May 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Storied Past: The best tales are often found right inside your own front door

slj1102_FTZetta_ClassRm(Original Import)

A 1998 photo of Zetta Elliott in her classroom at
Decatur Clearpool Beacon School.

When I tell people I’m the daughter of two public school teachers, many wrongly assume I grew up in a house full of books. According to my earliest report cards, I had an active imagination and at times my teachers had to curb my enthusiasm for sharing stories with my classmates. Yet when I look back on my childhood, I realize that storytelling skipped a generation in our family. My siblings and I were encouraged to read, but we weren’t taught to look for stories inside our own front door. And our weekly visits to the local public library in Toronto made it clear that books—and the wonderful characters within them—were visitors to our home, not residents.

I’m grateful to my parents for sparking my lifelong love of libraries, but I wish I’d realized as a child that there were fantastic stories within our own household: real-life adventures lived by my ancestors and preserved orally by my relatives. Instead, it took me many years to uncover these tales, and I’m still figuring out ways to honor them in my own writing and life.

My parents rarely spoke to me about their lives before marrying in 1967 and why they chose to start a family in Canada. My father immigrated from Nevis and attended high school and college in the United States, but he seldom revealed any traces of his Caribbean identity. He named me after his mother, Rosetta, who died when he was 15, but I was an adult before he ever shared the little he knew about her. My mother, who hails from northern Ontario and identifies herself as white, never talked about race, despite the fact that her ancestors were the descendants of African-American slaves. Although an avid reader, my mother never saw herself as the star of her own compelling narrative. My parents divorced when I was eight, and I learned from my mother to find comfort in the imaginary world of books. I believed at an early age that history happened to other people, and the most you could hope for was to be a silent witness.

slj1102_FTZetta_PaternalGP(Original Import)

Zetta Elliott’s paternal grandparents, Wilmot and Rudolpha Hood.

My grandmothers taught me the value of storytelling. Not only did they withstand my hours of interrogation, but they also actually enjoyed sharing their personal histories with me. My father’s stepmother asked me to help compose her memoir, and from her I received a map of the tiny island where my father was born. My maternal grandmother could easily pass for white, but as we ambled around the block, she enjoyed calling out to her small-town neighbors, “My father was a Negro!” She referred to herself as “colored,” and often reminded me that we were related to Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, America’s first independent black denomination. As far as I can tell, we may be descended from one of Bishop Allen’s brothers who moved to Canada from the U.S. in the 1820s. But the specifics aren’t what matter most to me—it’s the idea of having a claim on the past, a link to another century, and a history to call my own. It’s also an issue of agency: I’m empowered by the knowledge that my ancestors resisted enslavement, rejected the country of their birth, and chose to follow a vision of freedom that led them to a foreign land.

I experienced a profound sense of liberation when I moved to Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section in 1994. I left Toronto, in part, because I didn’t believe anything magical would ever happen to me there; I couldn’t imagine a future for myself in Canada, not as a writer or as anything else. Although I received a sound public school education, I never once learned about the history or literature of black Canadians. In my local public library, I remember seeing Virginia Hamilton’s The House of Dies Drear (S & S, 1968), but on the cover there wasn’t even a hint that the story was about a black family. Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) and Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981, both Dial) were the only black-authored books I read as a girl, and I revisited them in high school when I wrote a story about the American civil rights movement. In my last semester at Bishop’s University, I discovered Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid, and their novels changed the course of my life. I was mesmerized by the family being haunted by a black female ghost in Beloved (Knopf, 1987), and I closely identified with the angry, irreverent, immigrant teenage girl in Lucy (Farrar, 1990). When I decided to attend graduate school in 1994, I didn’t even bother applying to Canada’s only black studies program. Instead, I followed my father (who had also given up on “The Great White North”) and began building a future for myself in the United States.

slj1102_FTZetta_MaternalGP(Original Import)

Zetta Elliott’s maternal grandparents, Frank and Florence Hobbs.

In Brooklyn, history—and magic—seemed to await me at every corner. And because I believed something magical could happen, I was never disappointed. In grad school at New York University (NYU), I immersed myself in African-American literature, focusing on representations of racial violence. I tried to make my research meaningful to urban children and volunteered at community centers. While teaching a journalism class in an after-school program at the Decatur Clearpool Beacon School in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy section, I realized that most of my students had no sense of African-American history beyond a basic knowledge of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. I received permission from the executive director to design my own cultural heritage curriculum for the class. I started a group for girls called “The Young Achievers Collective,” and took them on field trips to the Brooklyn and New York Historical Societies. We learned about Seneca Village, a 19th-century black settlement that was razed to make way for Central Park. We mapped that community, noting the dates engraved on the cornerstones of Bed-Stuy’s historic churches—some of which were once stations along the Underground Railroad. I did all I could to help my students see the past—their past—with fresh eyes.

