Teaching Books That Celebrate Black and Brown Joy - National Council of Teachers of English
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Teaching Books That Celebrate Black and Brown Joy

This blog post was written by NCTE member Jessica Hunter.


As a young South Asian American woman growing up in New York, my childhood days were often spent outside frolicking in the sun. During middle school and high school when I was selected to play varsity-level sports, I was again outside in the sun during practice and games. My skin would get incredibly dark during the summer and I never thought twice about it because I had an amazing mom who never subscribed to colorism.

As an adult, I’ve come to value my mom’s influence more than ever as I’ve witnessed how colorism can make some women of color feel as if they don’t meet Western “white” beauty standards. This can be jarring, traumatizing, and have a negative impact on mental health and self-esteem.

It’s been years since those days I’ve frolicked in the sun, but not much progress has been made in terms of representation of dark-skinned women in media, specifically TV and film. Only just recently with Shonda Rhimes’s hit Netflix show Bridgerton did we finally see some representation of dark-skinned women in season 2.

Los Angeles-based author Ariana Brockington shares the following from a Bridgerton fan: “The fact that Kate and Edwina (The Sharmas) are two dark-skinned Indian women, which even Bollywood fails to employ is so damn refreshing,” a sentiment that appeared in a Today article titled “Bridgerton Star Charitha Chandron Shares How Colorism Was ‘Traumatizing’ for Her as a Child.”

Brockington continues, “Chandran, who is Tamil, fully understands the importance of a South Asian, dark-skinned woman being declared the ‘diamond of the season’ by the Queen (Golda Rosheuvel) in season two.”

Charitha Chandon, who plays Edwina Sharma in Bridgerton, added, “No one let me forget that I was dark-skinned growing up. My grandma was very light-skinned. Whenever we’d go around in India, they’d always say, ‘Oh, you’d be pretty if you had your grandmother’s coloring.’ ‘Shame about the color of her skin.’ ‘She’s pretty for being dark-skinned.’ All of these comments, all the time.”

She shared that her grandparents, who “were trying to make my life easier,” would prevent her from playing outside.

Chandran further explained, “The stereotype that Indians are nerdy and insecure, shy or whatever is not at all what Kate and Edwina represent. Kate and Edwina are bold, confident, intelligent, feisty, sarcastic, quick-witted and challenge gender norms.”
Shonda Rhimes herself has stated, “I wanted to feel like the world we were living in was as three-dimensional as possible, and I wanted to feel like the representation was as three-dimensional as possible too . . . . Finding some South Asian women with darker skin and making sure that they were represented on-screen authentically and truthfully feels like something that we haven’t seen nearly enough of.”

This idea about representation has direct parallels with the classroom. Like so many educators, I’m passionate about authentically incorporating diverse voices into the classroom. As a darker-skinned South Asian woman, I know firsthand how important a variety of representation is, not just in the books, poetry, and plays that we teach but in the media and visuals we explore and consume. We need to center Black, Brown, Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous joy. We must let our kids read books that center BIPOC characters in universal experiences. We need to teach books that celebrate BIPOC or Black, Brown, Asian, Latinx, AAPI, Indigenous joy and not just share stories of oppression and sorrow.

Journal Articles and Pedagogy
In “Antiracist Language Arts Pedagogy Is Incomplete without Black Joy” (Research in the Teaching of English, November 2020), Bettina Love states, “In the documentary ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ (Kelly & Garbus, 2015), there is a scene in which Nina Simone states, ‘An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.’ Simone’s words intend to push artists to create art that challenges the world to see humanity, to see justice and injustice, to convey the complexities of being human. Her words should also push educators and researchers who create antiracist language arts pedagogy not just to reflect Black folx pain and trauma, but also to center Black joy. With good reason, antiracist language arts pedagogy is focused on dismantling the racism that is deeply ingrained in the field of language arts (Baker-Bell, 2013, 2020; Turner & Ives, 2013). However, we argue that antiracist language arts pedagogy is incomplete without Black joy. Centering Black joy within antiracist pedagogies allows Black people to be more than their struggles and setbacks, and to see Black folx creativity, imagination, healing, and ingenuity as a vital part of antiracism.”

