Thursday, March 20, 2014

Christopher Robin is white, and some African American children's books that should be classics

Most people trace the beginnings of African America children's literature to the activism and art of the Civil Rights Movement.  Books like The Snowy Day (1962) and Corduroy (1968) brought young black protagonists into the mainstream of American picture books.

However, before the 1960s there was a small and lovely body of African American children's books.  The first of these books came from small Black-owned publishing houses, while later books were published by the big white-owned firms (and written illustrated both by black and by white artists), sometimes with financial subsidies from foundations committed to interracial understanding and to African American education.

The books below present some challenges for present-day readers.  Some have a scene, a theme, or an illustration that would be considered problematic by most teachers and librarians.  Arna Bontemps, Sad-Faced Boy has one in scene in which the African American boys in the story kidnap a little white boy and dress him up in blackface.  I don't mind having it in LB's collection, we'll just talk about it, like we'll talk about blackface in the Little House books, but I can understand why an educator would think it inappropriate for a children's collection.  Rowena, Teena, Tot is a very cute story, but it includes an illustration of a little boy eating a huge leg of chicken and African American women with old-fashioned kerchiefs on their heads-racially stereotypical images that Black librarians weren't entirely comfortable with even in the 1930s.

These books were created in a world where the vast majority of books featuring Black children were viciously racist.  Black child characters were almost always stupid, cowardly, supersticious, subservient, and ugly.  Against that backdrop, the books below are beautiful and life affirming

Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes, Popo and Fifina (1932).  Aren't these illustrations beautiful!  I'm not sure all editions have these illustration.  Bontemps and Hughes often complained about getting stuck with illustrators who did not know how to draw beautiful black children.

Arna Bontemps, Sad-Faced Boy (1937).  Three boys from the rural south runaway to Harlem.  I love this book, it is such a fun story.

Arna Bontemps, Sad-Faced Boy (1937).  Bontemps (and Hughes) were always short of money, and kept a little bit coming in with their juvenile titles.
Fannie Blumberg, Rowena, Teena, and Tot and the Runaway Turkey (1936).  I love some of the illustrations in this book, although as I said above, some are racist by today's standards.
Eva Knox Evans, Araminta's Goat (1938)  Evans also wrote the Jerome Anthony series.  These are just nice fun books.  If I remember correctly Evans was a teacher and wanted to provide books about the everyday lives of Black children, similar to the existing books for white children.
Ellen Tarry, Hezekiah Horton (1942).  A story about a car-crazy boy in Harlem.

Marguerite de Angeli, Bright April, 1946.  Most of the other books included in the post take place in all-African American communities.  Bright April is one of the first books for kids that shows interracial friendship and racial prejudice.
In the 1930s, when these books began to be published, Black educators (and white fellow-travelers) were concerned that Black children would learn to hate books if they continually saw negative representations of Black people in books (if books lied to them).  (In his New York Times piece, Walter Dean Myers shares his own experience of hating books that didn't represent his experience.) They also worried that Black children were being denied a cultural heritage-finding a history in which they were either absent or slaves.  Despite the statistically sad state of African American children's books, Black children can find some books in which they are represented in positive ways.  But despite the fact that a lot has changed in 100 years, Black children are still being denied a literary heritage of their own. 

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