Join the Club:African American Children's Literature, Social Change, and the Chicago Defender Junior
Chicago's annual Bud Billiken Parade, "the oldest and largest African-American parade in the country" (Lewis), was first held in 1929 as an extension of the newspaper the Chicago Defender and its section for young people, the Defender Junior (Ottley 353). In order to "per[k] up" the waning newspaper feature, editor David W. Kellum called upon Defender publisher Robert Abbott, fellow Defender editor Lucius Harper, the national Negro Board, and Chicago's South Park Board to help establish the event (Ottley 353; Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers). The parade's primary mission, as described by its first grand marshal, "was to give underprivileged children, who are never seen or heard, a chance to be in the limelight for one day by wearing costumes, marching in a parade, and being seen" (qtd. in Ottley 353). While the parade still survives as a symbol of perseverance, opportunity, and celebration for Chicago youth and the wider community, the newspaper feature from which it was derived has been largely forgotten. Yet, during its early years, the Defender Junior not only gave voice to the black youth of Chicago but also helped to create a sense of identity for African American children across the country.
In this article, I argue that in the absence of a distinct or large body of literature for young African Americans, the Defender Junior—via the national dissemination and popularity of the Chicago Defender—functioned as an accessible space in which children and young adults could create, edit, and subvert cultural ideologies of black childhood. In essence, the newspaper section became a form of children's literature, with the exposed artifice of the newspaper enabling the creation of a community of and an identity for black youth. I use the term "artifice" to refer broadly to apparatus—creative, psychological, or otherwise—devised and used to both communicate ideas and compel others to acknowledge those ideas. It can refer to works of individual invention or the production of larger social constructs: gender, race, class, childhood, adulthood. [End Page 149]
Generally speaking, we think of artifice as something in contrast to the natural, biological world. The Oxford English Dictionary defines artifice as "Human skill or workmanship as opposed to nature or a natural phenomenon," and, similarly, as "Technical skill; artistry, ingenuity." Artifice is that which we purposefully create and which requires or displays a level of imagination, curiosity, or originality. It showcases the very human capacity to create, and thus the word "artifice" often conflates the skill and its products. In its letters and contributions from child readers, the Defender Junior shows both the process of assembling creative artifice and the process of constructing social identity, itself a form of artifice. But if we think of art in the classical sense as that which mimics nature, successful artifice should, according to this line of reasoning, obscure artificiality. In that sense, the OED gives definitions of "artifice" that refer to "Skill in devising and using expedients; artfulness, cunning, trickery" and to "An ingenious expedient, a clever stratagem; (chiefly in negative sense) a manoeuvre or device intended to deceive, a trick." Here, I am interested in exploring how and when artifice is acknowledged—when its craftsmanship goes ignored, when it is embraced, and what this exposure and concealment imply for American children's literature and journalism. In looking at the two forms of artifice together, we see ways in which it can be reclaimed and reconfigured. Rather than holding merely negative connotations because of its associations with deception, artifice can serve as a form of liberation. When embraced, artifice functions as a call to arms, to action. It reminds us that we write and create and craft the news around us, and that we have the power to change the headlines.
Through establishing a discourse representative of the lived experiences of African American children, the Defender Junior made manifest a sense of black children's community and identity for its readers across the United States. This significant cultural work has been largely overlooked by scholars of children's literature and children's studies, journalism, and African American studies. But by examining the Defender Junior in the context of the development of African American children's literature and the rise of the black press, we see how the newspaper facilitated multiple developmental roles—social, cultural, creative, epistemological—for young people of color during the interwar period. The Chicago Defender and African American children together used the artifice of the modern press to create a form of children's literature, further legitimating the experience of black childhood. In turn, this effort arguably helped to spur the gradual proliferation of African American children's literature over the course of the twentieth century.
Because of the social and historical circumstances of black childhood, and given its fledgling state during the early twentieth century, the developing relationship between African American children's literature and journalism took a different course from that of the latter's relationship with "traditional" American children's literature, which largely focuses on white middle- and upper-class protagonists. Likewise, the African American newspaper also
150 Children's Literature Association Quarterly [End Page 150] assumed a different cultural role. Unlike the mainstream newspaper industry's mode of concealing its artifice, the black press of the early twentieth century openly adopted a sociopolitical strategy and the label of "race papers" (Myrdal 908). The Chicago Defender openly championed its artifice—that is, its agenda of social progress for African Americans—and in this project, the Defender Junior played a contributing role. In examining the Defender Junior, we glean the importance of this specific newspaper section (and of the Chicago Defender as a whole) as a vehicle for African American children to uncover, engage with, and cultivate artifice in order to explore the parameters of race, citizenship, and childhood in America. The newspaper section's acknowledgment of artifice through its exposed, collaborative process of creative construction, as well as the acknowledgment of the plurality of experience and identity for black youth, emphasizes to African American children their ability to create artistically, intellectually, socially, and culturally. Because it values and exposes its own constructed artifice, the Defender Junior underscores the potential for children's literature to be an agent of change. My discussion of the Defender Junior articulates the ways in which it functions as both children's literature and change agent through its exposure of artifice. I first consider the newspaper section within the context of African American children's literature before outlining the broader social history of the Chicago Defender in the early twentieth century, then turn to a close examination of the children's section itself.
