By Verna Ardema, pictures by Leo and Diane Dillon. This is a West African folklore tale. It starts off with a mosquito telling an iguana that he saw a farmer digging yams the were almost as big as he was. The iguana is grouchy and doesn’t want to hear about it so he puts sticks in his ear. This alarms a python, who scares a rabbit, and on it goes until a tragedy occurs and a baby owl is accidentally killed. Mother owl is so, so, so sad she refuses to do her job of waking the sun the next day. The king lion holds a council to find out why and traces the blame back to the mosquito. This type of tale is called a cumulative myth, as the sequence of events is repeated over and over, building the story. In oral story telling it is part of the dramatic presentation and also reinforces the teaching impact of the moral wisdom being passed on. In this story amother’s anger and grief cause the community to enact retribution, and the mosquito has a guilty conscious to this day. She goes about whining in people’s ears: “Zeee! Is everyone still angry at me?” when she does that, she gets an honest answer.” I am tempted to relate this story to mother anger and loss, but I think I will let you carry that train of thought on for yourself, if you see a connection.
What I want to comment on is the importance I see in teaching my sons African folktales and wisdom. When I say I want to bathe them in African American culture, literature, history and community, I mean I want to go way back. I feel strongly that African American history should not be presented as starting with slavery and ending with Civil Rights. For one thing, that is shallow and stereotypical and dishonest, and for another it is not appropriate material for very young children.
I don’t think children below the age of say, second grade can get a grasp on what slavery was all about and how racism can be institutionalized as well as local and personal. A young child can not process the ideas that whites held blacks in violence and oppression but not all whites and not all blacks participated in the same ways. I want my sons to have the cognitive maturity to realize the complexity of that before I start teaching it.
But the fact is, African Americans have a rich, complex, fascinating history other than slavery. There is African history, geography and cultures, to begin with. Young children should learn the folklore and traditions, the story and the art of their way back roots. In this day and age that is easy to tap into and exciting even for people who have no African roots. Then I think the wealth of family and moral values of the historic African presence in America should be celebrated and learned by all of us. That African family, moral, cultural, linguistic and artistic values have survived and thrived in spite of centuries of oppression and suppression is miraculous, in my eyes, and I want to drink from that well of strength and hope. The picture books for young children that I have been featuring in the past week or so, and will continue to review in the coming weeks are expressions of the joy and strength I want my sons to absorb from their culture. Family unity, working together, ingenuity, resilience, humor, hope, persistence, faith, creativity, purpose, and self-determination are illustrated in these works. I am surrounding us with them in the hopes that it will chart our course. I invite you to join me in suggesting other works of literature, music or art that will nurture our spirits and refresh our souls.
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