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Shadows and Marcia Brown’s Shadow

by Elizabeth F. Howard

brown_shadowLike many fine works of literature or art Shadow* evokes ever new understandings, promotes questions, and arouses controversy. What a picture book conveys to readers, its creators can only partially predict. Like any book Shadow casts its own shadows, and these both cloud and transfigure whatever the author, artist, publisher, librarians, reviewers, award committees, or critics may say and believe of a book’s reality.

Shadows cast by Shadow fall on the book’s creators, critics, and readers. These shadows take the form of responses that Shadow provokes, and it is in responses that a book lives. Some of these shadows seem misshapen and distorted, like those seen when the sun is low on the horizon, when there is insufficient light.

There are troubling shadows. Some have taken the form of critiques decrying the book’s potential damaging effect on children. The charge is straightforward: Children reading Shadow will receive negative and destructive stereotypes about Africa and black people. Black children will transfer to themselves a primitive and denigrating image. These are shadows of remembered and present pain. Will such shadows lengthen or diminish as the book lives its life? Will there be enough light?

Other shadows are really a reaction to the first ones — other responses coming from many sources which assert unblemished motives, a puzzlement and hurt by the suggestion that Shadow could have a tarnishing effect. Great efforts have been made to demonstrate the integrity of the book and or the award. The defense rests on an unlimited confidence in the child, on thebelief that children everywhere are free from the distortions of adults, and on the sincere conviction that the book’s detractors — whether professional protestors or fellow human beings angry and suffering — are truly unable to see the work for what it is. Again, will these shadows grow shorter or longer? Can there ever be enough light?

Shadow seen under the bright light of noon has almost no shadow. Perhaps this is how children might see the book — without the shadows cast by all the analyzing done by adults. Yet the meaning, not the print and the pictures, is the life of any book; and this meaning is a mysterious mixture of what is on the page with who we are as readers. There must be, however, both shadows and light if there is to be understanding.

This is a book about shadows and about Africa, but who are the Africans? In Shadow they appear as a people of the proverb, living in a land of savannas and forests, sharing a natural world with animals and with spirits. Africans here are still uncorrupted by modernism. There is honesty and wisdom in their lives, integrity in their art, imagination in their oral literature. In Shadow Africans are seen as storytellers or as children who listen to the lore of their tribe. Is this not indeed a picture of a fast-vanishing Africa?

But how much can be required of one picture book? All facets of an immense and varied continent cannot be explored in one book. What then about Africa should children be encouraged to see? Is it the Africa that has been despoiled? Is it the Africa that has its own integrity? The Africa that is likely to be received by the mind of the child is the one held by the society in which he or she lives.

If one considers the history of relations between Africa and the Western world since the advent of African slavery in the fourteenth century with its ensuing age of colonialism followed by the present era of Africa as a developing continent in crisis, the resulting images are largely of exploitation — unhealthy both for Africa and for the West. Most people would agree that the past five hundred years have been lived to the great comparative disadvantage of Africa and that in the foreseeable future, Africa is likely to remain at the periphery of and behind the developed West, unless a new set of values emerges. This is the context into which most Western children mature. Every child, if Africa is to be taken seriously, is confronted with making a judgment: either that the West has perpetuated evils in Africa for which it must one day atone, or that what has happened in the past was in some way justified. Both perspectives fall short of the ideals toward which we claim to aspire. Both views may also contribute to the continuing pattern of exploitation, however inadvertently.

Can children’s picture books of today help bring into reality the ideals of a just society? Can Shadow be regarded as part of the building of a more open, healthy, and accurate view of  Africa? I think it can if the image that children retain is one of Africans and Americans seen as closely related parts of the same human family. Real shadows give no clue to the color of their owners.

Herein lies a mission for librarians and for others who have the major responsibility to connect books and children. Shadow cannot contribute what it could to the one-world we all seek, if it is promoted primarily as an artistic and a literary statement of American appreciation of things African. The book will have greater value if it can be used to help young readers come to know that Africa, and not only Europe, is America’s ancestor and a vital partner in our common future. Such an emphasis might also serve to compensate to some degree for the inevitable commercialization in creating children’s picture books on Africa — which the sensitive may well perceive as still another exploitation of things African.

Does all this mean that Africa cannot be written about by nonblacks? Certainly not. But it does suggest that the writers, publishers, and other people who give these books life should expect that they will face difficulties as long as Africa is seen as a shadow separate from themselves. For despite their good intentions, until Westerners truly believe — and act as though they believe — that they have much to learn from Africa, and even that they truly desire to be part African, they will remain open to the charge of fostering stereotypic thinking.

Books about Africa for Western children must convey a sense of a common humanity. Shadow seen at high noon has this message to offer. But, surely, as the sun rises and sets, the more distorted shadows of evening and morning are inevitable, and Shadow will be seen in different lights. Children know that everybody has a shadow and that all shadows are black. Every book lives its own life. Shadow‘s shadows have called attention to what that life could be, the nurturing of all children’s innate sense of one common humanity.

*published by Scribner

From the October 1983 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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