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Connections: History Changes Color: A Story in Three Parts

When Carter Woodson started Negro History Week in 1926, he wanted the world to know that his people, too, had a history — something his own people had been prevented from learning. What Arna Bontemps didn’t learn as a boy, he put into books for black children and white. Who’d imagine a whole month of African-American programs, from national television to the local schoolhouse, and an entire black children’s literature at the heart of children’s books?

For Woodson, history was a family legacy. Born in rural Virginia in 1875, one of seven children of former slaves, Woodson remembered leaving the table hungry. But he also shared in the family pursuit of education. From his mother, covertly taught as a child, he learned to read at an early age. His four brief months of schooling a year were under the tutelage of two uncles trained in Freedmen’s Bureau schools. From reading the daily paper to his father, an unlettered Union Army veteran, he became familiar with current events. Just listening, he learned about family resisters and runaways.

Student became student-teacher in Oliver Jones’s Nutallburg, West Virginia, parlor. Jones-Civil War veteran, coal miner, illiterate-hired Woodson to read the daily paper aloud in his after-hours tearoom, in exchange for “all the nice things I wanted to eat.” Whenever a veteran ran for office, or an issue involving African Americans came up, Woodson had to research the topic in Jones’s library of books about blacks and his array of black weekly papers and metropolitan dailies. In his own words, Woodson was penetrating the past of his people and studying crucial aspects of history and economics. He was also explaining bimetalism and other knotty subjects to inquisitive, uneducated coal miners.

Between the zealous young tutor and the “father of modern Negro history” lay a first-rate academic education — Berea College Litt.D., University of Chicago B.A. and M.A., Harvard Ph.D. (the second black, after W.E.B. Du Bois)-and, uniting academe and Nutallburg academy, two years as teacher and administrator in the Philippines, a year of research in Asia, Africa (Egypt), and Europe, and a semester at the Sorbonne. It was an exceptional background for anyone; for a black man, invaluable.

In 1915, Woodson’s opening came. Segregation was the law across the South; discrimination prevailed in the North. Under Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern-born president since before the Civil War, one affront followed another. The final blow was D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, with its image of black Reconstruction leaders as ignorant, venal, lecherous, corrupt. In protest, the fledgling NAACP — W.E.B. Du Bois, chief publicist — held its first demonstrations.

Woodson took another approach. At forty he was a teacher at Washington’s M Street High School (the future Dunbar), flagship of the city’s elite black school system. In Chicago for an exhibition, he and three cohorts formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), with Woodson as director. Four months later, in January 1916, he brought out the first issue of the scholarly Journal of Negro History — starting unawares on the path to Negro History Week.

The Journal, which Woodson edited until his death in 1950, published cutting-edge articles of lasting interest. The contents of a single volume are a foretaste of the entire field of black studies. Alongside, Woodson wrote one after another landmark book: on the century of flight that preceded World War I’s Great Migration; on the heroic efforts of antebellum blacks to gain an education; on African survivals in the New World (something that, for decades, only he and Du Bois propounded). Even more influential was the family of textbooks that incorporated the scholarship: The Negro in Our History (1922), the standard college textbook for a quarter century and its adaptations for junior and senior high.

All these books, and works by others, were published by Associated Publishers, an independent arm of the ASNLH established by Woodson partly to be independent of trade publishing, partly in hopes of earning extra money. As outside support for scholarly research continued to dwindle, Woodson took the crucial step of transforming the ASNLH from a counterpart of the American Historical Association into a broad-based membership organization and an instrument of popular education.

In 1926 he launched Negro History Week, repeating his mantra: “If a race has no history, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world.” Each year the association distributed a booklet featuring the current theme (in 1933, “Ethiopia Meets Error with Truth”), with a host of promotional materials. Schools and churches, libraries and playgrounds and social clubs, all held special programs. Year by year newspaper coverage grew and, to Woodson’s delight, so did the sale of books. In schools, as he had hoped, “Negro History Week was developing into study of the Negro throughout the year.” The formation of local branches nationwide had the same effect, for the whole family.