When summer arrived, Beacon asked me to teach a writing course that it was hosting for the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools. It was the first time I had a classroom to call my own, and I plastered the walls with West African adinkra symbols and quotes from famous African Americans. I stunned my middle grade students into silence by showing them the Middle Passage scene from the movie Amistad, which graphically depicts the horrific conditions on board a trans-Atlantic slave ship. I asked them to write letters to the African slave traders who sold their ancestors into bondage. I probably went too far at times, but I was new to teaching and my passion for the subject got the better of me. Plus, I couldn’t ignore the contempt my students seemed to have for everything African. In their young minds, all Africans were savage, near-naked “spear chuckers” who lived in the jungle. It was devastating to see how these black children turned to Africa only when searching for the cruelest insult with which to diminish their peers.

I’ve never thought of myself as Afrocentric, but that experience in Bed-Stuy made me determined to show my deep respect for Africa in my writing for children. I began to craft stories that honored the past yet also conveyed possibility for the future: What if a diverse group of children found an ancient phoenix living in an abandoned lot? What if I took the magical doors from my favorite childhood books, such as The Secret Garden and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and opened them here in the city? What if a black teenager tossed a coin into a fountain and sent herself spiraling through time? Speculative fiction offers readers a way to experience the past as fluid rather than fixed, and characters can be active, even powerful agents who shape their own destiny. What impact might that have on kids who think—as I once did—that they can only passively observe the fantastic adventures of people who look nothing like themselves and live someplace else?

At a recent NYU conference, “A Is for Anansi: Literature for Children of African Descent,” several young black readers admitted that fantasy was their favorite genre, and black authors and illustrators, like Nicole Tadgell, expressed their determination to create those works. Yet children’s book publishers have been slow to respond, maintaining their steadfast focus on the somber subjects of slavery and civil rights. In the book Shadow and Substance (NCTE, 1982), Rudine Sims Bishop quotes librarian Dorothy Broderick as saying that African Americans in children’s fiction represent “what the white establishment wished white children to know about Black people.” Is this still true today? Or is “the white establishment” more concerned with what black children think of themselves? I’ve often wondered if publishers are romanticizing race relations of the past. Do they fixate on particular historical narratives (slavery, the civil rights movement) to avoid confronting our contemporary racial reality and its blurry picture of progress? Or are they betting that yet another book on Rosa Parks will be in high demand for black history month?

With the rising hysteria over immigration and the imminent “browning” of America, there are many who would rather not imagine a future filled with empowered people of color. But if we are to address—and maybe even resolve—the tensions and anxieties that plague our diverse society, we must ask all of our young people to imagine alternate realities—worlds that don’t merely reflect or reinforce the hierarchies and prejudices that now divide us. As Nancy Tolson, an associate professor at Connecticut’s Mitchell College, observed in “Dreaming in Color,” an essay that appeared in Radical Teacher magazine: “Multicultural adolescent books found in most classrooms are historical fiction, realistic fiction, or nonfiction—reserving the luxury of fantasy for young white characters. Children of color have the right to read stories that offer an image of themselves soaring into magical adventures and fantastic worlds, but instead they have to live vicariously through Disney characters and experience media-enforced peer pressure to accept the adventures of white children.”

Magical things can happen to anyone, anywhere. I write about Brooklyn because it’s not only my home, it’s my heart. Yet as an immigrant, I see America and its history through my own particular lens. I don’t always like what I see, but I’ve resolved not to avert my gaze. Instead, I seek out the contradictions that make Americans the objects of envy and disdain. I experience a deep sense of belonging here because this is a nation of dreamers, but I’m ever aware of the shattered dreams and broken promises that litter history’s trail. My hope is that my writing will encourage others to ask, “What if?” For it is knowledge of the past and faith in the possible that ultimately shape the future we will share.


Author Information
Zetta Elliott (zettaelliott@yahoo.com) is the author of A Wish After Midnight (Lulu, 2008), a novel about time travel.
Share