Painting the “Real” Us

Illustrations by John Parra in Hey, Wall: A Story of Art and Community by Susan Verde

As a Euro-American father to two Black children, James Raycraft came to the VIBE Movement‘s June 2020 “How to Talk to Kids About Race” webinar with a unique set of multicultural commitments. With his husband Mark, who is also Euro-American, James became a father to Malia and Felix through open adoptions. James articulated a clear and powerful answer to the question, “When do we talk to kids about race?” He shared, “We should have started when they were born. The conversation starts early and often. But, you don’t hit a three year old on the head with the weight of the world. You have a conversation that is age appropriate. And, it’s also a listening conversation…I need to listen to my kids. At 7 and 2 ½, you would be surprised at what these kids see early on.”

This point about what children “see” affirms that the neighborhood where children grow up plays a significant role in the development of their sense of ethos. For children with non-Western and non-white cultural roots, not seeing themselves reflected in their community can be a type of emotional violence with real-world consequences.

James explained that his family relocated from San Mateo to Oakland because his Black children needed and deserved to see themselves in their neighborhood. Having known James since we were undergrads at Loyola Marymount University, I can attest to the high degree of planning, coordination, and research which must have gone into their relocation. Hearing about their journey into confronting race, and what it means to be racialized, filled me with hope for our communities and children. It occurred to me, as James was speaking, that the well-documented efforts to gentrify Oakland and commodify its cultural Blackness did not have the tools to erase a Black community with children who are empowered to reflect and create it. As fathers of Black children, James and Mark are Euro-American transplants to Oakland who embrace their otherness as an opportunity to learn about and center their children’s ethnic reality.

In selecting a final and fifth children’s book to recommend for this series, I thought of James’ remarking, “When we go out into the world, [we ask them] what do you see…are you represented? We ask our kids all the time.” His points remind us that kids need to see people who look like them, hear people who speak like them, and learn about people with lived experiences like them. “Community” is built not only through knowing your neighbors, but through being empowered to imagine what is possible for a kid from a community like yours. As a child grows up and becomes more independent, the microcosmic “community” can unfold into a diverse set of “communities.” If a child can imagine a place for themselves within a community, then they can self-validate their experience.

Cover of Hey, Wall: A Story of Art and Community by Susan Verde, with illustrations from John Parra

Susan Verde’s Hey, Wall: A Story of Art and Community is a children’s book which teaches kids how to observe, imagine, and act in a way which honors the ethos of their neighborhood.  The book also comes in a Spanish language edition, Oye, Muro: Un cuento de art y comunidad. The illustrations from John Parra unfold with carefully sequenced shapes, backgrounds, and foregrounds that place ethnically and generationally diverse people at the center of each page. Kids up to age eight can read this book to learn about the spaces which speak to our community experiences and realities, and to be inspired to create a work of art all their own.

In the afterword, Verde explains that “Walls often separate and divide. When neglected they can appear lonely and sad, but art and artists have the power to change that. A blank wall can become a canvas that unites and transforms neighborhoods and communities.” Angel, the young artist leading us through Hey, Wall, is powerful because he helps transform his community. He shows readers that kids have the vision, ideas, and knowledge needed to become artists and leaders.

Parents reading the English language edition of the book to their child may wish to replace “Hey, Wall” with “Oye, Muro.” I found myself making this trade, in part because “oye, muro” sounds like a more natural pairing to my own Chicana ears. A linguist could probably explain why “hey, wall” sounds more foreign to me, a native English speaker, than “oye, muro.” But, I am satisfied with the simple fact that “oye, muro” is simply more fun to say out loud, and it reminds me of home.

Hey, Wall: A Story of Art and Community by Susan Verde, with illustrations from John Parra

Hey, Wall begins with Angel speaking: “Hey, Wall [Oye, Muro]! You are BIG. A city block BIG. My city block.” He has ownership of his neighborhood, which gives the streets and buildings a place of importance. The “community” does not just form in private homes. The “community” forms on the streets and rooftops, too. Para’s illustration of the neighborhood rooftop party features people of different colors, different generations, and different occupations. We have a trumpet player, jazz singer, break-dancers, a conga player, and dancers. They each belong to one another, even though they are different. This teaches kids that difference is a normal aspect of community. In an America with a status quo which demands assimilation, a type of cultural erasure for many ethnic minorities, kids need to be armed with a different conception of reality. Hey, Wall presents paradox as a superpower.

