- Agency in Absentia:Child Authorship under Racial Oppression in The Me Nobody Knows
"Dear Mr. Grady. … I've been thinking and writing a book on my life. I wonder what would become of it, how many pages would I get?" Audiences at the 1970–71 hit musical, The Me Nobody Knows, heard José Fernandez voice these words in the character of Carlos.1 Though Fernandez was a professional actor on a typical Broadway stage, the words he spoke had a more unusual status: they came from a letter sent by an incarcerated teenaged boy, C. R., to a former teacher. The Mr. Grady correspondence reminded audiences that unlike other Broadway hits, The Me Nobody Knows was a staging of words written mostly by African American and mainland Puerto Rican children. Even as his letters graced the stage, however, C. R. likely remained far from the lights of Broadway. This tension between textual proximity and bodily distance, I argue, replicates a dynamic already examined by C. R. and his fellow young authors of color in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In particular, literary work by three boys theorizes their simultaneously central and marginalized position in U.S. culture and demonstrates the utility of interpreting young people's creative acts through a dynamic of absence and presence.
The Me Nobody Knows (known as The Me) is a musical adaptation of a popular 1969 anthology, The Me Nobody Knows: Children's Voices from the Ghetto, in which schoolteacher Stephen M. Joseph gathered his students' writings with those collected by eleven other New York City teachers from "most[ly] … Black or Puerto Rican" students, predominantly boys, aged seven to eighteen (Joseph 10). Joseph's anthology helped accelerate a late 1960s to early 1970s U.S. literary trend: the surge in adult attention to and publication of writings by poor children of color. More than thirty anthologies of poetry and prose by U.S. minority youth writers, specifically, appeared between 1967 and 1972 alone. Collections of children's writings poured from workshops, classrooms and sites of juvenile incarceration, attracting [End Page 56] media coverage from New Jersey to Arizona. Whether churning out profits for mainstream presses or emerging from local mimeograph machines, youth anthologies largely embraced the stylistic variety and tone of frank social critique modeled by The Me Nobody Knows.
The wave of youth anthologies partly reflected a growing awareness of children's political influence, as witnessed nationwide in news stories and television footage of young African Americans in school desegregation battles and the broader civil rights movement. At the same time, an increasingly racialized discourse of juvenile delinquency, heightened by coverage of the civil disorders that spread through U.S. cities in the late 1960s, figured black boys and other children of color as "social dynamite," threatening agents of disorder and revenge for American racial and economic oppression (Hinton 29). Although incarceration rates would only begin to rise steeply in the mid-1970s, by the end of the 1960s, black and brown boys were firmly positioned at the center of an accelerating regimen of racist policing in schools, community spaces and sites of juvenile incarceration. As the War on Poverty transitioned to the War on Crime, young people of color found themselves in a doubly admiring and threatening national spotlight, in which cultural appetite for their writings grew.2
The Me musical theatricalized this trend. The Me Nobody Knows anthology captured the dramatic imagination of a group of white men in the theater industry, who wove together approximately eighty children's poetry and prose texts from the volume into spoken and sung roles for six boys and six girls. Moving around a spare, city-block set, the characters' alternately solo and gathered voices form a minimally plotted collage of friendship and teasing, love and lust, boredom with school, existential musings and frustration with the drugs, violence, racism, and poverty of New York life. Having caught critical attention off-Broadway, the musical soon began its award-winning run at the Helen Hayes and Longacre Theatres before appearing in several other cities and countries. With a live TV version running on Showtime in 1980, The Me is still produced in schools...