How Callaloo is Bringing Black and Caribbean Folklore to American Youth
By Alyssa Klein
In 2017, Black, Latinx and Indigenous authors combined wrote just seven percent of new children’s books, according to a statistic gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. Moreover, only 29 percent of books about African and African-American people were actually by Black authors and illustrators.
Part children’s book, part puppet play, Callaloo is not in the 71 percent of children’s books about African and African-American characters written by white people. Named after the popular Caribbean dish, it was cooked up by Trinidadian/African-American author and playwright, Marjuan Canady, and illustrator and animator, Nabeeh Bilal, who wanted to bring stories of the Black and Caribbean Diaspora to Black youth across the country.
The D.C. natives met back in high school at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. They connected years later, when Canady wrote Callaloo as a theatrical play. Bilal had the idea to convert the play into an animated series. They settled on making it a children's book. And, in an effort to quite literally bring their stories to life, Bilal introduced puppets into their live shows.
Since then, they’ve released three books, independently, each of which focuses on a different culture of the Black and Caribbean Diaspora. Their first book, Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale (2014), was especially personal for Canady. In it, she talks about her own Trinidadian culture through the story of Winston, an 8-year-old Trinidadian-American boy from New York city on a journey through the Caribbean island of Tobago.
When deciding on which culture to explore in their second book, Canady immediately thought of Puerto Rico, an island whose cultural impact on New York she witnessed first-hand while living in the city. And so, in Callaloo: The Legend of The Golden Coqui (2015), Winston and his best friend Marisol adventure from NYC to Puerto Rico to free the legendary golden coqui frog trapped in El Yunque Rainforest, all while getting to better understand Marisol’s heritage.
Canady and Bilal did a lot of traveling, too. Visiting classrooms and camps across the country, they began to notice a pattern: African-American youth were feeling like they didn’t quite have a folklore of their own. It was then that they realized their obligation to tell the stories of a uniquely African-American folklore.
They found their stories and characters in the Gullah culture, the language, people and heritage of an African-American population who lived in the Lowcountry region of Georgia and South Carolina, and whose importance to the Black American experience is undeniable. (For a spectacular representation of Gullah culture and people on screen, check out Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, the film that inspired Beyoncé's Lemonade.) In the latest chapter of the Callaloo trilogy, Callaloo: The Trickster and the Magic Quilt (2018), we meet young Zoe and our old friend Winston as they travel to the Gullah Sea Islands in search of a long lost patch from Zoe’s grandmother's quilt.
I had the pleasure of watching Canady and Bilal act it out live, as puppets, one Saturday morning at Word Up Books in Washington Heights. Over the course of an hour, they delighted kids and guardians alike as they brought Gullah folklore to life. After the show, I sat down with the Callaloo creators for this week’s Storyteller Spotlight.
This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity and readability.
We Have Stories is all about storytelling. What’s your story?
Marjuan Canady: I’m the author and co-creator of Callaloo. I’m from DC originally. My mom is from Trinidad. My dad is African-American. That was a huge influence for me in terms of my writing and the things that I wanted to tell about my own background. My Caribbean culture and African-American culture were really important to me in the house growing up. My family really fostered that creative environment for me.
My background is in theater, acting, writing, directing, playwriting, as well as film. Nabeeh and I met at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C. We were in different departments. I studied theater and Nabeeh studied visual arts.
Nabeeh Bilal: I’m Nabeeh Bilal, co-creator and illustrator of Callaloo. I’m behind all the visuals and character designs. I’m also part of the conceptualization side of Callaloo.
Like Marjuan, I went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. I was a visual arts major—photography, sculpture, drawing, painting, printmaking, all those foundations. But first and foremost I’ve always been an illustrator. I’m the kid that was drawing every image in the comics in my notebook. I went to Temple University in Philadelphia.
How did Callaloo get started?
