Loving Langston & Learning from Literary History

Langston Hughes.
Underwood Archives/Contributor (Getty Images).

Looking back to an incident during my middle-school years, I realize I’ve had the sensibilities of a scholar for a very long time. A student submitted a Langston Hughes poem to the school literary magazine as his own; the faculty sponsor did not know enough to recognize the poem; and it was published. This was in the late 1970s, when Hughes was one of the few Black writers most students and teachers of English were familiar with. I was outraged. Everything about the situation was wrong.

A related incident happened when I returned to the flagship university in my home state as a professor of English. My beloved high school English teacher contacted me to apologize for not having taught the work of any Black writers at the time.

Did literary history have no meaning for my teachers?!

This is something that I speak about with my own creative-writing students. Constantly. Over the years, many students have come to my office, gushing about their aspirations of becoming serious, published authors. One of the first questions I pose is about their own favorite authors. Not infrequently, the response is that they haven’t done much reading lately. I’m fully aware that many writers go through periods devoted to reading and periods devoted exclusively to writing. Some writers are constantly doing both. But in any case, I am not alone in arguing that writers, at their core, must be readers.

In general, creators do make it their business to know the history of their art forms. Musicians study and know the music of those artists whose work influences their own. The same is true for filmmakers and visual artists. It is true for actors. It is true for mathematicians and architects and preachers. The list is endless. We should be aware of whose shoulders we stand upon. The shoulders we stand upon. The works of art we riff on, reimagine, critique, respect — or do not respect. Taken together, these works constitute a tradition. It can only be a good thing for artists to consider how they are contributing to, building upon, celebrating, making innovations in, or breaking away from, a tradition. But first, we must be familiar with the tradition, the legacies left to us.

In my role as a teacher of children’s literature, I want my students to leave the course having some idea of the history of American children’s books. Literary history is important to me, and it fascinates me. But most of my students do not come to class on the first day expecting fascinating material. Many of them expect their professors to hold up book after book and proclaim each one “cute.” That is a word that is for the most part forbidden in my classroom. I want my students to build their vocabularies for describing text and art in children’s literature, beyond the glib. Perhaps even more importantly, I want them to develop sophisticated sensibilities as they develop that critical vocabulary.

One of the most important ways of helping them to become literary critics is to return with them to some of their favorite childhood books. Many of them grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. They are horrified when they look at the books now, as adults, and see such phrases as “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” They must consider why in 2018 the American Library Association changed the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

There are related problems with books such as 1989 Reading Rainbow selection Knots on a Counting Rope, featuring a Navajo grandfather and grandson, by well-known Chicka Chicka Boom Boom creators John Archambault and Bill Martin Jr. For a powerful and scathing critique of this picture book, see Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale. Their review reveals that there is very little in the book that is true to any specific Native culture. Writers and illustrators outside a culture have a responsibility, even when creating f­iction — realistic fiction in ­particular — to do research. This is necessary to avoid stereotyping, misrepresentation, and any number of other negative consequences, intended or not. Writers, illustrators, and publishers all have responsibilities beyond themselves.

There are many problematic moments in the history of children’s literature. Students are astounded to learn that both text and images were changed in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after its initial publication depicting the Oompa Loompas as Africans who were too stupid (my interpretation of why they “were practically starving to death”) to take care of themselves. Therefore, they were “better off” as slaves of the magnanimous Willy Wonka. (Wonka actually tells them that he will “pay your wages in cacao beans if you wish!”) They sang and danced happily as they worked to make him rich. This book was published in the 1960s, a period when African countries were fighting for their independence from European colonialists. In subsequent editions, there are no references to Africa or Africans, and the physical appearance of the Oompa Loompas has been altered. (Indeed, the Horn Book is part of the history of the revisions to Dahl’s book. Eleanor Cameron’s famous commentary appeared in the October 1972 magazine, followed by a supporting letter to the editor by Virginia Hamilton in the February 1973 issue.)

