'Imagine a black child reading Snow White and encountering the line, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?''
Nigerian author Okechukwu Ofili: ‘Western fairy tales are messing with the minds of black children’
Nigerian children’s author Okechukwu Ofili has called on parents and publishers to re-consider the types of stories they present to young black children.
Ofili, who wrote Afro: The Girl with the Magical Hair, is increasingly concerned about the negative impact traditional fairy-tales and stories, featuring fair-skinned protagonists such as Rapunzel and Snow White, are having on black children.
In an exclusive interview with The National at the Sharjah International Book Fair, Ofili said: “Imagine a black child reading Snow White and encountering the line, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’. They will connect fair skin with beauty and it messes with their minds.
“A lot of people in Nigeria bleach their skin and wear wigs, in order to try and appear more Western,” Ofili continued. “And I believe a core part of that is because of what we start teaching our children at a young age. [It is damaging for a child] to read these books, which are full of fair-skinned characters described as ‘beautiful’, but which don’t look like them. It builds up.”
Afro: The Girl with the Magical Hair is Ofili’s response to one particularly popular fairy-tale character, Rapunzel, who was the hero of Disney’s 2010 film, Tangled. Rapunzel has long blonde hair, which she uses to allow people to climb in and out of the tower she has been locked up in.
“If Rapunzel was black, she wouldn’t be able to let her hair down because her hair grows up,” Ofili said. “So I thought, ‘Let’s flip this story’. Instead of a castle, this character is captive in a hole. Instead of the queen saying, ‘Let down your hair’, she says, ‘Let up your hair’.
“We need to be able to tell our own stories in our own way […] I got a call from a teacher in Nigeria who was so frustrated because he wanted to show his students an African children’s book and he couldn’t find enough.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is another author to have expressed concerns about the kind of reading material black children are being introduced to. “Chimamanda has spoken about how she thought strawberries were the most delicious fruit in the world,” Ofili, who is also the CEO of online publishing and reading platform Okada Books, said. “If you read any Enid Blyton book, it is [all] ‘strawberries, strawberries, strawberries’. And then the first time she tasted a strawberry, she was like, ‘What is this? The mangoes we have in Nigeria are much sweeter than strawberries.’
“But because she grew up with that idea, it became a fascination.”
The Sharjah International Book Fair runs until November 10. For all timings and sessions, visit www.sibf.com
For more information about Okada Books, visit okadabooks.com