Introducing Bud Billiken
"Help Me Out, Please," implores the headline of a debuting column featured in the 2 April 1921 edition of the weekly Chicago Defender, the exceptionally influential African American newspaper circulated throughout the country: "I am just breaking in on this newspaper game, and you will have to help me out" ("Chicago Defender Junior: For Young Folks Help Me Out, Please" 5). The speaker identifies himself as Bud Billiken, after the popular good-luck trinkets sold around Chicago at the time (5; Ottley 351). Bud explains that "Our little doings get lost in the columns of this paper. … I don't like that. Do you?"; he asks readers to send him their letters, stories, and poems so that they can be published in the "Chicago Defender Junior." Bud also solicits news of anyone "planning on giving a little party soon" (5). This modest request for birthday-party happenings from African American children carries consequence, not only through its acknowledgment of a black children's community but also in its validation of this community's worth. The entreaty to send news to the Defender about their individual lives—and the possibility that these items will be printed in the newspaper—authenticates their being. Each child has a unique voice, and others are listening.
While the genesis and contents of the Defender Junior may not seem radical or innovative in the context of our contemporary media landscape (particularly that of social media, which enables youth to create myriad forms of community [End Page 151] and self-expression), in 1921 African American children had few literary or textual resources that reflected and resonated with their cultural realities in positive or significant ways. And so when the Defender Junior featured an application to join the Bud Billiken Club and asked for additional reader contributions—an invitation to be part of an official group of young people recognized in print—such an appeal must have proved powerfully alluring.
During the early twentieth century, few works were published specifically for African American children, and Michelle H. Martin explains that even the meaning of the term "African American children's literature" remains a site of contestation today. "Because of the turbulent history of African Americans and the power dynamics that remain in place within the American education system and publishing industry," Martin writes, "the definition of this genre continues to be conflicted" ("African American" 11). Since scholars disagree on what constitutes African American children's literature and put different generic weight on the identity of the author and that of the intended audience, various texts receive the slippery designation of "first" African American children's book. Violet Harris notes that some "early writers and contemporary researchers" give credit to black writer A. E. Johnson and her religious-themed texts published in the 1890s. However, some occlude Johnson because "she chose not to portray African American experiences" (543–44). The work of Mary White Ovington, a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), encounters the opposite challenge. Her novel Hazel (1913) presents a positive, though problematic, portrayal of an African American protagonist. But because Ovington was white, promoting Hazel as one of the early examples of African American literature presents inherent problems for scholars attempting to locate literature in which African Americans reclaim agency and express their historically subjugated cultural position. "Nonetheless," writes Harris, "Ovington attempted to provide African American children with truthful cultural images, entertain them, imbue them with racial pride, and inform them of the achievements of their race" (545).
Indeed, most scholars agree that a viable, representative literature for African American children only first emerges through the periodical press nearly two decades into the twentieth century. "[T]he most commonly accepted date for the beginning of African American children's literature is the 1920 Brownies' Book," Giselle Liza Anatol affirms, referring to the monthly magazine established by W. E. B. Du Bois and published by the NAACP as an extension of the organization's official publication, The Crisis (626). Martin similarly emphasizes the importance of The Brownies' Book's two-year run, pointing out that before it came into existence, "children who wanted to read about black characters in children's literature could read about buffoons, mammies, Sambos, or savages, but not about the beauty of 'Children of the Sun' nor about adult African Americans who had consistently made positive contributions throughout American history" (Brown Gold 20).1 Certainly, The Brownies' Book functioned as an influential precursor to the Defender's Bud Billiken, and here I explore [End Page 152] the ways in which the Chicago Defender children's section, capitalizing on the influence of the newspaper, took cues from and extended the Brownies' Book model in order to help legitimate African American childhood and establish a body of children's literature for African American youth.2
Despite The Brownies' Book's ability to "present fictional and authentic models of successful Blacks (and, in some cases, other minorities) who strive for identity and purpose without rejecting their own heritage and cultural values" (Vaughn-Robertson and Hill 496), the magazine's brief lifespan hints at its difficulty in reaching a larger audience. While Du Bois described its readership as an "unusually enthusiastic set of subscribers" that numbered approximately four thousand, the onset of "industrial depression following the war" forced the magazine to fold (qtd. in Pricola), although the annual Children's Number continued in The Crisis through 1934 (Vaughn-Robertson and Hill 496). Courtney Vaughn-Robertson and Brenda Hill point to debate over the magazine's "elitist leanings" that likely exacerbated pre-existing class tensions within the movement for racial equality (495). While children's literature for African Americans, beginning with The Brownies' Book, provided positive, alternative examples of black childhood, the uplift ideology that permeated these works remained a site of contestation within the black community (Smith xvi).3 But in 1921, the Chicago Defender adapted and revised the Brownies' Book model for a mass audience. Sidestepping the implications of and anxiety surrounding uplift ideology, the Defender established a youth section built entirely upon children's contributions and housed within arguably the most influential African American publication of its time, or of any time since.