Like the transformation of his “lonely concrete” wall into a public art piece, the neighborhood itself transforms from a deteriorating shadow of what once “was beautiful” to a reclaimed, living beauty. Angel declares, “Hey, Wall! Look at you now. You are beautiful! Now you tell the real story of us. And together, we are somethin’ to see.” For teachers, the theme of paradox in the story can be used to teach the concepts of transformation, community history, collaboration, and public art. Lessons on each concept can be developed in relation to different public art spaces in your community. For parents, the theme of paradox in the story can be the start of a larger conversation about difference and how children understand their own place in a community.

Hey, Wall is didactic in others ways, too. The following is only a partial list of some ethical truths reflected in the narrative:

Old things are not trash.

Old things have value.

Our elders have valuable things to teach us about our community.

Kids, like flowers, are meant to grow.

We can find love and joy through community.

Kids have the power to transform the world we live in.

Teachers should be aware that not all students have access to an inclusive and diverse community which is not centered in whiteness. The classroom may be the primary space wherein a child gains a sense of belonging to a larger group outside of the family unit. Parents can speak to an array of communities a child belongs to, including the neighborhood they live in. But, don’t forget to ask your child what they feel like at school and in their community. Their answers may surprise you.

Hey, Wall: A Story of Art and Community by Susan Verde, with illustrations from John Parra

The collective assembled in Hey, Wall includes Angel, his Grandma Addy, and his friends James and Danny. But, it is Angel who leads the mural committee. He also addresses the wall as a living part of his community: “You don’t laugh. You don’t share your stories. Hey, Wall! Guess what? I’m ready to change all that. I’ve got my pencil, I’ve got my paints, I’ve got my dreams. I am a writer, a creator, a game changer, a wall changer.” Maybe your child or students would like to start their own mural committee, even if its “just” for a giant piece of butcher’s paper over a wall or sidewalk. Perhaps they can create their mural in chalk or portable pieces of collage. Perhaps the reader can become a wall changer, like Angel.

Parra’s afterword makes a compelling point about public art: “Art the size of a city block has a wonderful and direct connection to its community. You do not have to visit a museum or an art gallery. Art murals are there for you to enjoy from the street. They become part of our lives and conversation.” For kids who may lack access to formal/institutional art spaces, public art is a rich source of inspiration and education. Verde mentions young muralist “Lola the Illustrator” in her closing thoughts. Through expanding a kid’s access to public art and muralists, the story of Hey, Wall can continue long after the book has been consumed.

In closing, I would like to share a few of my favorite public artists and spaces with you. This is a short list and in no way reflective of the vast public artworks and artists in America today. Maybe, as you go about your day, you will discover a lonely wall that needs to remember it is beautiful. Maybe, you can remind kids that they have the power to create their own community. They are artists without borders. As Hey, Wall [Oye, Muro] shows us, kids can make walls speak to, speak through, and speak of their realities.

Back Cover of Hey, Wall: A Story of Art and Community by Susan Verde, with illustrations from John Parra

ASCO, Artist Collective

Judy Baca, Artist

Black Lives Matter Murals, Various Artists and Locales

Chicano Park in Barrio Logan, Various Muralists

Gregg Deal, Artist

Shepard Fairey, Artist

Judithe Hernandez,  Artist

In Plain Sight, Artist Coaltion

D.C. Lamphere, Artist

Kehinde Wiley, Artist

Ernesto Yerena, Artist

Published by Clarissa Castaneda, PhD

Clarissa Castaneda, PhD is a scholar of Latine/Chicane American literature and cultures, indigenous literatures and cultures, film/television/visual/material cultures, archive theory, and poetics. Her dissertation, Latinidades and the Repository Function of the Poetic (2020), is available via ProQuest. And, “Indigenous Libretto and Aural Memory in The Sun Dance and El Circo Anahuac” is available in Displaced: Literature of Indigeneity, Migration, and Trauma (Routledge 2020). Dr. Castaneda is a lecturer in English at Cal Poly Pomona and a faculty associate in Film & Television Studies at Arizona State University. In addition to research, academic writing, and teaching, she is a creative writer, poet, and musician.

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