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The Changing Image of the Black in Children’s Literature

by Augusta Baker

augusta baker

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, children’s books seemed to foster prejudice by planting false images in the minds of children. Most authors were white, with little knowledge about black life, and yet they wrote as if they were authorities. No wonder it was an accepted fact in children’s books that blacks were lazy, shiftless, lived in shanties, had nothing and wanted nothing, sang and laughed all day. Black writers for children were practically nonexistent, and the few who had written — such as Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes — reached a very small audience. Consequently, few children knew that blacks lived just as other people lived, having the same aspirations and hopes.

Through the mid-thirties, the black experience in America was still described primarily in plantation stories. L. C. Pyrnelle wrote Diddie, Dumps, and Tot or Plantation Child Life; and Rose Knox was writing the same kind of story; Inez Hogan was writing the Nicodemus books, while Annie Vaughn wrote Frawg, about a character who just sang and ate watermelon. The dialect was as offensive as the illustrations. An insult to black children, books like these were being read by white children who were meeting blacks in them, and forming inaccurate ideas and opinions. By the late thirties, some parents and other adults realized that black boys and girls were reading about the heroes and history of every country without being told the truth about the contributions of their own African and slave ancestors to the progress of this country. They should have been able to read about Crispus Attucks, the Revolutionary War hero; Dr. Charles Drew, whose experiments resulted in the first blood plasma bank; and Phillis Wheatley, the black poet. Never mind the plantation stories!

Black authors, educators, and historians had become so frustrated and distressed over the lack of suitable material that they founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History — with its own publishing company, Associated Publishers, under the direction of the black scholar, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Jane Shackelford’s Child’s Story of the Negro and Dr. Woodson’s Story of the Negro Retold (1935) and Negro Makers of History (1938) provided children with information about the true history and culture of black people. Before 1940, a few editors had published books on the black experience: Florence Means’ Shuttered Windows, published by Houghton in 1938, was recognized in 1941 as “One of the finest books with all Negro characters ever written” and is still read by girls who are interested in the days when grandma and mamma lived; Putnam published four books by Eva Knox Evans, a white author who was one of the first to portray black children in a normal, everyday atmosphere. Three of these books — Araminta, Jerome Anthony, and Araminta’s Goat — were illustrated by Erick Berry, and she was a vast improvement over past illustrators who had sometimes made their animals more attractive than their black characters. In portraying black characters Erick Berry, the Haders, Armstrong Sperry, and a few others succeeded where Elvira Garner, Inez Hogan, and Alice Caddy failed. And during this time some excellent photographic illustrations, as found in The Flop-eared Hound (Oxford) and Tobe (University of North Carolina), were produced as well. Doubleday, Messner, and Friendship Press had also published one or two books about the American black, but these were only a drop in the bucket.

By 1940, voices were being raised in favor of the production and publishing of books about black life — in spite of an economic boycott by most Southern booksellers and schools. Organizations such as The Child Study Association and the Bureau for Intercultural Education joined with the NAACP and the Urban League to protest to publishers about the scarcity of good books about blacks. People like Frederick Melcher listened. Charlemae Rollins, a children’s librarian in the Chicago Public Library, had been concerned for a number of years and in 1941 produced the invaluable bibliography, “We Build Together” (now in its third revision), for the National Council of Teachers of English. The introduction was particularly important because it spelled out the criteria she used. I was compiling a similar list — “Books about Negro Life for Children” — and establishing the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of “Books by and about the Negro suitable for children” at the 135th Street Branch of The New York Public Library (now the Countee Cullen Regional Branch). In order to reevaluate the books in the children’s room and to judge those books currently being published, I established criteria in my first bibliography of 1938.

[T]hese books have been chosen with three points in mind — language, theme, and illustration. When considering the factor of language, the most important point is to eliminate books which describe Negroes in terms of derision….Another language consideration is the use of heavy dialect….The use of regional vernacular is acceptable but dialect should be used with great care.

The next point to consider is the theme of the book. Is the Negro character a clown and a buffoon whose only object in life is to serve his master faithfully and without question or is he a character who is making some worth-while contribution to the progress of society?…

The third factor is illustration. An artist can portray a Negro child — black skin, crinkly hair, and short nose — and make him attractive and appealing.

