How Children’s Books Can Help Parents Talk About Race
Rachel Moss on Illustrating the Song Lyrics of Peter Tosh
History has a way of sometimes repeating itself, when we think we have moved on, it happens again. Unfortunately, some reoccurrences happen too frequently—like the circumstances that killed George Floyd. His death is one of a series of tragic events that have fueled an emotional outpouring across the world. Once more we are at an epic crossroads where we must address the importance of Black lives and that they do matter.
As a woman of color growing up in Jamaica, I did not experience racism as such since we are the majority. However, studying abroad in the UK opened my eyes to the reality of being the black minority and the challenges that come with that. I have spent the majority of 2019 thinking about black lives in a different, collective way while I thought of how best to illustrate African, a new picture book based on song lyrics by Peter Tosh.
Tosh is a household name next to the likes of Bob Marley not only in Jamaica, where I’m from, but also around the world. He sang alongside Marley in the group The Wailers and was one of the great reggae artists that put Jamaica on the map back in the 1960s and 70s.
When I was asked to illustrate the lyrics of “African”—one of Tosh’s most famous songs—for a children’s picture book, I jumped at the opportunity.
I didn’t remember all the lyrics of “African” at first, so I found it online and listened. As the lyrics rang out through the room, I held my breath:
And if you come from Manhattan (you are an African)
And if you come from Canada (you are an African), etc.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid to conceptualize a book aimed at kids using such powerful “in your face” lyrics. This song comes from a time when reggae music was pouring out a conscious message, a message of protest against colonialism. A message about identity and returning to Africa was a common theme in many songs at that time. It was a revolution in the making. I put the song on repeat.
As Peter Tosh called for change during his lifetime, there is a voice of uprising and awareness still shouting out today, as we see various protests across America and throughout the world. I think now more than ever, his lyrics have such a powerful message for not only Black kids but children from all races. I hope if parents read African to their young children, the song lyrics spark conversation about not fearing difference. Difference is what makes the human race beautiful.
No one race is better than the other, and it is so important to teach our children this. Love is the most powerful lesson we can teach them. To look beyond what the eye sees and into a person’s heart. That’s where beauty is and our true identities. That is where we find a common ground as human beings. Humanity has made such painful mistakes in the past and, as we have seen these past few weeks, is still making them. We need to make a change for the world we want tomorrow, but it has to begin today with us and our children.
As I began to conceptualize African, images started to come into my mind. Shades of variety, shades of skin tones from across the world, all having their beginning in Africa and spreading out across the globe, but all also on a journey, a journey back to Africa. I could identify with these lyrics, and I loved the lines about complexion:
That means it doesn’t matter if your skin complexion is very light or very dark, if you have the black man’s DNA running through your blood, you are an African. I have grown up with this reality here in Jamaica, a country mixed with so many different cultures and races that our national motto is, “Out of Many One People.”
That lyric was the turning point for me—I started sketching, visualizing the different nations Tosh mentions, and all the “black” people who live in those nations, how our roots run back to Africa to find that part of our identity.
Having the flexibility to portray this vision made this project an enjoyable one for me. I wanted to capture Iconic Africa, so I decided to use animals to represent our differences yet giving us something in common. Like animals journeying across the African savannah, we too are on a journey together finding our place in this multicultural world.
I didn’t want the book’s illustrations to feel heavy or political. Instead, I tried to make the pictures somewhat fun and whimsical. I wanted the images to take the reader on a journey around the world but also back to the Motherland.
“African” is a feel good song, the rhythm sways your body and you can’t help but be captured by the sweet music. As I drew each illustration, the music and lyrics played not only in my mind but also in my house. The characters came alive in my mind’s eye and danced along with me. Each character had a story, and I imagined what life was like for them, their history, their family’s journey.
How we get to where we are and who the people are throughout history who contribute to our ethnicity is such an interesting story for all of us. I hope the children and adults who read African will think about their own stories. I hope it will spark their interest to find out where they come from and put them on a journey to understand and appreciate who they are, even if they are not an African.
African, with song lyrics by Peter Tosh and illustrations by Rachel Moss, is available from Akashic Books.