I was about 9 years old and that’s what my friend told me when I informed him that my uncle and our mailman had gone out to play tennis. His was a cry of outrage because both men were black and he could not believe that two black men were out playing tennis in our small town.
This was 1988, years before Serena and Venus Williams burst on the international tennis circuit and slayed. It was decades after Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, but he hadn’t heard of them. I think about this statement, this sentiment, all the time. There are things that separate us. Things we don’t do that they do, and vice versa. These prejudices limit everyone. They constrain our thinking and artificially suppress our dreams.
If black people don’t swim, not only are they missing out on wonderful life experiences, they are also putting their lives at risk. If Asian people are all smart, then they can’t ask for help and are more susceptible to depression and isolation if they are struggling to live up to the myth of the “model minority.”
We could argue about who has more advantageous stereotypes associated with them, but at base, stereotypes bind up our brains with baseless limitations. Books can help to break this mold. A few of the books that Jambo Books has sent to subscribers confront stereotypes head-on. Leo Can Swim, Jabari Jumps, Beach Tail and Over and Under the Pond all show African American families enjoying the water. Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth gives us a young heroine not tied to her books, but enjoying the richness of adventure. Being exposed to a breadth of books that show lots of different children doing lots of different things helps to mold children’s expectations of themselves and their world. My hope is that diversity in books will help to open adults’ minds as well. Does a kid have to look the part for an adult to take an interest in mentoring him? Does he have to remind you of your cousin/brother/nephew? Can we recognize a spark of genius in an unexpected body?
Our hope at Jambo Books is that we can help in some small way to encourage every child to dream big, without the foregone conclusions of tired old stereotypes. And we hope to influence adults to try to see again with fresh eyes the potential of every child and every person.