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  • "Brutal Honesty and Metaphorical Grace":The Blues Aesthetic in Black Children's Literature
  • Nancy D. Tolson (bio)

"Misery is when the kid next door has a party and invites all the neighborhood but you."

—Langston Hughes, Black Misery

Art inspired by the blues aesthetic exposes injustices and celebrates victories. The blues aesthetic is defined by a complex series of principles that reflect the survival skills and sensibilities developed by Black people in response to slavery and the constrained freedom provided by emancipation. Strongly connected to the Black laboring classes, the blues impulse emerged as slavery was brought to an end, and was fostered, perhaps, by the realization that the nature of Black struggle in America would essentially not differ whether one worked as a slave, a sharecropper, a factory laborer, or an independent businessman or woman. Legal emancipation did not remove all the social ills of slavery, and postbellum Jim Crow laws would continue to deny Black equality and inhibit Black advancement.

The blues moved away from the motifs that characterized the spiritual, such as the necessity of unrelieved suffering until the penitent qualified for a heavenly reward. The blues singer had little interest in patient suffering or the hereafter, preferring to describe the disappointments, hardships, and triumphs occurring in the day-to-day secular world. Blues lyricists expressed ideas that reflected an unstated yet general point of view (Neal 59), thereby assuring listeners that they were not alone and that they could meet the obstacles and struggles that went along with their difficult freedom.

Because Black childhood in America is still not easy, some contemporary writers have adapted the tradition to children's literature in an effort to prepare the Black child to challenge and survive the contradictions, inequalities, and deprivations of the turn of the millennium. For instance, words themselves can contain conflict—Black children learn early that the word "black," which is often used as a negative term, can also represent and celebrate who they are historically and culturally. This is one way in which Black children have experienced what the blues storyteller remembers. Like the blues, this literature born of conflict is both oppositional and affirmative (Garon xi).

In What Is Life? Reclaiming the Black Blues Self, poet and cultural activist Kalamu ya Salaam defines the blues aesthetic as "a post-reconstruction expression of peoplehood culturally codified into an aesthetic" (7). He enlarges upon this definition with his own list of characteristic ingredients:

  1. 1. Stylization of process.

  2. 2. Deliberate use of exaggeration, with wit being one of the most salient projections of exaggeration.

  3. 3. Brutal honesty clothed in metaphorical grace, which includes a recognition of inequality and political racism in America.

  4. 4. Acceptance of the contradictory nature of life (life is both sweet and sour).

  5. 5. Faith in the ultimate triumph of justice in the form of karma.

  6. 6. Celebration of the sensual in life, as in "shake it but don't break it!" (12-14)

Salaam's reference to "stylization of process" has a particular resonance for the Black literary artist and children's book specialist. "Style." is a term with many meanings, but in this context it refers to "a characteristic that achieves the maximizing of both community and the individual while avoiding the negation of either" (15). Salaam alludes to a Black perspective that places community in the foreground alongside individual forms of expression. Various contemporary artists have successfully manifested this consciousness of community in picture books that emphasize one or more of Salaam's concepts.

Thus, for example, in Lucille Clifton's All Us Come Cross the Water (1973), personal identity and collective self-determination are closely linked while brutal honesty is "clothed in metaphorical grace," both in Clifton's text and John Steptoe's earth-tone illustrations. Ujamaa, the young Black protagonist, is in conflict with his teacher, a Black woman named Miss Wills. In geography class, Miss Wills surveys her students, asking them to name the country from which their ancestors have come. When Ujamaa does not respond, she chides him for not giving the answer she considers appropriate—Africa. Miss Wills assumes that Ujamaa is behaving badly in not giving the "correct" answer. But [End Page 56] Ujamaa is...


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pp. 56-60
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