Newborn babies can see just far enough to discern the face of the person holding them. This is our very first experience of connection–a community at its most intimate and familiar. From this first bond, we strive to be in relation to others and to protect our relationships. Usually we do this by joining together. But occasionally, in an effort to hold onto our own sense of belonging, we turn others away.
We see this in children, as they make a first best friend and guard that newly precious connection by rejecting other playmates. And we continue to see it throughout life as we establish relationships, join groups, and build communities, forming rules along the way, spoken or unspoken, for who is in and who is out.
It is natural to gravitate to the comfort of commonality, but as we do so we make choices about what constitutes difference, which differences matter, and how we will relate to those we see as “other.” Sometimes we are simply so comfortable in our communities that, without realizing it, we fail to notice those on the outside. Our children notice though, and they learn from our actions and from our inactions.
What do we hope our children will do when they encounter difference? Will they be able to recognize commonalities in those who might look different or have different experiences? Will they look, not only for communities they wish to join, but also for those individuals who are on the outside in need of an open door?
These questions are important to consider, particularly as we approach Martin Luther King Day, a day that reminds us of how much voice and effort it sometimes takes to open closed doors. And they are important to consider as we reflect upon what it means to raise children in a pluralistic community.
In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, nearly sixty years ago, Jewish author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats contemplated these questions. Keats understood what it meant to be shut out of community. His parents had fled anti-semitism in Europe in the early 20th century, and he served in WWII only to return home unable to find a job. He ultimately changed his name from Katz to Keats in order to secure work. As he struggled to find a place for himself, he was captivated by a series of photographs in Life Magazine of a little black boy with an endearing expressiveness. He clipped the photos and hung them in his studio.
Two decades later, this little boy would become the inspiration for Peter in The Snowy Day–the first African American child to be represented as a protagonist in mainstream children’s literature. Keats recognized the sense of isolation he had experienced in the exclusion of African American children from stories, and he opened the door for them. When asked why he chose to create Peter, he said, “He should have been there all along.”
Keats was awarded the Caldecott Medal for The Snowy Day in 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Just as King called upon us to imagine a world in which, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” Keats took Peter’s hand and led a small black boy in a hood into the hearts and minds of children.
Justice begins in the imagination of children–in their ability to envision a different world than the one that exists and to insist upon that imagination as they grow. It is our job to provide them with enough images and experiences to fuel their most expansive and compassionate dreams.
Celebrating Martin Luther King Day with Young Children
Celebrating Martin Luther King Day with Older Children