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Brown girl, brown girl, what do you see?

By Rachel Kersey/Howard University News Service
On February 15, 2015
Yasmin Thomas

Author Yasmin Thomas, a graduating Senior from Howard Univeristy, read books and peformed the history
of storytelling at the Magical Mirrors Children's Book Fair at Sankofa Care.
Credit: Robert Eubanks/District Chronicles

Ask Aliyah DeVille about what books were her favorite as a child and the 20-year-old junior at Howard University launches into a list of books like “Superfudge,” a children’s huge bestseller from the 1980s,  or the humorous Ramona novel series.

“My favorite book that my parents would read to me was called “Brown Bear, Brown Bear,” and they would read that to me every night,” said DeVille. “It didn’t really have a plot, but it was just like ‘Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? I see a red bird staring at me.’”

When asked which books had African-American characters, she paused and blinked three times.

“I mean [the bear] was brown, but he was a bear,” she said. “Nothing is coming to mind right now, but I’m sure I had [a book with Black characters]. I had the Barbies and the dolls and the pictures on the walls and the cards and everything, so I’m sure I must have had a book, but maybe there just weren’t a lot out there, because my parents bought Black [versions of] everything else.”

It turns out DeVille did have books with Black characters after all. There just weren’t very many. She read the American Girl books about Addy, as well as the Payton Skky series. Her parents read books to her like “The Snowy Day.” But according to LaShawn DeVille, Aliyah’s  mother, she had to make a concerted effort to find books with African-American characters.

“I think not seeing yourself in books has a negative effect, because I think you start to think you don’t belong in a book,” said LaShawn DeVilled. “I think it’s vital that they see representations of themselves in literature.”

Last weekend, Sankofa Video, Books & Café near Howard University offered parents and their children a chance to expand their world of books for African-American children with its annual Magical Mirrors Children’s Book Fair.  The two-day event included author Cheryl Tilghman, who was scheduled to sign and read from her book, “The Bubble Within,” and author Yasmin D. Thomas was to present a workshop on the art of storytelling.  

Cheryl Tighman

Local author Cheryl Tighman promoted her children’s book.
Credit: Robert Eubanks/District Chronicles

Shirikiana Gerima is the owner of Sankofa, which specializes in videos and books about people of African descent worldwide. She founded the store in 1997, with her husband, renowned filmmaker and Howard University professor Haile Gerima.

The idea for the book fair came from Gerima’s belief that children need to see themselves reflected in literature.

“We found a way to let children see their reflection in a book and to let them experience all the magic of that literature,” said Gerima. “Because literature is magical, it takes you on magical journeys. You’re seeing yourself in that mirror, and that book is coming back at you. You’re being transformed by it.

“If you only see reflections of one kind of person, you grow up believing there’s something not quite right about you. You grow up thinking there are two groups of people. There are the real humans and there are people who are not real humans. And you may not ever be able to articulate that, but your behavior starts to reflect that belief.”

Tensae Berhanu, manager of the Sankofa café, said the greatest gift he received from his parents was the love of reading. He now has a one-year-old daughter, and he plans to pass that same gift on to her in the hopes that she’ll inherit his sense of self-assurance and survival skills.

Books by and about people of African descent are often seen as exclusive, according to Gerima. That is another barrier to African-American children’s access to books about themselves.

“It’s very important for any human on the planet to be able to feel normal and for their culture to be normal,” she said.

Simply stated, Sankofa is making is possible for the child who is asked, “Brown girl, brown girl, what do you see?” to see a kid as beautifully brown as she.

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