About a year ago, I met Otegha Uwagba in the basement of an overcrowded book shop in Covent Garden. Gathered around, with barely any personal space between one another, everyone had a cooling drink in one hand and a copy of Uwagba's latest piece in another. Everyone was there to hear the Nigerian-born writer of the 'Little Black Book: A Toolkit for Working Women', talk about her latest article for SUITCASE Magazine, 'A City at Work', an ode to her homeland.
In short, throughout the article, Uwagba "revisits her homeland, diving into the heart of Lagos via its silver-tongued storytellers and cosmopolitan entrepreneurs."
Vol. 27 was the 'Book Issue' of the magazine, and the writer started a conversation between herself and Olivia Squire, SUITCASE's Print Editor in Chief, by talking about her reading experiences as a child.
"So it was that I grew up on stories populated by fair-haired, rosy-cheeked children with names like Janet and John, who lived in bucolic English villages and went apple picking in their spare time," — she reads out loud from the article, explaining to Squire, and everyone in the room, how she could not relate to these stories. As a child, she could not understand the meaning of Janet's cheeks blushing when John would compliment her, or the bruises the children would acquire by injuring themselves while climbing trees because her dark skin showed no such traits.
Uwagba learned how to read in Lagos; in fact, she starts her piece like this.
"Lagos is the city that taught me to read. Growing up here, I became so fascinated by the ease with which my two older sisters had mastered what to me seemed like the coolest magic trick in the world that, aged three, I insisted my mother teach me as well. She happily obliged, frequently arriving home with a fresh selection of books bought from a bookshop that in turn imported its stock from the UK."
She read about Janet and John because she was curious and eager to learn, but she couldn't understand their story as much as she would have liked to. The truth is, no UK imported book stock featured any Black people.
The Killing of George Floyd seems like the title of a New York Times Bestseller book, but unfortunately, it's just reality. And painfully, if this would have been a book, Otegha Uwagba would have related to it so much more.
This event has triggered the world. People all around the world are mourning, crying, fighting, protesting, and even dying so that we never experience something like this again. Pandemic or not, we gather in the streets to chant his name. Racism is also a pandemic.
This past week has brought a lot of self-reflection for White people. While doing it myself, Uwagba's words repeated in my mind. And so, I started asking myself: how many other kids are learning how to read about things that do not represent them at all? Most importantly, how many must engage and try to learn from the same stories?
Otegha Uwagba talked about the importance of telling diverse stories so that we can all learn from them. All children must feel that they can be their own hero from their bed-time stories.
And this is just one part of the more significant issue we should keep fighting to change.