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.