Considering Enslavement and Its Legacy in Children’s Literature

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From School Library Journal:

Children’s literature has been, historically, a site for the origin of ideas about race and racism in the United States. Since I was a child, I have wondered why Black children show up most often in certain genres of the fictions of childhood, and not in others. I grew weary of many of the Black children’s books I read when I was in school. It seemed that if we weren’t following the North Star to freedom or marching for civil rights, we were dodging bullets in the ghetto, or we were the Black best friend in the otherwise all-white landscapes of childhood and teen life. Although we’ve seen movement in recent years, my weariness has shown up during recent presentations as a cynical joke about “The Five Black Kids You Meet in Children’s Literature.” It’s quite telling that audiences almost always laugh. Knowingly.

They’ve met those kids in books, too.

Children’s literature is becoming more inclusive. But it has been a long, complicated road, and the journey is ongoing. Black child readers, and their teachers, families, and communities, occupy a unique place when it comes to stories for children that deal with race. The collective trauma of enslavement—what literature scholar Saidiya Hartman has called the afterlife of slavery—has continuing implications for the descendants of enslaved people living today. That’s because slavery influences the way that Black people are perceived, more than 150 years after Emancipation. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois notes the presence of Blackness as always already being a problem, in reality and imagination:

To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem?
I answer seldom a word.

Women, people of color, and other marginalized populations have always had to read ourselves into literary canons where we were absent.

We’ve always told our own stories. Black storytelling extend deep into our past, predating the Middle Passage and the Door of No Return, as poet and essayist Dionne Brand observes. After passing through the Door, African Americans have had to write ourselves into existence. Recently, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and author Renée Watson came up with another lyrical metaphor—Born on the Water, the title of their 2021 picture book in verse, derived from the 1619 Project. Black storytelling traditions have always existed in the shadows of the American story—and that includes in children’s books.

“The lost shadow book is the book that Blackness writes every day,” poet Kevin Young writes in The Grey Album. “The book that memory, time, accident, and the more active forms of oppression prevent from being read.”

I love this observation. Despite adversity, oppression, and the shadow books lost along the way, Black people have kept storying. “Storying,” Young writes, is how “Black writers have forged their own traditions, their own identities, even their own freedom.”

Prominent in the shadows cast by Black children’s literature is The Brownies’ Book, a periodical for Black children published in 1920–21 by Du Bois and Jessie Fauset, an editor and writer. Also published in 1921 was Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, which includes the observation about enslaved Black Americans, “the Negroes were strong and could stand rough treatment.” It won the inaugural Newbery Medal the next year. Issues of The Brownies Book included stories, photographs, games, poetry, and information on current events; a goal was to dispel stereotypes of Black people and expand Black children’s literature. The Brownies’ Book was missing from mainstream shelves, but present in Black communities.

Link to the rest at School Library Journal

1 thought on “Considering Enslavement and Its Legacy in Children’s Literature”

  1. I am so sick of this sort of complaint. When I read the 3 Musketeers, I was not a Gascon youth living centuries ago. When I read Robin Hood, I wasn’t wearing green and I certainly wasn’t Maid Marian (and I preferred rifle to bow and arrow). When I read A Little Princess, I was not a Victorian British child born in India and abandoned in London (and I hated dolls). And when I read Black Beauty, I was not an overworked gelding pulling a hackney cab.

    What the hell does any of this have to do with my own individual demographic traits? Where’s the one book that has me completely pegged down to age, race, mixed Flemish-Jewish ethnicity, gender, IQ, interests, contemporary fashions? (And how boring that would be to read, n’est-ce pas?)

    There’s nothing exciting in reading about characters just like yourself — it’s the requirement of someone very timid who wants to cower away from anything unfamiliar. (Or someone very vain, I suppose.) The point of reading is to experience OTHER lives and OTHER situations and to learn from those stories all the manifold ways that people or people-like entities deal with life. And if all you could read reflected people “just like you”, what could you possibly learn from that?

    The complaint seems to be one of “if the oppressed can’t see their very own representative puppet in a story, then they can’t learn from it”, which is one of the stupidest proposals ever — no more animal stories, religious stories, elves, giants, gods, historical characters, grownups, children, inter-galactic aliens… any of the myriad of possibilities in limitless storyland.


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