This is the wonderful story of an African mom who single mindedly decided to teach a different version of Africa’s history to her daughter in America.
Where does your fascination for history come from?
For as long as I can remember I have always loved history, the amazing stories, the lessons to be learned. As a black woman growing up in America it took me a very long time to even realize that the history of people who looked like me were either completely omitted or barely mentioned at all.
It was only after marrying my husband, who is African and having our beautiful children that I noticed the huge void of historical information and contributions that was being left out of mainstream American classrooms and textbooks, even at the collegiate level.
This is why I created Heritage Arts Illustrated. I wanted to create a way for young people to learn about their history, but I also want them to be able to enjoy learning about it to where it does not seem like a chore.
How is Africa’s history currently introduced to the american public?
Currently in America, children are only introduced to black history for a single month out of the year, which also happens to be the shortest. Throughout the rest of the year they are learning European history, with a brief overview of their ancestors characterized only as slaves, colonized and oppressed people.
I found myself highly dissatisfied with such a narrow portrayal of people of African descent and their rich history that spans hundreds of thousands of years. People of African descent have epic stories of heroism, feuds, love, betrayal, magic and myth, the same as any other group from the other continents. Then when you look at mainstream movies and television shows there is a complete absence of period movies that tell of our ancient past.
Most people have no idea civilizations existed in Africa outside of Egypt. If one were to get any knowledge about Africa from most American movies they would come away with the impression that there was nothing in Africa until Europeans arrived, there is simply no accurate depiction of African civilization as it really was back then.
With this knowledge, as an illustrator, I felt it was my duty to try and counter the omission of African History with stories of truth.
So, that dissatisfaction led you to “The Beautiful Daughters of Africa” book series.
How do you get organized to produce the stories?
The Beautiful Daughters of Africa is a new activity book series that targets young girls. My small team and I, which consists of myself, my mother and another talented young researcher, worked on this project for over a year. It was important to us that we represent each country accurately and respectfully. We have another activity book coming out for young boys later on this year.
Volume 1 of The Beautiful Daughters series introduces girls to 8 different countries from around the African continent. Initially we thought we would break each book volume down by region but we felt it would be better to take countries from different regions and combine them to encourage youth to learn about regions outside of their own.
We want to do our part in fostering African unity! It was also a goal of ours to make the activity book as authentic to African history as possible, so most of the historical facts and activities featured in the book are centered around the precolonial era. When African kingdoms flourished.
For example, we include decoder pages that children can learn about Nsibidi, a West African writing system that is dated back to as early as the 7th century! So much for the notion Sub-Saharan Africans didn’t write. This is NOT a book that celebrates “accomplishments” of African people based on the influences of colonial rule.
What are the things that annoyed you the most about how Africa’s history is represented in mainstream America?
In America, we have a system of recognition that celebrates achievements by blacks as being “the first” of their “race” to have accomplished various positions of status in American society. I have always viewed this as sort of a backhanded compliment. Because of the omission of African contributions to humanity, it is naturally assumed that African people never had astronomers, doctors, scientists, government, etc before the advent of western civilization.
How do you expect your books and illustrations to impact our children?
From the earliest moments our children begin interacting with the world, they are beginning to develop their identity. Many parents, especially parents of African descent do not realize how important it is to put positive self-affirming images in front of their children. When we take into account that in western societies our children will be constantly exposed to messages that affirm the value of children of European ancestry and their contributions.
These movies, shows, books, games created by people of European ancestry often do not include our children, but even when they do the character plays a very minimal role, usually as an afterthought. Some people might consider this racism. I don’t see it that way. I see it as lack of representation. We have to be our own storytellers, but how can we if we do not even know our own stories?
Identity crisis does not happen when an adult is grown. It is fed, fostered and conditioned. From birth, our children are interacting with history that is not their own and when they are finally introduced to it, it is depressing, humiliating and dismissive, when it doesn’t have to be. Additionally, they learn to assimilate into a mentality where they have to fight to be recognized as equals. This is not right.
The whole purpose of learning history is to learn from it and build upon the accomplishments of the past, that is how great civilizations are made, but our children are continually being reset to slavery, colonization and victim hood. At Heritage Arts Illustrated, it is our goal not to disregard that portion of history because even during that period there were many exceptional accomplishments made by the enslaved/colonized, but our goal is to tell the whole story.
That’s a really inspiring vision. How did you come up with such a powerful vision?
The ironic thing is that everything we are striving to do for children of African descent, other people already do for their own. Their children are being empowered and self affirmed every single day of their lives through media, music, education, even just walking down the street, driving a car or passing a billboard, they see themselves portrayed positively in a million different ways.
This tells me that more of us need to show up for our children, intentionally expose them to the amazing heritage that belongs to them. We need to stop allowing our history and culture to be dissected and censored to fit the Western cultural narrative that finds comfort in one-dimensional portrayals of people of African descent. The less our children understand about themselves, the more vulnerable they are to embracing the manufactured consumer culture of trying to be like everyone else. The sharing of culture is a beautiful thing but not when one has been conditioned to feel ashamed of their own.
Instead of only purchasing Disney products that celebrate Eurocentric beauty standards, in which our children are supposed to assimilate and aspire to, we can put products in front of them that celebrate all that they are in mind, body and spirit. That nurtures their desire for acceptance in the world and tells them it’s okay to be who they are in a society that celebrates an oppositional norm.
What are your current plans? And, What is the big picture for Heritage Arts Illustrated?
At Heritage Arts Illustrated, The Beautiful Daughters of Africa Series is only the beginning of our story, we have many other great projects in the works and we greatly need funding as well. If you would like to contribute please visit our crowdfunding page: http://www.gofundme.com/supportheritageart.
We want to teach children African history in a way that is effortless for parents and to where children won’t even realize that they are learning. There are so many stories to tell! Right now, we are based in America but we would like for our materials to be distributed all over the world and especially in countries where people of African descent are highly concentrated.
How our readers could contact you and contribute to your work?
We encourage anyone interested in distributing our products to contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone interested in joining and expanding our team, we welcome you to submit your information for review. Many talented artists with a big vision are needed to offer our children quality materials that will have lasting positive impact on their lives.
Together we can make African history common knowledge!
Marlena Nkene can be contacted at: email@example.com