Increasingly the books sold during Negro History Week and through the branches, as well as directly to schools and libraries, were children’s books. Woodson himself brought out African Myths (1928) and African Heroes and Heroines (1939). But, as he recognized, his writing was not right for children, and most of the other juveniles were commissioned from teachers. Two of the most widely used — though probably in different contexts — were written by Terre Haute teacher Jane Dabney Shackelford. The Child’s Story of the Negro (1938) is a simple, sunny book about African life and lore, “Life on the Plantation,” and such, especially suited to segregated Southern schools. My Happy Days (1944), by contrast, is a photo-story of a middle-class black family indistinguishable from its white counterparts, and a “first purchase” for that very reason. There were also books about musicians and athletes, books of poetry and plays, books about “distinguished Negroes” at home and abroad. A little library, in effect, to fill a large gap.

The final component of Woodson’s educational empire was the Negro History Bulletin, an offshoot of Negro History Week designed for school use but also intended, Woodson reported, for the “average reader.” With a lively mix of history and biography and current events, with book reviews and book-of-the-month selections, with features on writers, artists, and musicians, it functioned as a family magazine. Together with Negro History Week and the local clubs, the Bulletin united school and home in fostering “race consciousness,” Woodson’s antidote to misguided — or “miseducated” — emulation of whites.

Martin Luther King Jr. felt the reverberations. At the start of Why We Can’t Wait (1964), he invokes a “young Negro boy” and “young Negro girl” who know some provoking things. “The boy’s Sunday school teacher had told him that one of the team who designed…Washington, D.C., was a Negro, Benjamin Banneker. The girl has heard a speaker…during Negro History week… [who] told how, for two hundred years, without wages, black people had drained the swamps, built the houses, made cotton king and helped…to lift this nation from colonial obscurity.” The title, again, is Why We Can’t Wait.

* * *

Arna Bontemps at the East Winston Branch, Winston-Salem Public Library, in 1956. Photo: East Winston Branch Archive, Forsyth County Library.

Arna Bontemps at the East Winston Branch, Winston-Salem Public Library, in 1956. Photo: East Winston Branch Archive, Forsyth County Library.

Arna Bontemps was born too early for Negro History Week. Woodson was just founding the ASNLH when Bontemps, “almost twelve,” discovered for himself that his people’s history wasn’t in the schoolbooks. The discovery made Woodson’s purpose his a generation later, when a gifted black writer had access to the mainstream of children’s literature. Otherwise the two, child of the Old South and child of the Diaspora, had almost nothing in common.

As a boy, Bontemps was a minority in a minority. Born in Louisiana in 1902, the descendant of free people of color, Bontemps was transplanted at an early age to California and grew up in Watts, then a pleasantly scruffy L.A. neighborhood where he was sometimes the only black kid on the block. His father was a Seventh Day Adventist preacher ministering to a small black congregation but indifferent, even hostile, to the ways of black people. The idea of “acting colored” didn’t faze young Arna; on the contrary, he asked pointed questions. Why had the slaves never revolted? They had, he learned. Then why didn’t the schoolbooks say so! On the centennial of the Battle of New Orleans, more crucially, he pored over accounts of Andrew Jackson’S glorious victory without reading, until later in the black press, Jackson’s ringing words of praise for his black troops. The local public library was a disappointment, too: Our Little Ethiopian Cousin “was not me, and his world was not mine.”

On his return to the same branch library twenty years later, little had changed; but Bontemps had been re-educated. In 1923 he graduated from a small Adventist college and headed for New York with a job teaching at a new Adventist school in Harlem and entree, via a prize-winning poem, to the head-spinning Harlem Renaissance. During the next eight years he enjoyed a “grandstand seat” at the spectacle; became best friends with Langston Hughes, who shared his offbeat humor, patrician looks, and a-racial Northern upbringing; and managed to balance writing, teaching, and raising an ever-growing family. He published a novel, the first of three on black themes and made a permanent mark as a New Negro poet.

