the main story because it keeps them in power.
There is no benefit. There is no power benefit, there is no financial benefit to having stories be diverse, because if you want to keep a power structure with certain people at the top, you cannot have that because those stories will break down that power structure and then you do not have it. The loss is for everyone. Let us all be clear about the fact that subjugating or tamping down one set of stories is a loss for everybody. You may not realize it standing on the top of the power structure, but you are actually losing out as well because the ground beneath you is eroded. And maybe you're the last one to notice, but by the time you notice, it is too late, so there's that. It is a loss for all. It is not a loss just for Black and Brown people. It is not a loss just for Native people. It is a loss for everyone. Because if you have more stories, you have more resources. If you have more stories, you have more ideas. If you have more stories, you have more stuff that you can go to to fix the things.
EmbraceRace: Right. It's like we're a society with our hands tied behind our back or something, right?
Tracey Baptiste: Right. And the thing is, if your hands are tied behind your back but if you feel like you can still get stuff done, you don't even know that your hands are tied behind your back. In some ways you're the worst of all because the people who have their hands tied behind their back and they know and they're working actively against it, they're actually doing something and trying to find out and getting all of the information. People who are standing there with their hand tied behind their back and they're thinking, "Oh, everything's working fine for me," don't even realize that they are in real peril.
EmbraceRace: In terms of the stakes, the difference it makes when we're talking about stories in the space of speculative fiction, stories of the imagination, stories of worlds that ostensibly are not our own right versus real life stories. Someone just put in the chat, reference to Chimamanda Adichie and I'm probably mispronouncing her name, but The Danger of a Single Story, of course, a very famous talk and article that she wrote. Certainly, my understanding is, for her, the danger of a single story is not that any given story is a problem, it's when there is only one story, as you said. When one story becomes the dominant, the predominant story of a people, a group, a situation when in fact no one story can stand for the whole. We need a diversity of stories. I think she's referring largely to stories that are real people, real communities, and real groups.
What is a difference it makes when you're talking about, again, the realm of the imagination, fantasy worlds, science fiction? What does it mean to decolonize the imagination? Can you say a little bit about that?
Tracey Baptiste: I mean, this is a big question: decolonizing your imagination. The simplest and easiest way that I can put that or address that is that for absolutely everything in your life, you need to have good balance. You need to be able to work, you need to be able to play, you need to be able to rest, you need to be able to eat your cookies, you need to be able to eat your vegetables, you need to be able to gnaw down on a chicken bone. If you're doing exercise, you need to be able to do cardio, you need to stretch, you need all of the things. And if you have only one story for a people who thrive on story, you are depriving yourself and you are depriving your own brain of the ability to stretch in a lot of different ways. And you are really short changing yourself the ability to have better input into things, so it is hard.
I think we have all had the experience where you see something or you experience something and it makes something click about something entirely different. If you are limiting the input, it then limits you and your ability to make all of those other connections. And you don't even know it because you think, "Oh, I'm getting along fine," or whatever it is. "I'm doing okay." But you're limiting yourself by limiting yourself to a story. You're limiting yourself to this one thing. You are narrowing yourself down, you're narrowing your brain down, you're narrowing your options down. That's really the best way I can say why the stakes are high, because we are really stymieing ourselves by not having diversity in stories.
EmbraceRace: Thank you.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas: There are billions of dollars being currently invested so that the new generation of children and teens have no idea what kind of world they're living in, what kinds of other people are living in it, and who they themselves are. Billions of dollars have been invested in the maintenance of the status quo. In my book, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, I actually put together a framework so that people could understand that the realm of pure imagination in Western science fiction and fantasy is eating the idea of Black death, erasure, and marginalization in each successive generation of children. We have seen this happen. So, the stakes could not be higher.
It seems to me that it is clear that as soon as we began to see that We Need Diverse Books movement and just the mass movements of the 2010's and publishers and Hollywood studios began to green light, as Tracey points out, creatives of colors' work that they've been writing and dreaming up all along. They finally get a foot in the door for work that they are threading the needle to get through, and just that little bit of momentum scared the powers that'd be enough to invent entire campaigns against children's authors, illustrators. There are databases. We have to deal with this mess in state elections. It's influenced state elections. They know they're lying, but they're really afraid, because if we truly have stories that reveal the truth of who we are, one to another, that give kids, to quote Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, "Glorious mirrors, windows and doors," then we are going to have a new world.
And what authors like those we've named, my sister Tracey, and all these wonderful authors who are dealing with the nonsense of what book bans are doing, they are seeding new worlds. Shout outs to Octavia E. Butler, the Parable of the Sower. That's what they're doing. The far right and people are lying about CRT and all bathroom bans, all this mess, they see this new world breathing right as we turn this page. They're not going to be able to stop it, but what they're trying to do is impose as much pain as possible. The work that we are doing to stop the "fear of a Black mermaid," some people think it's frivolous. Who cares about Black mermaids in a book or a movie? But the stakes could not be higher. It's all about changing imagination.
