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I Want to See Myself as The Hero — by L.L. McKinney

There’s a movement taking place in the publishing industry, and if we’re lucky it’ll catch fire in other facets of the human experience as a whole. From Twitter to Facebook, blogs to vlogs, to Tumblr and beyond, people are expressing why they believe we need more diversity in books because, news flash, we totally do.

There are a lot of profound quotes added to the growing feed about how our literature should reflect our world and not merely one perspective of it, but there’s one saying I think gets overlooked because people don’t want to sound selfish. Writers and readers alike want diversity in books for a great many reasons, but on a personal level–at least for me–there’s a simple one. You can think it’s selfish, self-serving, self-righteous, that’s okay, but it won’t change how I feel.

I think #WeNeedDiverseBooks for scores of reasons about equality and fairness and the global experience, but also because I want to be the hero. I am a woman of color who was a little girl of color, who read books primarily about people who weren’t. For the record, I’m still in love with a lot of shows and books from the past, when this was a problem. I adored the stories that pulled me in and didn’t let me go. To this day, some of my favorite reads are from my earliest years.

That being said, I grew up during the age of Saturday morning cartoons where you woke up early to watch Sailor Moon and rushed home after school to catch Power Rangers and a slew of other shows. In between there were scores of books; Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High, Goosebumps and Fear Street, Harry Potter (before it took off) Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, on and on. My childhood imagination was not without fuel for its fire, and it burned bright! But I’d be lying if I said not once in all those years did I wonder…why is there only one person who looks like me on this show, or who sounds like me in that book?

Innocent questions I didn’t dwell on, especially when ghosts were running amuck on the pages or Rita Repulsa’s giant monsters were tearing through Angel Grove. But when I was alone, in a quiet corner contemplating creating my own world, I remember wrestling with the idea of making the Leader of my Super Fighter team (my first novel was pretty much a Power Ranger fanfic, don’t judge cause I had no idea what Fanfic was at the time) a girl who looked like me.

After laboring over the idea of essentially making myself the hero, I settled on going a different direction. Why? Because watching all of the shows about heroes battling monsters, and reading all of the books about kids with special powers, made one thing clear: girls were not the leaders. Especially black girls. Which made no sense to me because my sisters and I ran our whole neighborhood, but I digress. Tangent: Please don’t take this as my playing the race card. I’m playing my card, my personal perspective. We need diversity of ALL kinds, for all races, persuasions, denominations, sexual identifications, the whole nine, but I can only speak to my corner of the world as it was. We cool? Okay, moving on.

When a woman was the hero I saw Xena, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Buffy, Supergirl, Hermione, Mary-Jane whenever she saved Peter somehow. Let me say I love ALL of these kickass gals, I’m a total Geek, but the thing was none of them looked like me. The closest I ever came in books and television shows alike (before Aisha entered the Power Ranger scene and became my IDOL) was Trini, the original Yellow Ranger. She’s who I wanted to be, even though she didn’t have a skirt like Kim, cause she was a girl and she was a minority. Seriously, I identified with her and not Zack. Maybe I was a weird kid, but that’s neither here nor there.

Brief aside, for the people who might say something like “well, there was Storm.” I know there was Storm, but there were days when I wanted to be a Power Ranger, or a Ninja, or a Vampire Slayer, or a Warrior Princess. Storm was for when I wanted to be an X-Man, and as awesome as she is, it would’ve been nice to have options instead of being pigeonholed into the same character over and over. Power of Lightning only goes so far.

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement made me take a hard look at my childhood. Like I said, while I wasn’t distraught, I would’ve been a helluva lot happier if there were more Aishas running around. I would’ve had someone I could pretend to be at recess and not be forced to play a Puddy minion because “you can’t be her, you’re not insert appropriate race” or “you can’t be the Red Ranger, you’re a girl!” I would’ve been able to be one of the Ninja Turtles instead of April O’Neil. Thank goodness Venus came along.

I think about my nieces, my future daughters, and I want them to see more of themselves in their heroes and heroines. In the Leaders. It’s one thing to watch your favorite characters take on the bad guy and protect the world and another thing entirely to see yourself doing the saving.

I’ll always cheer Buffy on, but I wouldn’t mind the option to be able to stand beside her.

2 Comments

  • Katherine says:

    Love it! When I started writing fiction in middle school, all my main characters were white girls with auburn hair. I probably didn’t even know anyone with auburn hair – yet that was who I thought belonged in a story, not people like me, because that was who I saw in what I read.

  • Mell says:

    It’s sometimes hard to explain to a non-POCs the impact of never seeing oneself represented. I too understand. Even now, I still wrestle with the devilish thought that keeps saying, “no one’s gonna believe a little black girl is the chosen one.” I keep having to fight that devil and pushing through. I keep asking myself–but why can’t a little black girl be the hero. Why is it okay that a dorky white kid with glasses is the the hero but not a little black girl from the inner-city. Often, I write these self-doubts into the plot-line–just to get it out there–out of my system.

    It’s still not easy. Even when we consciously recognize that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, we still struggle to justify/show this on the pages of our stories. That’s how much these (lack of) portrayals impact us–on a deep psychological level that doesn’t show until we find ourselves about to embark on our own writing journey.

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