teach i ng
middle & upper grades activity
k 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
a project of the southern poverty law center
Was there ever a part of your identity you had to hide?
by Mitali Perkins
I had a magic carpet once. It used to soar to a world of monsoon storms, princesses with black braids, ferocious dragons, and talking birds.
“Ek deen chilo akta choto rajkumar,” my father would begin, and the rich, round sounds of the Bangla language took me from our cramped New York City apartment to a marble palace in ancient India.
Americans made fun of my father’s lilting accent and the strange grammatical twists his sentences took in English. What do they know? I thought, perching happily beside him. In Bangla, he added his own creative flourishes to classic tales by Rabindranath Tagore or Sukumar Roy. He embellished folktales told by generations of ancestors, making me chuckle or catch my breath. “Tell another story, Dad,” I’d beg. But then I learned to read. Greedy for stories, I devoured books in the children’s section of the library. In those days, it was easy to conclude that any tale worth publishing originated in the so-called West, was written in English, and featured North American or European characters.
Slowly, insidiously, I began to judge my heritage through colonial eyes. I asked my mother not to wear a sari, her traditional dress, when she visited me at school. I avoided the sun so that the chocolate hue of my skin couldn’t darken. The nuances and cadences of my father’s Bangla began to grate on my ears. “Not THAT story again, Dad,” I’d say. “I’m reading right now.”
My father didn’t give up easily. He tried teaching me to read Bangla, but I wasn’t interested. Soon, I no longer came to sit beside him, and he stopped telling stories altogether. As an adult, I’ve struggled to learn to read Bangla. I repudiate any definition of beauty linked to a certain skin color. I’ve even lived in Bangladesh to...
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