By Wakanyi Hoffman
One of the ways to discuss hard topics is through storytelling. We can shoulder each other’s burdens if we see our individual experiences represented in someone else’s story.
The world recently woke up to the disturbing image of a black man being killed by a white police officer in the US. It prompted me to consider my place in this world as an African woman.
It was a glimpse of a much larger story of systemic racial injustice against the African-American population in the US. But the collective outcry seen elsewhere around the world is proof that it is a story within a much bigger story about being human.
Something shifted in the consciousness of the universe. This time, the cry of the minority was louder. It was amplified by a collective outcry of an emerging, diverse global population, that has started noticing the distortion of their brown friends’ stories in their world.
When racial diversity is seen in protesters collectively chanting ‘I Can’t Breathe’, what they are really saying is, ‘We all can’t breathe when others can’t breathe’.
If the same, overrepresented characters dominate the larger, global narrative of the human experience, only one experience emerges as the authentic way of being human. The result is the same, prolonged, underrepresentation of ‘others’, which ultimately affects everyone.
As I was trying to find the most creative way to discuss racism with my mixed-race children, a package arrived at our doorstep. Inside was a copy of Mrs. Noah’s Garden, a newly released picture book written by Jackie Morris, and illustrated by acclaimed artist and writer, James Mayhew.
As soon as I pulled the book out of the brown cardboard box, my 5-year-old exclaimed, “Wow, mama, she looks just like you!” He was referring to the whimsical cover illustration of a brown-skinned Mrs. Noah.
Something transformational occurred in that statement. My little brown boy was expressing proud ownership of the African version of his story. It was his way of saying, “I see you in my story, mama.”
Mrs. Noah is much more elegantly dressed in a vibrant, purple kaftan, complete with matching ribbons tied neatly on her black ponytail. But if called to step out of my black mom tights and t-shirt, that’s the look that I would pick for a leisurely walk around Groningen, our adopted small town in the North of the Netherlands.
But Mrs. Noah’s Garden, listed on this year’s Guardian’s children’s books roundup, is not about a brown woman’s experience. Upon closer inspection, Mr. Noah looks a lot like my blue-eyed, blond-haired mid-western husband. And their children are an accurate representation of the variations of brown color in our family.
But the book is not about multiculturalism. It is a story about creating a new garden in which all forms of life can flourish.
As global nomads, we appreciate that this story also highlights the themes of change, travel, and starting over, all of which make up strong chapters of our family narrative. To see ourselves in it is to validate our existence as part of the larger, global narrative of the Homosapien evolution.
Ultimately, this is a story about all citizens of the world. It illustrates how our individual ability to plant seeds of hope in our microcosmic worlds, can collectively help create the world we all want to live.
The story masterfully challenges a reader to think about one’s personal circumstances. It nudges, rather than pushing readers to look around their environment, and use whatever limited or abundant resources to build a world fit for all.
When Noah, my older son, read the book, he said, “Mrs. Noah planted the garden that everyone would want to plant, if they had the same seeds.” What he was really saying is that she had a pretty good idea of what the world could be, and she wasted no time setting out to create it.
Storytelling is a lot like trying to grow a garden. It is a never-ending process of trial and error, of weeding and raking, of pulling, uprooting and re-rooting, until the roots find their place firmly underneath the ground.
This rewarding experience requires much patience, hope, and faith in learning to accept discomfort until everything falls into place. As the plot of your story grows to include new characters, so does your potential to grow as an individual and to connect with others all around you.
But you don’t need to be a master storyteller to craft compelling prose. There’s a high chance that the story you wish to tell is already in a book. The more you read diverse stories, the sooner you’ll discover that in any story, there’s a bit of your story, too.
The tragic death of George Floyd does not tell a complete story. It is only a prompt of a much lengthier narrative about racial oppression and the continued disregard for black people’s lives everywhere.
Just like Mrs. Noah created a new garden with the best seeds that she had, we too can gather our collective values to recreate a world in which all human life will thrive.