Justina Ireland on the Perpetuation of an Apartheid of the Imagination


Justi­na Ire­land is an author who recent­ly wrote an arti­cle called An Apartheid of the Imag­i­na­tion, and it is hands-down the best thing I have read so far this year. I start­ed to grab pull quotes from it to talk about it, but found myself copy­ing so much of it that it makes more sense to just encour­age you to read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.

If you do noth­ing else right now, click here and read her arti­cle about the cycle that caus­es a per­pet­u­al apartheid of the imag­i­na­tion for black peo­ple in fic­tion.

Fol­low­ing are some talk­ing points that real­ly hit me, but again, the entire essay is very well writ­ten.

Ire­land ref­er­ences an essay by Christo­pher Myers for NYT, agree­ing that the lim­it­ed por­tray­als of black peo­ple in fic­tion is “lim­it­ing their self worth and rob­bing them of a safe way of inter­act­ing with the larg­er world by read­ing fic­tion.”

But this apartheid of children’s lit­er­a­ture goes fur­ther than that.  It impacts the very fab­ric of children’s minds, so much so that white chil­dren grow up with­out the abil­i­ty to even imag­ine black peo­ple as the hero in a sto­ry unless it’s about slav­ery or civil rights. And for black chil­dren it means enter­ing adult­hood with a dam­aged sense of self, of secret­ly won­der­ing if they are as good as their white peers, if the hard­ships and inequal­i­ty they face is real or made up in their heads. This may seem dra­mat­ic, but con­sid­er for a moment: black chil­dren grow up view­ing the world through a lens of white joy and black pain. We’re slaves and vic­tims of vio­lence, indi­vid­u­als with­out self-deter­mi­na­tion. We have no hap­pi­ness, no suc­cess­es, except for Feb­ru­ary when we trot out a hand­ful of black folks who some­how defied the odds, and may­be their biol­o­gy, to be extra­or­di­nary.

This arti­cle real­ly puts into per­spec­tive an aspect of white iden­ti­ty that good-heart­ed cre­ative peo­ple tend to exer­cise lib­er­al­ly, and that is the recon­struc­tion of his­to­ry with a focus on the real­i­ties of how black peo­ple were treat­ed in the sto­ries of white his­to­ry. Though the­se are through the lens of white iden­ti­ty (I’m not con­vinced there are enough black film­mak­ers, exec­u­tives, and writ­ers out there to say oth­er­wise), and though the­se white sto­ries do a good job at por­tray­ing the hor­ri­ble real­i­ty of what has been white-washed and toned down in our past, Ire­land reminds us that the cen­tral pur­pose of the­se is prob­a­bly not to enter­tain and inspire black peo­ple but rather to make lib­er­al whites feel bet­ter about them­selves: “There was no joy in read­ing about black peo­ple; there was only the reminder that my exis­tence was to be one of agony and woe.”

…with­out the abil­i­ty to dream, to imag­ine black folks as main char­ac­ters in every sto­ry, the cycle con­tin­ues.

Per­haps most con­cern­ing is the effect on would-be future cre­ators and dream­ers:

Black chil­dren don’t see them­selves echoed, their true selves and not some deriv­a­tive stereo­type, in their favorite book char­ac­ters or the author pho­tos of their favorite books. The result is that black chil­dren don’t imag­ine that they could one day write books. So, they don’t.”

This has been a most fas­ci­nat­ing read for me as a white per­son, espe­cial­ly as I have hap­haz­ard­ly com­mit­ted all the peo­ple in my sci­ence fic­tion uni­verse for BURROW to be brown-skinned (a play on the idea that all future humans will be mixed race), but fil­ter­ing that through this arti­cle has real­ly given me some addi­tion­al con­sid­er­a­tions to mull over.


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