Detroit Proper: Raising ‘Radiant’ Children

Desiree Cooper explores the importance of fostering artistic creativity in our children.

People of African ancestry often have been celebrated for their native excellence in sports, dance and music. That's despite the fact that science has debunked any notion that we are born with a "natural" ability to shoot hoops or keep a beat. It boils down to what my mother always said: "You do well what you do much." As black people, we value music and motion. It shows in our children.

But are African-American parents guilty of perpetuating stereotypes when we channel our children into certain forms of creative expression while ignoring others? Children, it turns out, are exuberant artists of all kinds, who care much more about the process than the outcome. They make up songs and speak in poetry. They wiggle their bodies to music without choreography. They leap, run and jump without striving. They scribble, color and paste without ever asking the question, "What am I making?" (Which is why adults should always say, "Tell me about it," rather than "What is it?" when a child proudly holds up her creation.)

The National Endowment for the Arts recently published a review of the literature on the impact of arts in early childhood. According to the study, children who participate in music, dance, theater, drawing and painting had better social skills, including helping, sharing, caring and showing empathy. Toddlers from poverty-stricken families were better able to express themselves positively and regulate their emotions after participating in arts programs. The arts are not just about million-dollar contracts or television celebrity. It turns out art is where children learn empathy, compassion and how to be global citizens.


Unfortunately, the benefits of the arts are too often withheld from black children, especially those growing up in low-income families or distressed neighborhoods. Arts education – which has all but vanished in public schools and art institutions – are often not located near black or low-income neighborhoods. A 2017 Pew Research Center study showed that when it comes to arts exposure, 62 percent of families with annual incomes above $75,000 say that their children have taken dance, music or art lessons in the past year. That falls to 41 percent among families making $30,000 or less. This number is shocking in two ways: first, the gap in arts exposure between children in wealthier families and children in poorer ones is disgraceful. But second, I admire the huge percentage of low-income families who fight to expose their children to the arts while also struggling to put food on the table.

While some children exhibit artistic talent at a young age, the truth is that some artists are born, but many more are made. I recently had the opportunity to interview children's author and visual artist Javaka Steptoe. His father, John Steptoe, was the 1988 Caldecott winner for his children's book Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters. Following in his father's footsteps, Javaka was last year's Caldecott winner for his gorgeous book, Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat was the young phenom whose "street art" made him the darling of the New York art world, including Andy Warhol, who became his mentor. His art brought the highest price at auction for an American painter – $110 million – nearly 30 years after his death from a drug overdose in 1988.

Steptoe wanted to write about him because too many people have been told that Basquiat "was a lucky drug addict in the right place at the right time," he says. The truth, writes Steptoe in the book's afterward, is that Basquiat lived in a trilingual working-class home in Brooklyn, and "it was Jean-Michel's mother, Matilde, who drew with him and took him to museums."

Radiant Child depicts Matilde sitting on the floor with her curious son, drawing and encouraging his imagination. When Basquiat was hurt in an accident, Matilde bought him a copy of Grey's Anatomy. The influence of human anatomy could be seen in the artist's later work.

Radiant Child shows a parenting style that Steptoe himself experienced growing up. He credits his parents with fostering his inner artist. He became an author and his sister, a designer. "Communities of color need to participate in the arts," he says, which is why he focuses on writing for and teaching children. "If we don't, it affects how we are seen in the world and how we think of ourselves."

By supporting our children's broad creative expression, we can raise radiant children who are not necessarily world-class rappers and athletes, but who are all world-class human beings.