- Before The Brownies’ Book
Long before I was assigned any piece of African American literature in any classroom (in which Black writers would be few and far between for the first twenty years of my formal education), it was my own father who put Black literature into my hands.1 My experience is not unique, but representative of a long history of African American people’s attention to the study of Black people and Black writing, an interest that has always extended beyond the bounds of academic institutions and formal education. Black parents (and some nonblack parents of Black children) of every socioeconomic class have long sought out texts, images, and other media that would affirm and celebrate, rather than ignore or disparage, their children’s existence. As we celebrate the trajectory of African American children’s literature from The Brownies’ Book to #BlackLivesMatter, I want to contemplate the important place of Black children in the African American literary tradition more broadly.
The importance of Black children extends beyond African American children’s literary studies, illustrating what we know in theory about the necessarily interdisciplinary work in this genre, but which still bears repeating: that children’s literary studies has much to gain from conversations with African American studies, and vice versa. For each of these fields, attending to Black children allows us to read more rigorously, as we consider racialized readers, perspectives, and methodologies for understanding the texts we study. The focus on Black children I suggest here is not meant to choose sides in the differences in disciplinary orientation between what Peter Hollindale has referred to as “book people” and “child people” (26). Rather, I mean to argue that even “book people” (in all fields of literary studies) need to pay closer attention to how questions of racialized readership affect our textual analyses. Moreover, to do this within African American children’s literary studies is not to explore new methodologies, but to better understand historical practices of authorship, editorship, and literary analysis. Attending to Black children allows us to [End Page 159] extend our readings toward readerships that are often ignored, allowing for more rigorous reading in and beyond children’s literary studies.
Before The Brownies’ Book
The Brownies’ Book represents not a beginning, but a continuation of Black print culture’s engagement with Black children. An important milestone in this longer tradition of African American literature that recognized and cared about Black children, The Brownies’ Book nevertheless employed familiar tactics to that of earlier Black cultural work. Technological developments in and Black access to the infrastructures of print and visual culture had long been turned toward various strategies of racial uplift. In this, they would often also be oriented toward Black futures, and thus toward the Black children who would occupy that future.
As an early twentieth-century periodical, The Brownies’ Book was not the first Black periodical to have had (and acknowledged) a child readership. The children’s sections of early African American newspapers such as the Colored American and the Christian Recorder recognized the need to address Black children in the larger context of nineteenth-century African American print culture. Nazera Sadiq Wright shows how the selections published in the Children’s Department of the Colored American between 1840 and 1841 “demonstrate early evidence of a devoted black child readership in the early black press” (148). In this, only the second known African American newspaper to be published in the United States, child readers were already acknowledged and taken seriously.
Wright’s and the other essays in Katherine Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane’s collection Who Writes for Black Children? show that, even in the earliest moments of the written record that would later be called “African American literature,” Black authors and editors considered Black children among their readers. When African American literature appeared in the Black press, newspapers included accounts of racial violence that children very well may have read as parts of the paper circulated among family members. Black child readers also encountered writing by white authors that was never intended for them but that was reframed by editors who placed this writing in the larger context of Black newspapers...