- From Little Black Sambo to Popo and Fifina:Arna Bontemps and the Creation of African-American Children's Literature
The inclusion or exclusion of an author or group of authors from children's literature canons results from a variety of factors and symbolizes one aspect of the "politics" of children's books. These factors include tradition, the literary knowledge of those who contribute to the canonizing process, the availability of literary works, awareness of the works, and socio-cultural forces such as elitism and bias. We should not, however, reify the concept signified by canon. Instead, we need to perceive and acknowledge canons as essential components of socio-cultural and historical forces. Simply, canons do not appear as a result of spontaneous generation; they are engendered—critics, scholars, teachers—by institutions such as publishing concerns, and by cultural phenomena such as racism.
A powerful example of the politics of children's literature is found in the exclusionary power of canons. Children's authors of color—African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Native American—with some notable exceptions, were accorded limited critical scrutiny in scholarly communities before the 1960s. Arna Bontemps, poet, writer, anthologist, librarian, and teacher, is a prime example of a writer excluded from the children's literature canon.
Several central questions merge when one examines the body of work created by Arna Bontemps. Foremost is the question of why examine the children's literature he produced between 1932 and 1972. Related questions center on critical assessments of the literary merit of his work, the historical value of his work, and the contemporary relevance of his work. One can, depending on one's aesthetic or ideological stance, answer the questions in a variety of ways. The initial response of this author is to answer the questions with an example from popular culture, indeed, with an anecdote that flowed from the pen of an icon of popular culture. The example demonstrates the power of canons, traditions, and cultural arbitrators in the perpetuation of stereotyped and culturally inaccurate [End Page 108] images even though culturally authentic portrayals are readily available as alternatives.
Stephen King, in an article published in the "Books" section of the Chicago Tribune (November 1986), compiled a listing of some recommended "scary" books for children. Most surprising, at least for this author, was the book listed as number two, The Story of Little Black Sambo. King wrote: "This is supposedly racist and certainly it has some racist elements. Children, however, do not perceive this. To them, Sambo's just another kid. If you as a parent are sufficiently troubled by the 'cute little black boy' undertone, I suggest you color the kid white and read it [or tell it] simply as 'Little Sambo.'" He, however, demonstrated an appalling lack of sensitivity in his cavalier dismissal of the criticism held by some African-Americans. King argued that the literary merits of the book far outweighed the arguments of some African-Americans. Further, he argued that most children read the book for the sense of adventure, action, and humor contained within its pages.
No doubt, there are some who would find King's argument of aesthetics only, logical. What King failed to realize is that, for many children, the majority of images of African-Americans they receive are ones that are culturally stereotyped, pejorative, and, only occasionally, historically or culturally authentic. These inaccurate images pervade all aspects of society, radio, movies, textbooks, advertisements, etc., so it is not likely that many children will encounter alternative or oppositional images. In addition, King does not know of or ignores the grotesque illustrations that accompanied the text. These, perhaps more than the text, cause the negative reactions from African-Americans.
Most essentially, King failed to perceive the hegemonic functions of a culture, and its literature. Had he done so, he would have understood that individuals use literature to entertain, to inform, to socialize, and to shape behavior and to provide readers with a sense of reality (Williams 1977). Additionally, he would have perceived that literature is used to reinforce the power of dominant groups and to legitimize the established order (Williams 1977). King, subconsciously perhaps, used The Story of...