Thursday, October 29, 2009

When to start talking about race?

So a friend of mine recently got her hands on two copies of Faith Ringgold's book Tar Beach and was so kind as to give me one. I actually really love this story and had used it in the classroom with older children (sixth grade) while doing my student teaching.

Well now that it's in my possession, I wonder if it's too early to introduce it to my children. Here is how it's described:

"Quilt paintings"--acrylic on canvas paper, with fabric borders from Ringgold's story quilt of the same name--illustrate a Depression era girl's imaginative foray to heights from which she can see and therefore claim her world. Picnicking on the roof of her family's Harlem apartment building--a "tar beach" to which they bring fried chicken and roasted peanuts, watermelon and beer, and, not least, friends and laughter--Cassie pictures herself soaring above New York City: above the George Washington Bridge, which her father helped build; above the headquarters of the union that has denied him membership, because he's black; above the rooms in which they live. Ringgold's strong figures and flattened perspective bring a distinctive magic to this dreamy and yet wonderfully concrete vision, narrated in poetic cadences that capture the language and feel of flight. Ages 4-8.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information
I have no problem with books that talk about working-class families and even families living in poverty. I think it gives the literature children are introduced to and familiar with a balance that if you don't strive for, you won't achieve. There are plenty of stories where the protagonists' problems, while not trivial, pale in comparison to stories where the main character's are facing life and death issues such as homelessness, hunger and displacement. It's important to have a diverse array of books--books that feature people of all colors and cultures and background. It rounds out our children's ideas of the stories that should be told, or more precisely, the stories worth telling.

In Tar Beach, however, there is a very strong reference to the father of the main character being kept out of a union (the very same union for which he's working on a building) because "he's colored or a half-breed Indian". This would be an excellent jumping off point to begin talking about the history of segregation in the United States but when is the appropriate age to do so? The description says it's appropriate for children ages 4-8 but just when are children mature enough to handle issues around race? Can this book be read with just an appreciation for the art? For the imagination of the story? The beauty of the simplicity in the way it's told? I'm not sure. So for now, I'll just keep it out of the rotation.

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