We asked Taye Diggs, who has written books about racial identity for kids, to give his take on representation and why it matters. He also provided a list of book recommendations: a couple of classics, and a few books he wishes he had growing up.
I could feel myself getting hot. I had done nothing wrong yet still felt responsible for not having an answer to the question I’d just been asked. Both my hands were extended and I was flipping them back and forth, up and down.
They were right. My two white friends were right. The skin on the outsides or the back of my hands was definitely darker than my palms.
I didn’t know why but I did know that it had nothing to do with being dirty or my darkness being able to be washed off (as was one pasty kid’s proposed answer). But I still felt like I’d failed. I had had enough. I bid my fair-skinned pals farewell and took my new inquiry inside to my mom where she gave me my first lesson in black self-esteem. I was five years old.
I’ve struggled with my identity for as long as I can remember. My mom was a single mother who moved in with my step dad in a predominantly white neighborhood so I was always playing with white friends. Thus the questioning of the color of my palms.
After that, it seemed like a lot of what had to with me being black wasn’t cool. Starting with my name. I wanted my name to fit in more. At the time my mom called me LA, after the city where I was conceived, but that seemed a little too “dark” for me. A little too soul. Too colorful. I wanted a more “beige” name like Mark or Steven or Billy. At the time those were names that represented people who didn’t get asked why their palms were a different color than the rest of their body. I didn’t want Malcolm or Martin or Reggie or Dwayne. Even Sean wouldn’t do. Neither would Rodney. These names were just a little too Afro for me.
After the light palms debacle, it then became about how I spoke. My mother and father both attended college and had great vocabularies. My mother was a stickler when it came to grammar and was forever correcting pronunciation as well as the proper tense and context. I didn’t know many other black people with moms like that. I didn’t see little black boys on TV or in books with moms like that either. I wasn’t seeing anyone like me.
So, when asked how necessary representation in children’s books is, I say very. It should be mandatory. Everywhere. Things would have been so much easier for me if I’d had more characters in books that looked like me.
But not only that—characters that looked like me and talked like me. Characters that had discussions like me. Characters that had emotions like me. It’s not enough to just see Black faces in the background, we need more main characters, more three-dimensional characters who reflect the full range of human experience, just as kids themselves do.
Things would have been so much different if I’d had someone I thought was cool in a book or on TV that I could fashion myself after. Compare myself to and understand. I don’t remember having any real role models until high school. And even then it was just Sydney and Denzel.
I spent way too much time wondering and fearing and coveting other people’s experiences and style and dialects while not cherishing my own. I do feel I’m better for it today. My past has one hundred percent contributed to my choice in career as an actor. Still, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d been exposed to images and stories and characters like myself…would I have actually been able to spend time just enjoying being myself instead of trying to figure out who I thought I was supposed to be? —Taye Diggs
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
This book was one of the few books I had growing up where characters looked like me—not to mention, it does an amazing, evocative job of capturing the magic of that wintry day.
Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults): A True Story of the Fight for Justice by Bryan Stevenson
There are versions of this book for adults and for kids and I think it should be considered necessary reading, no matter your age.
March by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin (Illustrated by Nate Powell)
John Lewis was an American hero and his loss is profound, but these books [March is the first book in a trilogy] will allow him and his legacy to live on forever.
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia
Now this is a book I wish I’d had growing up! Magic, action, adventure—all centered around African mythology and featuring great Black characters.
Olu's Dream by Shane W. Evans
It should come as no surprise that I’m a huge fan of everything Shane does, and this celebration of imagination might be my all-time favorite of his books (excluding those I collaborated with him on!).
Corduroy by Don Freeman
An all-time classic! Can’t forget Corduroy. That bear is iconic.
Taye Diggs is an actor whose credits include motion pictures (How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Chicago), stage (Rent, Wicked), and television (Private Practice, The Good Wife, Murder in the First, Empire). He is also the author of I Love You More Than..., Mixed Me!, and Chocolate Me!, all published by Feiwel & Friends. He lives in Los Angeles and New York City with his son.
"Things would have been so much easier for me if I’d had more characters in books that looked like me." Taye Diggs on how necessary representation is in kids' literature.