Lost & Found: Recover, Discover, Uncover Through Sharing Our Stories — The Mary Nagel Sweetser Lecture

Wade, Cheryl, Katura, and Stephan Hudson.
Photo courtesy of Just Us Books.

Wade Hudson: We are happy to be with you today at the 2022 Simmons Summer Institute in Children’s Literature. Big shout-outs to Cathryn Mercier and Shelley Isaacson of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature and to our friend Vicky Smith for recommending us for the Mary Nagel Sweetser Lecture. This year’s theme, “Lost & Found,” resonates in a profound way with us. In many ways, as seekers of the truth, and as writers and publishers, our journey has been focused clearly on finding what has not only been lost but most often deliberately hidden or stolen, and giving life to this newly discovered reality, these revealed truths. We know that by creating Black literature for children we are helping to lift up the humanity, the importance, the worth and value of all people.

And for Cheryl and me, that journey began in the segregated south of the 1950s and 1960s.

Cheryl Willis Hudson: Mama always told us that our “roots go deep.”

I was born into an all-Black community in Virginia in 1948, six years before the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared that separate was not equal. I was educated in all-Black public schools. In 1958, Ebony magazine was a staple in our middle-class home. In 1968, I was immersed in student activism and advocating for Black Studies at Oberlin College in Ohio, a historically important stop on the Underground Railroad. A year earlier I had been introduced to author Virginia Hamilton and her classic first novel for young people, Zeely. The impression that book made on me was indelible. In 1975, my first poem for children, “Motivation,” had been published in Ebony Jr! magazine. By 1978 I had worked as an art editor for an educational publisher in Boston, married Wade, and moved to New Jersey.

In 1988, Wade and I established Just Us Books.

I know our roots go deep.

WH: I was born and raised in a small town called Mansfield, in the northwestern part of the state of Louisiana. Like Cheryl, I attended all-Black schools through high school. ­Mansfield was like so much of the South, where Jim Crow determined how Black people lived, where we could go, what we could and could not do. Jim Crow was especially vicious in small, isolated, rural towns like Mansfield. Many of the textbooks that students received were castoffs from the White schools. Sometimes, we would get one in which a White student had written the N-word in big, bold letters. We had no choice but to keep the book. We scratched out the word as best we could.

I was an inquisitive boy, asking questions that often remained unanswered. So I expressed myself through my writing. It was when I entered college, Southern University, a historically Black university, that some of those questions I had were answered. You see, we couldn’t go to the town library, and the books in our school library were mostly chosen by the all-White school board. At Southern, I was introduced to books written by Black writers. I thought I had died and gone to a Black literary heaven. Southern was where I became involved in the civil rights movement and where I continued to write more ­enthusiastically — poems, plays, short stories, and newspaper articles to express what I was feeling and thinking.

CWH: During the 1980s, as authors, Wade and I submitted manuscripts to several major publishing houses. We thought they would make great children’s books. We were told that there was no market for “these kinds of stories” and that Black parents didn’t purchase books. Who could possibly be interested in an alphabet book (later known as AFRO-BETS) illustrated with delightful African American boys and girls who twisted and turned their bodies into shapes of the letters with simple words and concepts and African-centered hairstyles and culturally specific items? Who would buy stories like Jamal’s Busy Day or When I Was Little that shared a young African American boy’s love of simply going to school or hanging out with his grandpa? We knew that the editors’ comments were not true; that the problem was that there were too few books available that featured characters and stories to which Black parents could readily relate, and that their access to them was limited. Black people not buying books was a lie.

WH: We decided to start our own company to help meet this huge need that major companies continuously overlooked. We took a leap of faith. When we started Just Us Books, we were not aware of the rich history of Black publishing. We gradually uncovered how Black people in the United States had addressed the burning desire and need to tell their own stories, to define themselves rather than allow others to do so. We had to do research, to embark on a journey to discover not only what was lost to us but what we never knew existed, not in its fullness, in its richness, in its inspiring legacy.

Namrata Tripathi, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Varian Johnson,
and the Hudsons at the 2019 Children's Book Council Diversity Awards.

The truth was, Black people have always, always fought to define themselves, share their experiences, and tell their stories. Always.

Too often, others had defined us. White slaveholders and those invested in the enslavement of people from the African continent justified a brutal system by declaring African people as uncivilized, subhuman. Black people were better off, they said, in a chattel slave system rather than roaming in the jungles on what was called the Dark Continent. Even religious organizations joined in the dehumanization of Black people.

CWH: Can’t you see Lucy Terry, ­kidnapped from her homeland in Africa and brought to America and enslaved? She composed a ballad poem called “Bars Fight” in the 1700s. It was preserved orally until it was published in 1855, making Lucy Terry the first documented African American woman poet.

