Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Meet the Winner: The Blacker the Berry by Joyce Carol Thomas

The skin is a dress
that is put on and changed
from life to life.

It has been more than two decades since poet Arnold Adoff's All the Colors of the Race, inspired by his own biracial children, took on the ticklish subject of skin color in poems about the meaning of color in America. Evocatively illustrated by Caldecott artist John Steptoe, his slim little picture book of short poems came on the heels of the "Black Is Beautiful" movement. This beautiful and sensitive book, now out of print, has been joined by an equally beautiful new collection of poems celebrating the many colors of black, Joyce Carol Thomas' The Blacker the Berry, (HarperCollins/Amistad, 2008) winner of a 2009 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award.

In her poem "Skin Deep," Grandma says,

"Beauty is only skin deep.
Dear Heart," she says,
"I gave you my soul
in whatever color you're wearing now."

And those "whatever colors" are many.

The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.
Because I am dark
the moon and stars shine brighter.

Because berries are dark, the juice is sweeter.
Day couldn't dawn without the night
Color without black couldn't sparkle
Quite so bright.
I am midnight and berries

In "Cranberry Red," the speaker tells her lineage:

My skin is red and my hair is red.
"Yes, redder than a cranberry," they said
when I was born.
"Maybe it's my Irish ancestors
who reddened the Africa in my face.
I don't know."

There's "Sunshine Girl:"

It feels absolutely fabulous
to be this brown.
Anyway I refuse to walk too long in shadow.
Like the cat.
It's against my nature.

There are many of shades of children in these poems--biscuit brown and toast, nightshade eggplant, black coffee, snowberries, and mango mellow to name a few, all illustrated in Floyd Cooper's strikingly realistic paintings done in a palette of browns, yellows, black, purple, and gold.

The Blacker the Berry takes a nuanced look at just a few of the skin colors in this wide world, a look that will open eyes to the varieties of beauty in a human face. This is a triple threat book--an award winner which marries text and illustrations perfectly, a natural for Black History Month, and an accessible blank verse entry for Poetry Month offerings for young readers and listeners.

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