It is a privilege for Alchemiya to be able to host the ground-breaking work of author, director and creative entrepreneur Robyn Abdusamad. Born and raised in North Carolina, Robyn is a storyteller whose African-American characters not only provide visibility and positive representation, but also shift the narrative of African-American experience and history. Two of her children’s books, Zaynab’s Enchanted Scarf and Zakiyyah’s Talking Flower Garden, are now beautifully animated films that allow children to see themselves reflected on screen and to get a sense of an older history than the one contained in formal education.
By Valerie Grove
Before Zaynab’s Enchanted Scarf appeared in 2017, Robyn was already the author of two books, the first of which, Wahid and His Special Friend (2013), featured Wahid, an average little boy who enjoys playing with his siblings and toys, but at times likes to slip away and bond with his own special little friend. Her second book, You Are Beautiful, (2014) introduces the characters of Zaynab and Zakiyyah whose first encounter with racism opens up a very real and important discussion in their family.
What spurred her to become a children’s storyteller was having her own kids and realising, along with her friend and editor of Zaynab’s Enchanted Scarf, Dr. Kimberly Harper, just how little representation and diversity there was in children’s books. Going to the library and local bookstores became a big deal for both of them and they began to notice the lack of African-American and African-American Muslim representation, not just in books but in toys and other media for children. It’s very important that children see themselves in what they read and they wanted their kids to be able to pick up books featuring people who looked like them and who they could relate to and be affirmed by. As an African-American Muslim woman with Muslim children, for Robyn it wasn’t just being able to see African-American characters but African-American Muslim characters.
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However, the main impetus for Zaynab’s Enchanted Scarf was when Robyn began to notice that her daughter came home from school when Black History Month came around, with exactly the same research suggestions every single year. People like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks or George Washington Carver, all of whom are very important of course, but being stuck with this narrative seemed to confine ‘black history’ to 20th century American political history only. More disturbing is that the earlier historical narrative of being descendants of slaves brought over from Africa has not really changed since Robyn’s own childhood school experiences. So essentially children today are still learning that African-American history began with slavery. In the course of her daughter’s research one year, Robyn found a page about African kings and queens and that was the light bulb moment that led to the stories.
In its three short episodes, Zaynab’s Enchanted Scarf takes us back in time to meet the Warrior Queen, Amina of Zazzau; the righteous African King, Mansa Musa; and the peace-makers, King Ramses and Queen Nefertiti. It shows children a part of their history that isn’t told in public schools and encourages them to see themselves not as descendants of slaves but of kings and queens, and to take confidence from that and recognise themselves in that history. For Robyn the inclusion of Queen Amina is one that breaks many of the damaging stereotypes that girls grow up with and which increase the pressures they face both as children and as adult women of colour. Amina was a Warrior Queen and an extremely powerful person in her own right. She is a positive representation that can remind girls that they are capable and strong and have been for a very long time.
The next project was Zakiyyah’s Talking Flower Garden in 2019. This delightful animation is a joy to watch and like Zaynab, teaches not just the names of historical figures but illustrates and situates them in their political, military and colonial context in an honest and straightforward way. As well as being affirmative and educational about the past, the story is as much about the life and relationships of an African-American Muslim family in the present. Presenting history in this way encourages children to read more and to be proud of who they are and where they come from. It also encourages questions that can open up very valuable family discussions. Obvious perhaps but most remarkable is just how amazing it is to see a children’s programme with entirely African-American characters and a hijabi Mom. You knew it was missing but you don’t quite realise just how much until you see it right there in front of you.
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Despite the success of Zaynab and Zakkiyah, production, animation and pitching to online content providers to carry the films was a struggle for Robyn, especially with kids and a day job. Around the same time Robyn and Kimberly were also setting up Omera Productions – a company dedicated to producing more books and films in which African-American and African-American Muslim children could be fully represented. Then as now, what Robyn most needs is secure funding for a professional illustrator and animator to maintain continuous production of the work. There are still a few unpublished stories that Robyn hopes can one day be published and animated for all to enjoy. She would also like to establish an organisation under the umbrella of Omera that will work closely with young people and teach them pertinent life skills.
Robyn is currently working on her first fiction book for adults.
(Research Acknowledgments: Radio Islam USA / Voyage Dallas / About Islam Net)