“Mind the Gap”: CaMD Scholar Nana Afia Boadi-Acheampong ’21 Explores Blackness in Children’s Literature

For Nana Afia Boadi-Acheampong ’21, reading books during her childhood helped her better understand the world around her. Over time, however, Boadi-Acheampong noticed the lack of Black characters in these stories. In 2018, only seven to 11 percent of U.S. published books were written about Black characters, and even then, these stories were sometimes rooted in stereotypes and caricatures, according to Boadi-Acheampong. 

Expanding on the disparity of Black characters in children’s literature, Boadi-Acheampong explained that the consumption of these books can lead to low self-esteem and self-worth in Black children. 

“[Black children] may begin to believe they cannot achieve the same happiness and success as the white characters in the books, and they too are secondary characters. And white children who have been historically well-represented can develop a dangerous false sense of their own importance in the world,” said Boadi-Acheampong.

In her Community and Multicultural Development scholar presentation entitled “Mind the Gap: Traversing the Imagination Gap, Emancipating Children’s Literature,” Boadi-Acheampong explored and answered questions about anti-Blackness in children’s literature and how Black characters in children’s literature can be emancipated.

Boadi-Acheampong defined the “imagination gap” with a quote from Anna Holmes: “The heroes in our imagination are white until proven otherwise. This is a failing of the imagination. This is an imagination gap.”

“The equalization of innocence to white is so normalized in a society where white readers who benefit from this interpretation aren’t even aware that innocence has been racialized at all. They are blind to their own prejudice and to the imagination gap,” said Boadi-Acheampong.

To further explain the imagination gap, Boadi-Acheampong described Rue, a fan-favorite character in the book “The Hunger Games” as an innocent, selfless girl who served as the symbol of hope and revolution. 

“You would expect that when ‘The Hunger Games’ was brought to the screen, Rue would’ve been loved by every person who read the book. This is not what happened. In the film, Amandla Stenberg, a biracial actor plays Rue. Viewers were shocked and repulsed by this casting decision. Some readers didn’t believe that Rue could look like Amandla Stenberg, who is a light-skin, young Black woman, because believing Rue could be Black and innocent would be an outright rejection of white innocence, of white supremacy,” said Boadi-Acheampong.

When race seems to be absent in children’s literature, race is always present, especially in the correlation of darkness, and thus, dark skin, with evil and monsters, according to Boadi-Acheampong. Further, as a teenager, Boadi-Acheampong associated whiteness with beauty.

“There’s a reason that my teenage self could never picture a Black man as a prince. There’s a reason that the same teenage self unthinkably coded beauty as white. Basically, you have a history of shows or books consistently describing beautiful characters as white,” said Boadi-Acheampong.

Fred Javier ’23 attended the presentation after being intrigued about the topic. After attending the presentation and reflecting on the books and movies he has consumed, he hopes to be more critical of stories in the future.

“My biggest takeaway from the presentation is that these flawed character patterns and portrayal of racial dynamics are very prevalent in the most famous pieces of literature read by children. They can be extremely easy to ignore at first, but the damage which they do, particularly to the self-image of Black children, is certainly present,” said Javier.

Publishers, as well as readers, perpetuate the anti-Blackness in children’s literature, or what Boadi-Acheampong refers to as the Dark Fantastic Cycle. According to Boadi-Acheampong, book publishers place quotas on the type of stories non-white authors are allowed to write, thereby limiting the variety of genres Black authors engage in. 

“Most of the books by Black authors in 2014 are realism, history, non-fiction, biography, and things that could contest as fantastical literature have low numbers. And so, publishers are very happy to publish books with narratives about slavery and civil rights and survival in the white world. They’re happy to publish books that center whiteness in a Black experience. These genre regulations restrict Black authors from truly showcasing the diversity of the Black experience and from sharing emancipatory texts with the world,” said Boadi-Acheampong. 

For Boadi-Acheampong, the emancipation of children’s literature would allow for Black characters to be centered in their own stories without a reliance on white characters. Additionally, a world without the imagination gap would lead to Black female characters of all skin tones being framed as desirable and innocent, as well as the rise of morally ambiguous Black characters, according to Boadi-Acheampong. 

“In a world without the Dark Fantastic Cycle, all children are able to easily find reflections of themselves through books and learn about perspectives different from their own. No child feels superior or inferior to another because of their race. Black people are viewed as vibrant, complex, valuable human beings, capable of a full emotional range. Black children believe in infinite possibilities for their lives and adults believe in them too,” said Boadi-Acheampong.