Six months ago, when I started this blog, I wrote about an incident involving white police officers and African-American youths. Over the last couple of days, white police officers have been in the news again with reference to their treatment of the people that they serve. On Friday, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, head of the Metropolitan Police in London admitted there was “some justification” for labeling the police force as “institutionally racist” (read the story here http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-33025853; if you happen to have access to BBC television, you can also watch a documentary series on the Met that began last night). And in the US, of course, the headline news is the white police officer waving a gun at a pool party and arresting a teenage girl wearing a bikini (nowhere to hide a weapon there, officer) and calling for her mother. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, although admitting that there was a problem with the police force, also suggested that it is the fault of all of us; society, he said, is institutionally racist.
Leaving aside the loaded grammatical (society is not an institution, ergo it cannot be institutionally racist) and cultural (blame the victim) elements of Hogan-Howe’s statement, I would like to focus on what I think is his intended message (and potentially an empowering one for us all): it’s not just the police that need to change, it’s all of us. We need to change how we think, and change our actions. It is quite easy to blame others and then change the channel. But in both the US and the UK (and I’m sure other countries as well, though these are the only two I have lived in) we watch television, go to stores, read books, learn history—the greater percentage of which privileges the white, socioeconomically successful people over others. And most of us (no matter what category/ies we put ourselves in) accept that this is “just the way it is.”
Back in 1969, during another time of institutional oppression and popular unrest, a television show aimed to change the focus for very young children. Television and books for the young were, at the time, both very white and suburban. Think Romper Room (which began in 1953) and the Dick and Jane books. Television producer Joan Cooney wanted a show that would teach kids to read, but not just suburban white kids. She set her new show in the city, with trash cans and plenty of cement clearly visible. She also dictated that the humans on the show must “be a mix of male and female, white and black, and that no character assume a lead role” (Street Gang 168). The show, Sesame Street, was for everyone—because its producers believed that everyone had a right to education AND community.
It is difficult in today’s world to reach the broad demographic and high percentage of the population that Sesame Street reached in the early 1970s. But there are ways to reach that population of early readers that didn’t even exist in my childhood, grassroots ways that go back to a different idea of education. Innosanto Nagara, like Joan Cooney, wanted to reach early readers and teach them about community. Nagara, originally from Indonesia and now living in the US, wrote an alphabet book for his son. Friends liked it and urged him to publish it—but any new author who has tried to get work published knows what a fraught business (with emphasis on the word business) that is. So he initiated a kickstarter campaign, and raised enough money to get it self-published. A is for Activist preaches what Nagara practices: getting involved and being a part of your earth. In the book, Nagara promotes everything from “Equal rights, black, brown or white” to “healthy food—a human right” to “L-G-B-Q-T, love who you choose.” The book uses humor (“U is for Weekends. U is for Workers’ Rights! Wait, that’s not U, that’s DOUBLE U. U is for Union.”), collage (photos of people like Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King, Jr. are mixed in with Nagara’s own illustrations), and friendly animals (cats and penguins, for example) to teach an alphabet that is not always the easy version. Reaching the letter X, Nagara urges readers to consider Malcolm X as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks because “History’s lessons can be complex.” This is an earnest, leftist alphabet, but it does not presume that peaceful protests, gardening, and learning about other cultures will be enough to change the world.
Although started through self-publishing, A is for Activism was picked up by independent publisher Seven Stories Press—whose children’s books are distributed by global megapublisher Random House, in a rather ironic twist. But global megapublishers have long been part of the “institutionally racist” part of society that Hogan-Howe complains about, so it is only fitting that they too—along with the Malcolm Xs of the world—must be part of the solution. But changing society will take the active participation of me and you too. We may not be willing or able to protest police action, or write books, or admit our own failures. But we can take a stand by doing something as simple as reading to our kids. As Nagara writes, “A is for Activist. . . . Are you An Activist?”