Frederick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” I have thought about this statement a lot lately as we witness children leading a movement to create a better and safer world for themselves and for all of us. But how do we build strong children? It is a question that I’m sure every parent, guardian, teacher, and caregiver of every child has pondered.
I found myself reflecting upon the question again as I sat in a theatre on a rainy Saturday morning in Los Angeles attending a screening of the movie, A Wrinkle In Time. The movie centers around the character Meg Murry, a girl who is lost in many ways and is tasked with the job of saving her father from a great darkness. As Meg traverses the universe to complete her mission, she discovers that the only way to fight and defeat the darkness is to become the light. The only way to become the light is to find love within. The only way to find love within is to accept herself completely by embracing her unique nature.
As a children’s book author who has made it my mission to write and promote books that teach all children to embrace their individuality, I can truly appreciate the message in this movie. But I found that its message traveled to an even deeper place within me. As I watched Meg Murry on the screen, I saw myself as a girl, fumbling through life and struggling to find my own stride as I tried to discover who I am.
But it was not only her emotional journey to which I related. What also stood out about the character was her physical appearance. You see Meg is a biracial girl with brown skin. As a young girl of color, I never saw any girl who looked or felt like me being portrayed as the hero of any movie. The importance and emotional high of seeing a character like this was captured by interviewer Van Jones during a conversation with the director, Ava DuVernay. He stated, “Just the opening of the movie, you have this young brown skinned girl who’s being trained…to be the world’s greatest scientist…Ava could roll the credits right now because just that image, I’ve never seen in my life that image.” When he said this I thought, I know exactly how he feels. As I watched the character of young Meg being played by Lyric Wilson and later by Storm Reid, I thought, where have you been all my life?
Would a child’s journey to accepting and loving themselves be a little easier if they are given the opportunity to see positive representations of characters that look and feel like them?
I couldn’t help but wonder if my little girl self would have benefitted from seeing more characters like Meg Murry in literature and on the television screen. Would a child’s journey to accepting and loving themselves be a little easier if they are given the opportunity to see positive representations of characters that look and feel like them? Is positive representation one of the tools that we can use to build strong children? My answer is an unequivocal yes.
Positive representation is key to helping children build positive self-esteem. What we often see becomes a part of the narrative that we adopt about ourselves. Seeing characters that look like you that are positively represented does not only fulfill some frivolous or superficial need. It helps to build the narrative that you are an important and appreciated member of society. You are a member of society that matters and when you know that you matter, you are given the pathway to appreciating and loving yourself. Teaching children to love themselves is the start of building them into strong individuals.
As I sat in that theatre, I looked over at my nine-year old daughter who had accompanied me to the screening. I felt gratitude that she, unlike her mother, did not have to wait forty years to see a heroic lead character in a movie that she could relate to. I was grateful to be raising her in a time when strong girls and women warriors like Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey, Storm Reid, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and even Lyric Wilson are changing the perceptions of beauty, intelligence, strength, and heroism in Hollywood.
A week after the screening, I encountered Lyric and her mother Heather once again at a school function where we had all been invited to speak to students. I had the opportunity to witness a bit of Lyric’s interaction with the students. I stood in the wings of the auditorium watching and listening intently as she spoke to them. This petite nine-year old with her signature natural afro hairstyle held her audience captive.
Afterwards, I noticed a group of African American girls approaching her. One of the girls captured my attention when I noticed how enthralled she was with Lyric. When the girl had an opportunity to speak to her, she smiled and said, “I love your hair.” I smiled and thought, there it is. What that girl saw in Lyric was a familiar essence. An essence that she could relate to, but not one that is often shown or celebrated in society. But today, here was that familiar essence with brown skin and a giant afro being celebrated in a movie and in that very auditorium, and that essence was not just Lyric’s but the girl’s as well.
I later asked Heather her thoughts on witnessing the moment between her daughter and the girls. She said, “I am proud that Lyric is in the position to help create and shape the perceptions of the next generation.” That sounded like a tall order, especially for a little girl and a small role, but the reality is that Lyric, along with Storm Reid, Ava DuVernay, and the other castmates and crew are indeed helping to create a new perception for a new generation. It is a vision where girls and boys of all ethnicities, backgrounds, beliefs, faiths, talents, experiences, and circumstances can be the heroes. They can be the real life warriors of light.
Children as the heroes in our world is not a stretch of the imagination as we see it happening currently in our streets, schools, and cities. We see these warriors in eleven-year old Naomi Wadler who spoke so eloquently at the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and in the Parkland students like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, and in the Black student activists like Trinity Cole-Reid and Vashon Edmondson of Chicago, who have been fighting for a long time and fail to get the same amount of acknowledgement and praise for their activism in their own community.
I am not saying that those real life heroes are imitating movies. They are simply being who they are. But that is the beauty of what we are witnessing both in real life and in movies like ‘A Wrinkle In Time’. It is a time of change where a new generation has emerged to lead us in a new direction and I could not be happier to see this new group of warriors, for they have been made strong by embracing exactly who they are and finding their own light within.
– Shereen Rahming