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

Children's Literature of the Harlem Renaissance

While African American children’s literature was in short supply at the start of the twentieth century, white American writers published books for children that frequently portrayed black characters negatively (See our collection of Jim Crow children's literature and our collection of Joel Chandler Harris materials.) Negative images of African Americans were pervasive in elementary school readers and textbooks as well. A desire to redress the hurtful representations that black youths encountered in white-authored writing spurred the commitment of black authors of the 1920s to produce a children’s literature of their own.

These authors were working during a time known as the Harlem Renaissance, spanning from about 1919 to about 1935, when black artists, musicians, and writers deliberately set out to produce cultural materials that reflected the varied cultural, historical, and political interests of African Americans. Understandably, one of its chief concerns was creating a literature for children and families that positively depicted black people. Here we have collected several of their efforts.

Background Information

Pre-1900s African American Writing for Children
Sabrina Ehmke Sergeant

Interpretive Essay

The Brownies’ Book and the Roots of African American Children’s Literature
Katharine Capshaw Smith

Further Reading

Further reading on the children's literature of the Harlem Renaissance
Sabrina Ehmke Sergeant

Primary Materials

"The True Brownies"
In this editorial from the October 1919 Children's Number of The Crisis, W. E. B. Du Bois announces his plans to create The Brownies' Book, "a little magazine for children—for all children, but especially for ours, 'the Children of the Sun.'"

The Brownies' Book
Here we have edited an almost full run of The Brownies' Book, previously available only as selections. The Brownies' Book, running from 1920 through 1921, was the first large-scale attempt to publish a periodical for children of color.

The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer
Collected by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, the prominent Harem Renaissance figure and widow of poet Paul Dunbar, The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer offered topical and inspirational selections of writing mostly by black authors. The book was meant to provide instructive and uplifting reading and recitation material for young African American readers, with the foreword (by Leslie Pinckney Hill) explaining, “nothing is more important to the development of any people than the content of those printed pages on which they form their youthful minds.” At a time when black authors were rarely included in mainstream anthologies, Dunbar-Nelson reverses this imbalance, and includes some selections from white authors, marking them with an asterisk and making them visibly the minority.

The New Floyd's Flowers
Silas X. Floyd's New Floyd's Flowers is an expansion of his earlier Floyd's Flowers or Duty and Beauty for Colored Children. Floyd, who had worked as an educator and contributed to various publications, offers a collection of short, uplifting, morally instructive stories for black children. The book is richly illustrated with photographs of African Americans by Underwood and Underwood, a popular agency for news photos that also provided many of the photographs in The Brownies Book.

Unsung Heroes
Elizabeth Ross Haynes, a sociologist who worked for the Y.W.C.A., wrote Unsung Heroes in an effort to provide black children with inspiring true stories about the lives of prominent black historical figures. She writes in the foreword that these stories, “telling of the victories in spite of the hardships and struggles of Negroes whom the world has failed to sing about, have so inspired me, even after I am grown, that I pass them on to you, my little friends.”