The Chicago Defender
During the Progressive Era and the golden age of the newspaper in the 1890s–1920s, journalism touted its ability to mirror "truth" or fact while largely camouflaging the ways in which it simultaneously shaped culture. But the black press, particularly the Chicago Defender, openly employed the artifice of the newspaper, a tool of ideological and creative possibility, in order to effect change in American society during this period. To understand the influence of the Defender Junior in shaping a sense of community and identity for black children in the early twentieth century, it is essential to understand the influence of the Chicago Defender itself. Launched in 1905 by Robert Abbott, the weekly newspaper eventually became the "most widely read newspaper in the black South," and therefore "afforded thousands of prospective migrants glimpses of an exciting city with a vibrant and assertive black community" (Grossman 4). Abbott's biographer Roi Ottley contends in his 1955 study of the publisher that "with the exception of the Bible, no publication was more influential among the Negro masses" during the first half of the century (8). The sociologist (and first black president of Fisk University) Charles S. Johnson once described the Defender as "one of the most potent factors in a phenomenal hegira that began [End Page 153] to change the character and pattern of race relations in the United States" (qtd. in Ottley 9). The paper struggled in its early years but gained readership after Abbott adopted an "uncompromising racial idealism, a policy pursued with such vigor that the man was excoriated as a 'yellow journalist' in the Hearst tradition" (Ottley 2). That is, Abbott proudly and openly relished the role of artificer in ways that mainstream publishers could do only behind closed doors.
The Chicago Defender candidly tapped into the creative and social power of artifice in order to craft a new racial ideology.4 Deploying an attitude of "un-apologetic black pride, dignity, and assertiveness," Abbott's newspaper "waged a militant campaign against white southerners, fulfilling its role as the defender of black America against 'the crafty paleface' of the South" (Grossman 75, 78).5 For this reason, scholars and writers give the newspaper credit for helping to incite the Great Migration, a movement beginning in approximately 1916 that saw thousands of African Americans leave their rural southern homes for northern urban areas.6 Ottley states that Chicago's number of black residents increased from "40,000 to nearly 150,000 within a short space of a few years" (161). The national distribution of the Defender, its forthright and sensational tone,7 and its specialized appeal to black Americans and their social circumstances served as a means of uniting a segment of citizens previously disconnected from one another because of their exclusion from written and national discourse.
Across the country, the delivery of the Chicago Defender each Saturday became an anticipated occasion for many African Americans because it presented the possibility of a new national vision. "By 1916," says James R. Grossman, "the Defender seemed to be everywhere," including the important social centers of the church and the barbershop (79). Circulation numbers do not accurately reflect the reach of the Defender, since copies were shared between friends and family members in addition to issues being read aloud and "passed by word of mouth" (Myrdal 909). According to Grossman, the newspaper's sales in the early 1920s were between 160,000 and 250,000, though these figures may be overstated (79).
In an oral history recorded in 1972 for the University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, Jackson lawyer R. Jess Brown describes the pivotal role that the Defender and other African American newspapers played in his life from an early age through showing not only the violent severity of conditions for black Americans but also the potential for social change: "When I was a kid [approximately the 1920s], I used to sell papers," Brown recalls; "I had a paper route in the morning, and then on Saturdays I handled a number of black weekly papers, like the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, and Oklahoma City Black Dispatch" (Oral History with Mr. R. Jess Brown 7). Brown explains that the Defender educated him on the racial situation in the South, particularly the lynching of African Americans by white Americans. The Defender did not shy away from depicting the brutality of these attacks; it published photographs showing the violence. Brown recalls that seeing these images during his childhood "sort of stimulated me [End Page 154] all along" (7). From Brown's account, we can assume that African American children turned to the Defender not only for the specifically youth-oriented Defender Junior, but also in order to ascertain the situation of black America and to further piece together their cultural and social identities.
Throughout the 1930s and the following decades, the Defender remained crucial in informing black southerners of national and global news, often inspiring them to become involved with larger social issues. As the Reverend Harry Charles Tartt explains in a 2002 oral history, "When I was on the Coast, somebody was distributing the Chicago Def[e]nder. And that's how I found out what was going on in the rest of the world" ("Oral History with Reverend Harry Charles Tartt" 182). For black youth growing up in the early twentieth century, the Defender revealed what it meant to be black in America and, through engaging with artifice, showed that this idea of blackness could be altered. The newspaper rendered the facts of American culture malleable. Specifically, through stressing the creative role that its readers exercised in its existence, the Defender Junior provided black children with the opportunity to make new meanings for themselves.
Bud Billiken and His Club
The influence and social import of the Chicago Defender among African Americans during the early twentieth century familiarized black youth with critical issues affecting their communities, but it also gave them a space in which to write, reinvent, and legitimize their identities through the Defender Junior. The newspaper enabled them to symbolically report new truths in regard to what African American childhood signified. For an article commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the Chicago Defender in 1975, reporter Odessa McClary details the role that the newspaper played during her youth in the 1930s and '40s. From a very early age, McClary says, "you knew when Saturday came in my home town. Saturday was the day your mother and the neighbors set their money aside so they could pay that Defender paper boy" (56). Most pointedly, she highlights the lead player for her in this production—Bud Billiken and the Defender Junior. She writes that "the main thing in the Defender was the Bud Billiken Page" and that with "five kids in the family there was many a tussle and long discussion over just who would get the coupon to apply for Billiken membership" (56). But McClary goes on to explain that the coupon and application were more or less superfluous because of the community created through the reading and writing of the section. For McClary and others, the Defender's youth page joined black children together, but it also showed them the breadth of childhood experiences for African Americans. Each week, the section provided them with "letters from kids living in places far away" who "described such interesting activities" (56). In discovering the range of talents and worldviews among young persons of their race, child readers secured a [End Page 155] communal space of possibility that was public yet private, as "grownups didn't even look at that page" (56).