Similarly, Vanessa Willoughby from the School Library Journal writes, “There is danger in a single story. Rich, multifaceted cultures, communities, and individuals are flattened into a monolith. Likewise, the Black experience is not defined by suffering. In A Burst of Light: And Other Essays, Audre Lorde wrote, ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.'” When living in an oppressive society that protects and upholds white supremacy, joy can be a radical act, a reclamation of autonomy. These picture books, with their exuberant illustrations and positive prose, offer portraits of Black joy, within and beyond the African diaspora.

Furthermore, novelist Chimamanda Adichie eloquently argues that “Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.” Chimamanda tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice—and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

Finally, the NCTE Position Statement on Indigenous Peoples and People of Color (IPOC) in English and Language Arts Materials has addressed this wonderfully: “Indigenous communities and People of Color in the United States, including Native Americans and Alaska Natives, Pacific Islanders, Asian Americans, Blacks, Chicanx, Puerto Ricans, and others, continue to suffer debilitating and systemic discrimination in jobs, housing, civil rights, and education. Part of this discrimination takes place in the form of erasure, and these communities continue to face a school curriculum that, for them, frequently downplays or does not include their communities’ work and contributions. Ironically, it is also a curriculum which, in a different fashion, deprives white students and teachers by denying them opportunities to gain a more complete and accurate picture of the diverse and intricately connected constellations of histories and literatures of the United States. While some strides have been made, that work is incomplete, and the still-existing structural inequalities within education continue to make an impact on all students . . . . Research has demonstrated the substantial role that education plays in student self-perception in relationship to both their own race/culture/ethnicity and that of others. Therefore, to the extent that school does exert influence, it is essential that its materials foster positive student self-images deeply rooted in a sense of personal dignity. Additionally, school materials should also foster the development of attitudes grounded in respect for and understanding of the diverse cultures of American society.”

Media and TV/Film
In a 2017 Golden Globes speech, Meryl Streep spoke eloquently about the melting pot that exists in Hollywood, “But who are we? And what is Hollywood anyway?” before pointing out numerous foreign actors in the room. “It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola Davis was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem . . . the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in Ireland, and she’s here nominated for playing a small‑town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, is here for playing an Indian raised in Tasmania,” she said about the industry’s diversity. “So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” While Hollywood and the TV and film industry have a lot more work to do in creating content that celebrates diverse voices, there have been some strides in the past few years.

In an NPR article titled “Two Indian Half Sisters Are the Talk of Bridgerton and of Modern Day India Too,” Kamal Thiagarajan highlights the significance of representation in this popular TV show. “I’ve appreciated Bridgerton for their diverse casting right from Season 1. And I love that they chose a dark-skinned woman of Asian descent to play Kate,” says Rumela Basu, 31, a writer based in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. Many South Asian women on Twitter share Basu’s views, talking about Kate’s dark skin tone and striking good looks. Some note that in movies made in India, leading ladies are often fair-skinned, because Indian society considers lighter-skinned women as a model of beauty—even if it makes them look ethnically ambiguous. Many Indian women have a darker skin tone, more like Kate’s.

One Twitter user commented, “So happy to see dark skin Indian women playing female leads in Bridgerton season 2. THANK YOU!”

Another Twitter user added, “They don’t even do this in TAMIL CINEMAS!”

And finally, another Twitter user chimed in, “Just gotta say that one of my favorite things about the Indian women cast in Bridgerton this season is that they’re unabashedly brown-skinned and beautiful, something the Bollywood skin bleaching celeb market has yet to embrace.”

