Pre-1900s African American Writing for Children
Literature intended for African American children was nearly nonexistent prior to the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, children’s literature meant for African American youths was mostly confined to didactic works developed by religious presses for use in Sunday schools and classrooms. One important figure in the early days of African American children’s writing was Amelia E. Johnson (1858-1922). She created two short-lived periodicals exclusively for African-American readers: The Joy (1887) and The Ivy (1888). The eight-page magazine, the Joy, was targeted to African American girls and women while the Ivy instructed youth about African American history. Johnson also contributed a “Children’s Corner” feature to the Baltimore Sower and Reaper [Venkatesan, Sathyaraj. “Amelia E. Johnson.” Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers. Ed. Yolanda W. Page. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2007. 309. Print.] . In 1890, Johnson published a Sunday school book entitled Clarence and Corinne; or God’s Way with the white-administered American Baptist Publication Society of Philadelphia. Johnson would write two more Sunday school books (The Hazeley Family, 1884, and Martina Meridan; or What is My Motive?, 1901), but she never overtly discussed racial issues in her works, and because white readers could assume that her characters are also white, her characters are considered racially neutral [Fabi, M. Giulia. “Reconstructing the Race: The Novel after Slavery.” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Ed. Maryemma Graham. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 42. Print.] .
Early 20th Century African American Children's Literature
In the early twentieth century, Silas X. Floyd, a Baptist minister and public school principal in Augusta, Georgia, undertook the project of creating a children’s reader based on African American historical themes and topics. He wrote a collection of short stories promoting proper conduct and Christian values which was first published in 1905 [Wilson, Francille Rusan. Introduction. Unsung Heroes; The Black Boy of Atlanta; Negroes in Domestic Service in the United States. By Elizabeth Ross Haynes. New York: G.K. Hall, 1997. xxii. Print.] . Floyd’s Flowers: or Duty and Beauty for Colored Children, was edited and reprinted several times throughout the 1920s when more attention was being devoted to reading material for African American children.
Portrayals of African Americans in White-Authored Children's Texts
While African American children’s literature was in short supply at the start of the twentieth century, white American writers published stories for white youths which often portrayed African Americans in highly caricatured light. One such example was Frances Trego Montgomery’s 1917 publication of Billy Whiskers in the South. Negative images of African Americas were pervasive in elementary school readers and textbooks as well. A desire to redress the hurtful representations of African Americans that black youths encountered in white-authored writing was part of what spurred on the Harlem Renaissance’s commitment to producing a children’s literature of its own.
The Harlem Renaissance and Children's Literature
African American children’s literature fully emerged during the Harlem Renaissance, when African American artists were developing a commitment to representing their own racial and cultural background in the art they produced [Bishop, Rudine S. Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children's Literature. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2007. xi. Print.] . The most instrumental figure in the development of an African American children’s literature in the early years of the Harlem Renaissance was W. E. B. Du Bois. He founded the popular and influential The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.), in 1910; the magazine boasted the largest readership by far of any African American magazine in its time. Starting in 1912, Du Bois devoted every October issue of The Crisis to a Children’s Number, catered specifically to the reading desires of young people and concerns related to child-rearing and parenting. The special issue underscored the importance of children to the community and to the role they played as part of Du Bois’s goals of racial uplift and pride. The Crisis maintained the annual Children’s Number until shortly after Du Bois left the magazine in 1936 [Smith, Katharine C. Children's Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. 6. Print.] .
From the success of The Crisis’s annual children’s number emerged The Brownies’ Book, a monthly magazine specifically written for African American children. It was the first sustained effort to create a body of writing that exclusively addressed the needs of African American children [Bishop xv.] . The magazine ran from January 1920 to December 1921 under the editorship of W. E. B. Du Bois, Augustus Granville Dill (who served as business manager) and Jessie Fauset (as literary editor in 1920 and managing editor in 1921). The Brownies’ Book was comprised of stories (folktales, fantasies as well as those set in real-life settings), poems, games, articles on current events, photographs of and letters from young readers. It celebrated African American identity, urged racial pride, and encouraged its readers to aspire to positions of leadership within their communities.
The content of Du Bois’s The Brownies’ Book showcased his opposition to the social philosophy espoused by Booker T. Washington and provided an alternative vision of the ideal education for African Americans. Rudine Sims Bishop notes that “Du Bois resolutely demanded excellence in education for Black children, including a strong foundation in reading, writing, and especially thinking” [Bishop 22.] . The Brownies’ Book was a way for Du Bois to help cultivate what he termed the Talented Tenth—the most able 10 perfect of African Americans who, equipped with a broad and liberal education, would serve as new leaders of the black community.
The Brownies’ Book was instrumental in promoting future African American children’s literature. It advertised and sold books for African American children that were not readily available in bookstores, including works by Benjamin Brawley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W. E. B. Du Bois [Wilson xxi.] . For example, The Brownies’ Book carried an advertisement for Elizabeth Ross Haynes’s Unsung Heroes, published in 1921, and another significant contribution to the literature available to African American children. Unsung Heroes was a collection of seventeen biographical sketches of significant African American men and women including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Phillis Wheatley, and Sojourner Truth. The biographies were presented with a combination of historical accuracy and invented dialogue to engage young readers [Wilson xx.] In her foreword to the book, Haynes explained that she hoped these stories of victories achieved in spite of struggle and hardship would serve as inspiration for young African American children.
The Brownies’ Book also provided a venue for young aspiring writers and helped to propel future careers in and beyond the field of children’s writing. Starting in 1925, Effie Lee Newsome, a poet and naturalist who had contributed to the magazine, wrote a regularly-featured children’s section entitled “The Little Page” for The Crisis. Later, she also published a volume of poetry for young children, Gladiola Garden. Newsome was one of the few writers of her time to devote most of her work to a child audience [Bishop 35-7.] . Though the bulk of Langston Hughes’s writing career was not addressed to a youth readership, Hughes is another notable example of a writer for whom The Brownies’ Book provided early inspiration and support. When he was eighteen, The Brownies’ Book published Hughes’s high school graduation photo and a letter he wrote to the editor. In 1921, the magazine became the first to publish Hughes’s poetry. In later issues, Hughes also contributed nonfiction pieces, a play, and a short story, all of which helped prepare Hughes in becoming perhaps the most recognized writer of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1932, Hughes published The Dream Keeper, a collection of poems for children, and one of the first children’s books by an African American writer to be published by a major New York publisher. Hughes would continue to write for African American youths intermittently throughout his career [Bishop 38-41.]
The Harlem Renaissance was therefore instrumental in bringing about literature especially for African American children. Later writers, including Carter G. Woodson, Arna Bontemps, Ellen Tarry, were able to build upon the tradition of children’s writing largely begun with The Brownies’ Book.