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  • Join the Club:African American Children's Literature, Social Change, and the Chicago Defender Junior
  • Paige Gray (bio)

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...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-1201
Print ISSN
0885-0429
Pages
pp. 149-168
Launched on MUSE
2017-05-25
Open Access
No
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