Monday, December 21, 2020

SHADES OF BLACK: A Celebration of Our Children

Written by Sandra L. Pinkney

Photography by Myles C. Pinkney 

(Scholastic, 2000) 


After George Floyd’s death on May 25th of this year, there was a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement and a sense that America and the world had reached a pivotal point. No longer was it enough to sing about a better future somewhere down the line as in “A Change Is Gonna Come”—a song that was first recorded fifty-six years ago, after all. The time for real change seemed to have finally arrived. World leaders and corporate CEOs were acknowledging “systemic racism” and people who chose to peacefully protest reflected a greater diversity. In the publishing world, some magazines saw changes in editorial boards, recognizing that their composition still looked glaringly White. Books like Caste by Isabel Wilkerson and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo lingered on the bestseller charts and it seemed like every agent was seeking #ownvoices books with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) characters. Long time coming. 

Thankfully, the book world had its share of powerful Black writers prior to 2020. Alice Walker. Maya Angelou. Toni Morrison. Langston Hughes. Alex Haley. Zadie Smith. James Baldwin. Roxanne Gay. Terry McMillan. August Wilson. Some of my favorite creators of children’s books include Jacqueline Woodson, Walter Dean Myers, Zetta Elliott, Jason Reynolds and illustrator E.B. Lewis. 

 Still, I’ve often heard people of color talk about how hard it was to find books with characters they could physically identify with when they were growing up. When my local library finally reopened, the first books I checked out were Marita Golden’s Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey through the Color Complex (Doubleday, 2004) and Shades of Black by the husband and wife team of Sandra and Myles Pinkney. I was surprised and heartened to see that Shades of Black is twenty years old. 

Through words and photos, the Pinkneys celebrate the different hues and textures of the skin, hair and eyes of Black children, with each of the three sections beginning with the affirming statement: 

          I am Black 

               I am Unique 

Skin color is compared to different foods, with text such as “I am the midnight blue in a licorice stick” or “I am the radiant brassy yellow in popcorn.” Each accompanying photo depicts a child interacting with the food item that resembles the child’s skin tone, be it the “velvety orange in a peach” or the “gingery brown in a cookie.” 

 The section on hair texture and style compares hair to natural fibers like “stiff ringlets in lambs wool” and “the twisted corkscrew in a rope.” Again, a child with the referenced type of hair is photographed with the natural item. It ends with the proud declaration, “All of my hair is good.” 

Eyes are compared to colorful stones and a Black child appears in each photo to show the similarity of his or her eyes with shiny pieces of unakite, onyx and tiger’s eye. (I learned a few new terms myself!) 

The book ends with the following passage: 

          I am Black 

               I am Unique 

          I come from ancient Kings and Queens. 

          When you look at me, what do you see? 

               I am Black 

          I am proud of me 

Pride and joy arise from the text but are further emboldened in the striking photos of happy, confident Black children. This is a book I can see parents and teachers reading to children over and over again, instilling a positive regard not just as to a child’s own particular skin, hair and eye color, but in the broad range of hair types and skin and eye colors in the Black race. It also can serve to help non-Black children see and celebrate the broad range of appearance in any race. 

Photos of people can often look dated, but Myles Pinkney’s portraits look as current and relatable today as they would have two decades ago. 

A quick internet search shows that the book remains available for purchase on sites like Scholastic, Amazon, Chapters, and Barnes and Noble. You can also fine a read-aloud of the book on YouTube.

No comments:

Post a Comment