Looking for Inspiration? Some Examples of Books
Teachers should make a genuine effort to teach books, poetry, and plays that center Black and Brown joy and that center characters in universal experiences. Many of these books are full of rich drama, great storytelling, and strong writing. Here are some recommendations:

Salt by Maurice Gee

Imagine a dark version of the movie Blue Lagoon set in a post-apocalyptic world. Instead of the movie’s Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins, Gee’s futuristic novel features Pearl (a fair skinned girl from the ruling families of the Company) and Hari (a dark-complected boy from the Indigenous peoples, confined to the Burrows). In what seems like a fantasy abstraction of race relations in New Zealand between Maori and Pakeha (whites of European ancestry), these two young people form an alliance in the midst of class wars and internecine struggles; they can communicate without speech and eventually they discover love.

My Sister’s Big Fat Indian Wedding by Sajni Patel
Zurika loves music—violin, hip hop—and after she gets rejected from Julliard, she has to piece together her life. A fun rom-com. This novel doesn’t dwell on South Asian stereotypes but instead features a South Asian female protagonist who is simply living, navigating the ups and downs of life, and it is a beautiful coming-of-age story that doesn’t rely on outdated stereotypes.

Café Con Lychee by Emery Lee
Foodie rivals Theo Mori and Gabe Moreno have parents who own an Asian American café and a Puerto Rican bakery. It’s wholesome and follows the rivals-to-lovers storyline.

The Noh Family by Grace Shim
This story revolves around a Korean American teen living in Ohio who relishes her life as an only child. After her father passes away, she discovers she has a whole extended wealthy family. She finds herself in luxurious adventures in Seoul and wonders if meeting them was a good idea after all.

Hair Love by Matt Cherry
This book (also an Oscar-winning short animated film) is a wonderful slice-of-life tale about family support, Black hair, and embracing individuality.

Lasting Thoughts
As a high school ELA teacher who teaches a senior elective called “Contemporary Literature” and tries to incorporate these types of books into my other courses, I have seen firsthand the impact of my students seeing themselves in the literature as characters who are simply living. It’s not enough to have diverse characters and stories; we must also make an effort to include stories where minority characters are experiencing joy, not trapped in stereotypes, and simply living within universal themes. This can be done with poetry, short videos (Hair Love), or fiction. There are SO many options with just a quick Google search, or you can find heaps of recommendations from Book Riot, NYPL, ALA, etc.

In the Vogue article “Black Joy Is More Important Than Ever,” Chante Joseph writes about New York writer Kleaver Cruz, who started the Black Joy Project in 2015, a digital and real-world movement to center Black joy—the message that “Black joy is an act of resistance” is central to their coalition. Cruz explains that “Amplifying Black joy is not about dismissing or creating an ‘alternative’ Black narrative that ignores the realities of our collective pain; rather, it is about holding the pain and injustices we experience as Black folks around the world in tension with the joy we experience in pain’s midst. It’s about using that joy as an entry into understanding the oppressive forces we navigate through as a means to imagine and create a world free of them.”

These days, when I think about young women of color, growing up in a society where colorism still exists, I realize how incredibly important our work is as educators. These students might be getting messages from society and possibly even family about not being “beautiful.” However, if we explore literature, media, and poetry where people who look like them are celebrated and experiencing joy, we will have succeeded. And perhaps they won’t be so self-conscious about frolicking in the sun or owning who they are and what they look like in a society that often tells women that we are not enough. Let’s keep inspiring this next generation of young students.

Jessica Hunter is an educator in New York. She has worked with the NY Times, was the recipient of the Educator of Excellence award, and was recently selected by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to explore various approaches to educational policy. She’s taken coursework at Harvard and Stanford. Hunter has given presentations to national audiences on diverse voices, mindfulness in the classroom, and the intersectionality of gender, race, and class. She is also the founder of the Kaia Women’s Scholarship Fund, which provides small grants to minority women from underprivileged backgrounds as they embark on their college careers. She has worked in education for more than a decade.

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