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New faces for kids' rooms

From diapers to bedtime routines, newborns are bundled with challenges.

But Kisha Holt, a South Florida mother, encountered other obstacles nine years ago, when she tried to accessorize a baby room for the first of her four children. From bibs to growth charts, Holt discovered a racial void in the juvenile furniture, clothing and accessories markets.

Black or brown faces were virtually absent from the catalogs of artwork and accessories designed for young children. That color gap drew low marks from Holt, a former teacher, who wanted to decorate her home with a rainbow of faces and images that would help nurture the self-esteem of her children.

"My experience as a teacher taught me that in order for children to learn and be really successful in school and in life, they needed to first be confident and proud of who they are. The better they felt about themselves, the better they perform,'' Holt said.

Finally, last year when she was four months pregnant with her youngest child, Holt delivered a new idea and business. She created Kisha's Kids, an online store that carries a range of products, including area rugs, picture frames, lamps, bookends, growth charts and clocks, that feature African-American children.

Holt's goal was to create a one-stop shopping designation featuring ethnic accessories from a variety of sources, including artists and manufacturers. The merchandise is displayed with the banner, "See yourself. Be yourself.''

Within the multibillion-dollar market for children's accessories, artwork, furniture and toys, items featuring ethnic faces represent a slender fraction of most product lines.

For example, major retail chains offer assorted bedding products for children's bedrooms with designs featuring, fairies, superheroes, cartoon characters and ballerinas. But with the exception of Dora the Explorer -- a Spanish-speaking character from the animated PBS TV show -- products featuring tan, brown or black faces are few.

That reality led Ramona Phillips to a kick-off party for Kisha's Kids, where she spent about $1,000 on holiday presents. With an extensive gift list that includes children, relatives and friends in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and other cities, Phillips purchased artwork, throw rugs, T-shirts, picture frames and a ballerina gift basket.

The children depicted in various poses and attitudes reflect "everyday children, who happen to be African American,'' she says.

"It's exciting. It's like nothing I've seen before in stores,'' Phillips said.

Carla Cody, the mother of newborn Garth Barack Andrew, plans to decorate her son's room with artwork from Kisha's Kids and plans to raise her child in a diverse environment.

"I want him to interact with people from all different cultures and also to be comfortable with who he is,'' Cody said.

The link between self-esteem and positive racial images has been well-documented in the landmark "doll experiment'' that took place more than 60 years ago and more recently in 2005. The original experiment was launched by husband-and-wife psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark.

Black children were given a pair of infant dolls -- one white, one black -- and asked to select a doll that was good and one that was bad. Overwhelmingly, the black children preferred the white doll.

In 2005, the test was recreated at a day-care center in Harlem, with the same results. As documented by filmmaker Kiri Davis, the doll test was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show in late 2007. News of the doll test generated a flurry of email exchanges, especially among African-American women.

"People were very disheartened,'' said Dana Hill, a former South Florida publicist who now lives in Atlanta. "I decided to do a Christmas party that year featuring beautiful black women who looked like dolls to hand out dolls to little girls.''

As such, The Black Doll Affair was created in Atlanta with the message: "Be a doll. Give a doll.''

With a theme of highlighting the beauty of young black girls, the holiday party was designed to deliver a message in self-esteem.

The Black Doll Affair took place earlier this month in Miami.

And during the month of December, black dolls will be on display at the African-American Research Library near Fort Lauderdale.

"The first thing we want to do is to shore up the self-esteem of some of these young black girls,'' said Karen Grey, an organizer of the Miami event. "The whole purpose of the program is to let them know they are beautiful.''