My Mirror is Cracked by Jodi-Beth Moreno
Growing up an avid reader, I never saw my race, my culture, or myself in books. I didn’t notice or question it. It didn’t even bother me because that is just the way books were. In all honesty, that is the way my world was. I grew up in an area that is approximately ninety-five percent Latinx, mostly Mexican-American, since it is just seven miles from the border. If I am being completely truthful, I don’t think I even realized I was missing because I had bought into the story that was being crafted for me. I knew that slavery was a part of history, so, of course books depicted Black people as slaves. I knew all the derogatory terms that are hurled at people like me, so it wasn’t surprising to read them in books. Although, it always stung to hear the words during uncomfortable read alouds, especially since I was always the only Black child in the classroom and most likely the entire school. I also knew a lot about the Civil Rights Movement, so, again, I expected books to showcase that time in history. However, I also knew that my family was nothing like any of the families depicted in the books that were given a place of privilege in my classrooms and were a big part of my education experience. So deep down, I must have understood that these books were not painting a complete or current picture. The historical nature of the texts allowed me to grant my teachers a pardon, but now I realize how damaging that was.
The first time, I noticed that Black people could be something else in books was when I discovered Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. Imagine that! My sister and I were mesmerized. Not only was the book a gorgeous version of a familiar tale, but my sister’s middle name was in it as well. It was a double dose of familiarity and connection. I loved that feeling, but unfortunately just returned to accepting that most books weren’t like that.
It would be a long time before I read another book that felt “normal” to me. Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan was the next title that felt familiar to me. I may not have been the target audience for the book, but I read it anyway. It was so important as a teen to see women who resembled the women in my family, at least professionally. For so long, all of the books I read were about the struggle connected to being Black that I didn’t think there could be anything else. I almost felt guilty that I didn’t completely understand the struggle being depicted in most books. I grew up in a house, not an apartment. I went to private school because my parents paid for it, not because I earned a scholarship. The only thing I had in common with most of the characters who looked like me was the color of my skin. This is also problematic; it chipped away at the value of my life experiences. Like somehow my life was less “Black.”
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined a metaphor that we are all familiar with and it is truly life-changing when students encounter “mirror” texts. But, when we talk about children needing to see themselves in books, we must work harder to ensure that all stories are being told. While it is dangerous for people outside of a race, culture, or religion to see only one story, it is also dangerous for young members of that group to see things only one way as well. Educators often assume that a text is a mirror for students just because of one aspect of their students’ identities. It is time to consider more than just the color of students’ skin when sharing stories that they might connect to.
I worry that books that are gaining the most attention might also be creating a new set of stereotypes. If every book that has a Black main character involves police brutality, the assassination of unarmed black men, single mothers, “the hood”, and Black vernacular, are we just shifting the focus from creating one story full of biases and stereotypes to another? These novels are important, but I still don’t see “myself” in these stories. I only see one layer of my identity. I almost feel guilty about those other parts of who I am, as if those parts of me are not allowed to exist in the mainstream. This feeling is the “crack” in my mirror. I wonder if there are kids reading “mirror” texts in our classrooms who feel just as unseen as I do.
We must always consider what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.” If people tell the same story enough times, it is what becomes true and unquestioned. I fell for it. How many other kids will too?
Jodi-Beth Moreno has been an English Language Arts and Reading teacher for 12 years in districts across the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas. She currently is an ELAR Specialist servicing secondary educators throughout the area. She’s a Harry Potter fan, a card-carrying member of the Backstreet Army, an avid reader, and a fan of all passionate educators and authors. You can connect with her on Twitter: @JodiBethMoreno where she is always willing to talk books.