From its inception in 1921,8 the Defender Junior defined itself as a specific, special space for young African Americans to learn about and engage with other children, as well as a venue for publishing letters, essays, stories, and poetry. And so we see its readers interacting positively with artifice on the level of the constructed space that the newspaper provided for them, as well as through the invitation to journalistically and artistically construct themselves through language. According to Lucius C. Harper, the Defender editor credited with the section's creation, the Defender Junior offered for the "first time in Negro journalism a column devoted to the interest of children" (6). At that time, the Defender "printed no comics … and the Negro newspaper had nothing to interest a person from the ages of eight to fifteen" (1). Combining his childhood nickname with the term for a popular good-luck trinket, Harper created the section's mascot and child-editor persona. He picked the original Bud Billiken from a group of Defender newsboys, "a quiet, sad-eyed, soft-spoken and well-mannered little fellow about ten years old" named Willard Motley. For the afterschool position of Bud Billiken editor, Motley and Harper agreed on a weekly salary of $3. Harper "made a photo of him wearing green-eyeshade with pencil behind ear," and Motley "wrote 'editorials' in kid fashion and appeal and answered letters from children" (6). Thus, while the Defender's editorial department exercised some oversight, the composition of the Defender Junior relied almost entirely on the voices of young people.
Typically, an edition of the Defender Junior would be introduced by a message from Bud Billiken that provided information regarding the section and encouraged readers to submit letters, creative writing, membership applications, and any news of interest. These prefaces establish the fictitious Bud Billiken character as a facilitator for the page and its readership, but they also enable him to reinforce the idea that the readership creates this community through creating the section itself. The application and membership, then, function as a means to "officially" recognize black youth identity. But, as McClary indicates, the routine reading of the weekly Defender Junior itself proved to be the primary criterion for feeling included in this "club" of African American children. Part of this spirit of inclusiveness results from the rhetoric of Bud's introductory comments, which evoke sentiments of solidarity and collaboration. "The Billikin Club is going better every issue, and I wonder if you feel good about it," Bud informs readers in a Defender Junior column published on 4 February 1922 (A2). This opening sentence tells readers and contributors—the club members—that their words matter, and that they share responsibility for the section's success. "This club and paper is edited by the young people entirely," Bud reiterates, "and you should feel proud to look at your own work in print" (A2). Their "work in print" stands as material evidence of childhood experience outside that of middle-class white childhood; once "in print" through the Defender Junior, black children can see themselves as an important creative, [End Page 156] contributing community. Bud emphasizes, "It is our own production, Billikens all, remember" (A2), implying the ways in which the processes of artifice and those of writing, identity, and community cannot be separated, and that the Billikens are writing black youth identity through their collaboratively constructed "production."
The specific self-portraits provided by the readers and writers of the Defender Junior destabilize any one notion of what it is to be an African American child in the 1920s. The community formed by Billiken readers and club members is one of geographic and socioeconomic heterogeneity, countering any monolithic configuration of black childhood. The hometowns provided by contributors alone indicate the broad, diverse readership of the Defender in the 1920s. As expected, letters come from readers in Chicago and elsewhere in Illinois, but also from Missouri, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Nebraska, Georgia, Michigan, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Jersey, among other places, and from both urban and rural areas. Helene Robbe, a French girl who lives in London and has a penchant for roller-skating, expresses her interest in the club in the 29 April 1922 edition, though she worries that perhaps only Americans are allowed to join. "I would like very much to become a member, but of course I don't suppose you want any foreigners," she laments. But, undeterred, she adds, "I am filling in the application, and if I am not eligible to become a member you can just tear it up" (14). Besides readers' geographical distribution, their correspondence also evidences their varying social circumstances, with notes written by children of all kinds, from those living on farms and in agricultural regions to those attending private schools. In the 23 April 1921 edition, Allen James from Texas describes the abilities required for farm life, telling readers that "I can pick cotton and cut stalks." He also indicates that animals constitute an essential part of country childhood, a feature that might excite the imagination of city children: "I have a pig and a calf and bulldog and my dog kills all of the rats she can catch" (5). In the 2 July 1921 issue, sixth-grader Susie Perry details her unique experiences living in the Tuskegee Institute community in Alabama, which would likely sound exciting to children unfamiliar with college campuses. She and her younger sister "run to get the Defender when we see Captain Drye coming with it. He is the band master of the Tuskegee Inst. Band" (6). The range of childhood material and social contexts shown in the Defender Junior provided a means for black youth to reconceive the often one-dimensional depictions of African Americans in literature, history, and mass culture.
The geographical diversity of the readers implies the ways in which expectations for girlhood and boyhood vary regionally, particularly between black children living in urban areas and those in rural parts of the country. We become witness to American childhood's ideological flexibility on multiple fronts. A letter from Jewel in Louisiana published on 11 June 1921 illustrates the ways in which she flouts gender conventions. During a trip to Shreveport, Jewel says, "my uncle took me into the woods and we killed birds and snakes," and "the [End Page 157] next day we went fishing and … I caught the first fish" (8). For Jewel, and for her family with whom she participates in hunting and fishing, the woods are a place for both boys and girls to explore and even to enact violence through "kill[ing] birds and snakes." Jewel shows her skill in activities deemed traditionally masculine by catching "the first fish."
