Recently, I read Lullaby (For a Black Mother) with both my daughters, aged five and two.
My eldest chose it on our trip to the library.
I’m big on my kids choosing their own books. Sure, sometimes I steer and suggest based on their interests and levels (as an example, we also have a copy of Jack and the Beanstalk at home currently due to having talked about that story at dinner one night), but usually I try to let them pick their own.
On this trip, my eldest was quite definitive about this one. We arrived; she pulled it quickly off the shelf, handed it to me declaring “this one!” and then wandered off to play showing it no more interest until we left.
At which point she made sure we had it.
The book is an illustration of Langston Hughes‘ beautiful poem. Here it is in full:
My little dark baby,
My little earth-thing,
My little love-one,
What shall I sing
For your lullaby?
A necklace of stars
Winding the night.
My little black baby,
My dark body’s baby,
What shall I sing
For your lullaby?
Great diamond moon,
Kissing the night.
Oh, little dark baby,
Night black baby,
For your sleep-song lullaby!
Hughes, who had no children, wrote this as a young man. It was included in a 1932 collection entitled “The Dream Keeper and Other Poems” and included poems about the moon, rain, rivers and fairies. According to the back of this book, he also wrote about maple-sugar children in sugar houses and dreams with “poems being his way to wrap dreams up in a soft blanket and keep them safe.”
The back of this book posits he may have written Lullaby thinking of himself as a child and his mother, who in the absence of his father, worked numerous jobs and was often gone leaving him with his grandmother. However, whenever she did come home, they would go to the library, which Langston loved. Of that period of his life he has said:
I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books — where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.
Returning to the book we read, the illustrations – by Sean Qualls – are as beautiful as the poem giving the entire book a calming, nighttime, ethereal, dreamy and all together peaceful feel.
But I never would have picked it up for my kids.
On quick inspection, I thought it was a beautiful picture book, but obviously not targeted at my family because, well, I’m not a black mother and I don’t have black babies. So reading a lullaby specific to a culture not my own didn’t seem to fit.
My 5-year-old saw none of that.
I asked why she chose the book and her answer was that it looked like the mom on the cover was going to kiss the baby and she liked that.
We read through it a couple of times the first night we chose it for bedtime reading. By the end of the first read my two-year-old was repeating bits. By the second read she was anticipating certain parts and saying it along with me.
Necklace of stars, great diamond moon…. mother’s love and sweet dreams. That’s all they saw and heard.
It’s funny. Having worked and volunteered as a literacy tutor I remember scouring donation bins to find books showing different ethnicities because I think it’s important for kids to see their culture and heritage represented on the page.
My daughter’s class photo is a simple – and wonderful – reminder of how multicultural we are here in Ottawa.
This book was a good reminder to me that it’s equally important for kids to see a variety of cultures accurately and equally represented in what they read and watch.
I hope as my girls get older and begin to realize the many things that impact and influence how people can view others, that they remember simple moments and messages like the one they got from this book.
Because at this moment they are truly and beautifully blind to colour. All they see is a mother hugging her child; lovingly putting him to bed; with clouds, stars, moon and sweet dreams.
These moments are one of the many things I love about parenthood – being able to see the world anew through my kids eyes – so simply and clearly.