Now that my daughter remembers things with remarkable recall, is capable of critical thought, has a keen eye for the differences between people and the ability to provide and understand context, I have to admit: parenting feels like a kind of ridiculous warfare. It’s you (and everyone that loves you and your family) versus the anti-girl marketing commercial complex. The enemy is better armed and much better funded. So lately, most of my time’s been spent trying to protect my daughter from the fallout. She will not become collateral damage.
The first casualty of this war is, you’re forced to acknowledge that love isn’t enough. This obliterates your parental innocence. I thought all I had to do was love and provide for my child, and things would travel along smoothly. I never thought I’d have to protect her on so many different fronts. The attacks against girls come in all forms, but the broader battlefields are: the idea of the princesses being the only hero girls have; pink and frilly clothing; and cleaning toys aimed at girls.
Boys get toys that encourage adventure and other things that demand absolutely nothing for girls to do. This is an exhausting, yet fairly easy battle to fight. Our home is an only warrior princesses zone. If she wants to play a princess who’s in charge of her life and not waiting around for a man to come and rescue her… I’m okay with this. If she wants to play with a toy kitchen, she’ll be given a set of tools and a tool belt as another option. If she wants to wear pink and frilly clothing, we lie out other choices and make sure she knows that she can wear whatever color and style she wants, that she doesn’t have to dress (or act) like a stereotypical girl.
Like I said—exhausting, but manageable. But many families of color are already engaged in another type of war, and they don’t even know it because the enemy has been in their homes since the birth of their child. I’m talking about the profoundly Eurocentric books of nursery rhymes and fairy tales that litter our shelves.
Gil Scott-Heron told us the revolution will not be televised. And he was right. In our house, the revolution happens every night, while reading to my daughter at bedtime. It started when I was walking through a bookstore and noticed that there were very few books that starred Black folks, and those that did were some version of a slave narrative, inventors, Obama biographies, books about music, or dubious folktales from West Africa written by folks from Maine.
While these are great to have, we are so much more, and I wanted my daughter to experience this. It’s worth pointing out that very few girls of color have their own tales. I changed this by cutting up Jet, Vibe and EBONY magazines and placed the heads of Black women on Rapunzel, Snow White and Cinderella. As she got older and started going to preschool and being babysat, she’d come home reciting nursery rhymes and fairy tales that had nothing to do with her life or culture. One day, I heard “its fleece was white as snow” coming from the living room and I just snapped. I picked her up and remixed it on the spot:
Imani had a fresh black cat
Cool black cat
Ill black cat
Imani had a fresh black cat
Its fur was black as coal
And everywhere Imani went
Imani went, Imani went
Everywhere Imani went
The cat was sure to roll
She was confused at first, but it soon became commonplace. Every time I heard her recite a nursery rhyme or fairytale that was not culturally relevant, I’d remix it. She got so used to this that one of her teachers was singing Mary Had a Little Lamb to the kids and she told the teacher that she was “singing it wrong” and shared daddy’s remixed version. This was our first (small) victory.
Story time does not mean stories purchased from the store. Story time is about connection, and what better way to connect than to tell my daughter stories about her people? There are enough off-the-wall characters in our family that the stories are limitless. She knows about her great-great grandfather who swung a machete and protected our land, her heritage. She requests stories about her great grandmother and her magical cook pot. She recognizes the magic that exists within her family. And night by night, story by story, we are holding our own in this ridiculous war.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.