Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bright Eyes, Brown Skin: Talking openly with children about racial differences

 by Cheryl Willis Hudson

Bright eyes, brown skin
A heart shaped face
A dimpled chin
Bright eyes, cheeks that glow
Chubby fingers, ticklish toes
A playful grin
A perfect nose
Very special hair and clothes
Bright eyes, ears to listen
Lips that kiss you
Teeth that glisten
Bright eyes, brown skin
Warm as toast
And all tucked in.

I wrote about 1/2 of the words of that poem shortly after our son Stephan was born. He was a big baby--weighing in at 8 pounds 6 oz. And he was 21 inches long. He had a nice round head, freckles (that quickly faded after a few weeks) light brown skin and an infectious lopsided smile.

Stephan’s eyes were bright and hopeful and he jetted into the world about an hour and 45 minutes after I arrived at St. Barnabas Hospital on November 4th -- 8 centimeters dilated and anxious to have this labor over. I immediately felt I knew who Stephan was and to the amazement of my obstetrician and the midwife on duty, I laughed heartily out loud on the delivery table when he took in his first breath. They washed him up, put him on my chest and I remember thinking, “He’s exactly what I expected, a beautiful Black baby boy.” But I also said a silent, wordless prayer shortly afterward -- a prayer I believe most African-American mothers say knowing the challenges their male offspring face on their journey from birth to manhood.

I quickly put any negative thoughts aside and embraced our new son and the fullness of his possibilities for the future. I stroked his skin, I kissed and counted his fingers and his toes, I rubbed his bottom and brushed his still silky brown hair. I rubbed my nose on his nose. I smelled his baby fresh smell. And my husband and I welcomed him home in tow with our daughter Katura, who had just turned six-and-a-half and was already showing signs of being a protective big sister.

Katura and Stephan, her baby brother (age 4 months)

Stephan’s birth was the inspiration for writing a children’s book. Years later, I took the original words of my poem to my friend, Bernette, an editor. Wouldn’t this make a great baby board book? I thought.

She agreed and with her editorial skills, Bernette helped to expand it into a picture book (very different from my original concept) that her husband George illustrated with four children rather than one. The final result was a picture book about pre-schoolers that has become a great teaching tool for celebrating diversity. It is a book that deals openly with racial features--Negroid noses, full African-American lips, lush sculptural African-American hair and varieties in dress and skin colors.

The unique thing about this book is that facial features are presented naturally and positively. A nose is “perfect” for a face (not just broad or derisively flat); hair is neither “good” or “bad” but simply a crown on a child’s head; skin is not simply dark -- it’s a range of browns; eyes are not rolling or buck -- they are bright and inquisitive. Black features that for so long have been presented and associated in stereotypical ways in children’s literature (akin to minstrel show imagery) are now being rendered directly -- with no value judgment or racist baggage. The simple, rhythmic text invites children of all complexions and ethnicities to take turns identifying their eyes, ears, noses, hair and clothes and to talk about similarities and differences among their friends.

Bright Eyes, Brown Skin presents a natural and accessible way to talk about differences and similarities and familiar things because it places children in a natural, everyday pre-school setting. The associations are warm and positive and affirmative and Black children can see themselves realistically in the story line. For many African-American children and children of color, Bright Eyes, Brown Skin affirms cultural identity. It helps them to see themselves as valued participants in the world and encourages them to talk openly about racial differences without feeling embarrassed, ashamed or marginalized.

What a positive way to affirm diversity.

Cheryl Willis Hudson is a children's book author, speaker and publisher of Just Us Books. Her books are available at Just Us Books and retailers across the nation. Follow her on Twitter at @diversitymom_ch.

Copyright (c) by Cheryl Willis Hudson, all rights reserved. Originally published by