In the 'Beginning,' God made blacks

January 30, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Many books geared to black history month are grounded in the same beginning: the capture and sale of African slaves in the 1600s.

Why not start at the very start? More likely than not, the first people on Earth were dark-skinned. Yet those of us raised on Bible stories have a far different picture. I can still close my eyes and see a painting of God -- floating in the clouds, his white hair flowing, he looked suspiciously like Santa Claus sans beard -- smiling down on the pale figures of Adam and Eve.

If the creationists are right when they say God made humans in his (or her) own image, and if the first people were black, that means the creator must be black.

Makes perfect sense. And it makes for a perfectly captivating book, "And in the Beginning," by Sheron Williams, illustrated by Robert Roth (Atheneum, $13.95, ages 6-10).

Ms. Williams writes the story as if it is being told by Shammama, her grandmother. It is meant to be read aloud, with a rhythm and style that improvises, as if it were a complicated piece of jazz.

One minute it's colloquial: "There weren't no blueprints to go by. What should 'people' look like?"

Then the language goes high-brow: Mahtmi, the creator, is looking at his reflection in the water, "and what should he see peering back at him but his own face, in a state of acute puzzlement.

" 'Why yes!" he said. "People should look like me. I'll make a note of that.' "

And throughout, the narrator tosses in funny parenthetical asides: "And the legions of divine servants was raising heaven hell weren't created yet), 'cause that's what they bound to do."

On the morning Mahtmi decides to create the first man, he takes the Earth's darkest soil, from the foothills of Kilimanjaro. The deer offers his eyes, "which Mahtmi took but replaced with a pair even more luxuriously brown." Oysters' pearls become the man's teeth. And he is called Kwanza, the Swahili word for "the first one."

As the story goes, Kwanza soon grows tired of the luxurious bit of Earth he knows as home and yearns to discover the rest of the world. Mahtmi reluctantly agrees, though he knows he will be lonely without Kwanza.

"They decided to think hard on each other every night at just about the time Kwanza was getting sleepy, so they could stay in touch and knowif either needed the other. (And that was the first prayer.)"

While Kwanza is off exploring, Mahtmi makes more people: some from the red clay of Georgia, some from the sandy beaches of Normandy. Kwanza is jealous when he returns home to find the other races of people. "They all looks better than me," he says.

Mahtmi explains why Kwanza's wide nose and big eyes are desirable features. But he also comes up with a plan. "He knew Kwanza wasn't really unsatisfied with hisself, he just wanted a little attention, a little sign that he was still very special to *T Mahtmi."

And so the creator gives Kwanza, the original man, one more gift. He heats up the tips of his fingers in the hot mist of a geyser and proceeds to curl every hair on Kwanza's head.

This is the first book by Ms. Williams and Mr. Roth. She is a graduate student in media communications who also works as an associate editor for a publishing house. Mr. Roth is a professional illustrator.

His strong watercolors, flecked with tiny speckles, show skies of orange and gold and purple. And his handsome depictions of the dark-skinned Mahtmi and Kwanza are welcome -- too often commercials drive home the idea that only light-skinned blacks are beautiful.

Unfortunately, the book's format has Mr. Roth's horizontal paintings laid out across three-quarters of each double spread, and too much art gets lost in the gutter. It's like an annoying pleat that creases almost every illustration.

But that's a minor complaint about a book that is, on the whole, an original, rewarding creation.

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