Bright Eyes, Brown Skin: Talking Openly to Children About Racial Differences
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 one half 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. 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 stoked 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. My husband, daughter and I brought him with great joy.
Stephan’s birth was the inspiration for writing Bright Eyes, Brown Skin, (Just Us Books, 1991). Years later, I took the original words of my poem to my friend, Bernette Ford, a children’s book editor. Wouldn’t this make a great baby board book? I thought.
She agreed and with her expert editorial skills, Bernette helped to expand it into a picture book (very different from my original concept) that her husband George Ford 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.
In Bright Eyes, Brown Skin facial features are presented naturally and positively. A nose is “perfect” for a face (not broad or derisively flat); hair is neither “good” or “bad” but simply a crown on a child’s head; skin is not dark—it’s a range of browns; eyes are not rolling or buck—they are bright and inquisitive. African American 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 and simply with no value judgment or racist baggage. The simple, straightforward 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.
There is a need for a broad range of books about African American children that are presented in a natural and accessible way.
Bright Eyes, Brown Skin presents all children with opportunities 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 also other brown children, Bright Eyes, Brown Skin affirms cultural identity. It helps children of color to see themselves as valued participants in the world and encourages them to talk openly about racial differences without feeling embarrassed, ashamed or marginalized.