When the Depression ended the Renaissance and the participants scattered, Bontemps fetched up at Oakwood Junior College, an Adventist prep school in Huntsville, Alabama. It was his first experience of living in the South, and he was both attracted by the serenity, lushness, and exuberant church services and repelled by the “gloomier aspects of living Jim Crow.” Huntsville also had the disadvantage of being close to Scottsboro, where in 1931 nine black teenagers were dubiously convicted of raping two white women, an incendiary case then still in the courts. Conservative, provincial Oakwood and liberal bookman Bontemps were basically incompatible and soon parted ways.

Back in Watts for a brief spell, Bontemps was into a second career as a children’s writer when he revisited the branch library and, with two children starting school, knew what he wanted to do. The beginnings were a draw. Popo and Fifina (1932), a charmer about child life in Haiti written with Langston Hughes, is an improvement on Our Little Ethiopian Cousin but not a mirror for young African Americans. You Can’t Pet a Possum (1934), a modest, engaging, everyday story about a young Southern boy’s attachment to his unprepossessing dog, was doomed by inappropriate illustrations.

The two ensuing novels are anything but routine. Sad-Faced Boy (1937) is a snappy, soulful original: the adventures of three Alabama boys on the loose in Harlem, with the makings — imagine Savion Glover — of a young black On the Town. There was much admiration for Bontemps’s skill in “rendering Negro speech simply by the use of appropriate rhythms,” for “words used with distinction” altogether. Lonesome Boy (1955) is the recognized literary classic. Has it ever been much read? Bubber’s passion for his trumpet, his readiness to follow blindly where it takes him, are captured in Feliks Topolski’s restless line. But the story itself does not need illustrations. Better perhaps some scenic effects in the jazz rhythms and high colors of a Romare Bearden. In all three Bontemps books, regardless, a writer gifted in folk idioms portrays black life from within — something that didn’t happen again until the height of the civil-rights movement in the mid-sixties.

What was actively in demand, in the 1940s and 1950s, were books that addressed the problem of disparagement and discrimination, either in “problem” fiction-the first black family in a Northern neighborhood, the troubled start of Southern school integration-or informative, inspirational nonfiction. Bontemps had moved to Chicago, site of a new, different black Renaissance. Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Willard Motley, and Gwendolyn Brooks were doing their first writing. The WPA Illinois Writers’ Project gave them a boost. After another brief teaching stint, Bontemps became a WPA supervisor-mentor to young black aspirants, colleague of unemployed white professionals. He and Jack Conroy, the proletarian writer and folklorist, paired up for The Fast Sooner Hound (1942) and two other all-American tall tales, and together wrote They Seek a City (1945), an episodic account of black migration that parallels Woodson’s Century of Negro Migration. (In the updated, retitled revision, Anyplace but Here [1966], it distinctly echoes Woodson’s oppression-opportunity theme.) Bontemps himself edited the all-encompassing Cavalcade of the American Negro, for a 1940 WPA exhibition. In Harlem, he had tasted the literary life; in Chicago, he was immersed in black Americana.

The capstone was The Story of the Negro, published in 1948, the year after John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom, the first comprehensive history for the general public as well as the new standard college text. Bontemps’s book was decidedly for young people in general, and even more than Franklin’s narrative, for reading rather than formal study. He didn’t distinguish. The book, he said, “consists mainly of things I learned after I left school that I wish I had known much earlier.”

