By Nina G. Jablonski
’Skin We Are In’ is a landmark South African book for children (and grown-ups) on the subject of skin colour. Published in 2018, it was co-authored by an artist and a scientist, both South African luminaries – the author Sindiwe Magona and the anthropologist and palaeobiologist Nina Jablonski. Here they talk about how – and why – the book came about.
Nina Jablonski: As someone who studies the human biological past, I had been writing about skin colour and race for academic journals and for adult readers for years. The idea of doing a children’s book was planted back in 2010 when a friend impressed on me the importance of writing up my research on skin colour and race as an illustrated book for young readers.
Like many South Africans, he realised that skin colour had been transformed through the country’s colonial history from a simple bodily trait – something that covers our bodies – to something that determines human worth and destiny.
I had found, in the course of my work, that people knew its social significance, but they didn’t understand it. Many were convinced that there was a genetic connection between skin colour and other physical and intellectual traits, including intelligence. This information – about how skin colour had evolved and how it didn’t determine any other human traits – really needed to be conveyed to the people who counted most: young people.
But I had no experience in writing for kids and no idea where the story would come from. I had the big challenge of finding a storyteller. I turned to the writer Njabulo Ndebele for advice. He suggested you, Sindiwe, saying “she has the spirit and spine needed”.
Sindiwe Magona: The project scared me for I had never worked with a scientist. But the subject matter is one of the most important aspects of my life as it has been the bane of black life in this country and, indeed, the world.
This was a book that could enable parents to broach the subject of skin colour with their children. All parents need help to deal with race and racism; many did not get good grounding as children. Skin colour is often a difficult subject and dealing with it through storytelling is a great aid.
Nina Jablonski: One of the things that most impressed me, once we were talking, was your ability to express the everyday wear-and-tear of skin colour and colour-based racism.
Sindiwe Magona: Racism in South Africa was a way of life as it was sanctioned. Social stratification, according to skin, was reinforced by apartheid laws that in turn embedded and entrenched poverty and lack of mobility for the oppressed.
The darker the skin colour, the less legal protection accorded, to the extent of denial of citizenship. Just as skin colour is inescapable, so was poverty inescapable. This created and reinforced a deep-seated sense of inferiority in most black people while most white people suffered the reverse and felt superior.
Nina Jablonski: You found the hook to start writing the book quite by chance…
Sindiwe Magona: Coming back from our first meeting, Nina, I walked through the gate and reached behind the post for mail. Right there, on the small bush whose leaves I often have to brush aside to look into the mailbox, sat a chameleon.
I watched as it slowly made its way from the stalk onto a leaf … changing colour as it did. At once, I morphed into a child, a boy, and I envied the chameleon’s ability. If only I could do that. Strange thing is – never before and never since have I spied another in my garden.