It happened. My four-year old daughter, London, all but told her mother, she didn’t want to have brown skin anymore.

Her reasoning for this came after her pre-Kindergarten class had read a story about a young Martin Luther King Jr. The class, like so many others, was celebrating Dr. King’s birthday. In the story, it was said that because of his brown skin, the young Martin was not allowed to play with white children. He wasn’t allowed to go to the same parks as white children, let alone attend the same schools as them in the Jim Crow south. 

So, in London’s mind, since Martin couldn’t have white friends because of his brown skin, she wondered if that meant she couldn’t play with her own “bestie,” named Maddie.

London told her mom that, until then, she didn’t even know that Maddie was white. “She’s just my best buddy,” London said; but by the same token London reasoned, she didn’t want to have brown skin, didn’t want to be Black, if it meant she and Maddie couldn’t be friends. 

Now some people might say – wasn’t that Dr. King’s dream? 

Some fifty-three years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the Yale Child Study Center, in 2016, published a study on the perceptions that kindergarten teachers bring to classrooms. 135 teachers were involved in the research and subjects were asked to watch a video of four five-year old students engaged in playful classroom activities, each coached to do the same exact things in the room, just at different times and in different parts of the room. 

Teachers in the study were asked to note when they saw a child in the room doing something “inappropriate” or “potentially harmful.” Retinal scans also monitored which students, teachers tended to track most. 

By the end of the video black boys were judged to be acting “inappropriate” 42% of the time; white boys 34% of the time; white girls 13% of the time; 10% of the time black girls were thought to be acting inappropriate. Simply put, black girls are by and large ignored as students almost from the day they walk into a kindergarten class.  

A Georgetown Law School Study that came out in 2017 called “Girlhood Interrupted:  The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” found that black girls were seen by teachers as more independent and therefore they needed less attention. 

In that quantitative study, black girls were thought to be less innocent – even at the age of five – compared to their white peers. The study showed that, consequently, when these girls got older, they were driven to engage in behaviors that drew attention to themselves from their peers, teachers, and school administrators. Words like “unruly”, “disrespectful”, and “inappropriate” became part of a code used to suspend, expel and even incarcerate black girls at an alarmingly disproportionate rate by the time they reached high school, according to the study. 

Like so many other brown and black parents, I’m trying to balance the historical biases shown in media too. In the world created by Disney, Rapunzel’s hair can heal mortal wounds. Ariel can swim with dolphins, and talks with sea creatures and humans alike; and Belle is a bibliophile.  

Disney’s lone Black princess to date, Tiana – introduced to the world in the 2009 movie “The Princess Frog” – also has a great gift. She cooks. 

Like that other iconic symbol of what this country thought Black women were, Aunt Jemima, Disney’s Tiana is a maven with a skillet.  That’s it; that’s the breadth of her powers. Aunt Jemima herself, a caricature created in 1889, and wasn’t replaced as a brand name until 2020, in the wake of the protests over the killing of George Floyd.

So besides battling and deconstructing biased media narratives, and giving context to the stories of those like Dr. King, Black families also have to contend with empirical data that says the educational system short changes their kids from the moment they walk in the door. Sadly, absolutely none of this is new. 

What has to change however is how parents and stakeholders redress the problem.  

I recently read that newly-elected Bushwick city council representative Jennifer Gutierrez is reaching out for ideas to strengthen the infrastructure of the community. 

How about rethinking what “infrastructure” means for our schools by recruiting talented brown and black teachers to Brooklyn’s classrooms?  This kind of program could come in the form of scholarship opportunities or a college debt forgiveness program.  

Studies have shown that when children of color are exposed to even one Black teacher at the elementary school level, their chances for college attendance increases 13%.  Two Black teachers in their life by third grade increases their chances to attend college by 32%. 

What people of color seek for their children are the pragmatic economic principles Dr. King spoke of in his famous speech, not just a promise of  accomplishing that“one day”.

I learned to navigate, advocate and question the rights and wrongs of a school system from my own mother.  She didn’t shy away from anyone in the notoriously biased New York City public school system, while raising my sister and I.  This past autumn, she texted me: “Never would I think my Granddaughter would be announcing and putting the hood on Dr. King’s son Martin Luther the III God blessing is on you” 

On September 29, 2021 my oldest daughter, Dr. Devin Heyward, read the proclamation conferring an honorary doctorate’s degree upon Dr. Martin Luther King III. The moment was part of the fifty-year commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr speaking at St. Peter’s University in New Jersey, where Devin is a professor.

Our story of our family stretches back to include London’s grandmother picking cotton in fields of South Carolina at the age of nine to help her mother support their household. And now all four of my mother’s adult aged grandchildren are college educated professionals. My London may be stumbling right now to make sense of it, but one day she’ll connect the pieces between her roots, her family, and King’s legacy. Sandwiched deepest between it all is her best friend Maddie, just a kid who loves her because she’s London.


Calvin Z. Heyward is an educator, poet and playwright and a dad trying to make sense of it all.

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Top image taken by C. Z. Heyward.

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