Imagine what Jupiter Hammon had to endure to get his poems published in 1761, when Black people were not supposed to have the capacity to read or write. He was the first published Black poet in North America.

What about Phillis Wheatley, the first Black American to have a collection of poems published? Before her collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was released in 1773, she had to go to court to prove she had written the poems. Several prominent Boston citizens, including John Hancock, attested that she was the author, and their attestations were included in the preface of the book.

In 1829 George Moses Horton published a collection of poems called The Hope of Liberty to earn enough money to buy his freedom. He did not succeed. But he did become the first African American man to publish a book in the South — and one of the first to publicly protest his enslavement and express this in his own poems.

During and after the War of Independence, the spirit of freedom grew among the 59,511 free Black Americans and the nearly 700,000 enslaved just as it grew in White Americans. Free Black Americans in mostly Northern cities began forming their own organizations, churches, businesses, and fraternal groups because White society would not accept them.

They fought as best they could against the racism they faced, but at the top of their agenda was freeing their fellow brothers and sisters from slavery. Obviously, writing and publishing were important weapons in this fight.

WH: In 1827 a group of free African Americans in New York City founded the first Black newspaper in the United States, Freedom’s Journal. Samuel E. Cornish and John Russwurm served as editors. In the first editorial the two men wrote: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly.”

For two years Freedom’s Journal gave Black America its own voice. It was followed by no fewer than twenty-four other African American newspapers and magazines in the years before the Civil War. Among those publications was The North Star, published by Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Some Black Americans who escaped from slavery shared their own stories through memoirs known as Slave Narratives. Through these narratives, they presented the reality of slavery that counteracted the rosier pictures so often portrayed. Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northup, and Frederick Douglass published accounts of their enslavement and escape. Some six thousand formerly enslaved African Americans wrote accounts of their lives, and about one hundred were published in book format after the Civil War. William Still also captured the stories of escaped slaves in his ­seminal book The Underground Railroad Records.

Early African American writers focused on poetry. Abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, in 1845, at the age of twenty, published a volume of verse, Forest Leaves. Her second book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, was published in 1854. In the decade before the Civil War, however, writers began to branch out into other areas of literature. In 1853, abolitionist William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, about Thomas ­Jefferson’s relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings, was published in England. Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859) was the first novel by an African American published in the United States. William Wells Brown is also the first African American to have a play published, The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom (1858).

CWH: Following the Civil War and the end of slavery, Black Americans left plantations and established their own communities. Organizing schools and churches were primary objectives. Churches needed printed material. Already organized in associations, these groups began publishing books and resources that addressed their ­specific needs and experiences as Black ­Americans.

In fact, the first Black publishing company was established as early as 1817 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first Black religious denomination organized in the country. Another Black denomination, African Methodist Zion Episcopal Church, established the second Black publishing company in 1841.

Following the Civil War, a number of colleges for Black students were founded, mostly by church groups. Several HBCUs established publishing/printing programs, including Hampton Institute in Virginia, Howard University in Washington, DC, and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Among the early Black commercial publishers were Orion Publishing Company (1900–1911), J. A. Rogers Publications (1917–1965), and the Associated Publishers Press, started by Carter G. Woodson, the father of Negro History Week, in 1921.

WH: One of the most prolific and recognized Black writers of the late 1800s and early 1900s was Paul Laurence Dunbar. A poet, novelist, and playwright, Dunbar published his first book, a collection of poems titled Oak and Ivy, in 1893. Dunbar died at the age of 33, but during his short life he published a dozen books of poetry; four collections of short stories; four novels; lyrics for In Dahomey (1903), the first all–African American musical produced on Broadway; and a play.

The Harlem Renaissance spanning the 1920s and 1930s saw an intellectual, cultural, and social explosion. Centered in Harlem, its impact reached other U.S. cities. Poetry, novels, short stories, and plays were created as never before. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and Anne Spencer were just a few of the writers who emerged during this period.

In 1940, Richard Wright’s Native Son became the first book by a Black American to become a Book of the Month selection and the first to remain on the bestseller lists. Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry collection Annie Allen won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950, making her the first African American to win that coveted award. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953. James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain was published in 1953.

CWH: Black children, however, were given books that often rendered them and people who looked like them in stereotypical narratives and illustrations. Joel Chandler Harris’s The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus and Helen ­Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899) were typical examples.

Harris collected African American stories, songs, and oral folklore and, starting in 1880, published nine volumes featuring Uncle Remus as the narrator with trickster characters Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. In 1946 Walt Disney produced the movie Song of the South based on the Uncle Remus tales. Bannerman’s first published version of Little Black Sambo takes place in India and reflects stereotypes common there. When it was published in the U.S., it reflected the racist views common here, including the visual depiction of Little Black Sambo. These stereotypical characters were also popularized in the films and television shows many of us constantly saw during our youth. Stereotypes persisted, even in popular children’s books such as those created by Dr. Seuss, including The Cat in the Hat (1957).