Marjuan Canady: We connected back years later, after college. I had written Callaloo as a play originally, and Nabeeh came and saw the play. In the beginning it was more for adults. It was a way for me to share my own story as a child growing up first-generation, and what Caribbean storytelling and folklore meant for me, and how it could come to life through carnival and in a fantasy type of way. After Nabeeh came to see the play in 2013 we decided to develop it into a children’s book.
We’ve done everything independently. Although it’s been challenging in terms of the business side of things, creatively, it’s been great for us to figure out how we tell our own story without the pressure of the larger industry telling us what should be the story to tell. In the last six years we’ve created three children’s books, a series of plays, digital stories and an arts education program through Callaloo.
What kind of stories are you trying to tell?
Marjuan Canady: All the stories highlight a different culture and folklore. It’s been a real journey in understanding who our audience is, who are we, and what stories do we want to tell in terms of the young people. We want these stories to reflect who they are and who we are.
I think because the majority of our team are people of color, the stories are very authentic to the sights and sounds and smells of what we see every day as urban kids growing up in the city and how we connect it to cultures and history that’s not necessarily seen and celebrated in the larger media.
Callaloo for me really started off as a way for me to connect my story as a young person being in the kitchen, listening and watching my grandmother and my mother cook callaloo and a lot of the Caribbean dishes, and have that be the thread and symbolism of how our black diaspora cultures are all interconnected, and the stories really run in us. And figure out how we tell these stories in a unique way.
Why do you feel that representation matters in visual arts?
Nabeeh Bilal: Representation matters in the same way that you see yourself in the mirror. You begin to identify. You begin to say “this is who I am. This is who I’m not.” There’s power in identify. There’s power in seeing yourself in a story. You relay that to yourself, a character overcoming odds, a character is getting into an adventure that maybe you never thought of until you saw that character. That relational aspect can change a child’s trajectory. They can say “I can overcome my odds the same way Zooey, Winston and Marisol did.”
I think kids are so interesting because, outside of greater society and the things we see in media saying “you’re this, or you’re that,” kids don’t really see that. When kids see a movie they say “I’m Superman,” or “I’m Spiderman,” or “I’m Batman.” It doesn’t matter the color. I think as you get older in the society and you really see how things are systematically, your identity becomes an important pillar for you to lean on as you get older. I think Callaloo gives a voice to people who have to look back in that mirror and say “which part of this is me?”
Could you tell us more about your three books?
Marjuan Canady: Originally it was a very personal story. I wanted to talk about my Trinidadian culture. And then I lived in New York for about seven years, where I saw the Puerto Rican influence in New York. That kind of inspired the second book. For the third book, since we had spent so much time traveling and performing at schools and really engaging with young people, we saw that a lot of African-American kids really felt like they didn’t have a folklore, which really inspired us to be like “okay, the third book needs to be in the African-American folklore genre.”
We looked at New Orleans folklore and the Gullahs. The more that we kept researching about the Gullahs, we saw how important it was to the American landscape and the Black American experience. That was kind of a no-brainer for us, especially with everything that’s going on in South Carolina with the gentrification and the losing of the history and the culture, even within the Gullah community. It took us about two years to write and research. We both went down to South Carolina to be on the land and talk to the people. A big part of it was the oral tradition, figuring out how we capture the real experiences of the people and the landscape and the food culture. We’re really trying to pay homage to the Gullah and Southern African-American folklore experience and tradition. The characters are all characters that were created on the plantation in the South from enslaved Africans.
You've been doing Callaloo for more than five years. In those five years, what have you learned about the importance of exposing children to stories? Why do you feel stories matter for children?
Marjuan Canady: In the last five years, I've learned how impactful stories are for children in their early formative years. Children are exposed to this big world through books and media and when kids of color can see themselves and their neighborhoods in the books they read, it builds self-esteem and value which ultimately continues to positively impact them in their development. Likewise, when children learn about other cultures and experiences outside of their own, it creates a sense of community and true diversity where all voices and experiences have a seat at the table. Stories that accurately reflect children's experiences are important in the development into adulthood which not only strengthens their identities but also builds communities that are culturally sensitive, respectful and equitable.