Books About Black Children A 'Basic Need'

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When I was growing up in Boston a few decades ago--and reading voraciously everything available in our branch library--I knew that books were about other people. You could not become the characters you read about: queens and princesses, dwarfs and giants, children of long ago who lived in a rambling old house in Concord or in a tiny cottage in the Swiss Alps.

We could pretend. And we did. Everybody in books was white, and we identified with white people in books just as we did with white people in movies. None of it was real. And if nobody was black, well, that was all right, because that was the way stories were supposed to be. (There was one book, Tobe, by Stella Sharpe, that showed us a black child. This was a story in photographs of a little boy on a farm in North Carolina. But it was the only book I ever saw as a child that portrayed anybody black-and then, it was about a boy.)

What excitement I felt when, as a children's librarian years later, I read Marguerite de Angeli's Bright April. And when my own children were young, Ezra Jack Keats's The Snowy Day was a wonderful event. I did not have enough black consciousness at the time to recognize the stereotyping later criticized in these books.

Children's books reflect the concerns of the society that produces them. A study of their history is a study of how adults have thought about children and childhood, and what adults have wanted children to know. Dorothy Broderick's Image of the Block in Children's Books--a work covering books published before 1967--shows how the dominant society's attitude toward blacks is revealed through the portrayof black characters in subordinate roles. Books with black protagonists were virtually nonexistent during those years. The turbulent, creative times of the mid-1960's revolutionized children's books, especially in the genre of realistic fiction. Topics that were formerly taboo in books for young people were discussed frankly for the first time.

And books about black children began to be published.

With the growing momentum of the civil-rights movement and the new availability of federal money for schools and libraries, there was a receptive audience for Nancy Larrick's revolutionary 1965 article, '"The All White World of Children's Books." Publishers rushed to get into print books with black characters--or blackened characters. White authors leaped on the bandwagon. Rudine Sims of the University of Massachusetts documents these dramatic developments in her research on children's fiction published between 1965 and 1979.

Were the portrayals of black children, of black family life, of "black experience" culturally accurate? "Not to worry," seemed to be the response. At least there were some black faces in illustrations. Black children could see themselves in books. And white children might begin to realize, as Ms. Larrick had urged, that they were not the "kingfish." It was a new day for children's literature.

The first rash of such books, Ms. Sims suggests, might be called works of "social conscience." These were books by white writers aimed at white children, often involving school or neighborhood integration, such as Judy Blume's Iggie's House. Next, she says, came the "melting pot" books-most, again, by white writers-promoting American homogeneity and glossing over cultural differences. E.L. Konigsburg's Jennifer, Hecale, Macbeth, William McKinley, & Me, Elizabeth would fit into this category.

Of most value for black children would be what Ms. Sims calls "culturally conscious" books: those written by black authors "to provide self-affirmation for Afro.American children." Publishers had bemoaned the scarcity of black authors. The Council on Interracial Books for Children, founded in 1966, offered a prize of $500 for a manuscript by a black writer; Kristin Hunter's The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou and Walter Dean Myers's Where Does the Day Go? were the winners. In 1975, the black author Virginia Hamilton was awarded the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished work of literature for children, M.C. Higgins, the Great. The second black winner of the Newbery Medal was Mildred D. Taylor, for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in 1977. In the years since, Ms. Hamilton, Ms. Taylor, and Mr. Myers have published especially distinguished work, winning further Newbery recognition and capturing several of the Coretta Scott King awards, established to recognize black writers and illustrators. And a number of other black authors have achieved recognition.

While books about black children written by black authors are essential for black readers, they are also vitally important for nonblack children. Such books must be in school libraries and public libraries, especially in areas where there are few or no black families.

While increasing numbers of books portraying black children are now being published, however, much more needs to be said in them. The story of the Afro-American in this country is partly a story of hardship and deprivation. But it is also a story of triumph, of black Americans' living good lives in spite of all the obstacles erected by the dominant society. It is a story of laughter and tears, of the give-and-take of families.

I cannot stress too strongly the importance of the family in the experience of black Americans. The picture of the black family as fragmented, blighted, or nonexistent is inaccurate. In fact, the black family is a strong support system, and young people should begin to know that in their impressionable years. The theory promulgated with all good intentions by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that the black family has always been in disarray, is simply not true. Charles Willie's work points out that, contrary to popular belief, the single- parent household is not the norm. Children's books can help to correct this unfortunate misconception.

In addition, more should be written about the history of black Americans. All children need to be able to discover in their books that the black experience involves more than slavery and reconstruction, segregation and civil rights, drugs and teenage pregnancy.

I am not saying that we have enough stories about these issues. The life of black America is multifaceted. But I am hoping for more books like Candy Dawson Boyd's Breadsticks and Blessing Ploces, Virginia Hamilton's Zeely and The Bells of Christmas, Eloise Greenfield's Grandpa's Face, Patricia McKissack's Mirandy and Brother Wind, my own The Train to Lulu's and Chita's Christmas Tree. Children's books about the history of blacks in the United States should include the stories of ordinary families who managed to live their lives as Americans in spite of an unjust system. It is important for all to be aware that, less than half a century after emancipation, there were black pharmacists, lawyers, doctors, and teachers.

There were small-businessmen, such as my great-uncle who had a grocery store offering fine produce and my great-grandfather who leased a dry dock in Baltimore. Sure, they had to sit in the balcony if they went to the theater, but I have my great aunt's gold-and-mother-of-pearl opera glasses, made in Paris, with which she could enjoy performances from her peanut-gallery seat. And they saved their money and placed the highest value on education. Black children went to school and church, and celebrated holidays, and fussed with siblings, and went on trips to spend the summer with relatives.

The experiences of blacks are as broad as their roots are deep. As Rudine Sims has written, "The experience of growing up as the child of an Afro-American physician or lawyer or college professor is as valid-and as Afro-American-as that of growing up the child of a black cleaning woman or in a household dependent on welfare." All blacks are touched by a collective experience, she suggests, and they are "simultaneously a part of the more general culture and a distinct cultural group." A rich ore of this experience has yet to be mined--one that, portrayed through fiction and biography, can help both black and nonblack children better understand the role of black Americans in this country.

At present, the outlook seems hopeful After the flurry of concern and hasty publishing of books with black characters two decades ago, there was a troubling slowdown, possibly due to cutbacks in federal funds for libraries. For whatever reasons, there were fewer books in print about black children in 1984 than in 1979. At the turn of the decade, however, a new surge of interest has developed. Perhaps the fact that children's books are leading the market makes editors more willing to risk "black" books. But surely the industry is tuned in to the economic power of a growing black middle class that is rightfully insisting on more books for its children. Considerations of conscience aside, publishing such books just might be good business.

"Black experience" books are appearing on almost all the publishers' lists for spring and fall. Distinguished black writers are creating more and more highly acclaimed works. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich has recently announced an unprecedented nine-book contract with Virginia Hamilton. Artists such as Jerry Pinkney and Floyd Cooper cannot keep up with the demand for their talents. And new black authors and illustrators have surfaced.

We must hope that this trend can weather the vicissitudes of the publishing business. As our society realizes that books about black children are a basic need, more of them will be published and more will stay in print.

It is truly a time of promise.

Vol. 09, Issue 25, Page 36

Published in Print: March 14, 1990, as Books About Black Children A 'Basic Need'
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