INTERVIEW Issue 010
Image Equity in a Color-Conscious Society
Gwendolyn S. Bethea, Ph.D. interviews Howard University alumnae Phoenix Ricks, M.A. and Irelene P. Ricks, Ph.D.
Howard University almunae Irelene P. Ricks, Ph.D., professor of education, School of Education, Johns Hopkins University, and her daughter, Phoenix Ariana Ricks, M.A., are a mother/daughter writing team who have a pending publication titled, “The Revolutionary Mind: A Demand for Image Equity in a Color-Conscious Society” that was presented at the 2015 National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS) in Atlanta, GA in March 2015 on diversity in literature, particularly as it relates to gender bias, and bias against African-American women and girls, African Americans in general, and other ethnic groups.
The authors touched on many societal issues that they cited as evidence of the need to address diversity in literature. The team has also written a book of fiction, titled The Enchanted Cottage of Oceania: An American Fairytale. Dr. Ricks and Phoenix discuss the impetus for their presentation, article, and book in the interview below.
Q: What are your major concerns about the lack of portrayal or the manner in which women and girls, particularly African Americans, and other ethnic groups, are portrayed in literature?
Dr. Ricks and Phoenix: We are concerned that the lack of positive images of African-American adults, children and young adults in literature and film has significant impacts and consequences that have contributed to some of the historical and contemporary violence against people of color in our society. Moreover, the lack of positive representation of people of color in books and film has a negative influence on how these communities are perceived and treated by non-minority populations.
Q: How did your mother/daughter writing team originate?
Dr. Ricks and Phoenix: My friend was living overseas as a Foreign Service Officer with a pre-teen daughter who wanted to read books for her age group. She asked if I could recommend books and I sent to her Nancy Drew mysteries because I had loved those books as a young person because they had adventure and mystery, with a little harmless teen romance thrown in for good measure. After a year or so, the mother asked for fun books that looked like her child (who is African American) and I made inquiries at the local library and bookstores. I was frustrated to discover there were no books for young girls of color except for historical fiction (i.e., Rosa Parks or Harriett Tubman) or the civil rights movement (The Watsons Go to Birmingham or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry). My daughter and I decided to write a story for the child and send her chapters by email each week. She fell in love with the main characters, 14-year old identical twin sisters Harper and Leigh Reynolds, who embark on a quest to find their scientist father, Chester, who has been abducted by Other World magic. Their mother, Lydia, runs a school for children and young adults with unusual talents and abilities, called the Enchanted College of Oceania. We titled the book, The Enchanted Cottage of Oceania: An American Fairytale because it is a story set in America (in a fictitious town in Maryland) with magical elements.
Q: Are there challenges and rewards in writing together?
Dr. Ricks and Phoenix: The challenges are few because we like the back and forth debates about characters and their storylines. When we first started the series (we are up to Book Five), I had considered the names Hunter and Abigail, but Phoenix had a flash of inspiration for the names Harper and Leigh like the author, Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird – one of our favorite books and movies. We went back and forth for about a week and decided that the names Harper and Leigh were perfect on so many levels. The main reward is writing with your best friend whose imagination is almost limitless. We feed off each other in much the same way as the Coen Brothers probably do – or most writing teams.
Q: Did you infuse into your daughter as a young child the joy of reading?
Dr. Ricks: I read to her every night and created stories. One of her favorites is Midnight the Magic Pony (that even has a few songs I made up)! I read the classic books, including Pippi Longstocking and the Betsy, Tacy, Tib series. When she was in fourth grade, we joined a mother-daughter book club that lasted until she graduated from high school. We had a reunion of sorts to catch up with each other in Christmas 2014.
Q: Did you consciously seek ways to expand her reading so that her books included people of color?
Dr. Ricks: Because Phoenix attended private schools, every Monday was ‘African American Day’ and I would read poems written by African Americans, read historical case stories about African Americans, such as the lives of Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Benjamin Banneker, W.E.B. du Bois, and others. I bought an American Girl series of books, doll, and accessories about a young black girl, Addie, whose family left slavery to live in Philadelphia as a newly freed family.
Q: How did your movement to influence diversity in literature evolve?
Dr. Ricks and Phoenix: We wanted to share the way we love books and literature with a large audience and we both have worked with literacy efforts through the Junior League of Washington. We also have listed our desire to conduct book discussions on the Girl Scouts of Washington listserv. We were both upset about what happened to Trayvon Martin and recognized that he was considered a bad person simply because he was black. He reminded us of the two young African American males in our book, Lance and Wags. It broke our hearts.
Q: How can the lack of diversity and lack of cultural sensitivity and racial and gender inequality in literature be remedied?
Dr. Ricks and Phoenix: We need to encourage the publishing houses to publish books about children of color by authors of color and for the movie industry to depict more children and youth of color in adventures and fantasy and story lines that are routinely depicted for white children and youth (e.g., E.T., Peter Pan, Cinderella, etc.)
Q: Can the effects be reversed since it is obviously entrenched in society, with profound effects across cultures, but particularly in the African-American community?
Dr. Ricks and Phoenix: It can absolutely be reversed and faster than one might think. Fifty years ago, people may not have thought that a black president of the United States could exist, but he does and it happened without violence or bloodshed. In fact, the consequences of meeting the demands of our Revolutionary Mind would signal the creation of a literary environment in which authors of color would write sustainable good literature and good films that last forever. Think Shakespeare. Think Raisin in the Sun.
Q: What must educators and publishers do to correct the systematic elimination of gender and racial bias in literature?
Dr. Ricks and Phoenix: Educators must make a conscious effort to read diverse literature to their students and compile book lists for summer reading that include authors and characters of color. Publishers need to let go of their unconscious (or conscious) biases and publish good writing that depicts people of color, particularly young adults and children. There need to be open encouragement and incentives from the publishing industry to reach diverse authors and audiences.
Q: What can we do in the broader communities locally, nationally, internationally to effect change in this regard?
Dr. Ricks and Phoenix: The broader public could support their local libraries and demand that librarians purchase more books with children and young adults of color that involve mystery, adventure, fantasy, and science fiction. This can be replicated on national and international levels. We had our book showcased in venues around the world.
Q: Would you tell us about your book?
Dr. Ricks and Phoenix: It’s actually more than one book because it is a series, but we have only published the first. We’re up to Book Five. The first book that is published is titled The Enchanted Cottage of Oceania: An American Fairytale. We have pen names, R. Marion Troy and Pixie Carlisle.
Q: Would you explain why you decided to write the book series and how it has been received?
Dr. Ricks and Phoenix: This book series is important to allow children and youth of color to see themselves as smart, funny, adventurous and spirited in ways that have nothing to do with jail, drugs, or other pathological behavior. The book has been well-received and placed in the Prince George’s County Public Schools, the Prince George’s Memorial Library System. It has been picked up by a high school in Montgomery County (the librarian bought 60 books). We have had sold-out book signings at Barnes and Noble in Baltimore, MD; Richmond, VA; and Bowie, MD. We have also had signings at local book fairs and literary events.
Q: What are your next steps in your movement to influence diversity in literature?
Dr. Ricks and Phoenix: We started our movement last year, but really decided to use our presentation at NCOBPS as a way to launch #BlackBooksMatter because they do.
Phoenix: We owe it to the younger generation to be good role models to fight for justice and equality. Working with my mother, who is a political scientist, has given me insight into how the world and society works and how to make a difference.
View the research article here: The Revolutionary Mind: A Demand for Image Equity in a Color-Conscious Society
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