There was no mention of literary quality nor of the present-day concern for a black perspective — only three simple, beginning criteria. Yet, the books on the shelves were so derogatory towards blacks that the list contained only forty titles; and few of those met all the criteria. Most of them were quickly dropped from subsequent revisions as soon as better books were published. Underlying the general standards were three questions: How will black children react to these books; will they want to read more of them; do these books offset the distorted picture of black life in other children’s books? Perhaps the criteria were too simplistic, but we were starting at the bottom, struggling to have a need recognized.

1946 saw the publication of two books important for the times — Two Is a Team (Harcourt) by Lorraine and Jerrold Beim and My Dog Rinty (Viking) by Marie Hall Ets and a black writer, Ellen Tarry. The first was a story of spontaneous friendship and cooperation between two little boys — one white and one black — who lived in the same neighborhood. Their color was shown in the illustrations by a young black artist, Ernest Crichlow. There were two black illustrators by this time — Crichlow and Elton Fax. My Dog Rinty, though not the first photographic picture book of black life, was the first one of high quality showing urban life and blacks in professional positions. In the thirties and forties, blacks were still largely shown as farmers and laborers. Yet segregation had actually spawned black professional and business people. As a child, I did not know any white professionals, but I did read about them in my children’s books.

During the forties, a few fine books of nonfiction appeared. Shirley Graham (Mrs. W. E. B. Dubois) was writing lively biographies; Countee Cullen gave us The Lost Zoo (Harper); and Arna Bontemps’ classic Story of the Negro (Knopf) was published in 1948. Children could now get a true picture of black life during slavery times and Reconstruction. They could read about famous blacks other than Carver and Douglass — and Mammy was on her way out in both fiction and nonfiction.

From the late forties into the 1950’s, editors were publishing a wider variety of stories — school desegregation stories such as Mary Jane (Doubleday); career stories, Hold Fast to Your Dreams (Messner); sports stories, All-American (Harcourt) and Hit and Run (Morrow); and historical fiction like Cadmus Henry (Dodd). White authors and illustrators were still the major producers of these books, few as they were. Some authors attempted to write the story from the black point of view and failed. Others — like Dorothy Sterling, Hildegarde Swift, and the Beims — were writing successful books because they were perceptive, socially conscious, and understanding. North Star Shining (Morrow) by Hildegarde Swift was written after her young black chaplain friend was killed in World War II — a war for the democracy which had been denied him.

Then came the 1960’s and an increase in publishing — in quantity if not in quality. Nancy Larrick conducted a survey of more than 5,000 trade books published for children in 1962, 1963, and 1964, and “only 349 included one or more Negroes — an average of 6.7%.”* Yet this average was higher than in previous years. By 1965, the combined forces of economics, the Civil Rights Act, civil rights groups, the American guilty conscience, and the Kerlan Committee Report brought about the Black Power movement. For years black children had been told by their parents and a few teachers and librarians that they should not be ashamed of their blackness but, rather, proud of it; society, however, did not reinforce the idea that “Black Is Beautiful” until this time. Authors now used black as descriptive of color and race, and the terms Negro and colored were not used. Illustrations began to show black people with beautiful Afros and distinguishing features. White writers were becoming more perceptive, and editors quicker to detect a lack of sensitivity. Blacks were acting as consultants and reviewers; black editors, such as Toni Morrison and Walter Dean Myers, were emerging; and, best of all, more black authors and illustrators were seeing their own excellent work published. The sixties gave us an outstanding black author, Virginia Hamilton, who reflects her blackness without bitterness or rage: “I write of the black experience….I attempt in each book to take hold of one single theme of the black experience and present it as clearly as I can.”† Virginia Hamilton writes of human experiences as well as of black experiences.

Now in the seventies, dialect is definitely gone, replaced by a form of Black English. John Steptoe writes gonna instead of gwine; and an easy, rhythmic pattern of speech is found in Lucille Clifton’s books. In the essay, “Black English: The Politics of Translation,” June Jordan writes:

It is true that we need to acquire competence in the language of the powerful: Black children in America must acquire competence in standard English, if only for the sake of self-preservation. But I do not understand how anyone supposes that you will teach a child a new language by scorning and ridiculing and forcibly erasing his old, first language: all of his names for all the people and events of his black life prior to his entry into school….As long as we shall survive Black, in this White America, we and our children require and deserve the power of Black language, Black history, Black literature, as well as the power of standard English, standard history, and standard, White literature.‡

We now have other questions to add to those we asked in 1938. Are books providing positive identification for black children? Are white children seeing a true picture of the ethnic, cultural, and historical aspects of black Americans? Does fiction lack the black perspective which can be acquired from an understanding of and appreciation for the black experience? Does one have to live the black experience in order correctly to portray it?