Perhaps because of the lack of outlets for African American young persons in the early twentieth century, the Bud Billiken readers and contributors ranged from children not yet in grade school to those in their late teens. With few resources targeted to a young black audience, a publication that was also composed by its primary demographic would have had undeniable appeal across the age spectrum. Thus club members included very young readers such as Edna Mae Patrick, a "country girl" from Aurora, Nebraska, turning "seven years old next month" who "go[es] to school every day," and Allie Simmons from Galveston, "a little girl five years old" who is "not old enough to go to public school" (23 Apr. 1921: 5; 4 June 1921: 8). But the Defender Junior also attracted teenagers such as Robbe, the previously mentioned seventeen-year-old French girl living in London, and Katie C. Murphy, a student attending Morris Brown College in Atlanta who is "down to hard work" and "kept quite busy" at school. However, Katie is "never distracted from my duties as a member of the Bud Billiken club" (15 Nov. 1924: A3). She comprehends that the fellowship provided by the Defender Junior figures as an important part of her life, despite the impending trappings of traditional adulthood.
In a time before social media, online forums, and even widespread telephone service, the artifice of the Defender Junior offered a platform for social interaction and social creative endeavor. Through its visible apparatus, readers absorbed the idea that they had a voice and a community, both of which they had the power to fashion. While the machinery of the Defender Junior itself assisted in forging identity through encouraging creativity, it also provided a means for readers to reach out to one another. The newspaper enabled black youths to find friends in order to combat the cultural, psychological, and geographic effects of isolation. Responding to this distinct social need among African American children, as well as the desire among young people for pen pals, the Defender Junior solicited addresses to publish so that readers could write to one another. "This space is given to the members of the Billiken Club so that they may become acquainted," a section headlined "Addresses Wanted" states in the 14 January 1922 edition. The section goes on to facilitate communication between readers, with "[ad]dresses given below" and the request that the "names indicated please take notice and answer" (18). For some Billiken Club members, the weekly page and the letters received from other members became their lifeline during periods of desolation. Wilhemina Stewart of Montgomery, "a student at State Normal school," writes a letter to Bud and the Defender Junior in order to raise her spirits. "I am very lonesome today. I thought I would drop a line to you," Wilhemina discloses, ending her letter with, "Please tell all the Billikens that I am in very great need of mail" (15 Nov. [End Page 158] : A3). The sense of inclusion and understanding offered by a wide, unseen network outside the confines of their everyday lived experience serves as a means of renewal not only emotional, but creative as well. Wilhemina discerns that writing—specifically, writing to her club—will ameliorate her state of mind. Washington, DC, Billiken Juanita Johnson articulates this idea through a poem that she sends to the Defender Junior in 1921: The page and the club create community through open engagement with artifice—the intertwined, overt manipulation of art and social constructs—as facilitated by the newspaper. This embrace of artifice reveals the capacity for individuals or groups to create social change, as pursued by outlets such as the Chicago Defender. Moreover, the consciousness of belonging to the Billiken Club, of being part of something nationally acknowledged and recognized in print, empowers black youths to "take … pen in hand" and give expression to their thoughts and feelings. The black newspaper becomes a symbolic vehicle for African American children to "make" news and enact social change by deconstructing and refashioning the artifice that surrounds them.
When you are lonely and don't know what to do,When you must admit that you are feeling blue,Take your pen in hand, my dear child, I entreat,And write the B. B. Club something nice and sweet.Your blues will depart, I'll surely guarantee.You'll cheer up at once, for so it is with me.
Poetry and the Defender Junior
Perhaps because of its obvious constructedness, its acknowledged literary forms and formulas, poetry becomes a reliable means for engaging with artifice for Bud Billiken club members. Indeed, many of the contributors thought a poetic submission was expected, with members vowing, "Next week I am going to send you a poem" or "I will send you a nice poem next time" (11 June 1921: 8; 25 June 1921: 8). Susie Perry, the reader living on the Tuskegee campus, asserts, "I will not send a poem until I fully understand your club" (2 July 1921: 6). The emphasis on poetry as a means for personal and literary expression in the Defender Junior reflects contemporary social and cultural movements within the African American artistic communities and education system, while demonstrating the ways in which black children readily began both to emulate traditional models and to revise them in order to represent their particular reality or creative vision more accurately.
In regard to developments in the literary scene and school curricula for the black community during this period, scholars note the influential role that African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) played in mainstream and children's culture through both his work and his life story. Kate Capshaw Smith elaborates on this point, explaining that "Attention to Dunbar allows [End Page 159] us to understand how children's writers in the 1920s and 1930s made use of his biography and his verse in order to spearhead their own versions of black identity, southern history, and artistic experimentation" (113). Dunbar's poetry provided a "white-approved version of folk culture" while also giving black Americans a literary voice that resonated with their lived experiences (121). However, Dunbar and his persona vexed writers of the Harlem Renaissance because "his mode of dialect writing was absolutely repellent to many New Negro writers," Smith notes, observing that "rejection of Dunbar became a sign of aesthetic modernity" (112). Nevertheless, "Dunbar's life story offered child readers an example of the kind of social advancement and success endorsed by the elite thinkers of the New Negro movement" (117–18). This is all to say that while the Defender Junior (as well as, certainly, The Brownies' Book) showcased the racial uplift ideology circulating within African American schools, literature, and institutions, it also served as a space in which youth could experiment with these traditional forms in order to discover their individual voices.
