As a former musician and musical theater geek, the only award show I look forward to each year is the Tony’s. This year was no exception, even though, as one might say, “I had no horse in this race.” It wasn’t like the year when Phantom went up against Into the Woods, splitting awards for “Best Musical” and “Best Book of a Musical.” Or when Avenue Q so unrightly won “Best Musical” over Wicked (Wicked is still on Broadway after more than 20 years. Where are those damn puppets now? Old and moldy.) But this year had an interesting twist, one that seemed innocuous at first.
The 71st Tony Awards were held in Radio City Music Hall and included their famous “Rockettes.” They’re a marvel. Their talent and precision is mesmerizing, especially for an old band director. I actually got to see them live at an Easter show many years ago. Most of it was stupendous until…Rockettes…dressed as nuns…holding Easter lilies that lit up in the shape of a cross. That was surreal. But I’m not from New York. But then, neither is my nephew.
My youngest nephew lives in the country. I guess I’m close to the country now, but he lives in Summers County, West Virginia. It’s a small place, very rural, more country than where I live, and he’s an anomaly. Of mixed race, most people reasonably assume he’s black. He’s also quite accomplished, even at a very young age. He’s just finished the sixth grade and is moving to middle school. This year, again, he’s won many awards for his academic success. He also wins awards every year for his citizenship, for which his mother is most proud. So being black shouldn’t matter.
But it does. He’s grown up with a multi-age group of friends and relatives, which is not uncommon in rural areas. He has friends that are several years older as well as some that are younger than him, but he’s still usually the only black one. They’re a tight group of friends, and their parents are close, too. When you talk about “a village,” you’re talking about the folks who are raising my nephew and his friends. It’s what we want for our kids.
So, why should it matter that he’s black? He’s doing well in school, right? Well, I’m the uncle who gives him books as presents. I give him other presents, but my nephew was born the day before Christmas, so I try to mix it up with fun stuff for one celebration and books for the other. Don’t get me wrong, I love books! I think books are the fun stuff! But I’m not in the sixth grade (or the fifth, and fourth and every grade earlier to the point where he used to sit on my lap as a baby while I read to him). The trouble is, there are (almost) no books for him.
When I was growing up, I had already read all of Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books. I read the Shanarra Chronicles and lots of classics, too. I was a voracious reader. My parents encouraged us to read, and most nights finished with Mom or Dad reading a chapter from some book to me and my little brother before bed. But that’s because I could see myself in those books. That’s not the case for my nephew.
Every year, as he gets older, it gets harder and harder to find books that have characters that look like my nephew, or have the same interests as my nephew. In the past, I’ve given him books about dinosaurs, mythology, superheroes, and sports. I also go for fantasy, but even then, a lot have been turned into movies and almost all the characters are white. At least the main characters. Or, like in the case of Percy Jackson, the black kid is a supporting character, and an animal to boot!
When I do find good books with strong black teenage characters, they’re usually inner city kids. Many are dealing with drugs and violence and broken families. That’s not my nephew, or his family. Yes, he likes playing basketball, and was just awarded “Best Camper” at his summer basketball camp, but he’s not dealing with kids shooting up or shooting each other. The only shooting he’s interested in is free throws. He’s not in the books I find at my local bookstore.
So, that’s why, when watching the Tony Awards tonight, I noticed that there was only one black Rockette. There were dozens of them on the stage, but only one black one. And they put her front and center. And then set that off with a vocal performance by Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom, two amazingly talented, and yes, black performers. I might not have noticed the irony before my nephew. But it was now, forgive me, bright as the celebrated neon lights of the “Great White Way.” So many puns in that sentence.
If we want kids to succeed in school (and life!), we need to give them stories they can relate to. They need to see themselves as the main characters—in books, movies, TV shows, games, and even awards shows. All kids, boys and girls of every race. They have to see possibilities for themselves. If a kid in rural West Virginia can turn on the TV and can’t see anyone who looks like him unless it’s a drug addict or a convict, what message is that sending? If I can’t find a single book with a positive role model for a young black kid, what are we telling him? I can’t even find books where a young black kid doing well is the main character.
Help me work on this. Yes, there are a few books out there for him to read. I’ve read a couple. I also work in schools across the country, so I ask teachers and visit school libraries. I’ll continue to look. But the operative word is few. There are a limited number of role models for him to relate to that may not be sports figures. I can’t solve this on my own, but I will keep working on it for him, and his friends, because I know some day he is going to be that role model for some other young, black kid in a rural area that needs someone to look up to. So maybe he’ll tell his story. And there will be Rockettes of every color.