My Daughter and Mavis, the Brown One

By Katherine Malmo

Lately my three-year-old brown baby has become aware of skin color. She points out all the black children at the pool and the store. Sometimes she seems pulled toward them. Other times she seems not to have any interest she's just pointing out a fact.

A few weeks ago, I bought the new Mavis Staples CD. When Josie asks to hear it, her request comes out sounding like mabitaple and she always wants to listen to her LOUD. I've told her teachers and grandparents that if they can't figure out what she's saying, she's probably asking for Mavis.

We'd only listened to the CD a few times when Josie found the jewel case sitting on the front seat of my car. She picked it up and stared at the picture of Mavis. We talked about how pretty she is what a nice smile she has. Josie started calling Mavis her “bootiful fwiend” and carrying the case around, holding it close to her chest.

Mavis looks a little like Josie's birth mother, whose family was musical. Josie's birth mother's father and uncle were musicians in the days of Motown. As I watch Josie clutch Mavis' case to her chest, I wonder if there's an inherent instinctual attraction to Mavis' soulful singing that's hard-wired into her genetics. Sure, I love Mavis too, but not the way Josie loves Mavis.

And Josie isn't one to attach to things like this. Yes, she has a blanket and a monkey she loves, but she's never been the kid that dragged around the same stuffed bear or strawberry hat day after day. She's not this way about anything or anyone but Mavis.

Over Thanksgiving, Josie walked up to her white grandma, held both her hands and asked, “Is Grandma's skin brown?” It breaks my heart to see her looking for, and not always finding, African Americans in her world. Sure she has African American friends at school, but is that enough? I wish she could look around the dinner table and see black faces. This isn't the first time I've wished I could be black for her.

The other day while we were in the car and she was gazing at Mavis' face again, I asked her, as gently as I could, not wanting to corrupt her with my own pre-conceived racial indoctrinations, what she was thinking about. Did she think Mavis was pretty?

“Yes,” she said. Then she added: “She looks like Grandma.”

You know, when I took another look at Mavis' image, I realized that Josie was not wrong. Both women are about the same age. Both have redish-brown, straight hair that is about the same length. Both have eyes and a nose and teeth and lips that curl up into wide, open smiles.

“You're right,” I said. “She does look like Grandma.” Then I turned the music back up because I know she likes to listen to Mavis loud.

Katherine Malmo is the Norwegian-American mother of an African-American 3-year-old who loves Curious George, Mavis Staples and cookies; and the wife of an extremely likeable software engineer with a fondness for roadside furniture and a habit of whistling in his sleep. In 2005 Katherine was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer and spent a year in treatment. These days she is cancer-free and blogs about her family, adoption, race, health and living a low-toxin life at Hysterical Mommy Network. Her book, Who in This Room, will be out in October 2011.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Barbara Soloski Albin

    A wonderful, wonderful article.

  2. Thank you for sharing your beautiful moments with your is only as we grow older that we begin to see our differences rather than our commonalities and if we are talk to see our differences as marks of our beauty and gifts think of what an amazing place this world would be…

  3. What a great mom you are. You’ll never be African American, nor do you need to be. Your awareness of her need to be recognized and to fit in is wonderful. I’m sure she’ll find her comfortable place.

  4. What a beautiful piece! Your girl is so blessed to have a present, conscious mama.

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