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Psalms for Black Girls

Source: iOne Creative / iOne

I was digging through an old jewelry box recently and found this gem—a color slide of me at about age eight or nine, in a ballerina outfit. I remember the moments when it was taken; it was picture day for my ballet class in Willingboro, NJ. I went to the studio thinking I looked so pretty in my tutu and hair ribbons. I left thinking something was wrong with me.

See, the photographer—an older white man—kept pulling on me and posing me aggressively, snatching on me and talking to me in a way that no one should to a child. I was the only Black girl in a sea of white ones; they were being treated with care—talked to kindly through syrupy grins, touched gently. I remember feeling scared. Sad. Ugly. Because that’s the way that man made me feel.

That was the beginning of me thinking I was too dark, too shiny, too big, too whatever and not enough. That was when I started paying attention to the way I, this skinny little chocolate drop with a bubble booty, was being received by strangers. That was when I learned to hate myself. And really, it was that simple, wasn’t it?
A meandering, mean look from a stranger, the absence of seeing humans that look like you in magazines and books and television shows, a slick comment from a peer or teacher or elder, like, “Stay out the sun, you Black enough as it is,” and “All that pool chlorine gonna make yo head nappier than it already is,” and, “You getting big, aintcha?”
Psalms for Black Girls

Source: Courtesy of Denene Millner / Denene Millner

Each of these things were a 2000-ton wrecking ball slamming against the self-esteem of all-too-many little Black girls. What we saw in the mirror, no matter how pretty, became grotesque under the harsh gaze of those who did us harm, whether on purpose or absentmindedly. I was thinking deeply about this when news broke about some foul goings-on at Sesame Street Place, the famed amusement park that celebrates the iconic PBS show. In a video circulated on Instagram, two little Black girls standing on the sidelines of a character parade at the park saw their joy and excitement literally given the flat hand by the Sesame Street character Rosita, who refused to engage with the girls but happily handed out hugs and high-fives to the white children standing all around them. Jodi Brown, mom of one of the girls and auntie to the other, circulated the video on IG and furiously called for accountability from Sesame Street Place, demanding the Rosita actor be fired. After a bunch of excuses and hemming and hawing from Sesame Street Place’s parent company, separate video confirmed the sleight and some 150 other Black families and families of color said they’ve had similar experiences at the amusement park. Now, prominent civil rights lawyers and protesters are calling for the character actor to be fired, as well as bias and sensitivity training for Sesame Street Place’s staff.
But what of the Black girls? What of all the other little Black babies who were taken to a joyful place where they arrived presumably happy, only to have their favorite characters from a show that celebrates diversity shun them because of their skin color? How, exactly, do you explain to a six-year-old how to process such things and, more importantly, not to internalize it?
The fact is that children can notice racial differences as early as six months old, and, more importantly, they can internalize racial biases by ages two to four. And if Black parents and caretakers aren’t hyper aware of, say, the white photographer snatching on their baby girl, or they miss Rosita gesturing “nah” to their smiling six-year-old, or they don’t catch on that their Black son’s teacher is talking crazy to their child and disciplining him for acting like, well, an eight-year-old but letting young white Brad run amok, they could be inadvertently leading their Black child toward a pit of low self-esteem that can take literally a lifetime to climb out of.
This means something when we consider that just last year, the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported that researchers combing through Centers of Disease Control and Prevention databases found that suicide rates among Black people aged five to 17 rose between 2003 and 2017, with Black girls seeing almost a 7 percent annual increase of death by suicide. Michael A. Lindsey, co-author of the study, told the Journal the increase in suicides among Black children could be attributed to a myriad of issues specific to blackness, from racial discrimination to the trauma of learning about the high-profile, racialized deaths of teens like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and so many others. A separate study hypothesized that misogynoir—specifically the compounding of racial and gendered discrimination—may increase depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms in Black girls. That latter study pointed out that messages of racial pride and empowerment specific to Black girls go a long way to reducing those debilitating symptoms.
Though I’m sure they thought me beautiful, I don’t really remember my parents telling me so. My mother was an old school southern Baptist lady who thought little girls should be virtuous and much more concerned with their lessons than what they looked like. But it is human to care about such things, and American culture has made a point of doing absolutely everything within its power to make Black girls believe that we are uglyundesireablefastuselessangrydumbbitches all at the same time—intent on making us hate ourselves just as much as it portends to hate us.
Which is why I’m all “love to see it” with respect to Jodi Brown, mom and auntie to the two little girls in the viral IG video, who called Sesame Street Place out on its mess, as well as Quinton Burns, a Black dad who’s filed a $25 million class action suit against the venue, claiming that several characters ignored the mess out of his five-year-old daughter Kennedi during a meet-and-greet event while giving all the love to white children surrounding her. Burns’ lawsuit invites families of color who experienced the same.
This isn’t so much about money as it is holding accountable the establishments and the people who work there, from the CEO down to the characters who deal directly with children, if nothing else but to show our daughters that they are not invisible and they do not deserve to be ignored and discarded and they are worthy of respect and gentle care. Saying this loudly and proudly and publicly can only do wonders to stop that battering ram in its tracks before it demolishes yet another little Black girl’s regard for her very being.

Denene Millner is a New York Times bestselling author and founder of MyBrownBaby, a critically acclaimed and award-winning blog. Millner runs Denene Millner Books, an imprint that publishes books featuring African American children and families, under Simon & Schuster. 
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