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Reflections on Black Children’s Literature: A Historical Perspective

The ideas expressed below were originally written in response to an opinion piece written by publisher Denene Millner, which ran in The New York Times on March 10, 2018. Though most of the write-up below speaks to this particular opinion article, it has been slightly modified to address some of the expressed viewpoints in her recent Horn Book interview

I read with interest Denene Millner’s opinion piece containing her thoughts related to the reading interests of Black children and the state of literature in which they can see themselves. As someone who is an active participant in the world of children’s literature, I felt compelled to address some of the ideas expressed about the availability of African American children’s literature. I completed my doctoral studies at The Ohio State University under the tutelage of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a leading scholar of African American children’s literature. Consequently, my scholarship focuses on books intended for youth with a special emphasis on those that are created by and about African Americans. While I appreciate African American children’s literature being given a platform in a prominent newspaper such as The New York Times, it is important that a well-balanced and historically accurate depiction of the literature be presented.

Of course, Ms. Millner is correct in that Black children don’t want to read about Harriet Tubman always. What children of any color, or adults for that matter, would want to always read about the same topic? In her interview in the July/August 2018 Horn Book Magazine, Millner states, “I don’t feel like I have to give that [racial struggle, strife, and overcoming] to them with every children’s book I read to them at night.” I agree that African American children should not only read books that deal with struggle and strife, but I am glad that some authors and illustrators choose to create books that do, because I believe that they are necessary. And it may be that some children enjoy reading stories that do not necessarily appeal to Ms. Millner’s interests. This is important to keep in mind. Rudine Sims Bishop, who coined the metaphor “mirrors and windows” that Millner uses in her interview, wrote a seminal article in which she talked with a ten-year-old Black girl named Osula about her reading preferences, and she mentioned a fondness for stories about strong Black girls. So, perhaps books about strong Black women like Harriet Tubman (and Fannie Lou Hamer; see below) might appeal to a child like Osula.

African American children should read books across a variety of genres — not just biographies. However, it should be noted that biographies have considerable significance within African American children’s literature. In 1919, when W. E. B. Du Bois announced the arrival of The Brownies’ Book, one of the first magazines created primarily for Black children, the “children of the sun,” he outlined seven goals for the publication, two of which were “to make them [Black children] familiar with the history and achievements of the Negro race” and “to make them know that other colored children have grown into beautiful, useful, and famous persons.” The objectives that Du Bois had the wisdom to articulate are still important to many contemporary creators of African American children’s literature.

In her book Telling Tales: The Pedagogy and Promise of African American Literature for Youth, Dr. Dianne Johnson-Feelings writes that “there is still an impulse and a necessity to teach young people about African ‘heritage,’ slavery, and other historical periods and personalities” and to “acknowledge the circularity and connectedness of past, present, and future.” Further, biographies are crucial because social studies/history curricula often gloss over major ideas, events, and people in African American history, the idea seemingly that our contributions are less significant in the grand history of the United States. Or, in school curricula individuals or movements are stripped of their progressive or revolutionary ideas and acts in order to present a sanitized perspective on American history. Consider the example of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Most biographies for youth ignore the fact that she was a secretary for the local NAACP chapter and studied with Myles Horton at the Highlander School, where she enhanced her social activism ideology and skills. We need picture book biographies such as Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford, which highlights the life of an important unsung heroine who challenged powerful institutions and individuals in Mississippi in order to vote, establish Freedom Schools, and serve as the catalyst for the removal of the all-White delegation to the Democratic Convention in 1964. Educating Black children about someone like Hamer does not mean that they will “float off into dreamland with visions” of being beaten so violently that they never walk properly again — something that happened to Hamer and is depicted (in the illustrations by Ekua Holmes) in the picture book. Instead, reading this book could provide an opportunity for African American children (and others) to learn something about their history and appreciate and respect the courage people like Hamer had as well as the sacrifices they made. Even more importantly, they could ponder the numerous ways in which their lives have benefited from such individuals. Yes, there are many biographies written by and about African Americans, and I hope that African American children’s book creators continue to write them. I want children to know about people like Mary Bowser (a spy), Richard Potter (a magician), Sissieretta Jones (a concert singer), Jackie Ormes (a cartoonist), and Charlie Wiggins (a race car driver) — life stories that Tonya Bolden has written eloquently about in her recent book, Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls.

