I’m 26-years-old, single, a recent graduate school graduate and still trying to get into a writing career. So it’s safe to say that having kids probably isn’t in my foreseeable future. But being around my goddaughters has ignited a passion for how imagination and representation plays a big role in the life of black kids, especially black girls who need to know the importance of #BlackGirlMagic.
Whenever I visit my best friend’s house, I marvel at how intelligent his two little girls Ella and Addison are. At the ages of 5 and 2, they are beautiful, intelligent, wise, inquisitive and candid; they understand subjectivity, they problem-solve, they play, they pretend to be princesses and they make my heart smile. Like any kid, their imagination is only matched by their energy. But whenever one of their favorite shows (Doc McStuffins) comes on, the duo snap into silence, eyes transfixed on the screen.
I couldn’t articulate it the first time I saw this happen but something about that moment seemed incredibly important. I could see the wheels in their little minds turning as they watched Doc encounter a problem, and with a curious spirit and the help of her talking-toy-friends, she used science and logic to solve it. Not only were Ella and Addison learning invaluable lessons, it made me think about the power of learning them from a character that looked like them. But it also made think about it in less philosophical terms and in relation to my own life:
One day, I will have daughters.
What will be the cartoons, shows and other kinds of media they will consume? How will I make sure my future little girls are surrounded with images that promote a healthy, complex, positive self-image? What if shows like Doc McStuffins aren’t around then?
Imagination is an important aspect of everyone’s childhood. When we place limits on our children’s fantasies, we place limits on what they can be in reality. Kids don’t need to be told what they will be, they just need a mirror to reflect what they can be. Representation matters because the brain (especially a developing one) is a creature of quantity.
To many black children, becoming a doctor is as likely as putting on a cape and weaving through the cosmos. Becoming a CEO of a company is as improbable as saving the world from aliens. A society that stifles black imagination stifles black possibilities. What if allowing your kids to imagine themselves as superheroes empowers them to become authors, doctors, lawyers, cartoonists, scientists, musicians, painters, professors, videographers, poets or the President?
But as adults, we often overlook the disconnect between the “you can be anything you want to be” platitudes we spoon-feed our kids and what they actually see in front of them. In order to imagine these things, they have to see them. I think that’s why black imagination and representation matters so much. It helps black youth relate to and reinforce concepts such as justice, determination, protection, family, fortitude, responsibility, agency, problem-solving, love, hope, teamwork, leadership, etc. to themselves. It makes their dreams, goals and aspirations more tangible.
I’m sure it was different for everyone but I wonder at what age do parents invalidate their kids’ imagination in order to wean them into the world of pragmatism. This is especially true for many black kids, but even more so for black girls who grow up to face everyday struggles of racism and sexism, eliminating both the time and the safe-space for imagination. I want to ensure that self-love is a prominent component of my future girls’ self-image.
So lately, I’ve been buying up black female imagery: Marvel’s new Infinity Gauntlet, sketches of Storm from X-Men, Doc McStuffins coloring books, Funko POP figurines of Garnet from Stephen Universe and Michonne from The Walking Dead, artwork from Nilah McGruder or Geneva B., the Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur series, Toni Morrison novels, the DVD and picture book of the movie Home, supporting projects like Tuskegee Heirs and more. I’m excited to cop the Elle magazines featuring Taraji Henson and Viola Davis, and the Teen Vogue with Amandla Stenberg. And if it hadn’t sold out in two seconds, I would have bought Ava Duvernay’s doll this past December.
Finding stuff like this does involve a good amount of awareness, research and serendipity. Representation for black youth isn’t readily plentiful (for example, in 2013, only 93 of 3,200 children’s books published were about black characters). But to me, the importance of this curation far outweighs the difficulty. I’m gathering these things now so that I won’t have to search for them later. My little ones will be surrounded by #BlackGirlMagic.
And the phrase isn’t just about aestheticism. It’s deeper than admiring black beauty or perpetuating the “black superwoman” trope. It’s a call for black women and girls to internalize, centralize and celebrate their own forms of joy. It is a charge to be visibly, unapologetically black and female in a world that stigmatizes, demoralizes and outright attacks both of these attributes on a daily basis.
EBONY Senior Editor Jamilah Lemieux eloquently articulated in her tweets:
“Black female creativity and tenacity is often discussed in terms of pragmatism and resistance, without exploring freedom and joy…”black girls are magic” is a great mantra that speaks to the buoyancy and inventiveness of black womanhood from a HAPPY place. (Hence, “black girls” as opposed to “black women.” Girlhood is associated with being a special kind of jubilant and imaginative).”
The black joy that Lemieux and others advocate for is something I want to instill in my daughters at an early age. None of this is to inundate them into perfection but to plant seeds of self-love. I want them to walk into a room (classroom, boardroom and otherwise) and not feel the need to apologize. They will go through the same hardships, doubt, have their hearts broken, be both sexualized and rejected by society and experience the ills of racism and sexism like any other many other black women. But despite all the obstacles they face, they will wield joy like a sword and self-love like a shield.
I want my future daughters to be as powerful as Storm, as radical as Angela Davis, as curious and inventive as Doc McStuffins, as brave as Anwen Bakian, as versatile as Cree Summers, as steadfast as Coretta Scott King, to think critically like bell hooks, to be articulate like Melissa Harris-Perry, to be poetic like Rapsody, to have the youthful wisdom of Amandla Stenberg, be as stunning as Tracee Ellis-Ross and as regal as Michelle Obama. I will see that they can be both human and magical; that they not only can meet and exceed expectations placed upon them but set their own. They will imagine themselves as achieving whatever they want to achieve because they have seen examples their whole life.
So they will grow up watching Doc McStuffins and Reading Rainbow and Gulla Gulla Island and Black-ish and A Different World. They will see Toni Morrison or Assata Shakur or Angela Davis books on the shelves. They will have a bin full of dolls that look like them. They will read Harry Potter and know it is possible for Hermoine to be black. They will relate qualities like intelligence, inquisitiveness, self-love, self-worth, fortitude, vulnerability, independence, empathy, perseverance and other qualities to women who look like them — and therefore, back to themselves. They will see black art on the walls, EBONY and Essence magazines spread over the coffee table, and have “Black girls are Magic” t-shirts in their drawer.
Right now might be too early for me to worry about stuff like this. But as I watch little Ella and Addison grow up, I’m compelled to think that now is as good of a time as any. When I do have kids, they won’t be able to turn a corner at home without being reminded of how magical they are. So future daddy is sowing now.
Joshua Adams is an arts & culture journalist with a M.A. in Journalism from USC. He currently works as an freshman English teacher on Chicago’s south side, and as a journalism teaching artist for Young Chicago Authors, a non-profit focusing on youth empowerment through performance art. His writings often explain current and historical cultural phenomenon through personal narratives. Writing and music are his biggest passions, connecting the dots is his life goal. Chicago is where his heart beat at. Twitter: @iRockJoshA