Rethinking the politics of identity is more than just an intellectual exercise when you become a parent. These days, my anxieties about raising a black child with a healthy, well-rounded sense of self has lead me to unusual places and unexpected insights. Take, for instance, The Backyardigans:
Virtually every American preschooler knows about Nick Jr.’s animated show, The Backyardigans. My toddler is no exception. The show’s five friends share a suburban backyard and an adventurous imagination.
The music initially caught my daughter’s attention. The impressive mix of musical genres are inventive, fun, and provide the show with a rare kind of cultural diversity. In one episode, Pablo the Penguin imitates James Brown’s soul music. Tyrone the Moose often croons country-western songs, and in space, the Backyardigans sing contemporary African pop music with a Martian mom (voiced by Alicia Keys). Click here to open the Nick Jr. video player and search for Backyardigans clips.
But for me, Uniqua is the show’s main attraction. She is the pink, plump, and perceptive polka-dotted creature who inspires others with thoughtfulness and bravery. And while Tasha the Hippo is often cast as the princess or the diva, Uniqua is not bound by traditional gender roles. She is the brave knight, the graceful Egyptian Sphinx, and the chest-thumping Viking. Her positive energy and assertiveness are qualities that I have been trying to instill in my daughter since she was a blip on the ultrasound screen! So it also matters, you see, that Uniqua’s voice and mannerisms are that of an African-American child.
Let’s start with the name…
Yes, Uniqua’s black. (So is her level-headed buddy, Tyrone, for that matter.) But it’s hard to explain why this is so without rattling off a list of essentializing traits. The sass in her voice? The way she crosses her arms and smirks with confidence? Her name draws us into even more dangerous territory. The series creator, Janice Burgess, maintains that it refers to the character’s “uniqueness.” Unlike the other Backyardigans, who are easily recognizable as animals, Uniqua is delightfully unclassifiable. In a New York Times article, Burgess explains:
”Some preschoolers think she’s a bug or a dragon. … She’s a pink and purple spotted thing. It’s not clear if what is on her head is pigtails or antennas.”
The name’s attempt at self-affirmation may strike some as a nod to the stereotypical “Shaniqua” of popular black culture. We might even say the same about “Tyrone.” Anyone who actually watches the show would have a hard time finding support for these arguments, but that doesn’t make me any less alert.*
A new cultural landscape?
I remember, as a child, the way television could invoke both shame and absolute wonder in my own heart. But my toddler does not share this same network of associations. Have I been too entangled in my own assumptions about race to see how The Backyardigans reveals new cultural landscapes, new perspectives that will construct her identity in ways that are more eclectic, perhaps even more liberating than my own?
So while the lovely little girl who gives Uniqua her voice may be African American, I am beginning to realize that this label is not as important as the brilliant virtues of her character. It is her determination that I admire as she pretends to be a scientist traveling through the rainforest. “I’m not scared of a little rain,” she declares as her companions run for cover. Or when, as the Sphinx, Uniqua happily divulges that “please and thank you are the secrets of the Nile.”
We tend to elevate African Americans who excel in their lives and careers as representatives of the race and as evidence of our shared humanity. (How else could Elmo earn a place on a Black History Month calendar?) I recognize the value of this impulse, but I’m also reminded of James Baldwin’s counter argument in Notes of a Native Son:
But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult – that is, accept it.
Learning how to be comfortable in your own skin is a tough lesson, one that I am still struggling to master. Faced with the enormous responsibility of being a mother in the 21st century, I am grateful for my husband and the guidance of good friends, for the insight of blogs like Anti-Racist Parent and books like Amazing Grace, and for the remarkable view from Uniqua’s backyard.