- "Alabama Angels" Descending into the Past
Concerning her efforts to find a publishers for her first children's book, Alabama Angels, Montgomery, Alabama, author Mary Barwick recalls: "New York publishers thought it was a regional book. Southern publishers thought it was a national one" (Reeves). That Barwick's Alabama Angels and Alabama Angels in Anywhere, L.A. (Lower Alabama) have received such acclaim in her native state of Alabama is not surprising given the state's recent scholarly and public efforts to celebrate its own authors, particularly those who write about Alabama. Given the distinctly regional focus of these books—the South—it is also not surprising that Barwick's books have found their place in the Southern History and Literature Archives of the Birmingham Public Library and in practically all of the local Christian bookstores; they have been endorsed enthusiastically by The Birmingham News and Barwick's hometown newspaper, The Montgomery Advertiser and Alabama Journal. Citing the printing and selling of about 8,000 copies in three printings, Garland Reeves of The Birmingham News describes Alabama Angels as "something of a publishing phenomenon." Most recently, Alabama Angels went into its fifth printing, about 20,000 copies, which shows that a market for Barwick's books exists.
This overwhelmingly positive reception of the Alabama Angels series seems to signal the values and attitudes of a very specific reading audience for which the books are written: conservative white southerners who continue to romanticize a particular slave past that, fortunately for African Americans, is "gone with the wind." As the phenomenal success of Barwick's books reveals, residual stereotypes and misrepresentations of African Americans as "happy" slaves and pickaninnies by a dominant white culture linger. Barwick's allegedly "heart-warming text[s] and charming pictures" (Land) should give pause to parents, black and white, who are looking to these books as socially appropriate for their impressionable youngsters.
The most problematic aspect of Barwick's Alabama Angels series are the illustrations of the black childlike angels and of the black people themselves. Reeves insists that Barwick's angels are "the cutest little [End Page 210] angels you ever did see," and "they are black, yet beyond any particular race." What Reeves means by the angels being of no particular race is unclear since, in America's history, African Americans have been the only race represented derogatorily and, quite intentionally, as happy slaves and unattractive pickaninnies. What Reeves describes and Barwick intends to be "cute" is all but "cute" to black Americans who historically have been and continue to be dehumanized and misrepresented in what is euphemistically called "Americana," or southern folk art—the blacker-than-black-faced lawn jockeys, fishing boys, and train conductors holding lanterns that decorate many white southerners' lawns and the mammy and Amos figurines that smile and rest quaintly on many white southerners' kitchen counters and shelves. Indeed, Barwick's angels are not brown or even shades of brown; they are black, literally as black as night. Their facial features are obliterated, and their hair sticks out and is adorned with myriad small, colorful bows. Such images recall historically racist depictions of black children as pickaninnies. The blackness of the angels also echoes the American minstrel tradition of the 1800s, prompted by Thomas D. Rice and his "Jim Crow" (1832) creations, when whites, and later blacks, blackened their faces with burnt cork to mock and ridicule black people. Even when Barwick tries to make the angels brown, the brown is so dark that it seems black, and the angels' facial features remain absent. These consistent renderings of blacks in both books cannot be attributed to the printing quality; these are high-gloss, well-reproduced books.
Not only do the illustrations give reason to pause, but the actions of the stories and their settings are not far removed from the documented plantation days; the angels themselves are not far removed from slaves. Even the character of God bears a striking resemblance to the white plantation master. Set in the rural south amid cotton fields and with blacks living in cabins, the action in Alabama Angels involves a young black girl, Alethea, who prays to a benevolent...