The overall reception was ecstatic. “The most absorbing presentation of Negro history that I have ever read.” Anne Carroll  Moore. “For anyone old enough to think and young enough to keep on thinking.” May Lamberton Becker. African-American writer Roi Ottley called the book, with a grin, “a primer for white folks, young and old.” Woodson himself reviewed the book in the Journal of Negro History, and he is characteristically precise and incisive. “The author knows his American audience and he has the knack of stimulating its imagination and holding its interest.” But he is a literary man rather than a historian. There are certain “neglected aspects” of black history he should acquaint himself with. In talking about Crispus Attucks, he fails to play up Salem Poor and others. Apropos of Latin America, he expands on the Haitian Revolution but fails to mention the many other uprisings. Woodson wanted justice done to “the achievements of persons of African blood”; Bontemps wanted to put across the African-American story — first.

Along with The Story of the Negro came the stream of biographies that led the way from pre-World War II exclusion to post-civil rights inclusiveness. Bontemps himself took on George Washington Carver twice and had three goes at the protean figure of Frederick Douglass. In One Hundred Years of Negro Freedom (1961), a book whose mundane title belies its distinctiveness, he links the careers, and inner lives, of Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Du Bois.

As the foremost black juvenile author, Bontemps was the natural choice to contribute to the Land of the Free series featuring books on ethnic themes by established ethnic writers. He was now librarian of Fisk University, so Chariot in the Sky (1951), a fictionalized account of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, was a natural choice for him. In the Famous Negroes series, Hughes was writing Famous Negro Music Makers, and nominated Bontemps, the sports fan, for Famous Negro Athletes (1964). Along with Hughes, he prepared anthologies of poetry and folklore. A solo effort, Golden Slippers (1941), was the first anthology of African-American poetry for children.

The forty-year Bontemps-Hughes correspondence is studded with references to Negro History Week. Books are published, records released, speakers booked, exhibitions mounted, concerts scheduled. Hughes, the celebrity author, reports himself swamped with invitations earlier and earlier each year. And Bontemps, more than Hughes, was heavily in demand-and heavily scheduled — during Children’s Book Week, too: in Winston-Salem in 1956, four engagements in a single day — speaking to teenagers, addressing parents, telling and reading stories to children, talking over the radio. (The East Winston Branch Library, Bontemps’s host, was one of the early black branches in the segregated South. “In 1927, a group of black citizens petitioned the Carnegie Library to begin library service for blacks.” They are only a year younger than Negro History Week/Black History Month, and celebrating an anniversary this year, too.) The visit is still remembered. Bontemps was the embodiment of black children’s books.

* * *

As Black History Month arrives this year, there are too many stars in the firmament to count. There are too many books, of too many kinds, to encompass. It’s thirty years — another anniversary — since the publication of Virginia Hamilton’s Zeely. Suddenly, no problems! Rather, a flight of adoring fancy, the first of many imaginative leaps that Hamilton was to make. Then came Julius Lester, fresh from Look Out, Whitey!: Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!, with To Be a Slave (1968), a self-portrait of slavery fashioned from slave narratives, and Black Folktales (1969), African and African-American tales (together for the first time) retold in assertive black voices: the start of Lester’s efforts to reclaim black materials-black stories, stories about blacks-by re-creating them. In the mid-1970s, Walter Dean Myers closed in on Harlem teenagers, society’s outsiders, with stories of comic foul-ups and flat-out grief. But like Hamilton and Lester, he has also written history. He is now writing legends and poetry.

It’s as if this prominent trio seek, in a variety of ways, to create an entire body of black children’s literature; the equivalent in the mainstream of Woodson’s little library at Associated. But because they are valuable properties, as are other black artists and writers, the books don’t necessarily follow the old patterns. Bontemps perforce wrote for the market. With Hamilton, Lester, Myers et al. calling their own shots, today’s variety is infinite.

From the January/February 1997 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth16 for more articles in this series.

About Barbara Bader

Barbara Bader is a longtime contributor to The Horn Book. Most recently, she has written a dual portrait of the editors Elisabeth Hamilton and Margaret McElderry, and taken a Second Look at Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown.

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