In many poems published during the early years of the Defender Junior, the content and form reflect those of the poems that children would likely encounter in school. The influence of Dunbar's traditional work permeates each issue. For example, the poem "Springtime," submitted by Elmone K. Seals of West Virginia, replicates the romanticized conflation of childhood and nature seen in a Dunbar poem such as "Winter Song" (1905). The narrator in Dunbar's poem uses singsong rhythm and rhyme to brighten the potentially dark moods of winter, detailing the playfulness and wonder of the natural landscape. Calling attention to the "little white birds thro' the winter-kissed air" and the squirrel as he "munches his store in the old hollow tree," Dunbar's narrator endorses the delight to be found in the snowy scene, intensified by the final chorus:
Then heigho for the flying snow!Over the whitened roads we go,With pulses that tingle,And sleigh-bells a-jingleFor winter's white birds here's a cheery heigho!(4–5)
Similarly, Seals's "Springtime" sees the natural cycle of the seasons and its accompanying ecology as a means for buoying spirits:
The brooks go murmuring by,With blue reflections from the sky,And birds go singing, singing,Cheerful hearts they're bringing.
The narrator here locates a simple, understated power in observing the aesthetic and aural beauty found in the routine occurrences of a spring day. Both "Winter Song" and "Springtime" suggest that those who possess the ability to appreciate nature will receive rewards of "cheery heigho[s]" and "cheerful hearts." This [End Page 160] theme, while a traditional poetic trope, would understandably resonate with African Americans in the early twentieth century; though injustice may lie within the political and social systems, grace exists in abundance through the environs of the natural world.
Some may unfairly dismiss poems such as "Springtime" (and Dunbar's "Winter Song," for that matter) as merely mimetic of the traditional verse of white poets, despite its subtle advocacy of alternative forms of agency. But the poetry published in the Defender Junior gave children a written form and an outlet to express the confusion and disappointment resulting from any number of cultural and social circumstances facing black youth. Moreover, it further emphasized the reader's potential to be an artificer, whether of poetry or of social change. On 21 January 1922, the section printed a poem written by Lillian W. Osten from Union City, Tennessee, that wrestles with the difficulty children undergo as a result of conforming to gender conventions. Lillian, or the speaker of the poem, proclaims: "If I were a man, / Oh, the things I'd do. / I'd be a sailor / And wear a uniform of blue" (18). Believing such vocations wholly impossible because of her gender, the narrator momentarily finds solace through imagining the things that she could experience if she were "a man" in the jobs of "sailor," "farmer," or "mason." But the poem also obliquely hints at the racial obstacles to gainful, gratifying employment. The last stanza presents the idea of the girl being a "soldier" and "fight[ing] for Uncle Sam," but then quickly returns to reality: "But such is life, / I must be what I am" (18). The abrupt move from the phrase "fight for Uncle Sam" to that of "But such is life" and the poem's concluding sentiment of resignation evokes the nation's state of racial discord. While a woman or girl "fight[ing] for Uncle Sam" may have seemed particularly impossible to Lillian in 1922, African American men could serve in certain areas of the military under enforced policies of discrimination and segregation. The narrator realizes the paradoxical situation of "fight[ing] for Uncle Sam," who maintains racial and gender disparity, and she humbly and forlornly acquiesces to "be[ing] what I am." The ambiguous blank spaces of poetry provide another lyrical language, one that works in concert with the written words of the Defender poets to capture the complex realities of black childhood.
Community, Commerce, and Childhood Creativity in the Defender Junior
While the Defender Junior's advocacy of what I call artifice underscored the overriding social-change agenda of the Chicago Defender, it also had indisputable commercial appeal for the newspaper. Through the section, the Defender not only established a loyal base and potential lifelong readers, but also turned club members into Defender evangelists, many actually helping to sell the paper in their communities. The relationship of artifice, commodity, and community, in terms of the Billiken readership, becomes blurred as a sense of African American youth identity corresponds to growth in Defender sales—the more [End Page 161] a product sells, the more discernable its audience becomes. In both prose and poetry, Bud Billiken members again and again reiterate the importance of the club and the Defender to their everyday lives and their race as a whole, thus working to shape both their community and the newspaper commodity.
Readers would often send their wishes to join the Bud Billiken Club while also emphasizing their allegiance to the Defender. "As I was reading the Chicago Defender a lovely paper of our Race [sic], I came across some beautiful poems by some of the members of your club," writes Ruth McBride, a nine-year-old from Alabama. She makes sure to mention that her "mother gets the Defender every week" (18 June 1921: 8). It seems that for Ruth and other Defender Junior readers, part of membership includes reaffirming the work done by the "lovely paper of our Race" and stressing a type of brand loyalty, as Ruth does through citing her mother's newspaper-purchasing habit.
