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A guide to parenting for blacks

When Zena Oglesby sat down with his 14-year-old son to explain the facts of life, he began with the shopping mall.

"I told him that store detectives will follow him and assume that he has no money and is a shoplifter," said Oglesby, a social worker who lives in Los Angeles. "I also told him what to do if he is arrested. Why should I have to worry about this? White parents don't even think about it."

In New York, Sharon Lopez, a television producer, has spent the year introducing black culture to the children in her daughter's nursery school.

"My daughter is the only black child in her class, so I have donated black dolls, and I read stories to the children about African-Americans," Lopez said. "My daughter is only 2, but she is already aware that no one else in the class looks like her. I don't want her to feel invisible."

Stories like these are quite familiar to Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint and Dr. James P. Comer. As these two prominent psychiatrists travel around the country speaking with groups of black parents, they are bombarded with such concerns.

"Parents ask, "How do I raise a healthy black child in this racist society?' " said Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. "They want to know, "What can we do to buttress children who pick up messages of inferiority from school and everywhere else?"'

Poussaint and Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, have tried to provide answers in their new book, Raising Black Children (Plume, $12). In their introduction, the authors, who as black men have lived through many of the difficulties they describe, say that they wrote the book because most other child-rearing books "are geared toward the middle-income white family." The book, which claims to cover "the educational, social and emotional problems facing black children," is written in question-and-answer form. Some examples:

"What if my child says she wants to be white because someone is calling her "nigger?' " ("You should point out that nigger is a name that some people call black people when they want to make them feel bad. . . . Explain that she is not a nigger or anything else bad.")

"How can I promote racial pride in my infant?" ("Providing your infant with both black and white dolls helps to make black, brown and white normal _ like the real world.")

"What should we do if our son reports that a teacher has directed racist remarks to individual students or to the class?" ("Report such remarks to the principal and request his or her assistance and intervention.")

"My son stopped playing tennis because his friends told him that it was a white man's game. I think he should be able to play whatever he likes. What do you think?" ("We're with you. . . . You might point out to your son that there were and are many great black tennis players _ Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison.")

"Can you make your child overreact to racism?" ("Yes. Calling it all racism can make our child feel that he is drowning in a sea of ill-feeling with no allies or potential allies anywhere.")

There are also questions dealing with sexuality, skin color, hair, the legal system, intermarriage and violence. Poussaint said that he and Comer attempted in the book "to be honest, to talk about it all and not hold back."

Raising Black Children is an extensive revision of the authors' previous collaboration, Black Child Care, which was published in 1975. The authors have included general information from that volume on matters such as discipline, developmental stages and schooling.

Publishers were not receptive initially to the earlier book. "They said it would lead to more separatism, that it would be polarizing," Poussaint said.

But 18 years later, the climate is different. Finding a publisher for Raising Black Children, which Poussaint described as "more direct and frank" than the earlier book, was not a problem.

"There is a feeling now that we should know as much as possible about other people," said Poussaint, who expects the book to be useful not only to parents but also to teachers, social workers and others who work with black children.

The authors also hope that the book will raise the understanding of whites.

"Maybe white parents will feel that they should get their child a black doll or an Asian doll so they realize that white people are not the only players," Poussaint said.

Comer said that memories of his own experience underscored in his mind the need to write the new book.

"I did not come to grips with the race issue until I was in my 30s," said the psychiatrist, who is also an associate dean of the Yale School of Medicine.

He told a story about riding the train from New Haven to New York. Comer said that, in the nearly 30 years that he has been riding that train, "always dressed in a white shirt and tie," the last seat taken "is always the one next to me."

Years ago, Comer recalled, he reacted with rage.

"I was so furious that I couldn't do any work on the train," he said. "You shouldn't have to wait until you are 35 to be able to deal with this. Children should learn to deal with racism when it first pops up, at 2 or 3, and parents should be prepared to help them."

At least one child development expert objects to the authors' premise that blacks need a child-rearing book of their own. Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell, Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Arkansas, said that she does not believe in looking at children in terms of black and white.

"I have never analyzed the differences in children in terms of race and have personally worked against that notion," Caldwell said. "James Comer and Alvin Poussaint are enormously talented men, but we all have unique experiences growing up."

Comer rejected Caldwell's view as wishful thinking.

"She is saying she wishes the world were a good place, that we didn't have to deal with racial antagonisms," he said, "but it's there all the way, from early childhood through medical school and the rest of your life. You have to be prepared to deal with racism, or it can destroy you."

Many parents agree with the authors. On Long Island, Sheriva Scott, who orders books for the Hempstead, N.Y. public school system, worries about her 17-year-old daughter's struggle with her racial identity.

"Rather than trying to become part of the greater society, she has become ultra black," Scott said. "She has retreated into sloppy clothes and outrageously short hair. I have been trying to get her to buy a neat, classic pair of shoes. She says, "I'm not wearing "white" shoes.'

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In New Jersey, Karen and Ron Johnson are moving from Cresskill to Montclair so that their children, who are 10 and 11, can grow up in a racially mixed school.

"We are moving to improve their future," said Karen Johnson, an interior decorator, whose children are among four blacks in their school. "My children have been very happy in school and have a lot of friends, but a more heterogeneous environment would be healthier for them."

Evelyn Moore, executive director of the National Black Child Development Institute in Washington, said she thought that many parents would find Raising Black Children useful.

"It is helpful to have a resource book that raises some of the more sensitive issues that you want to know about and are afraid to ask," Moore said. "Black children develop the same as any other children, from a developmental standpoint, but there are racial barriers and challenges that they must be able to handle."

Moore said that generations of black parents have relied on Dr. Spock. "But having an option that they can identify with, that addresses their heritage and culture, is important," she said.

For 419 pages, Poussaint and Comer write boldly about the "often harsh world" facing black children in America, but they end with words guaranteed to bolster not only black parents but mothers and fathers of all hues and cultures: "Relax and enjoy your children."

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