Three months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Stephanie L. Blair, a first-generation Guyanese-American, mapped out the concept for Sadie's Caribbean Alphabet, a book for children who don't typically see images of themselves in mainstream literature.
While recovering from surgery, Blair, an administrative assistant at a New York City law firm who holds a Bachelor's degree in Linguistics, had enough time on her hands to start putting her idea into motion. Once she was convinced it had potential, she joined forces with St Lucia-born illustrator Herman Collymore to bring the picture book to life.
I caught up with Blair, who I knew peripherally as children when we were part of the same Caribbean-American community, to discuss her new role as an author. For years, she told me, she had dreamed of writing a play or a novel. She would write drafts and send them to her best friend—who had given her a book about playwriting for her birthday a few years back—just to get her opinion. Nothing she wrote ever seemed right to her, however. It either felt forced or didn't make sense.
She began to notice, whenever she'd be out shopping for books for the children in her life, that there were no stories that seemed to relate to the Caribbean-American experience. In June 2020, she told her best friend, “I think I'm going to write a kids’ book.” She fleshed out the concept and the rest, as they say, is history.
Atiba Rogers (AR): You announced the launch of the book in a Facebook post, explaining, ‘When I started working on this, I knew it [had] to capture a part of what I’ve always wanted to see as a child. There were no children’s books that looked like me, shared my chocolate skin, and shared my culture.’ As a young girl of Afro-Caribbean descent, how did you cope?
Stephanie Blair (SB): Growing up in Brooklyn, you don't cope with pressure—you desensitize yourself and learn to do what you have to do. In America, immigrants don't have time to deal with their feelings because of the predominant stereotypes they face every day.
Some people think foreigners are poor, lack education, or pose a certain kind of threat. As a Guyanese-American, I'm judged because I'm American, I'm judged because I'm Guyanese, and I'm judged because I'm black. It's threefold for me.
[The alienation] was from different angles. I didn't see shows that represented Caribbean and/or Caribbean-American children and families. Back then, people weren't as well-versed in [the culture of] Caribbean families as they are now.
AR: What was it like growing up in your home? As members of the Caribbean diaspora, did your family have to assimilate into American society? Do you struggle with Caribbeans viewing you from Americanized optics?
SB: It was instilled in me to know what my roots are. My family has assimilated to American society in certain ways. I don't struggle with it at all. Caribbean people are constantly pushing forward to build a better life for themselves and their families. They've built a very tough exterior and desensitized themselves from worrying about small talk [and] what people think about them.
AR: Did you feel like you had to compete between being African-American and Caribbean? If so, what made you decide between writing for Caribbean youth and African-American youth?
SB: What made me [choose to] write for Caribbean youth is my own personal experiences. I was looking for literature for my little cousins, goddaughter, and godson. I noticed how scarce and inaccessible Black children's literature was, compared to other fictional children's books.
It’s hard for me to put a label on myself. Americans view American-born children from Caribbean parents as Caribbean children, and Caribbean people view children who are born in the United States as Americans, [yet] they constantly say to them, ‘You are Caribbean.’ This is my first book and there is more to come’ [perhaps categorised] under Caribbean and African-American writing.
AR: How is Sadie's Caribbean Alphabet a representation of what it means to be Caribbean?
SB: The book [captures] what it means to be a Caribbean-American [with] strong connections to your Caribbean roots and Caribbean family living abroad. This alphabet shares its Caribbean food, sports, spices, music, and landmarks with the world.
AR: Would you agree that singling out Caribbeans could come off as divisive to Africans and African-Americans?
SB: How people from different cultures view my work has crossed my mind, and I hope the response is positive. I didn't think [my approach] divisive. Some people will view it as that, but I can't live to please everybody and I don't think that I can truly write about African culture—I have an understanding of it, but I haven't lived in it. If I were to write an African-American story, someone will say, ‘Oh, she's from a Guyanese background, how can she write about the African-American [experience]?’ People will always have something to say.
Some Caribbean people can be very judgmental and there's always a back and forth about, well … Guyanese are not Caribbean, they're South American.
GV: Would you categorise yourself as a Black writer?
SB: Honestly, it's hard for me to put a label on myself because I've never done that. I'm just Stephanie. But if I had to, I'd say I'm a Black Guyanese-American author.
AR: What do you have to say to children who may be viewed as different?
SB: You are beautifully crafted by a higher power to stand out. Don't be afraid of who you are. Your uniqueness is your superpower.
Producing Caribbean literature is one of my goals because I attended schools throughout my youth where children and families differed from me culturally, linguistically, and physically. Even though the United States of America is a melting pot, if you don’t live in a state that has a large population of people from a country you or your family are from … chances are you won’t be too open about your culture.
AR: What has the response to the book been like and what do you hope for it to accomplish?
SB: [I want to] connect with Caribbean families all across the world through literature. While having a successful career is nice, producing relatable Caribbean literature is my goal.
I've received a lot of positive feedback from educators, friends, family and of course, all the kiddies. One parent asked me if I would be turning this book into a series and it has definitely crossed my mind. We shall see what happens in the future.
Blair's book is self-published.