Most interesting about these displays of praise and fidelity is that the child contributors show an understanding of the newspaper's artifice and how it can be empowering. Because the Chicago Defender extols rather than conceals the use of artifice, its child readers intuit how to become skillful artificers themselves. Through their letters and poetry, club members certify the truth of the Defender for other young readers. Ten-year-old Allen Leon Wright, who has recently moved from Mississippi to live in Chicago with his aunt, deems Chicago "the greatest place in the world for children," and, like his aunt, plans on being a lifetime Defender reader (11 June 1921: 8). Allen further articulates the newspaper's prominent role in the black community through a poem, which begins with the following stanzas:
The people are roaming over Chicago, The masculine and feminine gender.But the only way to get the news Is by reading the Chicago Defender. I read the papers every day, Describing the legal tender,But if you wish to know about the South Just read the Chicago Defender.(8)
On their face, these lines read like an advertisement in child's verse. But, while they certainly convey a rhetorical function similar to that of ad copy, these stanzas also point toward the social and historical conditions of the 1920s. Allen or the "I" narrator "read[s] the papers every day" that contain "legal tender," implying that he reads the mainstream titles published from and for the perspective of white America. The line "describing the legal tender" is immediately followed by the oppositional conjunction "But" to suggest that national "legal tender" omits the pervasive injustice, both obvious and insidious, inflicted upon African Americans across the country, and particularly in the South. The Defender, then, may operate according to dictates of capitalistic enterprise, but it also serves a distinct social and political need that ten-year-old Allen detects. [End Page 162] He knows that "the story about John S. Williams"—a Georgia plantation owner who maintained a peonage system of labor and who was convicted of murdering eleven of his black workers in 1921 (Stowe 194–97)—"Is found in the Chicago Defender" because, as his verse communicates, the newspaper prints the news of black America not reported in the predominant outlets (8).
In the 15 November 1924 issue, reader Katherine Mercer asserts her devotion to the newspaper even more emphatically through an acrostic poem using the words "Chicago Defender," revealing a faith in the truth of human invention.9 The combination of "Omnipotent," "Eternal," "Righteousness," "Infinite," and "Charity" seemingly elevates the newspaper to a place worthy of religious worship. For Katherine, the Defender carries Biblical importance through its dissemination of "truth which tears the veil of ignorance and unsophistication from the eyes" (A3). The sentiments of Allen and Katherine signify the ways in which the Bud Billiken Club became an invaluable promotional tool for the Chicago Defender and its sales, but also show us that disentangling the purposes of social reform and financial profit proves to be an impossible task. Moreover, the club reveals the multifarious nature of the newspaper and its intricately entwined relationship with child readers, each relying on the other in order to create and propagate social change through embracing artifice.
The Task Ahead
Bud Billiken's legacy, which still continues in Chicago through the welcomed, unabashed artifice of the annual Bud Billiken Parade, documents the story of African American youth creating their own community and fostering an audience for children's literature through artfully shaping the newspaper itself into children's literature. The Defender Junior served as a space in which readers could experiment with the powers of artifice along social, cultural, and creative lines. And while momentous work has been accomplished in terms of civil rights, social reform, and cultural awareness of racial disparity, large numbers of minority youth continue to become victims or perpetrators of street violence, often as a result of getting lost in institutional, political, and legal policies that more readily accommodate economically and socially advantaged families. In 2014 the Bud Billiken Parade witnessed its first incident of gun violence, reflecting the tumultuous socioeconomic conditions and circumstances that continue to plague the African American youth of Chicago's South Side, as well as other minority youth throughout the United States. The Chicago Tribune reported that "the shooting of two teenagers just off the parade's main route sent some families running for cover—and left others angry that this longtime African-American tradition had been violated" (Black, Williams-Harris, and Sadovi).
A 2014 study from the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights found that nationwide there still exists a "pattern of inequality on a number of fronts, with race as the dividing factor" in public schools in regard to matters of course offerings, teacher performance, and student expulsion, among others [End Page 163] (Rich). For black youths, the expression of curiosity and creativity exemplified in the Defender Junior has become a privilege rather than a basic right of childhood. In exploring the gulf between the childhood examples that we see in the Defender Junior and those of many at-risk communities today, we may find solutions to bridge them, and thus potentially return to a semblance of the vision and message presented at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance. In recovering the cultural work of the Defender Junior, we find a record of youth culture in the making, one that exposes the intricate links among identity, community, and writing, as well as the ultimate truths of the processes of social and creative construction. The early twentieth century witnessed African American children forging their own literature and community through the newspaper in order to authenticate their individual and cultural selves. The technological advances of today's media and literary landscape allow for infinite spaces in which young people can discover, deconstruct, rearrange, or redefine their identities and communities through textual, visual, and audio discourses—if they are only given access and example.
Of course, academia and media cannot offer easy answers or instant solutions to the issues of diverse racial representations in youth media; the gradual evolution of the Defender Junior into a page focused on youth news and events (with the page title "Billiken") rather than a specific youth-produced page—and community forum of sorts—perhaps reflects that. Throughout issues of the Defender in 1975, the newspaper ran an advertisement soliciting renewed interest in the Bud Billiken Club, which, the writer reminds younger, unfamiliar readers, "had pen pals" and "wrote stories," among other things ("Other 3—No Title"). However, the Defender has had success in maintaining youth participation through the annual parade. Still, in terms of youth media and representation, we must determinedly invest in and doggedly advocate for the necessary long-term efforts to cultivate such creation and development at the individual, local, and systemic levels.
