The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children's Literature, 1880-1939


About The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk

The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk looks at the intersection of race and childhood between 1880 and 1939 as viewed through children’s literature, its illustrations, and associated material objects. While often imaginative or even fantastical, successful children’s literature typically reflects society’s norms in order to win parental approval. This unique combination of fantasy and orthodoxy makes children’s literature an ideal lens for exploring the American racial imagination.

Many of the texts included here were highly successful in their day, but have fallen out of favor due in large part to their now-outdated views of race. The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk creates a kind of counter-canon of children’s literature, making available texts that enshrine white attitudes toward African Americans and Native Americans alongside the contemporary culture-bridging efforts of African American and Native American authors to create a revisionist children’s literature aimed at both white and minority readers.

We hope that this accessible collection will encourage further scholarship on the themes of race, childhood, and American identity from disciplinary perspectives including art history, ethnic studies, history, and literature. However, our primary interest is in making these texts teachable, so that instructors, students, and interested lay readers can now easily access materials that were crucial to shaping nineteenth- and twentieth-century American ideas of racial difference.

Please note that this project is very much a work in progress. We are still preparing texts and other materials for the site, most notably a section addressing representations of Native Americans in children’s literature of the time period. This site is a draft, and we are actively expanding and improving our holdings. We are excited to share these materials and want to make them available now, even though we have much work to do.