Eight-year-old James came home from school angry.

In class that day, his teacher had listed some of the contributions of different ethnic groups. There weren't any African-Americans on the list.

"How come black people never do anything important?" he asked his father.

James and his parents were still upset about what happened in the classroom when they related the story to husband-wife clinical psychologists Derek S. Hopson and Darlene Powell-Hopson.

The couple -- who specialize in child and family therapy in Middlefield, Conn. -- regularly hear similar stories from black children and black parents. Many of their clients are frustrated by a society that often places little value on them and their culture.

The Hopsons' clinical experiences and their own experiences as parents led them to write "Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race-Conscious Society" (Prentice Hall, $19.95).

The book is a parenting primer geared to black families. Its message is that black parents can raise happy, mentally healthy children without sacrificing ethnic pride and identity.

"Rejection, invisibility, this happens almost daily in a black child's life," said Hopson in a recent telephone interview from his Connecticut office. "The challenge is to prepare our children for race-consciousness and even outright racism while helping them develop self-esteem and maintain a positive outlook on life."

Powell-Hopson said the couple's experiences with their own daughter, Dotteanna, 3 1/2, have paralleled those of the children they see in their practice.

"Dotteanna was the first to point out to us that black dolls are always in the back of the television commercials," Powell-Hopson said.

"In all the TV ads for Barbies, the black Barbie is flashed for a half-second, then the blond Barbie is shown for the remainder of the commercial."

Black children are constantly bombarded with subtle messages that say they are not as desirable, as attractive, as important as other children, she said. "That kind of negative reinforcement can really undermine a child's self-worth."

Other messages are more overt. One 9-year-old client was troubled when a clothing store clerk refused to accept her mother's check. The clerk had just cashed the check of a white woman with the same forms of identification. Too upset to protest, the girl's mother dashed out of the store, ignoring her daughter's questions about why they couldn't buy her new clothes.

"In therapy, it was clear that the child thought that perhaps blacks weren't allowed to cash checks and that there might be a good reason why," Hopson said. Once the girl understood that the clerk was wrong, she felt reassured.

Parents need to respond to racism rather than ignore it, the couple said. They recommend direct action, and they recommend letting the child in on that course of action. "Let the child help you write a letter to the manager; let her see you complain to the manager on the scene."

Parents must also avoid sending subtle messages of their own that create negative images about people of color.

"If you say, 'I don't use this makeup anymore; it makes me look too dark,' you are sending a message to your children that dark skin is undesirable. Instead, you should say, 'I have found makeup that better matches my complexion,' " Hopson said.

"Our own color bias can be a source of trouble for our children, who constantly see white images in the media. Particularly in music videos, the love interest always is white or has a lighter skin tone. We can counteract those images by celebrating the total spectrum of blackness," he said.

Another common problem, according to the couple, lies in a distrust of black professionals: "If all your day-to-day contacts are black but your 'advisers' are white, your child grows to believe that the law, medicine, finance and so on are the domains of white people."

Parenting, they say, is a pro-active process -- especially for black parents.

"Many of us -- particularly the black middle class -- would love to believe that the world has become color blind, that ethnicity is no longer a factor in our daily lives," Powell-Hopson said. "But that is just not the reality. When their children come home troubled, those parents realize that overt racism and subtle racism are alive and well."

As parents, the Hopsons follow their own advice. They take their daughter to a black Santa Claus and have pictures of black people prominently displayed in their home.

They recently changed child-care centers when Dotteanna's school was slow in adding black-oriented toys and images after the couple objected to the all-white atmosphere there.

In a predominantly white community such as Middlefield, many consider their actions extreme. "They say we're too sensitive," Powell-Hopson said.

"But I tell them, 'Imagine this. What if you went out looking for Santa and all the Santas in all the malls were black?

" 'What if your child's school only taught about important black people. What if all the ads on television only featured black children? Wouldn't you feel alienated and unwanted?' "

Recommended Reading

Among books for black children recommended by Darlene Powell-Hopson and Derek S. Hopson in their book "Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race-Conscious Society":

folo10f Ages 2 and Up

"Ashanti to Zulu -- African Traditions," by Margaret Musgrove. Magnificent illustrations fill this book about customs of African life. (Dial Books for Young Readers, $4.95).

"Colors Around Me," by Vivien Church. A picture book illustrating the many different skin tones of the black race. (Afro-Am Publishing, $4.95).

"Grandpa's Face," by Eloise Greenfield." A story of love, reassurance and security. (Grosset & Dunlap, $13.95).

Ages 6 and Up

"The Hundred Penny Box," by Sharon Bell Mathis. A story about the relationship between a young boy and his great-great aunt. (Penguin Books, $3.95).

"Forty Famous Black Americans." A kit containing pictures, biographies and quiz cards. (Claudia's Caravan, Multicultural/Multilingual Materials, $8.95, 415-521-7871).

"Kwanzaa." A filmstrip and cassette of a family celebrating the African-American cultural holiday. (Claudia's Caravan, Multicultural/Multilingual Materials, $35).

Ages 12 and Up

"Long Journey Home," by Julius Lester. Lester brings to life ordinary people engaged in extraordinary struggles. (Scholastic Inc., $2.50).

"Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry," by Mildred D. Taylor. One of a trilogy of stories that chronicle the life of a family in Mississippi during the Depression. (Bantam Books, $2.95).

My Ancestors Are From Africa. Activity cards illustrating heritage, history, music and customs. (Claudia's Caravan, Multicultural/Multilingual Materials, $7.95).