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Black Girl Beauty

Denene Millner of MyBrownBaby

I’m pretty sure I hadn’t even wiped the sonogram goop off my belly before I rushed to Benjamin Moore, Babies ‘R Us, and ABC Carpet and Home to pick out paint colors, furniture, bedspreads, and dolls for my unborn child, who’d happily opened wide to reveal herself a girl. I was on a mission; I needed lime green and hot pinks and a tidbit of yellow, a natural-colored crib, bed, and glider, and, to set the nursery off, something to hang up on the walls that would reflect the pretty little chocolate child who’d soon be making her debut. Finding a crib set and bed sheet with lime green and hot pink was hard enough (everything was either pink or blue—so uninspired and blah), but finding art, books, and children’s music featuring brown babies on or in it?

Near impossible.

The pickings were slim, at best; everything with pictures of babies on them—from the framed wall art to the baby frames to the crib sheets to the growth charts and burp cloths—featured white babies. The stalwarts of children’s music—then The Wiggles, Barney, and Little Einstein—specialized in songs that was a little too corny, a little too pop, for my finely-tuned R&B and hip hop—read “black music” ears. And the books—well, let’s just say that finding children’s literature with pictures of children of color—any color—seemed as elusive as Leprechauns and Four-Leaf Clovers. Sure, you heard that they might be for real. But deep down, and after an exhaustive search, you grew to know better. Books with white children and, like, ducks and stuff were the real—and only—offerings.

Which I guess was fine for parents who were having white babies or ducks. But this was so not going to work for my brown baby’s boudoir. I wanted—needed—her to see her beautiful, brown self reflected in her love-filled room. I owed her that much.  Because goodness knows, the moment she was old enough to turn on a TV, open a magazine, listen to a radio, take in a commercial or ad, or partake in and really understand any other pop culture references, she could forget seeing herself.

Little black girls, you see, are invisible.

It was this way when I was a little black girl, and it is true, still, today, eleven years after I ushered my first little black girl into this world and eight years after my second came, too. Mari and Lila can go weeks—hell, months—without organically seeing another little human who looks like them—brown skin, kinky hair, thick lips, wide noses, chocolate flavor all up and through their mannerisms and tastes and speech and beings. They’re not amongst the Mileys, Selenas, iCarleys, and Victorias of the Disney and Nickelodeon worlds; they’re not in commercials for dolls and diapers and cereal and all the other stuff my girls try to convince me to spend my hard-earned money on; they’re not on the bookshelves in the children’s section of stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble; they’re not singing kid-friendly pop songs or dancing in popular children’s DVDs or having their stories told on the big screen in any meaningful way.

Which brings me to why I have to agree with NPR’s Veronica Miller that this was the best week ever for little black girls. Indeed, they were all the rage across the media spectrum this week after two songs by and for black girls made their internet debut—Willow Smith’s swaggalicious, girl power anthem “Whip My Hair,” and Sesame Street’s adorable “I Love My Hair” video, featuring an African-American muppet singing an ode to black girl hairstyles. Both videos not only celebrate black girl beauty, but encourage little girls who look like my daughters to square their shoulders, hold their heads up high and, when they take that long, hard look in the mirror, love—really love—what they see.

In an essay penned for NPR's "Tell Me More" page, Miller made plain why this is necessary:

It’s not often that little African-American girls are publicly celebrated for their uniqueness and beauty. Rather, a lot of us have the repeated experience of relatives, friends and strangers having not-so-positive things to say about our physical appearance. The comments tend to range from: “Your hair would be pretty if it were straight” to “You’re cute for a dark girl.” Black women have heard more than enough back-handed compliments and not-so-subtle putdowns to make us question our individual and collective beauty. Pair that with media images that appoint ethnically ambiguous, silken-haired women as the ideal, and you’ve got the making of a full-on complex.

Now, no one is suggesting that we African American moms exclusively count on TV, songs, movies and the like to make our babies feel good about themselves. But it would be extremely naïve at best, disingenuous at worst, to suggest that the psyches of our girls aren’t affected by a constant barrage of media images that seek to set the standard for what’s right, what’s wrong and what we all need to fix to get to this stock version of “perfect.” It would be even dumber of us to suggest that non-black children aren't affected by this, either—that they don't come to some not-so-flattering conclusions about their African American counterparts when they have few to no references to refer to when forming those opinions.

So we black moms cloak our babies in the armor—ready them everyday for the battle against lazy beauty standards, pop culture ignorance, and outright black girl put-downs that seem to slap at them—and us!—around every stretch. In my daughters’ cases, I ended up making a border of picture frames filled with pictures of her family on the wall next to their cribs, so that they could see brown faces that look like theirs. I filled their bookshelves with as many books featuring black characters as I could find and requested that my friends do the same. They went to sleep listening to Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind & Fire and Satchmo and Kathleen Battle—artists with soulful voices and incredible, eclectic music filled with prideful messages that both our kids and we love to listen to. And Nick and I would whisper in their ears… you are the loveliest, prettiest, most deliciously chocolatey gifts from God any mommy and daddy could ask for.

But Lord, when we spend our days telling our daughters that their skin is beautiful and their hair is perfect exactly the way it grows out of their heads and their lips and nose and hips and booty are full of goodness and that they are, indeed, visible—that we see them, even if nobody else does—it does something to our girls’ psyche when someone other than their mamas says, “Hey, you’re pretty awesome just the way you are.”

Nobody tells little black girls such things.

But this week, two somebodies did.

And for that, this African American mom simply says, “Thank you,” and “More please.”