EmbraceRace: We were having a discussion at EmbraceRace today, because we always talk about what are the dispositions, the skills, the things that we as caregivers need to give kids to be able to create a new world or a world that embraces all of us. And one of the big things is imagination. I love the Patrisse Cullors' quote where she says, "We imagined prisons and handcuffs. We can imagine something else." Someone did imagine prisons and handcuffs, right? I agree that there's a lot at stake. I wonder, since both of you were so taken with speculative fiction from an early age and writing fan fiction ....
What advice do you have for people nurturing kids around imagination? How did this happen for you two as Black girls? How could you see yourself or write yourself into stories that didn't include you?
Tracey Baptiste: I had an advantage growing up in Trinidad and Tobago because I was not a minority. Everybody in Trinidad and Tobago looks like one side or the other of my family. My father's family is Indian, my mother's family is African. So, pretty much the entire country looks like one set of my cousins, or another set of my cousins, or my brother and me. Trinidad happens to be a very, very literary country. We have a lot of writers and poets and playwrights coming out of Trinidad. And in addition to that, every year during Carnival, there are all of these Calypsonians creating full albums every year. Once a year, full album of music, and those songs are telling stories. They are all storytelling songs, especially old time Calypso. Soca is a little bit different. The modern Soca is a little bit different from old time Kaiso, but all of those were storytelling.
During Carnival time when I was a kid growing up, you could stop on any sort of touristy corner and there would be an extempo Calypsonian busking for money, and you could throw out three words and they would immediately sing back to you a whole Calypso using those three words. I was in an environment where, A, everybody looked like me so I could do anything I wanted. The Prime Minister looked like me, the president looked like me, every minister looked like me, every business person looked like me. That's number one. Number two, I was in an environment where there were writers everywhere. I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was three. I was three years old and I told my mother that's what I wanted to when I grow up. I mean it changed many, many times. I wanted to be a ballerina and a lot of other things, but I was three when I told my mom I wanted to be a writer. That was a possibility for me at three years old to grow up and write stories, because those were things that I saw.
And three, I grew up in an environment where being able to create a narrative out of nothing was something that people did all the time. And not only did people do it all the time, it was fun. It was a fun thing to do. I had a huge advantage over a lot of other people. You have to cultivate an environment where kids can grow into whatever. Here, in the United States, don't have that advantage with our kids. We as parents, as educators, have to bring in those experiences as much as we possibly can, and the way that you do that is by exposure to a lot of different people, to a lot of different ideas, to ideas from all over the place, for engineering ideas, for art ideas, for medical ideas.
Just throw everything at them because you have no idea what kids are really going to click with or connect with unless they are exposed to it. It is high exposure time with kids is the thing that needs to happen. I mean, granted, just because I grew up in this particular environment and I became a writer, my brother didn't. He wanted to do other things. We were exposed to exactly the same things but we did very different things. He went into the sciences. We did very different kinds of things. The only thing you can do as a parent, as an educator, as somebody who is a caregiver for small tiny humans, is expose them to a lot of stuff and not try to stymie me them by saying, "Oh, you can't read that. You can't look at that." That is the worst thing that you can do for nurturing anybody's brain. I mean, other than things that are dangerous or seriously destructive, give them everything.
EmbraceRace: Right. A lot of librarians are great at putting out pretty diverse offerings, but you need to stack the deck in terms of having a wide range of voices.
Tracey Baptiste: Right. Like going to museums, going to local shows. Honestly, every kind of experience, a wide range of experiences, because you have no idea where the little spark is going to show up. You have no idea.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas: I think that Tracey said it all. I just had a couple of things. First, I think being Black American on both sides, one of the things that I hope we continue to do is to seize. And I do mean seize narrative back from the powers that'd be here in the State. We cannot let these book bands stand. Every time we see a little light. What's happened in Black Arts and Letters is just emblematic of what we see in Black children's literature. We have a Renaissance. During the Harlem Renaissance, you have The Brownies' Book. And then if you ask nine people on the street out of 10, if they'd ever heard of it, they've never heard of it. Disney has been ruinous in many ways in this country, even as I go and pre-order my tickets for the Little Mermaid because I'm going to be taking my nieces and nephews.
We are walking contradictions. I'm comfortable with the contradiction. I look at friends who grew up in the Caribbean like Tracey, my friends who grew up in Africa, friends who grew up in Asia, Latin America, et cetera, or in Middle East and North Africa, and you have a completely different imagination than those of us who grew up in these Western countries where each group may be only 10%, 15% of the population. But we still have always dreamed of Afro futures, right? We still have always dreamed of being mermaids. I think that one of the ways that we do it is that we support independent creatives. First, we need to do it all. First, we need to support our traditionally published authors traditionally. And we do that out in full force.
