When teacher Alicia D. Williams asked kindergartners to pick out a crayon that reflected their skin tone, she says something heartbreaking happened: Out of a spectrum of multicultural options, "Never, never, never do our kids of color choose a skin tone that's close to theirs. They go as light as possible."
Observations like these inspired Williams to write her first novel — Genesis Begins Again — about a 13-year-old African-American girl who dreams of having smooth hair, and skin as light as her mother and grandmother. Genesis keeps a running list of things about herself that she hates — her skin is #95.
Genesis encounters prejudice and colorism from classmates, strangers, and members of her own family. Williams says these stories come from a very personal place — from watching her students, and from her own experience.
"I've seen it growing up, not just within my family, I've seen it within our community. ..." Williams says. "We still talk about light skin vs. dark skin. ... This whole thing starts all over again in each generation."
On wishing she had been more like her character, Genesis, as a teenager
I wish I was as feisty as her. I wish I could have been a little bit sassy, but I was this quiet, nerdy, book reader. ... [I was] trying to figure out: How do I be Alicia? I think so many other middle schoolers are trying to figure that out — so they pick up words, they pick up phrases, they pick up the clothing styles, hairstyles, trying to figure out: How do I fit in in middle school?
On what it's like to be the only black student
I know how it was for me in undergrad — walking into a room, being the only black in 250 students around me — but as a 13-year-old, or 12-year-old, how does that feel, and how do you keep your identity? Do you find someone to connect with you? ... How do you make friends?
On pointing out racism within one's own community, or within one's own family
I'm terrified. I'm so terrified. ... You say: You don't talk about this in front of white folks. You don't let them know what's going on in your house. I'm nervous about giving people words or ammunition. I'm so nervous because, as a writer, you start thinking: Is this going to be a good thing? Will I do more damage, or will I help?
On what motivated her to tell this story
The whole thing was: How can I help heal some children? ... It's not just colorism that I want to heal them from, but to let them know they're good enough. ...
Across each ethnicity there's always something [other kids will tease you about.] ... I saw children definitely affected by colorism. I saw friends. I still felt the residue for myself. ... Whether people receive it [this way] or not, I know my intention and the impact that I want is to heal some people. It may not be for everyone, but have to heal somebody. ...
This is something I needed to hear. ... I need to hear ... It's not going to happen overnight, that I'm going to love myself, but, you know, it's going to be OK.
Justine Kenin and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The new book "Genesis Begins Again" is about a 13-year-old African-American girl who dreams of having smooth hair and skin many shades closer to her light-skinned mother and grandmother. Genesis says a prayer every night - Lord, turn it good. The prejudice and colorism she encounters don't just come from strangers or kids at school; her own family judges her for her dark skin. The book is for children around Genesis' age. It's the first book that Alicia Williams has ever written. By day, Williams is a teacher. And she told me that she relates to Genesis personally, and she's seen kids like Genesis in the classroom.
ALICIA WILLIAMS: In kindergarten, every year, we would have our kids come in. Whether they're Indian or African or African-American, they will come in - and in our classrooms would be multicultural crayons. Never, never, never do our kids of color choose a skin tone that's close to theirs. They go as light as possible. So even when we try to encourage them to - OK, honey, just - how about this brown one? - they would never, never, never shade it in hard.
SHAPIRO: What do you say to a kindergartner who is choosing a lighter colored crayon because they don't want to draw their own skin color as dark as it is?
WILLIAMS: This was the hardest part. But with the teacher I was working with, we would definitely - you know, honey, this is your color. And we would show - oh, this is my color - first model how it looks on us. Oh, look at my skin. I found the perfect color. But when the resistance is still there, I will find these ways to say - oh, my goodness. I just love your skin. It's so pretty. Oh, my goodness. When you color it, I just love it - so those encouraging words. And when there's other students around that might hear that, I'll find something else to compliment them on so not to make them feel any less than. But I just wanted to find little seeds to build them up.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. You know, I was thinking - Toni Morrison wrote "The Bluest Eye" in 1970, and it deals with some of the same themes. A character with dark skin is made to feel that she's ugly. She develops low self-esteem. Do you think we're still more or less where we were when that book was published almost 50 years ago?