In 1920 W. E. B. Du Bois, ­Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Augustus ­Granville Dill started a magazine called The Brownies’ Book. This magazine helped to establish positive Black children’s literature in the U.S. and featured poetry by the legendary ­Langston Hughes and other creatives of the ­Harlem ­Renaissance.

In 1932 Hughes and Arna ­Bontemps wrote and E. Simms Campbell illustrated the children’s novel Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, a seminal work in Black children’s literature.

WH: In 1942 John H. Johnson used a $500 loan he secured by using his mother’s furniture as collateral to start Negro Digest. Within months the magazine had a circulation of over fifty thousand. ­Johnson started the monthly Ebony magazine in 1945 and, in 1951, the weekly Jet magazine. He established a commercial book publishing company in 1962. (More on Black publishers “From the 1960s and Beyond” can be found below.)

The 1960s, the period of the civil rights, Black Power, women’s rights, and anti-war movements, saw a number of publishing companies established by Black Americans. These presses afforded many Black writers the opportunity to be published, including Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, and Amiri Baraka.

As you can see, there is a rich legacy of writing and publishing in Black America as we have fought to, in the words of that first Freedom’s Journal editorial, “plead our own cause.” Or, to put it in today’s parlance, “tell our own stories.” We stand on the shoulders of those who came before, who helped to pave the way.

CWH: There is pushback today against diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many books by LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC ­creators are being challenged and censored across the U.S. in schools and public libraries and by local boards of education. We don’t want to spend time today giving light to a movement whose main goal is to turn back the clock, to erase history, and to nullify the ­hard-fought progress that has been achieved.

Initially, as parents we wanted to create more authentic and relevant literature for our children. As publishing professionals, we embraced the important scholarship of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who eloquently wrote of the need for a more diverse body of children’s literature in “Mirrors, ­Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.”

We can now answer Snow White’s question: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” with ­culturally specific yet universal books where Black children and their ­history and culture are central within the stories.

Current data speaks for itself in terms of representation:

  • Black books and multicultural books need to be an essential and integral part of the kidlit canon.
  • Diverse books provide resources of factual information and ­experiences.
  • Exposure to quality multicultural literature helps children develop multiple perspectives.
  • Diverse books provide exposure to differences and commonalities between cultures across the world. They provide antidotes to racism, stereotypes, and marginalization.
  • Diverse books enable readers to share our humanity cross-culturally, and linguistically.

This simply makes good sense!

WH: The struggle to include more diverse titles in our body of literature for children and young adults is not new. As we’ve shown here, it has been going on for decades.

Today, there are more organizations and individuals advocating for equity and inclusion in children’s book publishing. They have played a role in helping to foster the progress that has taken place. Books written by BIPOC book creators have won major awards such as the Coretta Scott King Book Award, the Pura Belpré, the Caldecott and Newbery, and have been recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, the Kirkus Prize, and many other important literary awards. Books written by BIPOC creators have landed on bestseller lists.

The hard work of those pushing, fighting, struggling for change in children’s book publishing has helped to increase the number of books being published and to make those books more accessible. Recovered, Discovered, and Uncovered — Lost & Found. But there is still so much to be done.


Independent Black Publishers from the 1960s–1990s

Johnson Publishing Book Division, 1962

Afro-Am Publications, 1963

Broadside Press, 1965

Third World Press, 1967

Black Academy Press, 1970

Drum and Spear Press, 1968

The Third Press/Joseph Okpaku, 1970

Emerson Hall Publishers, 1971

Winston-Derek Publishers, 1972

Lotus Press, 1972

Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1980

Black Classic Press, 1978

Africa World Press, 1983

Just Us Books, Inc., 1988

Black Imprints at Major US Trade Houses

Amistad Press, started by editor Charles Harris in 1967 at Random House as a quarterly anthology of Black Writing. Acquired in 1986 as an imprint of HarperCollins.

One World, 1991. Random House. Cheryl Woodruff, Founder and Associate Publisher.

Jump at the Sun, 1998. Hyperion/Disney. Andrea Pinkney, Editorial Director.


This article is an excerpt from the Mary Nagel Sweetser Lecture, delivered at the 2022 Summer Institute in Children’s Literature, Simmons University, Boston, Massachusetts. From the May/June 2023 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Diverse Books: Past, Present, and Future.

Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson

In 1988, Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson founded Just Us Books, Inc., an independent publisher of Black-interest and multicultural books for young people. Individually and together they have written over sixty books for children and young adults and have received numerous awards and honors.

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