- Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature by Jodi Eichler-Levine
Jodi Eichler-Levine sets out to make the connections between African American and Jewish children’s literature, a potentially fruitful area of study because of the two groups’ shared inheritance of similar Biblical stories. In contrast to the Protestant Calvinist message that wealth equals godliness and that sacrifice is by definition patriotic, Jews and African Americans (who are sometimes one and the same—for example, author and professor Julius Lester) have focused on the Hebrew narrative of suffering, Exodus, and sacrifice.
Eichler-Levine introduces her book with Maurice Sendak’s view of “Jewish chosenness”—“‘chosen to be killed?’” (xiii), as historically have been African Americans through enslavement and the Middle Passage and Jews during the Holocaust and pogroms. She comments, “Juvenile literature is a site at and through which we perform core cultural ideas. … Childhood, as experienced, recalled, and represented, is a crucial locus for thinking through the worlds of identity that are wound up with religion and literature” (xv). Although the consensus in the field seems to be that “children’s” and/or “young adult” literature are terms preferable to “juvenile,” which might have the connotation of infantilism, it is through this lens that Eichler-Levine analyzes, interprets, and evaluates books for children in the remaining chapters.
In chapter 1, “Remembering the Way into Membership,” she analyzes representations of Crispus Attucks, a formerly enslaved African who was martyred in the American Revolutionary War, arguing that the lesson of Attucks, as represented in children’s books, is the romanticized view that oppressed peoples can show loyalty to oppressors by volunteering their lives. Similar depictions exist for Jewish children at Valley Forge and in the civil rights movement. Alongside romanticized and idealized views as crystallized in books for children, Eichler-Levine recognizes the important social justice work that Jews and African Americans have done for many decades, partly as a result of the empathy created by the pain of their own oppression, marginalization, and misrepresentation.
In chapter 2, “The Unbearable Lightness of Exodus,” Eichler-Levine concentrates on Exodus in African American and Jewish children’s literature, as exemplified in biographies of Harriet Tubman and by Lester’s and Jerry Pinkney’s The Old African. Eichler-Levine is right to question “what age group [The Old African] might be appropriate for” (34); the images and the writing are grisly and graphic. I am reminded of Kenneth Kidd’s insights into whether reading about trauma should become traumatic for children: “How to explain this shift away from the idea that young readers should be protected from evil and toward the conviction that they should be exposed to it, perhaps even endangered by it? It’s almost as if we now expect reading about trauma to be traumatic itself—as [End Page 107] if we think children can’t otherwise comprehend atrocity” (120). Because of its visual images, The Old African might be traumatizing for some young people, in contrast to narrative writing in which children may perhaps envision only what they can handle.
It would have been preferable for Eichler-Levine to refer to Africans who have been enslaved as “enslaved Africans” instead of “slaves.” As author and blogger Andi Cumbo-Floyd writes:
By changing from the use of a name—slaves—to an adjective—enslaved—we grant these individuals an identity as people and use a term to describe their position in society rather than reducing them to that position. In a small but important way, we carry them forward as people, not the property that they were in that time. This is not a minor thing, this change of language.(“Slaves vs. Enslaved People”)
Part of Eichler-Levine’s intent is to build respect for the personhood of those of African descent, and this shift in language would better help her to accomplish her goals.
When exploring the “mythos” of the pioneer, Eichler-Levine contrasts Laura Ingalls Wilder...