Parents Tiffany and Bertram Rothe lent their multicultural and trans-national perspectives to the June 2020 webinar from VIBE Movement, “How to Talk to Kids About Race.” As parents to two multiracial children with American and German national roots, Tiffany and Bertram are at the frontline of navigating the challenges of raising their daughters in an America which codes them as racially Black. Tiffany shared, “Bertram and I are from different countries, different races, different cultural backgrounds…we came together in love and we created this family. We have multiracial, multilingual, multicultural children. It’s so funny because when you have children, you would like to keep them in this utopian society for as long as you can…you don’t want to draw their attention to race because that it can be very dividing. But, our society right now doesn’t allow us to have that luxury…We get to have that conversation with our children…They hear it. They experience it. So, we get to find the best way to talk to them about it…It’s really important that we keep their self-esteem high [and] their identities strong, so that they are empowered in the world to love who they are. And, therefore, they can love and contribute to society in a meaningful way.”
The Rothe family’s hybrid reality reminds me of works by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, an Afro-Latino of Haitian and Afro-Puertorriqueño descent by way of Brooklyn. Basquiat was tri-lingual in English, French, and Spanish. As a child, Basquiat’s mother fostered his engagement with the visual arts by taking him to museums to see works by masters like Picasso. In some of his works, Blackness is signaled by purposeful cockroaches, patches of black paint, and “negro” in graffiti-like scrawl. The artist reclaims Blackness as a positive space, in visual and metaphysical terms.
My fourth book recommendation for this series features a child Basquiat who can speak directly to children who live within a complex family unit. It also fosters creative impulse as a mode of self-expression and epiphany. Writer-artist Javaka Steptoe’s Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is appropriate for children through age eight.
Classes with children seven and older could engage with this book as a blueprint for art projects using found objects. Steptoe uses collage, mixed media, paint, and pastiche to create new works which honor Basquiat’s legacy. Radiant Child can help teachers introduce these concepts and methods of art production to children. Talking about the images in relation to the written narrative can also help kids understand that words and images tell different parts of the same story. Some potential activities include:
Identifying colors used often, from page to page.
Finding skulls and talking about what they are drawn on or in.
Finding cars and talking about what different colors could mean.
Identifying “art” hung up on walls and describing it.
Introduce the concepts of “serious” and “artist.”
Talk about what a “serious artist” could be.
Have students make-up their own signature, like Basquiat’s “SAMO©.”
Have them draw a portrait of someone they admire, with a crown.
For parents ready to contend with more difficult subject matters, Radiant Child can help introduce the concepts of injury, recovery, and mental health. Steptoe does not omit young Basquiat’s experience with being injured in a car accident, and with heartbreak when his mother can no longer live at home due to mental illness. Young Basquiat is “scared and confused” after a car accident left him in pain. But, “Jean-Michel learns that art has healing power.” Like Basquiat, children can use art to process their feelings about being hurt, physically or emotionally. Steptoe’s image of Basquiat with his arm in a sling, surrounded by drawings, and being comforted by his mother while looking through Grey’s Anatomy shows children that comfort and safety comes in many forms.
On the next page, the image shows Matilde being led to a car. The car will take her to the hospital because “His mother’s mind is not well, and the family breaks. She no longer lies on the floor and draws with Jean-Michel, but sits by the window singing only to birds. Jean-Michel is confused and filled with a terrible blues when Matilde can no longer live at home.” The solution to his “terrible blues” is to create art, but even art cannot make his mother and family whole. This is an important lesson for children to learn: mental illness cannot always be cured, but we can adapt to new conditions. Steptoe brings Matilde back into frame at a Basquiat art show: “And at his most important shows, above all of the critics, fans, and artists he admires, the place of honor is his mother’s, a queen on a throne.” Steptoe’s two-page mural-like image features a gold crown and the word ORO (gold) floating over Matilde’s head. She and a young adult Basquiat are facing one another, showing children that different families are still family. And, people with mental illness are people worthy of being honored and respected, like Matilde.
As I turn the pages of Radiant Child, I think about massive hole left in the art world when Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a drug overdose at only twenty-seven years of age. I don’t know how to talk to kids about drug addiction, or at what age a child can conceptualize “addiction.” I do know that kids can understand race and racism as early as seven years old. Children may not have the vocabulary to tell you what race is, but they can and do react to the racial cues they are socialized to. Anecdotally, I can share that non-white adults I speak with about racism recall incidents from as early as five years of age, with nearly all having a specific story from first or second grade.
A study published in 2011 interviewed children aged seven to twelve. The children interviewed were from different racial backgrounds. The study found: “Overall, non-Hispanic black children were more aware of the concept of race. This finding supports the racial socialization literature and the work conducted by Nazroo (2003) in the United Kingdom that marginalized groups (non-Hispanic blacks) with histories of oppression are more aware of race. Children also reported frequent encounters with racial discrimination over a thirty-day period. The findings also support the racism-related-stress model that racial discrimination negatively affects self-esteem.” One way to combat racism-related-stress is to normalize the coexistence of Blackness, success, genius, and sociocultural hybridity. Radiant Child is a children’s book which accomplishes this goal.
During the “How to Talk to Kids About Race” panel, Bertram Rothe shared, “I speak for our daughters and for kids in general…the issue isn’t their color. The issue is actually the behavior around color. So, there needs to be a forward movement instead of a defense movement…Raising our children to understand that they are perfectly fine, period…that’s the important thing…They are the perfect color, as a matter of fact.” Bertram’s point connects to a primary theme in Radiant Child: A Black child is “RADIANT, WILD, A GENIUS CHILD, but in his heart, he is king.” Kids can be like Basquiat—multilingual, multicultural, multiracial—because their “genius” is about what they can create from their unique hybrid perspective.
The stress which breaks down a Black child’s self-esteem must be mitigated with nourishing, real-world oriented narratives about kids who look and feel like them. And, non-Black coded children need access and exposure to narratives with racially, economically, and emotionally diverse characters. Basquiat may be the main person we learn about in Radiant Child, but children will build their own story in the margins and between the lines, with words and pictures of their own.