What was I doing? I don’t recall exactly, but I do remember my eyes flitting upward to meet the gaze of Quill Reed. A beautiful and powerful being who was sizing me up right where I stood. She didn’t smile, but I didn’t mind. I held her gaze momentarily and went back to whatever I was doing, the doing I don’t remember but the look on this woman’s face is still clear in my mind.
The next time I saw Quill, she strode over and sat squarely in the chair next to me. “Hi”, she said. She still didn’t smile, and I still didn’t mind. I was honored that this being had clearly decided to befriend me.
Not so long after that, she did smile. She smiled often actually. Threw her head back and laughed, too. Quill Reed has no problem with joy, just a healthy sense of boundaries about whom she allows in her life.
I am fortunate to have sat next to her as she read her stories and to have read some of her marvelous characters aloud for myself. We smiled, we laughed, we talked straight and we wrote stories with a few other amazing women writers. A group Quill referred to as: The Writing Vaginas.
One night sitting in a dimly lit room, looking at me with those same intense eyes that had sized me up a year earlier, Quill shook her head slowly: “You have a baby? You’ll do anything to protect that child. You become a lioness.”
And that is always how I know her. Always how I remember my friend, this woman and writer and mother and artist and ass kicker. The Lioness.
Light Skin, Dark Skin is her first children’s book. It is a poem–an incantation–of self knowledge for every child and for us adults, too. This book is about esteem. Not only self-esteem, but esteem in general. How we regard others tells a story about ourselves, about culture, about the future. How we regard ourselves becomes the means by which we tell that story as we walk through our days.
This book is done with simple words, simple beats, and simple illustrations with space at the bottom of the pages for kids (of any age!) to create their own simple images to remind them of what none of us should ever forget: we are all different because that is what makes life beautiful!
There is great power in simplicity. While we may forget this truth, those who spend millions to trick us out of our esteem, for self and other, never forget that simple words and images are exactly what get trapped in the heart. Trapped in our hearts.
May we all show a high regard for the children in our lives, for the children playing in the parks and along the streets, for the children we teach in our class rooms and nurse in our hospitals and pass by in our grocery stores. May we all take upon us the task of uplifting their esteem and moving the future to higher regard for all.
I LOVE this conversation. Enjoy . . .
MICHELLE: I looked up the word esteem and the definition is: The regard in which one is held. So, Self-esteem is the regard we hold for ourselves. How strong do you think the relationship between the regard we hold for ourselves and the images we view in culture is, do you think children define themselves according to what they see in culture?
QUILL REED: I think it is VERY strong. The birth of Light Skin Dark Skin only stemmed because I was lying in bed one night with my sleeping baby and watching the big O. Oprah had an episode about the famous doll test. The doll test is where African American children are gathered to identify themselves with dolls. This experiment has been done more than a few times but as I sat there and listened to these children beat down and batter the “Black” dolls and hold to the highest light the “White” dolls, I was almost in tears looking at my own doll.
I NEVER want for my daughter or other children of the world to feel this way. So I wrote Light Skin Dark Skin. I started on it that night. Immediately. It is a tragedy to me that some parents are walking with their eyes closed. They don’t see their own role in what they project about their own self-image onto their children. Some of us, in every ethnic code compare and contrast ourselves with what society says we should look like and we inhale that for ourselves as opposed to taking on our own ideas about what we like for ourselves.
ME: Inhale. That is the perfect word for it. It is the air we breathe and counteracting it with all our might is our responsibility as adults. This is big task. I know you are raising an empowered daughter, is there something you tell her regularly, maybe everyday, that you hope stays with her all through her life? We need to know our worth without having to think about it. Parents are the ones who can really do this–and for those of us who need to ‘reparent’ ourselves as adults, we need ideas too! So–is there something you say to yourself also?
QR: That is so true, that we need to not have to think about it as if we are unsure. I love that you put it that way. It should be innate. Yes there are many people who have to re-parent themselves. That is so crazy because we think of parents as the ones to really set a wonderful foundation for us. The problem is that not all parents are created equal! I take my role very seriously. As a person and then a parent, it bothers me in a major way that there are “parents” out there who think they can wait to instill greatness in their child. You cannot wait until a child is 13 to tell them how great they are, it may be harder for them to believe you think so. It is never too early to build them up! This is also a part of preparing them for school, where there are who knows how many insecure children and teachers?
I am always telling my daughter that “the world is full of assholes. We have to know how to navigate that for ourselves. We cannot take on other peoples bullstank and load it onto our psyches. We are great women.” Those are a few things I tell her. I also started telling her years ago that “a princess is not a spoiled brat. A real princess does not throw a tantrum to get her way.” So many times we allow our children to look up to images that are not worth looking up to. Princesses and Divas are portrayed as sometimes shoddy individuals and that is not something anyone should look up to. I tell my daughter many of the same things I have told myself. I tend not to be interested in what other people think of me. One quote that I love in honor of this is “what people think of me is none of my business”
ME: I love that quote! And I LOVE how you talk to your daughter and yourself. “Let their babble stay on the outside of our skin”— you wrote that in the intro of Light Skin, Dark Skin and clearly you meant it.
Your writing is based in faith. How do you think this faith creates confidence for you?
QR: Thank you Madame! I’ve always believed in talking to her straight and, of course, age appropriate. I have a truly strong dislike for baby talk.
My faith is a grand shield. It allows me to block out everything rank. In it I am so beyond sure that everything I am is beautiful and for sure and wonderful and intelligent and loved by something greater than I will ever be. I know that there are people of the world that do not believe in a higher being. I see them walking around with breath seeping in and out of their lungs but I have no idea how they are living. Maybe they are breathing but not living.
