- Black Children's Literature Got De Blues: The Creativity of Black Writers and Illustrators
The blues' contribution to African-American fiction and graphic art has proved a salient focus of criticism. A brief survey of scholarship on African-American fiction for adults (by writers such as Ralph Ellison, Gayl Jones, and Toni Morrison, for instance) easily uncovers dozens of titles about the role of blues or jazz. Recent studies of African-American art, especially those focusing on the work of Aaron Douglas, Romare Bearden, Ellen Banks, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, explore what art historian Richard Powell has called a "blues aesthetic" (238). The reason for this critical tendency is that the blues, as Houston Baker has asserted, comprise "a vibrant network": "[t]hey are . . . the multiplex, enabling script in which Afro-American cultural [End Page 368] discourse is inscribed" (3-4). With her recent book, Nancy Tolson seeks to examine systematically how this script informs African-American literature for children. Black Children's Literature Got De Blues identifies several key qualities of the blues that she argues firmly situate such children's books within a rich, cohesive black expressive tradition.
For Tolson, the blues are the pure, unmediated expression of a black self-absorbed in black culture. Thus the literature she is analyzing is written by African Americans, or as she prefers, Black artists. According to Tolson, only they can tap into the expressive force of the blues, which opposes misguided mainstream interpretations of black life. For a book to be black, according to Tolson, it must capture the nuances of black states of being, and for that to happen, the author must "walk at least a lifetime in the skin of a Black person" (7). Many readers of Black Children's Literature Got De Blues will likely question this argument, though it is bound to Tolson's vision of black children's books as radically different from other children's literature because of their resonance with adult African-American literature. The view indicates Tolson's indebtedness to the Black aesthetic that emerged in the 1960s, championing a "uniquely black way of seeing" things and writing about them (Martin 374). Through literary and visual analysis, cultural commentary, personal reflection, and polemic, Tolson shows that the blues comprise one of the most important of these "ways of seeing"; they are a flexible, enduring artistic foundation that defines and enriches black children's literature thematically, stylistically, and structurally.
Drawing on Powell's art criticism and on Baker's and Kalamu ya Salaam's cultural criticism, Tolson highlights several blues conventions that she finds in black children's books, including exaggeration, honesty, acceptance of life's contradictions, optimism, and sensuality. Her reading of Cheryl Hanna and Carole Byard's An Enchanted Hair Tale illustrates the way exaggeration, admittedly a common feature in picture books, serves in this context as a prod to black cultural knowledge. The child protagonist's image in a mirror is a lion whose "mane is the original model for dreadlocks" (41). The lion, which emphasizes the naturalness of self-esteem, serves as a metonymy for an African ancestral home the child has not yet come to appreciate. In discussing blues' insistence on life's contradiction, Tolson analyzes Sherley Anne Williams' and illustrator Carole Byard's picture book Working Cotton and its representation of a hard-working migrant family's day of labor. Tolson quotes Williams's recollection of "the wailing guitar, the whining harmonica" in the blues she heard as a child, and mentions that the book offers "a large piece of sweetness in a situation where others would see it as being very sour. Byard's soft strokes [of paint] show the swiftness of the father picking the cotton along with the spirit of the mother singing as she picks while [End Page 369] watching her youngest children" (50). Through her focus on the interplay between words and pictures, Tolson demonstrates that the Williams/Byard book explores life's ambiguities with a standard blues tone of reassurance and acceptance.
Each of the...