I like World Book Day and I love books. But in the run-up to World Book Day few years ago, I received a phone call from a colleague. He asked me for suggestions for black male characters from children's books as he wanted to dress as one.
We came up with a depressingly short list and got to talking about why this might be, whether it was important and what we could do about it. Together with another colleague of mine, we created the resource below. It is grounded in a real-life situation but raises some philosophical issues. I have used it with teachers, teacher-educators and with Year 6 pupils.
People have responded to it in a range of ways, some very positive, some quite hostile. Either way, it has generated some interesting discussion. Hi Robbie,
How were your holidays and how are things back home in Trinidad? I'm glad you're back because I could do with some advice. You never know when a dilemma is going to creep up on you and I've got one now.
The thing is that the school I'm teaching at has announced a book day. All the staff and pupils are asked to dress up as a character from children's fiction. I wanted to choose a black character. I am a black Caribbean man after all.
The thing is, I couldn't think of any that the children would recognise – nobody as well known as Max from Where The Wild Things Are, Bernard from Not Now Bernard, Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Tin-Tin.
The more I tried to come up with something, the more frustrated I got. You know some of the kids I teach are West Indian, African and Asian but the central characters in the stories they write are all white. There is something wrong there, don't you think?
At least back in Trinidad there were lots of black and Indian people on TV and in the news. It seemed people like us could be at the centre of things. Kids over here don't seem to get that. Anyway I asked a few colleagues.
One white guy said other things were as important to identity as colour or ethnic background – things like whether the characters were good people. He is coming as Harry Potter.
A fellow Trinidadian has chosen a character. He wouldn't tell me who it was though, in case I nicked his idea. He'd spent the whole day in a library looking through the children's section. He said he is going to suggest that non-fiction be allowed next year.
I did find a storybook with a minor character, a father, who is quite like me. A colleague thought that might be a bit 'boring'. She's black and from Trinidad too but she's coming as Snow White because she says folk tales are exciting and 'universal'. She wants to be the fairest of them all I guess.
A Muslim teacher is coming as a character called Birbal. That's pretty interesting actually. It turns out he was the hero of many Indian folk tales and really existed in the sixteenth century. In the stories, the Moghul ruler turns to him for advice and Birbal is very clever.
The stories are pretty funny but I don't think the kids know them very well.
What do you think? Can you suggest anything? I'd like my kids to be able to see themselves and people like them as being significant in school.
The point of it is not merely to suggest a black character from children's literature – but please feel free to do so – but rather to identify and discuss the issues that this seemingly mundane e-mail (based as it is on a real-life phone call) raises. I'm on Twitter @rapclassroom. I'd love to hear from you.
Darren Chetty is a teacher and doctoral researcher. He won the Award for Excellence in Philosophy for Children, presented by the International Council for Philosophical Inquiry with Children (ICPIC) for his article "The Elephant in the Room: Picturebooks, Philosophy for Children and Racism". He is a contributor to the forthcoming anthology "The Good Immigrant", edited by Nikesh Shukla.
This blog originally appeared on Darren's website, Hip-Hop Teacher