As a child I was a voracious reader. My mother swears to this day the reason I am near-sighted is because I read so much in questionable light as a child. Books were, and still are, my perfect escape mechanism. If things were not wonderful in my real life they could be fabulous while I was falling down a rabbit hole talking to a caterpillar who seemed to have a drug problem ( no surprises considering Carroll’s issues) or flying off to Never-Neverland with Peter Pan and company.
More recently I can go live with Sookie Stackhouse in rural Louisiana and have a vampire or a were-tiger as a boyfriend, or I can open a book and ride dragons or join quests with a Golden Compass.
I had friends as a child, but somehow they never measured up to the friends I found in books. None of my friends would get on a raft with an escaped slave and pole down the Mississippi, none of my friends had pixies they could shake for dust so they could fly, none of my friends lived in a cottage in the woods with dwarfs or fell asleep and had to be kissed awake by a prince who had to fight a dragon to get to her.
Fortunately, for a long time it never occurred to me that the fairies, ghosts, princes, princesses and other fabulous creatures I was reading about and relating to were never black. In Disney of my era the only black person was Uncle Remus and he was a cheerful, rural, kind of ragged looking old man who seemed to have a great relationship with blue birds, not exactly someone I could relate to, not that I have anything against blue birds, of course.
Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White ( no comment), Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Thumbellina, all white, heck the bad guys and gals were even white, the Evil Queen, the Witch, the Evil Stepmother and Evil Stepsisters, the only one who had any other color was the Big Bad Wolf, and he was gray!
Fantasy was always my favorite, and the little fairies in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty were my favorites, they would change each other’s dress colors to their favorites and I thought they were marvelous. But, they did not change their skin color. As a matter of fact my oldest granddaughter Marrisa was grown before Disney came up with an African American princess, and they did still could not bring themselves to create a black prince.
Alice of Alice in Wonderland was blond, true, but the creatures she met and cavorted with were certainly diverse. The rabbit was white too, that is true, but the Mad Hatter was of questionable race as well as questionable sanity and the caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat did not seem to bear the mark of any particular ethnicity. I was perfectly happy to let the Red Queen actually be white, she had anger management issues and I did not want to claim her.
In Peter Pan Princess Tigerlily was at least a girl of color, implying that perhaps everyone in the land of magic did not actually have to be white to be all right.
Now we fast forward to modern fairy tales like Harry Potter. From the beginning of the films and even in the books there was very little notice made of race. It was obvious in all of the films that Hogwarts was very well integrated, although the England portrayed as the Muggle world is pretty monochromatic. The small witch who comes to Harry and Dudley’s aid in “The Order of the Phoenix” was, I think, black, but light enough to cast doubt.
There are black wizards and witches throughout, of course, old, young and professors, although no major character is gifted with much melanin.
Which brings me to my point, or rather my question. Should it matter? Do children need people who look like them and their families to relate to in order to feel valued and to believe they too can achieve great feats, whether of scholarship, or bravery, or courage or magic?
When I was about 13 I read Jane Eyre by Emily Bronte. It is still one of my favorite books and one I re-read at least annually. It is in my view the greatest romance ever written and I fell in love with Mr. Rochester at 13. I could not read the French phrases then, but shortly thereafter having taken French I, I read the book again and reveled in knowing what was being said by everyone. I did not consider, even at a time when I was being integrated into Central Jr. Hi, that Jane was a white woman and Mr. Rochester no doubt was a white man, and therefore they were alien to me, unlike me and that their experiences were nothing I could ever hope to experience.
After all, the book was set a full century before my time and I still found commonality with Jane’s desire to be desired, pursued, wanted. I grieved when her friend Helen died, I had a childhood friend, Dennis, who died of a brain tumor and I remember feeling the pain that I would never see him again. I rejoiced when Mr. Rochester finally confessed his love for Jane, it made me envision a similar scene with a faceless dream man in my future. If Jane, poor and plain–I did not consider myself either–could have such a glorious result, inherited wealth from a relative she never knew and the undying devotion and adoration of her Mr. Rochester, surely I could too. Not once, did I catch myself up short and think,”No, wait, I am black, that kind of stuff only happens to white women.”
I do not have an answer to my question, but it tickles my brain every time someone starts talking about the need for role models and mentors, especially when they are talking about minority youth needing them. The presumption is that those role models and mentors need to be black or Latino, or American Indian, or come from low-income families so the youth can relate to them.
My mentors and role models were sometimes in the flesh, but more often they were found in the pages of books. My guiding principal for ethics is from Jane Eyre. When Mr. Rochester is trying to convince Jane to live with him as his wife, even though he had a living, mad, wife, he told her ” No one will know.” In other words we can live as husband and wife and nobody will know we are not married, society will not judge us because they will not know. Her response embedded itself in my adolescent brain and never left. She said ” I will know.” What better lesson could a mentor or role model have taught me than that the main person you have to be sure not to let down is yourself?