A Google search for “baby Jesus” highlights pretty quickly the issue children’s author Dorena Williamson aims to address with the publication of her book, Brown Baby Jesus. Going by the results presented by the world’s top search engine, one would be left to conclude that Jesus was White — and, of course, one would be wrong.
“We don’t have pictures of what he looked like, specifically. But when I’ve seen a lot of our current images of a blonde, very pale, blue-eyed Jesus, we know that that is certainly not historically accurate,” Williamson told Faithfully Magazine a few weeks before the book’s release.
Williamson, who is African American, is well aware of the baggage that comes with popular visual presentations of a White Jesus.
“So reimagining him as a Middle Eastern brown baby with bushy hair, my hope in doing that is really to say to people who look like you and I that we belong, that we are part of his story, and that Jesus is not just someone for White people,” she added.
Brown Baby Jesus is Williamson’s take on the most significant event in Christian history: the nativity.
There is no shortage of children’s books about the Christmas story, and many of them follow a rigid timeline of events to highlight the significance of Jesus’ birth. Here, also, Williamson takes a different approach.
In Brown Baby Jesus, the bestselling author presents a fluid tale centered not just on the Christian savior, but that also highlights several diverse — and controversial — ancestors who made Jesus’ arrival possible. Set against vibrant illustrations reflecting his early life in Egypt, a young brown-skin Jesus is told by his parents that like Moses, he would also be a deliverer and like Rahab, save his people from destruction. The illustration of “Jesus’s family tree” includes Adam and Eve, who also appear Black.
The goal, according to the publisher, is to show “how God included many races and nations in the story we celebrate each year.”
Williamson has authored several children’s books, including Amazon’s noted “teacher’s pick,” Colorful and Crowned With Glory. Common themes in her books are self-love and diversity, often reflected through racially diverse characters.
In her interview with Faithfully Magazine, Williamson explained the inspiration for her work, including for her latest book, how she hopes to “agitate” some readers with a brown Jesus, and more.
This transcript is an excerpt of a longer Q&A. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Faithfully Magazine: So obviously, you’re not just a children’s author. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is Dorena Williamson?
Dorena Williamson: Well, my adventure of writing children’s books, which I actually call my midlife adventure — I’m probably aging myself and saying that, but the intent is to say that God gave me a whole new journey in the middle career of my life. And really, this came from the work I’ve done as a first lady of a multiracial church. This is our 27th year. And by the grace of God, we have (my husband and I) led our congregation and cultivated a space where we celebrate all the beautiful people that come together to worship God in our diversity, and with the different cultural backgrounds that we have. My writing really sources from the work that I do in our church, that’s really where it’s been imagined. That’s where I’ve been cheered on. That’s where I’ve, you know, journeyed and wrestled with God with what I believe he’s burdened my heart with and the tensions that I see in society.
But I also wear a hat as a mama bear. And my books are also inspired out of the difficulty I had when my children were reading picture books, and finding ones that reflected both our faith and gave them reflections that look like them. And now my kids are 18 to 28. But I’m still really passionate about the messages that young children get. And so I’m writing the kind of books I wish my kids had had when they were young.
And I also wear another hat. Besides first lady and mom and author, I’m a stylist at a local store called EVEREVE. It’s a national brand. So I get to empower women. And that’s a whole different lane than any of the other hats I wear. It’s really delightful to switch gears, and really help women find their trends and their styles for their body type. So lots of fun hats that I wear, and it just all sort of swirls together and I still try to balance it out as best as I can.
FM: With the title Brown Baby Jesus, we can tell you’re making a statement. This Jesus is brown, and the description of your book states that it is historically accurate. So what’s the background to the inspiration of this story? And why did you feel you needed it to be so colorful, why the characters are predominantly different hues of brown?
Williamson: Well, this story was really inspired. It’s beautiful how God leads your life journey. Many years ago, my husband and I visited the holy land for the second time. And we visited a Church in Nazareth, called the Church of the Annunciation, and people can look that church up. But what really stood out to me was how different cultures portrayed Jesus. And so, you know, the Japanese portrayed him looking like them. African countries portrayed him looking like them, European countries… And so when I say looking like them, I mean in the hair texture, in the shape of the eyes, and the melanin, or lack thereof, of the skin. And as I looked back on those pictures, it struck me that that’s really the epitome of that term we use in evangelicalism, when we call Jesus “our personal Savior.” It felt very personal to me, that all these different cultures saw him as one of them.
