- Who Writes for Black Children? African American Children’s Literature before 1900 ed. by Katharine Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane
This fascinating anthology recovers and analyzes African American children’s literature prior to 1900, emphasizing a broad body of work integral to black family reading that sheds new light on the function of literature and literacy in black communities both before and after emancipation. Editors Katharine Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane acknowledge that lack of evidence from this time period and antiliteracy laws that made it illegal to teach slaves to read make it impossible to reconstruct the historical record of African American children and adults who actually read texts authored by black writers. Therefore, the contributors use various forms of evidence to identify these texts’ actual readers and the implied readers that early black authors had in mind. The editors proclaim the “power of the literate black child in both black and white abolitionist communities” (x) and lament the paucity of research on these early texts, attributing this phenomenon to the fact that authors in the nineteenth century as well as contemporary scholars would have needed to be able to identify black children both as children and as readers—roles “reserved for the white and the middle class” (x). Capshaw and Duane, therefore, offer these essays as a corrective to dominant portrayals of black children as victimized and invisible.
The volume’s contents are organized into three different sections that speak to one another. The first section—divided into part 1, “Locating Readers”; part 2, “Schooling, Textuality, and Literacies”; and part 3, “Defining African American Children’s Literature: Critical Crossovers”—contains ten critical essays that focus on a geographically and historically wide range of material: poetry, letters, biographies, periodicals, and a novel. Next, part 4 offers two bibliographical essays on archival material, encouraging scholars to further explore the depths of these texts. Lastly, part 5 presents a variety of primary texts, giving educators access to archival pieces, many of which are discussed in the analytical essays earlier in the volume.
Capshaw and Duane group their chapters generically, but my review will move from discussing texts that likely would have had a narrower audience to those with a broader one. I will begin with Angela Sorby’s opening essay, “Conjuring Readers: Antebellum African American Children’s Poetry,” which is foundational to the [End Page 103] project that this volume undertakes and serves as a critical touchstone within many of the other chapters. Sorby establishes that when white nineteenth-century authors depicted African Americans sympathetically in their poetry, they often portrayed them as “static objects of the gaze rather than as readers, learners, or consumers in their own right” (4). Therefore, white-authored poetry treated blacks as perpetual children incapable of developing voice or agency. While writers such as William Wordsworth could count on a vast audience of white children, supported by the publishing industry and institutionalized education systems, black writers could assume neither support nor audience. In fact, says Sorby, African American writers “addressed readers whose status—as children, as students, as citizens—was constantly threatened. Part of the hard work of their poems, then, was to somehow generate readers” (5). To understand how black authors did this, Sorby borrows terminology from James Edwin Campbell’s “Conjuh Man” to suggest that black poetry of the nineteenth century “conjured” African American child readers. “To conjure a child reader,” she writes, “is not to assume anything about that child’s preexisting agency but rather to create—partly through practical measures and partly through the imagination—the conditions that make literate agency possible” (6). This remains an important concept not only in Sorby’s essay on three black poets but also in several others throughout the volume.
The fourth essay, Mary Niall Mitchell’s “Madame Couvent’s Legacy: Free Children of Color as Historians in Antebellum New Orleans,” focuses on recovered and compiled student letters from 1856 to 1863 written by free boys of color attending a private Catholic school—a...