We hope the 1970’s will continue to give us black authors who can produce such books as Na-ni (Harper) by Alexis Deveaux, The Times They Used To Be (Holt) by Lucille Clifton, Teacup Full of Roses (Viking) by Sharon Bell Mathis, Sister (Crowell) by Eloise Greenfield, and M. C. Higgins, the Great (Macmillan) by Virginia Hamilton. All writers, black and white, who recognize the universality of childhood should be free to write about it without self-consciousness — as Ann Scott did in Sam (McGraw), Ezra Jack Keats in The Snowy Day (Viking), Eloise Greenfield in She Come Bringing Me That Little Baby Girl (Lippincott), and John Steptoe in Stevie (Harper). Will other writers be as honest in their portrayal of ghetto life as are Mathis, Deveaux, Genevieve Gray in A Kite for Bennie (McGraw), and Helen King in Willy (Doubleday)?

Though Amos Fortune Free Man (Dutton) by Elizabeth Yates won the 1951 Newbery Medal, most awards to books about the black experience were given in the 1960’s and 70’s. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats won the Caldecott Medal in 1963. I, Juan de Pareja (Farrar) by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, the Newbery Medal winner in 1966, is an historical novel based on the life of the African slave who served the great Spanish artist, Velazquez, and who became an artist in his own right. One of Julius Lester’s finest books, To Be a Slave (Dial), was a Newbery Honor Book in 1969; and Moja Means One: Swahili Counting Book (Dial), illustrated by Tom Feelings, was voted a Caldecott Honor Book in 1972. The Newbery Award books for 1970 and 1974 — Sounder (Harper) by William Armstrong and The Slave Dancer (Bradbury) by Paula Fox — are moving and compelling books. Armstrong writes about a black  man who was exiled to a chain gang for stealing a ham to feed his hungry family. The boy watches his father brutally seized, while their faithful hunting dog is nearly killed. The courage, love, and dignity of the family prevail amid all their suffering. How many black families have experienced similar cruelty in sharecropper days, and how many strong, black men have swallowed their pride to save their families? The Slave Dancer is a powerful depiction of the horrors of slave ships, and the incident of the shanghaied white boy is authentic. It is interesting to note that the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards in 1974 went to two blacks — Virginia Hamilton for M. C. Higgins, the Great and Tom Feelings for Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book (Dial).

Some people have criticized Sounder and The Slave Dancer particularly for a lack of militancy on the part of the black characters. Courage is shown in many ways and by many different reactions under stress. Will we deny children books about the past, books about the ugliness, the humiliation, the cruelty, and the destruction of human dignity that existed during slavery days and during the days when the Ku Klux Klan rode openly and often? I hope not — for all children, black and white, deserve the truth.

Let me close with a paragraph from the introduction of the 1971 revision of “The Black Experience in Books for Children.” I described the scope of the books included in the list, and I believe the paragraph sums up what has happened in fifty years of publishing.

We have now reached the point where most aspects of the human experience in the black community can be portrayed in children’s books without being self-conscious. The whole range of black life is shown in this list representing every class and condition of society, a variety of experiences and all periods of history….Any discussion on the relationship between blacks and whites is not without limitations in perspective, depending on the origin of the commentary or thought on the whole racial question. Blacks and whites have each, from their own vantage point, made a contribution to the “Black Experience” in the past and in the present and they will both contribute in the future. Work of an author or artist, black or white, has been included and recognized wherever it has demonstrated a sensitivity to the black man’s striving to fulfill the American dream or attempting to maintain his identity, with dignity, in the total human community….Dr. Jeanne Noble, in a speech at an American Library Association meeting, [said] ….”We are uncommonly common. This might bring us to that ultimate moment of truth when we all — black and white, rich and poor — might say together, ‘I am you, and you are me; what have we done to each other?'”

* Nancy Larrick, “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” Saturday Review (September 11, 1965).
† Virginia Hamilton, “Portrait of the Author as a Working Writer.” Elementary English (April 1971).
‡ June Jordan, ” Black English: The Politics of Translation.” School Library Journal (May 1973)·

From the February 1975 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth16 for more articles in this series.

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Comments

  1. Thank you!

  2. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Thank YOU, Shadra! Your article is going up today for #HBBlackHistoryMonth16
    http://www.hbook.com/2014/03/choosing-books/horn-book-magazine/great-work-rest-will-follow/

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