Taye Diggs speaks about his children’s book on racial injustice

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NEWSY’S CHANCE SEALES: For many families, talking about being Black and Brown in America today — and in the past — can be really hard. Taye Diggs, who stars in movies like “The Best Man,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Brown Sugar” and, on stage, “Rent,” is also now the author of “Why?” — a conversation about race. Mr. Diggs, thanks for being here.

TAYE DIGGS: Thank you for having me.

SEALES: This book is very much inspired by this moment — real life. Do these draw on real conversations you’ve had?

DIGGS: Similar. Similar Conversations. I was inspired to write this because of some of the talks me and my 12-year-old son have had and during these conversations I was struck with the idea that sometimes in life — and this is one of the reasons why I went ahead and wrote the book — as a parent, sometimes the answers to some of the questions that were asked aren’t tied up in a tiny little colorful book. Sometimes it’s not about right or wrong or Black or white or up or down. Sometimes, the answer to these questions can be uncomfortable and there isn’t necessarily an answer, or not an answer that is going to make either party happy and I wanted to experiment with that in this book. You know what I mean? I’m sure children all across the globe were looking at what was happening here in America during Black Lives Matter and wondering what the deal was. And I wanted to do my best to give an accurate portrayal of at least my perspective and the way that it applies to my son as well.

SEALES: Well I wonder how you even got to that because the kids in your book, they get these really succinct answers, you know, from these really wonderful grandparents and parents to questions that entire textbooks have been written about, you know. What’s your process for distilling that? Because they are such complex topics.

DIGGS: I mean I don’t want to get too woo-woo here, but I really feel like sometimes, you know, the words just kind of come to me and, and I’m just writing them down. People can choose to believe what they want, but that’s how I know something is kind of supposed to come through me — when I don’t have much thought and it just comes out and this is one of those situations. I owe a lot to, kind of the writing style that I used, to my mother and the way that she read to me and … She always read books to me that had a certain rhythm to them. And I love the fact that, you know, some of the little sentences, they kind of come back, you know, almost like the chorus of the song. So, you know, all of that kind of lends itself to my writing and more specifically to this book.

"Why?" book cover, by Taye Diggs

SEALES: I was going to ask you about music because to me when I’m reading this, it has a melodic quality to it. Like I said, a lot of us, the first time we met you was in the 90s Broadway hit and we can’t forget your voice. And I’m reading this book and I almost feel like I’m listening to these refrains, you know, that it keeps coming back and, you know, ‘We do this because we need to. We really need to.’ It seems like that was intentional.

DIGGS: 100%. Yeah, as I said, I was raised in a very musical family and that has become a part of me, a part of, you know, my relationship with my child and now a part of this writing. It’s just a language that is comfortable. With my other books, there’s more of a kind of upbeat, kind of happy rhyme scheme. And I was very that — if you could compare this to music — this was more, as you said, kind of melodic and deep, you know what I mean? As opposed to kind of upbeat and a staccato.

SEALES: You have other books, Taye. And I read a ton of kids’ books. I have to say, I have two toddlers at home and they really learn them by heart. And with most of these books — and we have a lot in my family that are focused on families that are different — can face discrimination. We have two dads in my family, you know, and we want them to be proud of themselves, to be ready for the world. But most of the authors, they play up possibility and the good in the world. But in this book you focus on injustices. The preface to it calls them straightforward and challenging conversations. Why did you choose that approach?

DIGGS: Honestly, I just was trying to be as honest as I could. I was just telling someone else that just as a person, I lean more towards seeing the bright side, seeing the positive side, trying to be positive. But I think just in the world, we’ve come to a point where that’s not necessarily working. And in order for us — I think, this is just my opinion — to really get to the bottom of some of these issues, it’s gonna have to get a little uncomfortable. And I think we’ve been avoiding that for a long time. And I think, you know, for me, I wanted to include my kid in that discussion where ‘This is the truth’ and instead of saying what’s happening — whether it be right or wrong — let’s try to figure out why. And that seemed to be pretty accurate to me.

SEALES: I notice you keep saying ‘This is how I see it. This is the way I wrote it.’ Why is that important to say to you? Is it because you feel like there are a multiplicity of perspectives?

DIGGS: I do. I do … I think part of us growing together as a community is being able to accept other people’s perspectives whether or not we agree with them. Just to respect them. And you know, I try — I fail often — but you know, I try to be very aware of ‘This is just the way I see things and other people have different views.’ And I think we would be a little bit better off if we were able to accept other people’s uses and perspectives more.

SEALES: You talk about perspectives and there’s this is kind of the height of the book and I wanted to read just a piece of it and really understand here.

“A child asked the family — finally, all the elders are gathered and they asked: ‘Why are those buildings burning?’ And the family answers, ‘Well, little one, when we get tired of shouting and not being heard, when we have cried so many tears from always getting hurt, when we scream out for help and continue to get ignored, when we march and march and march but are not really moving. When all this happens, sometimes buildings must burn. The buildings burn for us. The anger burning those buildings is us.'”

The word “must” sticks out. I assume that was intentional. What did you mean by “buildings must burn”?

DIGGS: I just feel like that’s what’s happening in the world, you know. As you can imagine, it can get tiring because that’s how the world works. I mean you take a dam and you fill it with water and you know, after a while, if you don’t take care of that dam the water is going to burst. You know, like with dealing with my son. If I’m busy with work and he keeps asking me to play with him, I’m going to see him deal with me in a different way. And I feel like that’s what’s happening with the world. With the pandemic, with Black Lives Matter, with the Ozone — we need to kind of deal with these situations or we’re going to be faced with deeper problems on a deeper level. And I think that that’s what’s going on right now.

SEALES: It sounds like, to me, that you’re trying to get us to really talk about some things that are really hard as they are and and really hard to talk about. By the end, we see the family praying for peace and they say ‘What do we do?’ and they pray. And even visually, it gets lighter and brighter. I personally pray every day. I love that, you know, prayer is in there, but I also wonder: Any thoughts on what we can do ourselves and our communities?

DIGGS: I think talking about these issues seriously without the idea of fixing them in the moment, you know. Without the idea of ‘In this conversation, what can I say that will make you feel better?’ I don’t think that’s — I think we have to literally get our hands dirty and talk about how we actually feel and start there. Other than that, I don’t know. But I think the desire is a good thing and I think it can start there.

SEALES: That’s great. And if somebody makes a mistake in some way, I’ve heard someone say that we should try to assume that someone has a good heart or, you know, good intentions, that these things are so hard. And you’re saying the conversation should come up. Is that okay to make a mistake in the process if you’re trying to really learn?

DIGGS: I feel like that’s part of it. We’re talking about our feelings. There should be no mistakes, you know what I mean? I try to relate that to Walker. No one can tell you that the way you feel is wrong because they’re your feelings. If you have an issue with the way I feel that’s on you. So, we have to, I think on every side of the situation, be open and hear without letting our own egos get in the way. So, if you say something that makes me feel a certain way, okay, I respect that. Now, this makes me feel a certain way. It’s not a mistake. It’s how you feel. I feel this way. Do we want to talk about that? Well, let’s talk about that, you know what I mean? But you know, it’s really difficult for people to move forward if they’re worried about making mistakes. The only way things can get better are through people making mistakes.

SEALES: The book is ‘Why?’ So many people would be too scared to take on such big topics and you just dive right into it. Taye Diggs. We appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

DIGGS: Thank you, man. This is great. This is great. I appreciate it.

By Newsy Staff.