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“To Be Great, Heroic or Beautiful”: The Enduring Legacy of The Brownies’ Book

Heretofore the education of the Negro child has been too much in terms of white people. All through school life his text-books contain much about white people and little or nothing about his own race. All the pictures he sees are of white people. Most of the books he reads are by white authors, and his heroes and heroines are white…The result is that all of the Negro child’s idealism, all his sense of the good, the great and the beautiful is associated with white people…He unconsciously gets the impression that the Negro has little chance to be great, heroic or beautiful.
—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Brownies’ Book, 1921

W. E. B. Du Bois is widely known for his work as an author, intellectual, and leading civil rights activist of the twentieth century who, in 1909, cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He served as the editor of The Crisis, the NAACP’s flagship publication, for more than two decades. Du Bois is less well known, however, for his influence on the development of African American children’s literature — through the publication of The Brownies’ Book, one of the first substantial periodicals created specifically for the “children of the sun.” The magazine, which existed from January 1920 to December 1921, featured biographies, poetry, songs, stories, opinion columns, and children’s accomplishments in a section titled “Little People of the Month.” It included illustrations by African American artists. The magazine also published material submitted by readers (a teenaged Langston Hughes contributed poems, stories, and games). In the October 1919 Crisis Du Bois and his collaborators — Augustus Granville Dill, who served as business manager; and Jessie Redmon Fauset, who was the literary editor — outlined seven objectives for the new magazine:

(a) To make colored children realize that being “colored” is a normal, beautiful thing.

(b) To make them familiar with the history and achievements of the Negro race.

(c) To make them know that other colored children have grown into beautiful, useful and famous persons.

(d) To teach them delicately a code of honor and action in their relations with white children.

(e) To turn their little hurts and resentments into emulation, ambition and love of their own homes and companions.

(f) To point out the best amusements and joys and worth-while things of life.

(g) To inspire them to prepare for definite occupations and duties with a broad spirit of sacrifice.

The February 1920 Brownies’ Book presented retellings of African Folklore.

In the sociocultural context of Du Bois’s day, blackness was often, in both overt and covert ways, represented as deviant, abnormal, or inferior. It was necessary, therefore, to emphasize the beauty and normality of being “colored,” as laid out in the magazine’s first objective. Numerous images throughout the magazine portrayed African American children of various hues — from light-skinned to dark-skinned — as beautiful and appealing. Some of the stories specifically mentioned the beauty of black skin. Bertie Lee Hall’s “How the Turtle Got His Marks,” in the August 1920 issue, for instance, refers to the protagonist as “a very pretty brown-skinned girl.”

The creators of the magazine knew that it was important for African American children to learn about the role their ancestors played in the development of this country, but the achievements of African Americans were not likely to appear in mainstream textbooks and reading materials. The Brownies’ Book featured many biographies of notable individuals such as Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. It was a way to fulfill the objectives of making children “familiar with the history and achievements of the Negro race” and making them know that “other colored children have grown into beautiful, useful and famous persons.”

Du Bois wanted not just to educate and inspire black children but also to entertain them, to show them the way to joy. He provided them with examples of uplifting activities in which to participate, such as music lessons, reading “classic” pieces of literature, and learning to speak foreign languages. This goal was evident in The Brownies’ Book via sections of the magazine that highlighted children’s participation in music, dance, and other extracurricular activities.

The February 1920 issue also highlighted the achievements of contemporary black children.

Though it has been almost one hundred years since Du Bois set out these objectives, the legacy of The Brownies’ Book endures. Looking at just a handful of recent outstanding African American children’s books, we can see their compatibility with the magazine’s goals and objectives. This is, perhaps, an indication that African American writers believe that the current sociocultural environment also necessitates literature in which African American children can be informed and can see themselves affirmed and empowered.

Charles R. Smith Jr.’s 28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World educates readers about the important contributions black people have made and continue to make in the United States and beyond — a clear exemplar of Du Bois’s second and third objectives. His book begins with a poem about Crispus Attucks and, near the end, includes a poem about the inauguration of President Barack Obama. In between are pieces about pivotal events in the lives of famous African Americans, including Marian Anderson performing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, Guion “Guy” Bluford flying into space (the first African American to do so), Oprah Winfrey becoming a billionaire, etc. The final poem in the book, “Day 29: Today,” encourages readers to make their own history, change laws, advance humanity’s evolution, and become leaders. In the words of Du Bois, this book inspires children “to prepare for definite occupations and duties with a broad spirit of sacrifice.”

Profiles of successful African Americans can imbue children with a sense of racial pride and foster the belief that they too are able to achieve great things. Potentially having special appeal to young readers are biographies that focus on the childhoods of notable African Americans, such as Katheryn Russell-Brown’s Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, which chronicles the life of jazz musician Melba Liston, beginning with her birth in 1926 in Kansas City, Missouri, and ending with her emergence as an international jazz phenomenon. Another example is the Caldecott Medal and Coretta Scott King Award winner Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Children who read Radiant Child may be inspired by Basquiat’s accomplishments — and the collage work of Javaka Steptoe — just as readers of The Brownies’ Book years ago would have been inspired by the art of people such as Laura Wheeler Waring. In her history of Du Bois’s magazine, The Best of the Brownies’ Book (1996), Diane Johnson-Feelings wrote, “Most of the illustrations were created by Negro artists,” and “this was important to the editors of the magazine because they were proud of this art, and they wanted young people to know that they could be artists when they grew up.”