I think that’s a beautiful way when we consider that Jesus, as the Bible teaches us, is God in the flesh. We don’t have pictures of what he looked like specifically. But when I’ve seen a lot of our current images of a blonde, very pale, blue-eyed Jesus, we know that that is certainly not historically accurate. So reimagining him as a Middle Eastern brown baby with bushy hair, my hope in doing that is really to say to people who look like you and I is that we belong, that we are part of his story, and that Jesus is not just someone for White people. As we also know, in the Black community there’s been a lot of pain and people feeling like Christianity was “a White man’s religion.” And a lot of that came because the images that have dominated picture books, even paintings of Jesus around the world in churches, even in Black churches, have been a very pale, very White, Eurocentric Jesus.
What really sort of set this book in motion is a few years ago, a sweet little boy at our church. He’s an African child, Ugandan specifically. And he lives in a family with White parents, and he was frustrated telling his mom, you know, why are all the Jesuses White? And she suggested that he… It’s kind of like, “Well, what do you think we should do about that?” And he just said, “I think Ms. Dorena should write a book about a Jesus that’s brown.” I love when people meet me and tell me, “My kid thinks you should write a book about this,” or kids in church will say things like that. It’s such an honor for children to want to inspire you with ideas.
But that one kind of took a place in my heart, because I started thinking about that Israel trip and it just sort of all merged together. After a while I thought, you know, it would be really amazing to give children a new nativity story, one that they could treasure all year-round, that features a Jesus that’s Brown. But that also, more importantly, really highlights the multicultural people in Jesus’s story that we read about in Matthew, in Luke. And to set that story in Egypt, which I think is really unprecedented. It takes that part of Jesus’s story that we read in Matthew 2, and it just sort of brings it to life. So I had a lot of fun creating it. And I hope that as people read it, that they will be inspired and some agitated seeing a brown Jesus, but that it will stick with them, that they will really consider who Jesus was and who he came to save. And the answer to that is he came from everyone because he came to save everyone.
FM: Brown Baby Jesus is not just about Jesus, but you also highlight some of his ancestors with controversial stories of their own, like Rahab and Bathsheba. How do you know when to push the envelope and when to pull back a bit for your younger readers? Because you can’t give all the explicit details about Rahab or Bathsheba, or Tamar. So how do you figure out what’s enough for this young reader?
Williamson: I do think that that is a subject that parents or caregivers should be the first introduced to children…. And there’s a part of me that wishes we would unpack that at earlier ages. The reason I say that is because over and over through Scripture it mentions that Rahab was a prostitute. We read that when we’re introduced to her. We read that in the genealogy, “Rahab, the prostitute.” We read that in Hebrews “Rahab, the prostitute.” So the fact that she was a prostitute stays connected to her name, not because we will forget, but I think it’s because God wants us to understand who she was. And as my husband mentioned, last week, in his sermon…if someone is a prostitute and they’re reading Scripture and they see “Rahab, the prostitute,” that’s going to stand out to them. And I hope that will say to them that they belong, that there’s a place for them, right? And we need to be reminded of that.
FM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Williamson: Well, I’m really just grateful to get to share about Brown Baby Jesus and I’m excited you know about a Christmas book that will be enjoyed both during the holiday season and all year round. So I would really be grateful if your readers and listeners would support that…. And please, if you buy it for kids in your life, please tag me in pictures. It brings me so much joy to see kids reading the books….
I’ll just be honest, I mean, we need to know that our work is accomplishing what we’ve prayed over, you know. I spent so many hours researching and praying and doing Bible study, you know. I mean, if you see the commentaries and the history books out as you’re writing a picture book. And so it’s a labor of love, you know. Often we call them our book babies, but they truly are, you know, cultivated and grown over a long period of time. And so I’m excited for it to release and excited for families to be enriched. And for people to really, like I said, be driven to go read the Word of God and to see Jesus beyond the typical baby in a manger that we’re used to, but to see the rest of his story and the people that God included in it.