Monday, May 2, 2011

The Blacker the Berry

Poems by: Joyce Carol Thomas
Illustrated by: Floyd Cooper

According to Joyce Carol Thomas, “One of the painful secrets the Black community keeps is that the value of a girl and boy’s worth may depend upon his or her complexion.”  Because of this, Joyce Carol Thomas wrote, The Blacker the Berry, “…As a tribute to African American girls and boys who may struggle with discrimination based upon the range of colors of their complexions.”  This was found on a discussion board posted on Facebook in the group, “ALSC Poetry Blast.”  Prior to reading this post, I had not realized that such discrimination had existed.

The Blacker the Berry is a beautiful collection of poetry that speaks volumes about discrimination and acceptance.  Each poem is written from the perspective of a confident young child who is comfortable in his or her own skin.  Thomas uses different berries found in nature in order to create each poem—emphasizing how berries come in different shades in nature and how humans are no different. 

The collection begins with the statement, “Colors, without black, couldn’t sparkle quite so bright” Accompanying this short and powerful statement is an illustration of a young boy holding a handful of blackberries with various hues of purple, black, pink, and red.  He is smiling wide and confident—because, it’s true.

The first poem is titled, “What Shade Is Human?”  The wise grandfather in the poem says that, “It’s the milk of kindness/that makes us human…White milk/Chocolate milk/Sweet milk/Mother’s milk.”  The young girl nods because she knows that long ago her mother told her, “You are beautiful. /And I heard her”.  This poem helps us to realize that there are many different colors of human, but all are beautiful and have worth.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is titled, Snowberries.  This poem is written from the perspective of a young girl, who is fair skinned, but walks the walk and talks the talk of being Black.  Some say to the girl, “You’re not really Black!” as if anyone should be able to judge such a thing.  The girl wishes to be black as midnight but states, “Still I’m thankful/For all the blood drops I got/In my mind/Even one drop’s a lot”

The last poem in the collection is titled, Color Struck.  This poem truly captures the essence of all of the poems.  “We are color struck/The way an artist strikes/His canvas with his brush of many hues/Look closely at these mirrors/these palettes of skin/Each color is rich/in its own right”

Each poem is accompanied by vibrant representational illustrations by Floyd Cooper—capturing the confidence and spirit of each child.  The illustrations are full-bleed and span across each double-paged spread—allowing us to feel the emotions along with the child.  The children are the central focus of each illustration, which gives us the sense that they are speaking directly to us.  Every child is beautiful and proud. Cooper uses an interesting technique called oil wash on board in order to give his illustrations their unique look.  He actually erases the picture after painting it in order to create this look.  I searched in hopes to find this technique demonstrated, but I was unable to find it.  The uniqueness of his illustrations is difficult to describe in words, but I do feel as though there is a warm and inviting quality to the illustrations throughout this book.  Perhaps the illustrative technique helps to create this feeling by muting the colors, but keeping them vibrant at the same time.  

Although these poems are specifically geared towards African American children, I believe that all children can appreciate the poems of this collection.  I believe it promotes awareness and deeper understanding among different cultures and is a necessary collection to add to any library.  This collection of poems was awarded the Coretta Scott King Award, which is given to African American authors and illustrators for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions.  One can easily see why this book was given such a prestigious award from the moment you read the inside flap and examine the cover.

Note: I did not link to the Facebook page where I took the quotes from Joyce Carol Thomas.  If you search the group, ALSC Poetry Blast, the group should show up.  You can then navigate to find the discussion titled, "Interview with Joyce Carol Thomas."  Her comments about the book will be posted there.

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