My debut picture book Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters (Atheneum), illustrated by Evan Turk, is about many things. On one level, it is a universal story about a human being who overcame great adversity. This an important message, as are its messages about being true one’s Self, and the power of music and creativity to make the world a better place. But I am writing today to ask that we, as parents, teachers, and industry professionals, not forget that it is also specifically about an African-American man, living in the deep South, who endured and overcame a very specific kind of adversity—racism.
The implied assertion of this book is about the importance of African-American culture, and all minority cultures for that matter, to this country and ideal we call America. It is sickening to me that such an assertion should still need to be made in the year 2017 but sadly, it seems more important than ever.
Readers of Muddy will notice that my book, while dealing with a time and place in which racism was rampant, does not deal as directly with racism as some other books. The main reason for this is that Muddy Waters himself, as chronicled by his biographers, never spoke of racism–interview upon interview seem to attest to this. But one should not interpret Muddy’s silence on such matters as a tacit assertion that he never had such experiences. He most certainly did, as any African-American person living during that era would have. This should be obvious.
For this reason, teachers and readers of Muddy should not forget that the specter of racism in America is especially important to the cultural context of this story. That specter comes to life for a moment in the figure of the white boss man– a real person who Muddy challenged and then had cause to fear in real life.
As we parents, professionals, and educators seek to explore and expose our children to diverse stories about diverse people, it is important that we not teach “universal themes” at the expense of teaching about the specific realities (as ugly as they are) that gave birth to them, and that we not achieve multiculturalism by stripping minority cultures of their specific historical and cultural experiences.
This is to say, that while the story of Muddy Waters (as I have told it) is universal in nature, we cannot forget to talk about the specific cultural circumstance of racism out of which his story is born. The Blues is an American treasure, but it is also a treasure born out of the talent and suffering of African-Americans. We must not forget this.
It is important to me that this story not only be an avenue for discussions about the power of music, creativity, and perseverance, but that it also be a reason to talk about racism as it existed in the past, racism as it exists today, the achievements of African-Americans, and their seminal contributions to American and world culture.
Children must know what is great about the world so that they can strive to be great too. But they must also know what is wrong with the world, for they are the ones who must fix it.
– Michael Mahin