ME: I am with you on the grand shield of faith. I get that. You said to your daughter: “We are great women.” I get a little mist in my eyes when I read that. It is truthful and not said enough.
You posit God as a woman, is this for our daughters? Do you see God as having a gender?
QR: I tell my daughter “We are Great women” all of the time. When she was in Pre-K, I would tell her every morning before I dropped her off that she is a leader and not a follower. One day, long down the road of the year, I was picking her up from school and the teacher told me that my baby proudly told them all that she is a leader and not a follower. All children should be able to declare that! It isn’t said enough, you are so right!
I laugh hysterically as I knew you were going to ask me about God’s gender in the book. It is for our daughters. So they can see themselves. Our sons can also feel that women are not something to push off into the sides of the pews at church or in any other religious events, which historically and present day, has been known to happen.
For me, it always bothered me that someone would suggest that I serve God but that as a woman, I should not stand in the pulpit, at the podium. For a man to suggest that I get on my knees and be grateful but that I am a lesser being because I am a woman is disgusting and not happening; not here; not for me. As a human, I have both testosterone and estrogen. We all do. One is simply more dominate. If I am made in the image of God, which is what is always beating in the heart of church…then why would someone suggest that a God they have never laid eyes on could not possibly have a lick of estrogen? It is something that I came to on my own. That I am only saying because that is my truth and because you asked me. I guess I could have kept that to myself because people of the world can be testy and not understand. For me, the God I serve loves me, made me a beautiful woman and could have both testosterone and estrogen the same as I do. I have no idea which one is more dominate but I never want any little girl to feel that women are seen as less than in the eyes of a love so great.
ME: I’m so glad you did not keep that to yourself! Very beautiful and so powerful and so truthful. Thank you. Thank you for speaking freely with me today.
On the last page of your book you have created a square with a variety of races and in the center a variety of descriptions of body parts. What do you wish to illustrate to readers with this image made of words?
QR: When I came up with the idea to do that box, I thought I had created one of the greatest images known to anyone! I truly felt that I wanted to portray that no matter what your ethnicity is, people will call you all sorts of things, you are not exempt. Most people who pick on people are equal opportunity irritants. People shouldn’t feel alone and the image can be used as a tool by parents to relay that message.
ME: That is exactly what I picked up from it. So, good job.
Tell us a little more about the historical journey of cultures that you mention in your “Psst . . .” section at the end of the book.
QR: Every culture has had it’s share of terrifying ordeals in attempting to trek raging waters in hopes of discovering a new life, a new world. I believe that our children are not receiving the information they should about these no less than mighty adventures if we can call them that and therefore have no appreciation for the roots of not only our own but everyone else’s. People have stopped passing down stories of their ancestors and our children are losing sight of who the are. Are people frayed because of the labels or do they just have no idea what to call themselves? I am grateful and saddened for the battle of not only my ancestors but others and it is crazy that that feeling for other people is being pissed away through lackadaisical holes of nothingness.
ME: Yes! Our ancestors. I do emotional work with the ancestors. I come from the perspective that I must heal my grandmother, for example. I know some of what she went through in her life–the abuse and the struggle she confronted. I talk to her and I tell her that I know how alone and hurt and confused she felt. I see her in my mind as young and as healed. What is something you think we can do as adults to pass on a sense of reverence for our ancestors and the struggles of history?
QR: I LOVE that you do that with and for your grandmother. I think that is absolutely beautiful!!!!!!!!!! She is never alone as long as she lives in your heart.
I think the biggest thing we can all do is carry them in our hearts and remember their struggles in our minds. I am appreciative of much of my ancestors work, I can do much because they said I can. I think that grandmothers have changed and some of them spend more time in the nightclubs then they do at home teaching their grandchildren about who they are and where they come from. On one side of my family, I know where in Africa my family stemmed from. It saddens me to know that people have become hung up on the idea that they are not directly born in Africa so they have no connection whatsoever. I can look at my family tree and give you goo gobs of names. I can’t tell you everything each and every one of them did but I know in my heart that they did not walk an easy road and I am grateful to them. I will not forget them.
I began speaking to my daughter really early about her family tree and ancestors. She would sometimes say “I miss my ancestors,” even if we had not been discussing them that day. She would tell me that she loved them and wishes they did not have to leave but she knew that they were safe with Jesus. I believe that we have to remember them and when children are involved, pass on the stories because that is how they live on. We cannot forget them. Schools leave out so much in the history books. Or they add in misinformation. There are children who have no idea who MLK Jr. is. How is that? How can a high school student not know who Caesar Chavez is? Baffling! Mother Teresa? Our children are being done a disservice at school, they shouldn’t have a double whammy because of the lack at home.
I think we should keep up some of our ancestors customs. Dinner on Sunday with the whole family. Maybe when we find those treasures of things they deemed important, we should honor them by highlighting those that we think are awesome too.
ME: Thank You Quill. I feel lighter having had this talk. Let’s dedicate this talk to our ancestors–may you rest in peace and live in power through our words and our hearts. Blessings to all–past, present, and future!
Order Light Skin, Dark Skin
Quill Reed’s next children’s book in 2015. Plus, a long awaited book of poetry. Don’t tell anyone . . . but rumor has it she is even working on a novel. xxo
These are a few resources Quill Recommends:
Sons And Brothers (website)
SonsandBros (on Facebook)
Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren
Battlefield of the Mind by Joyce Meyer
Be Better Quest (Like on Facebook and become part of Quill Reed’s Quest!)