There are examples, too, of creators of color coming under fire, whether justifiably or unfairly, for their own stories and illustrations. For example, one can easily find criticisms of books such as Nappy Hair or (the withrawn-from-publication) A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Usually at the core of these critiques are decades-old questions around representation and power. Who makes the decisions at publishing houses? What are their frames of reference? Whose stories get told, who tells them, and how? What literature is studied? What literature wins awards?

All of us who care passionately about the world of children’s literature must ask ourselves questions about what books are celebrated largely, or only, because they are part of an unquestioned, unchallenged canon. Even well into the twenty-first century, we must think about whether the idea of a canon is useful, and if so, what are the limits of that idea? What texts do we study on our own journeys through this world? Can we be critical of a piece of literature and appreciate it at the same time? What is at stake if there is little or no awareness of the publication history of a specific book or of the history of the field?

Is the idea of tradition distinct from the idea of canon? As a children’s literature scholar, I cringe when I talk to writers newer to this community who are not even faintly aware of some of the creators who paved the way for them. Is it not important to them to acknowledge and honor the pathbreaking and waymaking, the sacrifices and vision, of writers, illustrators, publishers, editors, and advocates whose work laid a foundation? Who are the book fair organizers, bookstore owners, teachers and ­librarians, parents and readers, and organizations without whose efforts their own art would not exist?

These are some of the questions that I want my students to ask, for books do not exist in a vacuum. But I hope that writers and illustrators will ask them as well. I hope that newer writers and illustrators will honor those who came before them. I don’t expect celebrity authors to be aware of this history. But I do expect those creators who are making this work into careers to educate themselves. I think I might scream the next time I hear a new, but celebrated, creator declare that there is a dearth of books featuring Black characters, or BIPOC characters, or fill-in-the-blank characters — and consequently, they have set out to fill that (perceived) gap. It is very true that as a proportion of the children’s books published in this country each year, there is a severe lack of diversity in creators. But in raw numbers, there are more and more. Librarians are eager and willing to identify and share books of any category for creators who are broadening their own exposure to the inspiring, remarkable, fascinating world of children’s literature.

* * *

Just as there are examples of books that are problematic, there are plentiful examples of well-crafted, powerful titles that stand the test of time. Just as we learn from the problematic titles, we should and must learn from and celebrate the books that inspire us; books and literature that make up a rich literary history stretching back more than a century. I learn from Jessie Redmon Fauset and W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Brownies’ Book magazine every time I return to it. Some of my first mentor texts were the titles in Lucille Clifton’s Everett Anderson series of picture books from the 1970s and 1980s. My autographed copy of Clifton’s 1974 The Times They Used to Be is one of my treasures. I am grateful for the gatherings of Black children’s book creators hosted by the Children’s Defense Fund at the former Alex Haley Farm. I was grateful last summer to run into George Ford — winner of the first Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, in 1974, for Ray Charles. I was thrilled when I nominated Mildred Taylor for the NSK Neustadt Prize and got to meet her when she accepted the award. I count my writing group beyond privileged that Joyce Hansen is one of our own. This list could go on and on.

Yes, I am fortunate beyond measure to have known, and to know, many of those who are pioneers in the world of African American children’s literature, the art form closest to my heart. My life and work stand at a place right between the twentieth-century forerunners and the twenty-first-century inheritors of their batons. I am in a kind of paradise whenever I attend the annual CSK Breakfast. It is a gathering where we have the blessed opportunity to celebrate a remarkable tradition in real time, in real community. It is an experience my middle-school Langston Hughes–loving self, aspiring writer self, budding literary critic self, never could have imagined.

We find ourselves at a historical moment when truth-telling through history books and literature is under attack. So it is vitally important to celebrate and honor all of those creators, of every tradition and background, who — through both successes and missteps — laid the foundation upon which we who care passionately about children and literature continue building, with vision and purpose anew.

From the May/June 2023 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Diverse Books: Past, Present, and Future.

Dianne Johnson-Feelings

Dr. Dianne Johnson-Feelings is an English professor at the University of South Carolina dedicated to recovering and celebrating the history of African American children's literature. As Dinah Johnson, she is the author of picture books, including H Is for Harlem (Ottaviano/Little, Brown).

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