That whole ‘diversity in literature’ conversation keeps coming up and I think it might help some people to understand why it’s so important.
If you’re never confronted with it, if you’re always finding people who look like you in your entertainment, then it’s a question you might never think about. It helps to step outside of ourselves and see a different perspective.
I came across exactly that perspective in Deza Malone, a character in Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Mighty Miss Malone:
When I was in Gary and would read novels I used to put myself right in the middle of the story. I knew it was a great book when it felt like the author was writing about me. Some of the time I’d get snapped out of the book when I read things that I couldn’t pretend were about me, even if I had the imagination of Mr. William Shakespeare.
Words like “her pale, luminescent skin” or “her flowing mane of golden hair” or “her lovely, cornflower-blue eyes” or “the maiden fair.” I would stop and think, No, Deza, none of these books are about you.
I’d decided in Gary that when it came to reading those kinds of words, I had four choices: one, I could pretend I had blond hair and blue eyes. But that didn’t feel right. Two, I could start reading the novels like they were history books, just a bunch of facts put together. But that wasn’t what the authors wanted, they wanted me to enjoy the story the way they wrote it. Three, I could change a word or two here or there and keep enjoying them by pretending they were about me, or four, I could stop reading novels altogether.
Jimmie was right when he said I couldn’t stop reading if I wanted to, and a whole lot of the enjoying comes from imagining it’s you charging at windmills or asking for more gruel or trying to wash invisible blood off your hands.
I’d decided a long time ago that I’d ignore those interrupting words and keep reading.
I look at my novels the same way Mother looks at buggy oatmeal: there might be a few bad things in them, but if you plugged your nose or sifted them out, there was still something pretty good left. (233-34)
So here we’re given what it feels like to constantly encounter characters that never look like you, or as the last paragraph hints at, only portray people like you in a negative light.
Then Deza is given a book by W.E.B. DuBois:
It started in a swamp. It said something about a boy’s brown cheek and I read it again to make sure. Yes, his brown cheek.
I got a sinking feeling, so many times stories that have people with brown skin turn out to be terrible, but I read on.
The book grabbed me and shook me like a soon-to-die rat in a terrier’s jaws! It was about black people and they had real problems and thoughts and did real things, not like the black people in so many other books. (237)
A page or so later…
I yelled, “Mr. Alums! I read The Silver Fleece. This book… what a tragedy… a true tragedy it had to end. This is a work of true genius! The people in it are so real and so much like people. This is the best book I have ever read!” (238)
Deza could truly engage and embrace the book because she finally read something positive about a character that looked like her.
It’s such a small thing, something we shouldn’t have to worry about. But when we ignore it, when the diversity disappears, it begins to do damage. Not just to the people of color who aren’t represented, but to all of us as we’re denied a true picture of the real world.