The Philadelphia African-American Children's Book Fair. Shout out to Vanessa. It's in its 30th year. But so many other locales have book fairs and they have them for your community or whatever group that you and your children are a part of. Or if there is not one, you can arrange one. And believe me, the people will come. Also the same for comic cons. There are comic cons that you can attend, where if you have kids that are not wanting to read a traditional book, well, we got comics and graphic novels for them. And with the internet, the internet has changed everything, because when we were growing up, we were siloed. If you happened to grow up in somewhere like New York with all kinds of folks, you would have a very different kind of childhood than me growing up in Detroit, that is 85% Black American whose parents came up from the south a generation or two ago.
I mean, my niece loves anime. She's almost 14 years old and she's learning all about various East and Southeast Asian cultures. She's reading those stories. We get to push back and we must push back for the sake of our children. Finally, get involved with your local school board and library selection board if the library board is open. I think those are some of the most important things that we can do at this time. We put so much emphasis on the national elections, and I think that's all very important, but your local, municipal, and state elections are where the battle for the future will be fought. If you want to have the Jumbie series remain on shelves, then run for your local school board so we can usher in the future. Let me be nice, so we cannot hear all of this nonsense about every child having books where they can see themselves amid the pages.
EmbraceRace: The question is from a White parents are raising a Black daughter and they wanted to get a mermaid actor at the girl's seventh birthday, but the company didn't have a Black person to play the role, only a White person. So, they're trying to hire a Black person or more people of color, but this mom struggled with whether no mermaid singing would be better than a White mermaid. What would you recommend?
Tracey Baptiste: I say book that mermaid. Book that mermaid. The kids can be more interested in the mermaid being there at all. I mean, obviously if you can get a mermaid that looks like your child, that's the preference, but a kid is going to be super excited to see a mermaid at all. And that mermaid is going to be that kid's friend and that kid's going to be super excited, so get that mermaid.
EmbraceRace: Can you throw out some book recommendations?
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas: I have one website for you, Reading Black Futures. My colleague and dear friend, Dr. Stephanie Toliver has a comprehensive website with many resources.
Tracey Baptiste: There are so many. I'm going to put in a plug for the Rick Riordan series of books. I'm actually working on a book for that series right now that is late. But what Rick is doing and Stephanie, the editor, for the series, they're going to people like me who are writing about their own culture and saying, "Hey, I would like you to tell a story about your culture that is going to be for tiny humans." I think that that is really, really great and that's kind of like an easy way to go, because if you go there, you're going to find a lot of stuff. And then when you're in there and you get into the books and you look at the recommendations for other books like that, that's when you're going to find your Sayantani DasGupta who is not writing right now for Disney or for Rick Riordan Presents but is writing South Asian characters and things like that with a little bit of a science bent because she's also a doctor. You're going to find her.
You're can go to your Tracy Deonn and you're going to read Arthurian legends that are modernized and brought to the Americas and given a very American kind of slant to it. Then after you read Tracy's book, you're going to find other books that are similar to that. So, there's that. I mentioned L.L. McKinney before. I think what Justina Ireland is doing is really quite amazing and very innovative. There's also P. Djèlí Clark. And right now he is writing mostly for adults, but I do know that he is about to launch a middle grade series and he is somebody who, as an adult, I would highly recommend his novella, The Black God's Drums, if you are into speculative fiction and these are the kind of topics you're into. But he is about to launch a middle grade series that is similar to a lot of his adult speculative fiction. There's so many, you guys.
EmbraceRace: We'll pass on what you guys have shared in the chat. I'm excited about Linda Sue Park's new imprint. I had no idea. That's exciting.
Tracey Baptiste: Yes. And also Cynthia Leitich Smith has an imprint as well, so there is that. And also, oh my goodness, Kwame Mbalia just announced his new imprint with Disney as well. Yeah.
EmbraceRace: We have so many questions. Thank you, guys, so much, Ebony and Tracey. This was so delightful and we're such fans. Thank you so much.
Tracey Baptiste: Thank you, Ebony. I love you.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas: I love you, sis.
EmbraceRace: Oh, so beautiful. Bye, everybody.
- Mermaids have always been Black by Tracey Baptiste, NY Times
- Tracey Baptiste - more about Tracey, the Jumbies and her other books
- Ebony Elizabeth Thomas - more about Professor Thomas, her books, her work
- Reading Black Futures - Professor Stephanie Toliver's site is dedicated to promoting science fiction, fantasy and horror by Black authors
- Decolonizing the Imagination by Zetta Elliott, Horn Book
- "Fairies Are For White Girls" And Other Lies My Sister Told Me - EmbraceRace conversation with Marti Dumas and Zetta Elliott