WILLIAMS: Oh, my gosh, yes. Yes. I've seen it growing up, not just within my family. I've seen it within, you know, our community. And it's unfortunate that even - you think, OK, the thing like the brown bag doesn't happen; and oh, no, no one still goes around measuring the color of a baby's ears to see how dark they will be - or the cuticles. But...
SHAPIRO: I should mention - you say the brown bag. This is something where you hold a bag up to a child or a person's skin and see whether they are the color of the brown paper bag or lighter or darker.
WILLIAMS: Yes, the brown bag. Thank you for explaining that. Whether it be a brown bag or measuring - looking at the darkest part of a child, still having this idea - oh, honey, this is how dark your baby is going to be. And it's a negative connotation; you don't want your baby to be that dark. But that's it. We still talk about light skin versus dark skin. We still do that. So yes, we're still in the same place. When we have on - #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin and that's for our kids who still use social media, it's like this whole thing starts all over again each generation.
SHAPIRO: You know, there's not a lot of risk in pointing out racism outside of your own community. But when you portray racism within somebody's immediate family - you know, somebody's parents, somebody's grandparents - judging them based on how light- or dark-skinned they are, that seems risky. That seems dangerous. Like, it's a thing you don't do. And in this book, you do it (laughter).
WILLIAMS: I'm terrified.
WILLIAMS: I am so terrified. You know how you say, you don't talk about this in front of white folks? You don't let them know what's going on in your house? I'm nervous about giving people words or ammunition.
WILLIAMS: I'm so nervous because, as a writer, you start thinking - is this going to be a good thing? Will I do more damage? Or will I help? Am I going to help? Because the whole thing was - how can I help heal some children? How can I heal them? How can I let them know they're good enough? Not just the ones that is dealing with colorism - but will they get that it's not just colorism that I want to heal them from but to let them know they're good enough?
Whether they're tall or short, you know, there's going to be somebody that's picking on them and saying - you're not going to be. You know, you're going to be in a box. You have your Jewish uncle's nose, and you have your red hair like your Irish auntie, and you have those freckles that won't ever go away. You know, there's always something that we're - across each ethnicity, there's always something. And I know my story's through colorism, so I'm just so nervous, though, that we'll focus on this minute thing and not see the broadness of it.
SHAPIRO: Given your fear - given the potential that people could use this as ammunition, what made you decide that it was important to do this anyway?
WILLIAMS: I saw children directly affected by colorism. I saw friends - I still felt the residue for myself, and I started developing different ideas about it. Whether, you know, people receive it or not, I know my intention and the impact that I want is to heal some people. It may not be for everyone, but I have to heal somebody. You know, they say there's one good book in you. I hope that this is not the only one, but this is the story because this is something I needed to hear. I needed to hear - I needed to hear that, OK, it's not going to happen overnight that I'm going to love myself. But you know, it's going to be OK. It's going to be OK.
SHAPIRO: There's an interesting thing you do in this book where, over the course of the story, you kind of sprinkle a trail of breadcrumbs of almost a reading list. You mentioned "The Color Purple," "Up From Slavery," "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X." An alert reader could walk away from this with a stack of books that they want to read next.
WILLIAMS: (Laughter) It's so hilarious. I wasn't thinking about it when I wrote it, but that was brought up to me. And I'm thinking, yes, because I read these books, and I look at the characters. There are even more because - that was edited out.
WILLIAMS: If we were going to teach "Genesis," we can definitely put a playlist together as well as some books together (laughter).
SHAPIRO: Yeah. Because you mentioned a playlist, this book name-drops so many musicians, from Nina Simone to Billie Holiday and Etta James, so many of the greats. If we're going to go out on a piece of music, what would you like us to play?
WILLIAMS: Billie Holiday. I wrote the manuscript to her, majority of it - Billie Holiday, "God Bless The Child."
SHAPIRO: Alicia Williams, her debut novel is called "Genesis Begins Again." Thanks so much for talking with us.
WILLIAMS: Thank you, Ari. I so appreciate it (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE CHILD")
BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Them that's got shall get. Them that's not shall lose, so the Bible said and it still is news. Mama may have... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.