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John Steptoe’s 1987 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Award speech for Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters

By John Steptoe

steptoe_mufaro's beautiful daughtersFirst, I want to say how much I appreciate this honor. During the two-and-one-half years it took me to complete Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (Lothrop) I often wondered if my belief in what I was doing was justifiable. During those long months I felt I was doing something different, something bolder, something largely more sensible than any of my earlier works. My abilities as an artist were growing, and I began to realize that I was actually capable of creating images that I’ve wanted to see all my life. I am deeply gratified to know that others have wanted to see those images, too.

I believe that every experience can be used as a vehicle for spiritual growth. In that light Mufaro was healing for me. Working on the book was a way for me to learn more about loving myself. One of the marvels of the book experience is that when it is finished, others can join in the experience, too.

I wanted to create a book that included some of the things that were left out of my own education about the people who were my ancestors. I began with the idea of doing a Cinderella story. As I read about the story, what I suspected was confirmed: Cinderella is not just a European story. The Cinderella theme is ancient, and almost every culture has its own unique version of the tale in its storytelling tradition. My search for an African variant put me in contact with people who became excited about what I wanted to do. I have never been to southeast Africa, but I was able to find and talk with people from there who were willing to share their personal experiences.

The more I spoke with such people and the more I read, the more reasons I found to be proud of my African ancestors. I knew in my heart that the history of my race had to be a great history, but it wasn’t easy to defend this belief against the implications in history books that the Africans of two or three hundred years ago were not as highly evolved as the Europeans who came to enslave and, later, to colonize them. My friend Naimani Mutima at the African American Institute, who was a great source of information, gave me important insights into the role that early anthropologists played in misconceptions that many people still hold about my ancestors. When colonialism was at its height, certain countries commissioned scientists to make discoveries that were meant to enhance the reputations of the countries that hired them. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many countries justified colonialism by claiming they were doing the world a service by helping non-Europeans fit into the European plan. Needless to say, an anthropologist who discovered that civilization existed in Africa before it was occupied by Europeans would not have been popular with his employers. Also, scientists who made unpopular discoveries were not likely to be paid.

This is why, when the ruins in Zimbabwe were first discovered, they were declared to be of European origin. It was impossible for Europeans to think that an African people could have been as clever, skilled, and industrious as the builders of this ancient city must have been. It is now known that the city is of African origin. However, the implications of this knowledge have not yet displaced the old notions of Africa as a Dark Continent inhabited by backward people.

It has been more than just interesting for me to discover the role that European colonial politics played in my receiving a less than factual picture of my own origins when I was growing up. True, the information was there in the library when I went to look for it. However, I was not able to look for dignity, beauty, and grandeur in my African heritage until I became capable of believing them to have been there.

The evidence of past grandeur that is obvious in the Zimbabwe ruins triggered these thoughts for me: a people who got together and built a city that lasted for hundreds of years must have been organized. Also, people don’t build a city just to look at it, so they must have been doing something that motivated them. Artifacts found at the ruins suggest the inhabitants were involved in trade with the Orient as well as among themselves. All this suggests a society working together for a common end. Like any society, they must have had rules to govern themselves. They must have had families, and those families raised children to follow the rules that made their way of life possible. When we take away the thin layer of differences that twentieth-century technology has made in people’s lives, there’s no reason to think that people of a thousand years ago behaved any differently toward one another than people do today. People love, laugh, and quarrel; some are kind, and some are selfish and spoiled.

The popularity of the Cinderella theme in so many cultures for so many centuries tells us that industrious, kind, and considerate behavior has always been an ideal to be encouraged. The presence of the story in Africa told me that my ancestors were probably very much like my own family. Once I made that connection, I knew who my characters were and that they had dignity and grace. I also knew they cared for one another as a family, for better or worse. To make the visual statement of this connection, I used actual members of my family as models for some of the characters — my mother as the queen mother; my nephew, Antoine, as the little boy in the forest; and my daughter, Bweela, as the model for both sisters. Bweela, being sixteen at the time, was an ideal model for Manyara’s self-centeredness as well as Nyasha’s generous nature. Telling the story was easy once I knew who my characters were. J knew the characters would have a strong sense of tradition and ceremony and that they would have expressed it in their everyday lives.

Those of you who have followed the progress of my work since the publication of Stevie (Harper) when I was nineteen have no doubt noticed differences as stages in a process — perhaps even several processes — that have led up to the present point. In my first books I was primarily a colorist. When preparing the art for Daddy Is a Monster…Sometimes (Harper), I turned away from being a colorist to explore the technical problems of light and dark. My next books were Inside/Outside Poems (Lothrop) by Arnold Adoff and The Story of Jumping Mouse (Lothrop), which were both black and white only. Getting a firm, sure grip on black and white as a medium complemented my movement toward realism. I learned to develop clarity of image. I am very excited about that. With Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters I brought back the color. I added the old knowledge of coloration to my new discoveries of light and dark. I love to change and grow. I enjoy the challenge that exists in creating a new image, and I intend to continue to increase my abilities to express the many beautiful aspects of humanity.

This award is validation of work that has been ongoing now for almost twenty years. During those years I have learned pride and reasons to be proud. I have also learned that I am able to infuse my work with a loving sense of pride and pass it on to my children and to my readers.

Unlike the nineteenth century, when it was thought that the Zimbabwe ruins could not have been of African origin, we live at a time when society has matured enough to accept the findings of scientists like the Leakeys, which strongly suggest that humanity itself originated in Africa. On the other hand, we haven’t matured enough to fully embrace the idea that all people have a common origin. Consequently, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is said to be based on an African tale, rather than on a world ancestral tale. Even though I fully understand and support the reason for making this distinction, I’d like it to be known that I did not write and illustrate a special-interest picture book. I hope I have made a statement that is even greater than my discovery of reasons to be proud of African ancestors. I hope the book is also a statement of brotherhood in the wide world into which I was born.

There is something I want to be said about me. I am not an exception to the rule among my race of people. I am the rule. By that I mean there are a great many others like me where I come from. There are hundreds of thousands of young people who want to accomplish something important with their lives and who need understanding and encouragement to seek the opportunities open to them. That you have understood and appreciated what I have put into Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters gives me hope that children who are still caught in the frustration of being black and poor in America will be encouraged to love themselves enough to accomplish the dreams I know are in their hearts.

John Steptoe is the author/illustrator of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (Lothrop), winner of the 1987 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Award. From the January/February 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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