In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Uncertain Directions in Black Children’s Literature
  • Karen Chandler (bio)

When I was asked to comment on the state of black children’s literature, my first response was uncertainty, for a number of reasons.1 I’ve been following the news about high-profile publications by black authors—Tomi Adeyemi, Jason Reynolds, Justina Ireland, Jay Cole, Ibi Zoboi, Angie Stone, and many others—and reading their work, as much as my schedule permits. Yet I know that the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has indicated that fewer than half of the books it received in 2018 that focused on black protagonists were written by black authors.2 I know from my own experience of reading historical narratives for young readers about enslaved, free, and freed African Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that this genre, as Christopher Myers has claimed, allows for portraits of black children’s agency (“Apartheid,” par. 16). Yet I feel unsettled by some of the representations of black identity, and I wonder what they may contribute to children’s understanding of black and American cultural foundations and also how they may influence children’s vision of the past, present, and future. I see a diverse, multigenerational group of black authors engaging with necessary questions about identity and social belonging, but worry that some of the most progressive and critical voices are being prematurely silenced. Many books by important black authors, including some by Joyce Hansen, Mildred Pitts Walter, John Steptoe, Rosa Guy, and Joyce Carol Thomas are no longer in print. At the same time, black writers, even long-established ones, have had trouble getting their work published. To be clear, I am happy some emerging authors are being published. Nevertheless, I worry that too many good books are unavailable to children and teens, or will prove to be unavailable in the future.

This loss and suppression of books diminishes the tradition of writing for children, constituting a loss of cultural history. This is a pressing concern, even as new black authors writing for children emerge. Indeed, we have [End Page 172] much to celebrate as many writers have won awards and found popular success: newcomers like Angie Thomas, Elizabeth Acevedo, Brandy Colbert, Jason Reynolds, and Nicola Yoon, as well as long-established artists like Christopher Paul Curtis, Christopher Myers, Jerry Pinkney, Marilyn Nelson, and Jacqueline Woodson. In spite of these successes, the problem of lost writing has been longstanding, and it continues. The lost chapters in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s serialized novel Minnie’s Sacrifice are just one example of the precariousness of black literary achievement. This novel about two young African American protagonists, Minnie and Louis, explores their attempts to establish viable ways of life that allow them to affirm themselves, love each other, and serve their community in post-bellum America. The novel proved to be a surprise hit with students in an upper-level undergraduate course I taught a few years ago on the African American novel. Students were frustrated when they neared the end of Minnie’s Sacrifice and couldn’t tell what exactly happens to Minnie, and how her sacrifice manifested itself—not because of Harper’s play with narrative form but because the chapters detailing Minnie’s fate were missing. It is possible that the lost chapters from Minnie’s Sacrifice will turn up, as has an equally crucial missing chapter from another of Harper’s serialized novels, Sowing and Reaping.3 Harper’s early career as a published author coincided with what Meredith McGill calls a “culture of reprinting” and what Ellen Garvey describes as a culture of recycling and reposting, with favored pieces from newspapers and magazines cut out to be preserved in personal journals and scrapbooks. Perhaps we can still discover the lost chapters as we gain access to this archive of written, recycled texts. For now, however, the climactic chapters in Minnie’s Sacrifice are missing, even though Harper was one of the most popular African American authors of her time and wrote for multiple generations of African American readers through much of her career.

Lost writing is not only a part of the distant past. I am bothered that I cannot find...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6563
Print ISSN
0147-2593
Pages
pp. 172-181
Launched on MUSE
2019-12-14
Open Access
No
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