Only months before his death in July 2014, Walter Dean Myers wrote a column for the New York Times entitled "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?" Myers relates a statistic from the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin: "Of 3,200 children's books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people." Myers goes on to detail the difficulty that he experienced during his youth after realizing that the novels he read in no way reflected his social reality: "As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine." He recalls that he then "wanted" and "needed" "to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me." Despite his own efforts and those of other writers, Myers still must ask, "Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?" He ends by simply observing, "There is work to be done." To Myers and his readership, a young Bud Billiken might have responded, "Now, Billikens, all, you see the task we have ahead of us—get busy" (7 Jan. 1922: 8). [End Page 164]
During the early twentieth century, the Chicago Defender extended its open agenda as a newspaper attempting to advance racial equality by inviting young readers into the process of artifice. The Defender Junior helped to create a legion of artificers, youth able to decode and refashion the creative and cultural apparatuses that organize and distribute power. It is through this exposure and embrace of artifice that American children's literature can continue its role as social change agent in the twenty-first century.
Paige Gray is a visiting assistant professor at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Her current research explores the intersections between American children's literature and journalism, primarily during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
1. Violet Harris recounts the frequent stereotypes that children came across in popular literature of the late nineteenth century, such as the mammy character of Aunt Chloe in Elsie Dinsmore (1867) and "comic Negro" figures, generally "African American males… depicted as dimwitted children who constantly grin, eat, misunderstand simple directions, and scratch their heads" (542).
2. Though The Brownies' Book lasted only two years, its revolutionary mission of creating a literary and cultural space expressly for black children provided the groundwork for the Defender Junior and later children's literature that focused on engaging an African American audience, such as Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti (1932), by Arno Bontemps and Langston Hughes. The emphasis on the production of a print periodical, because of its necessary negotiation of authors, content, and overall vision, made community and collaboration crucial themes in the development of African American children's literature during the Harlem Renaissance. Additionally, the scarcity of literature for black children (or literature with positive representations of black children) in early twentieth-century America extended to popular children's periodicals. The generally well-regarded St. Nicholas Magazine "either ignored the existence of African Americans or, worse, depicted them in a stereotypical and dehumanizing manner," argues Jonda C. McNair (5). She further contends that "Stories that ridiculed African Americans were commonplace in the magazine" (5). In this light, we can better see why scholars consider The Brownies' Book a substantial contribution to African American literature and children's literature in general. The Brownies' Book "laid the foundation for a new tradition in children's literature," McNair asserts, "a tradition that challenged the stereotypical depictions of African Americans in mainstream children's literature" (6).
3. "The emulation of white cultural models embedded in configurations of uplift frequently conflicted with the era's ethos of cultural nationalism," Smith writes, "producing compelling ambiguities and ambivalences within the children's texts that aimed to develop race activists" (xvii).
4. In the 1934 text Race Relations, civil rights advocates Willis D. Weatherford and Charles S. Johnson write, "Negro papers are first of all race papers. They are first and foremost interested in the advancement of the race" (qtd. in Myrdal 908).
5. "The Defender fed its public red-ink sensationalism," according to Ottley, "and when pushed for the reason, Abbott had the identical defense his white colleagues offered: he wanted to reach the largest possible number of readers, in order to use that following as an instrument for improving and advancing the race." In other words, "sensationalism seemed to him a rational policy" to achieve these ends (131). [End Page 165]
6. Chicago newspaperman, poet, and children's writer Carl Sandburg wrote in a 1919 Chicago Daily News article that "more than any other one agency," the Defender "was the big cause of the 'northern fever' and the big exodus from the south" (qtd. in Ottley 159).
7. Grossman, describing the sensational tendencies of the newspaper, writes, "In reporting news of white violence against blacks in the South, Defender correspondents spared few of the gory details, and the editors reputedly embellished them even further"(75).
8. The first appearance of the Defender Junior in the digital archives of the Chicago Defender is on 2 April 1921. Other publications have erroneously reported 1923 as the start date. In a column recalling how he came up with the idea for the section, Harper cites 1919 as the year when a young boy from "Indiana ave." gave him a poem to publish, which contributed to Harper launching the Defender Junior. The first column featured the poem of that young boy, Sidney Poole. It is unclear whether Harper misremembers the date or whether there was a two-year gap between when he was given the poem and when the first Defender Junior section was actually printed in the pages of the Defender (Harper 1, 6).
9. Mercer's poem reads:
C stands for Charity—a noble cause.H stands for Harmony, towards one and all.I stands for Infinite—her future grand.C stands for character—her eminent stand.A stands for August, her illustrious staff.G stands for Grandeur: she stands no gaff.O stands for Omnipotent—she is feared by the mass.D stands for Dauntless: she is fearless and brave.E stands for Eternal, forever she will save.F stands for Fraterniay [sic], a brother to all.E stands for Edifice, to humany [sic] it calls.N stands for the Nation, of which she is a part.D stands for Diplomacy, she enters the heart.E stands for Efficacy, the power to succeed.R stands for Right or Righteousness, of which we all need.