'I Did Not Ask To Be Born Black. I Just Got Lucky,' Honors Black Girls' Positive Self-Images

Aug 28, 2020

Shirley Jackson Whitaker says her recent children's book, "I Did Not Ask To Be Born Black. I Just Got Lucky," is a way to help little girls who are Black have positive self-images. And it's a way to celebrate their beauty. 

Art, performance and helping people are how Whitaker says she makes sense of the world around her, including her own identity as a Black woman. Last year, a documentary featured her and one of her patients, and the art he's been making in the years since he survived an attempted lynching.

Whitaker is a medical doctor and painter and lives in western Massachusetts, and she wrote and illustrated her children's book — the first in this year's annual Books For Young People series.

Whitaker grew up in the South. She said she started making art early on. 

"When I was four or five, we lived on this dirt road," she said. "And my cousin — he used to draw, and I thought that was a miracle that he could make things come alive. And so he cleaned off the road; he said, 'You can draw here as much as you want.' Of course, I didn’t have no paper, no pencil — so I would take a stick, and all day long in the hot Georgia sun, I would sit there, and I would draw."

Whitaker said her book is intended for little girls, but it's also a good read for grown-ups.

Shirley Jackson Whitaker, author: Someone told me that if you go in certain stores in Springfield, there's an aisle of creams that can make you look white. It bleaches your skin.

Internationally: White is right. Black, step back.

This is taught early: "You're ugly, because you got that Black skin, and that kinky hair." And you don't value yourself, because this culture do not celebrate our features.

But we have to. You got to have strength within yourself. I think that starts early. Then you get the strength to go forward.

Inside the book "I Did Not Ask To Be Born Black. I Just Got Lucky."
Credit Shirley Jackson Whitaker / Courtesy bornblackandlucky.com

Jill Kaufman, NEPM: Not only did you write this book, and not only are you a doctor — you are also an artist. So you're the illustrator of Lucky, you've created her. Can you describe her?

All of the pictures of Lucky vary. But what I hope that they show is this mahogany young lady. The girl on the cover, she's looking up and she's looking so proud. Her hair is — you can see these two puffs on the back, and they’re coarse-looking and kinky, but she radiates pride. As I said, they differ. All the sketches differ.

She's a little girl. She's eight, nine, 10 years old.

This one is eight, nine or ten — and I'd say most of the ones that are sketched in here, I would say definitely less than 12 years of age.

And on the cover, Lucky is wearing a beautiful purple dress. She’s got a ribbon in her hair, and she's got a beautiful posture. She's looking up.

Yes, she’s got her chest up, her head back, just as if she's looking to the stars. And how she presents herself is that, 'I'm proud of who I am.' And that was my goal.

That title had been with me for like five or six years. I wanted Lucky to celebrate her eyes, her nose, her lips, her hair.

That makes her lucky.

Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker at the Northampton Center for the Arts.
Credit Damaris Pérez-Pizarro / El Pueblo Latino / MassLive / masslive.com/photos

I have a patient that's on dialysis now, and she's in her 80s. And I had always tried to give her something. And so I gave her that book. And, you know, this was before COVID-19.

When I go into the dialysis unit, I have to wear a mask, plastic, and sometimes I have my shades on, so they can't even see me. So one day I was in there, and she says [with her mask on], 'I'm lucky!' 

And I turn around, and I can see in her eyes, it was her saying that to me.