It should also be acknowledged that there are many other stories across a wide range of genres written by and about African Americans and that all of them do not focus on the “degradation and endurance of our people.” I would argue that there is no such thing as a “typical children’s picture book featuring black characters” and that there are many books that do focus on “the everyday beauty of being a little human being of color.” An example of one such story is Do like Kyla by Angela Johnson, about the loving relationship between two sisters, one of whom wants to copy the other. Clean Your Room, Harvey Moon! by Pat Cummings is about a boy who finally has to clean up his messy room. Both of these books were available in 1998, when Ms. Millner was searching for books for her daughter. Another example of a book that focuses on aspects of everyday life is Meet Danitra Brown by Nikki Grimes, a collection of poems about the friendship between two girls. While the book focuses on universal topics such as bullying, riding bicycles, and ice cream, one issue related to race (e.g., colorism) does surface because that is often a factor African American children deal with along with the mundane. For children of color, race is often intertwined with the mundane, and it is possible for a story to be authentic and diverse while celebrating the mundane. For Millner to use a phrase such as “color is of no consequence” is a bit complicated in a world where color matters so much. Dianne Johnson-Feelings notes that African American “writers have understood that children’s literature cannot simply be cute and innocent. It has to communicate to our children something about our complex and rich identities as Africans and as Americans.”

There were also many other quality books across various genres that were available in 1998, when Ms. Millner was looking for them for her child. A few examples are: The Adventures of Sparrowboy by Brian Pinkney, Flossie and the Fox by Patricia C. McKissack, Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Ridin’ Cowboy by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Everett Anderson’s Goodbye by Lucille Clifton, I Love My Hair! by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, Stevie by John Steptoe, Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, Bigmama’s by Donald Crews, Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales by Virginia Hamilton, Just Us Women by Jeannette Caines, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop by Margaree King Mitchell, Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crab Cakes Later) by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard, and The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy. And it should be noted that, almost thirty years before Ms. Millner was looking for books for her child, the Coretta Scott King Book Award was established. It was established in 1969, and has been awarded annually ever since 1970. The purpose of the award was and is to promote literature written and/or illustrated by African American authors and illustrators with content about the Black experience — past, present, or future.

Millner cites statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center related to books written by and about African Americans, as an indication that recent efforts by Marley Dias and We Need Diverse Books have made an impact recently. However, those numbers have been relatively stable over the past two decades, hovering around 100. The number of books written by and about Blacks in 2017 was 116, but there were similar numbers in 2015 (106) and even as far back as 1995 (100). While Marley Dias’s advocacy for the need for diverse books is admirable and important, it should be noted that this work has been going on for more than one hundred years. Millner states in her Horn Book interview that if “no one else is going to open the door” for Black authors and illustrators, she will do this. But this comment ignores the many librarians, scholars, and editors who have been doing this kind of work for years — many of them before Millner was even born. Librarians such as Charlemae Rollins should be recognized for their lifelong work in this area. Other trailblazers include Augusta Baker, Dr. Henrietta Smith, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop (author of the seminal 1990 essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors”), Dr. Violet J. Harris, Dr. Dianne Johnson-Feelings, Effie Lee Morris, and countless individuals, including the current Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden. Further, the efforts of organizations such as the Council on Interracial Books for Children and individuals in publishing — Ursula Nordstrom, Susan Hirschman, Bernette Ford, Andrea Davis Pinkney — were critical also. Although editors Nordstrom and Hirschman are White, they were critical to the emergence of two extraordinary Black writers, John Steptoe (who was also an illustrator) and Virginia Hamilton.

There is still much work to do and, yes, I hope that the numbers of books written by and about African Americans continue to grow and increase, but it is important to acknowledge what is available and the growth that has taken place in this field. Moving forward and thinking about how to promote African American children’s literature requires a look back at and an understanding of its history.

Jonda C. McNair About Jonda C. McNair

Jonda C. McNair is a professor of literacy education at Clemson University in South Carolina. She is a past chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee and a member of the 2019 Randolph Caldecott Award Selection Committee.

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Comments

  1. I would also like to mention the great publisher Phyllis Fogelman, whose commitment to promoting African-American voices included passionately publishing such greats as Julius Lester, Mildred Taylor, Leo & Diane Dillon, Jerry Pinkney, and many more.

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