Though historical fiction rather than biography, the forthcoming Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground (with its predecessor, Zora and Me) introduces young readers to Zora Neale Hurston as a child living in Eatonville, Florida, in the early 1900s. Numerous aspects of the novel are based on fact. For instance, the famous store owned by Mr. Joe Clarke that Hurston frequently referenced in her work is mentioned in the book, as is her fondness for stories and tall tales. Zora and her friends are in search of the truth related to a mystery about slavery and a mute man in their town. These books are ways to expose young readers to the work of a celebrated author and to encourage them, as Zora was advised by her mother, to “jump at the sun.”

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, the recipient of an unprecedented two Coretta Scott King Honor Awards, a Caldecott Honor, and a Newbery Honor, celebrates an African American boy’s experience in the cultural atmosphere of a black barbershop. It focuses on the way that a new haircut makes a young black boy feel and demonstrates that even getting a haircut can be a joy. Author Derrick Barnes writes, “When you see the cut yourself, in that handheld mirror, you’ll smile a really big smile. That’s the you that you love the most. That’s the you that wins — everything. That’s the gold medal you.” It’s also obvious that Barnes is uplifting a black boy when he describes him being draped “like royalty with that cape to keep the fine hairs” off of his neck and “princely robes.” Barnes writes in his afterword that he wanted to “capture that moment when black and brown boys all over America visit ‘the shop’ and hop out of the chair filled with a higher self-esteem, with self-pride, with confidence, and an overall elevated view of who they are.” W. E. B. Du Bois would have been proud.

Even though contemporary African American children’s literature did not begin to come into its own until the last third of the twentieth century, decades before that Du Bois and his associates had recognized a need for a literature that would inform, affirm, and empower black children. Through their stated objectives for The Brownies’ Book, they provided an ideological foundation on which such a literature could be built. Further, in its contents, The Brownies’ Book offered a model of what African American children’s literature might look like. Both the magazine and much of contemporary African American children’s literature convey the important idea that black children can indeed be great, heroic, and beautiful.

Books That Celebrate, Affirm, and Empower Black Child Readers

For a more extensive list please see “Recommended African American Children’s Books,” compiled by Dr. Jonda C. McNair, sponsored by Frugal Bookstore and Boston Network for Black Student Achievement/Book Clubs for Black Children and Youth. A poster is available for sale by emailing frugal_books@yahoo.com.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (Millner/Bolden Books/Agate, 2017) by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James (Primary, Intermediate)

How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (Viking, 2016) by Tonya Bolden (Intermediate, Middle School)

Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls (Abrams, 2017) by Tonya Bolden (Intermediate, Middle School)

Zora and Me (Candlewick, 2010) by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon (Intermediate)

Everett Anderson’s Goodbye (Holt, 1983) by Lucille Clifton, illustrated by Ann Grifalconi (Primary)

Strange Fruit, Volume I: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (Fulcrum, 2014) by Joel Christian Gill (Middle School, High School)

The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (Knopf, 1985) by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Intermediate)

My People (Seo/Atheneum, 2009) by Langston Hughes, photos by Charles R. Smith Jr. (Primary, Intermediate)

Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson (National Geographic, 2005) by Dolores 
Johnson (Intermediate)

March: Book One (Top Shelf, 2013) by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell (Middle School, High School)

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (Balzer + Bray/Harper-Collins, 2011) by Kadir Nelson (Intermediate, Middle School)

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (Jump/Hyperion, 2008) by Kadir Nelson (Intermediate, Middle School)

Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal (Carolrhoda/Lerner, 2009) by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Primary)

Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Ridin’ Cowboy (Gulliver/Harcourt, 1996) by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Primary)

Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters (Gulliver/Harcourt, 2000) by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn (Intermediate)

Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children (Scholastic, 2000) by Sandra L. Pinkney, photos by Myles C. Pinkney (Preschool, Primary)

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone (Lee & Low, 2014) by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison (Primary)

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground (Candlewick, 2018) by T. R. Simon (Intermediate)

28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World (Roaring Brook, 2015) by Charles R. Smith Jr., illustrated by Shane W. Evans (Primary, Intermediate)

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Little, Brown, 2016) by Javaka Steptoe (Primary)

I Love My Hair! (Little, Brown, 1998) by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (Primary)

The Gold Cadillac (Dial, 1987) by Mildred Taylor, illustrated by Michael Hays (Intermediate)

The Blacker the Berry (Amistad/Cotler/HarperCollins, 2008) by Joyce Carol Thomas, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Primary)

Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane (Holt, 2008) by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Sean Qualls (Primary, Intermediate)

Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library (Candlewick, 2017) by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Primary, Intermediate)

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (Candlewick, 2015) by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Intermediate, Middle School)

Something Beautiful (Doubleday, 1998) by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet (Preschool, Primary)

From the May/June 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference.

About Jonda McNair and Rudine Sims Bishop

Dr. Jonda C. McNair is a professor of literacy education at Clemson University in South Carolina. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at The Ohio State University, is the author of Shadow and Substance and winner of the 2017 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

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