From the beginnings of African American children’s literature around the turn of the twentieth century, the parameters of what should be included has been as much of a source of conflict as the terminology used to label this group of people. Commenting on the contested nature of this genre, Dianne Johnson (1990) asserts in Telling Tales: the Pedagogy and Promise of African American Literature for Youth:
Like children’s literature, as a broad category, African American children’s literature is a label which refers to the intended audience. On the other hand, like Afro-American literature, Black children’s literature refers to the ethnic and racial identities of the authors. When the two categories are combined into one, the parameters of the new category are much less clear. This confusion in definition is important, largely because of the deliberate uses to which the literature is put.
In this passage, Johnson highlights the shifting terminology associated with the people, and therefore with the genre—African American, Afro-American, Black—as well as the anomalous nature of the genre itself: unlike most literary genres, children’s and young adult literature are defined by audience, not by authorship.
Furthermore, in stating that “Black children’s literature refers to the ethnic and racial identities of the authors,” Johnson articulates her position on one end of a significant continuum. African American children’s literature can be defined inclusively or exclusively. Scholars who define the genre inclusively (e.g., MacCann 1998; Nikola-Lisa 1998; Martin 2004) consider texts written by African American authors and illustrators as belonging to the genre, but also include texts about the Black experience and/or the image of the Black child written by non–African Americans. Those who define the genre exclusively (e.g., Bishop 1982, 2007; Johnson 1990; McNair and Brooks 2008) include only those texts written by African Americans about African Americans. Clearly, how broadly the genre is defined will largely shape discussions of its history and evolution, and one cannot trace this history without some understanding of the changing terminology that has labeled the genre throughout the late nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.
Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage” (1947) articulates a salient question for contemporary African Americans:
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
Of what relevance is Africa to Blacks whose home is North America and whose ancestors came from Africa? And more to the point of this discussion, how did “African Americans” come to be called African Americans, and what, then, constitutes “African American children’s literature”? Since children’s literature is defined by audience, critics who define African American children’s literature by the race or ethnicity of the author identify it differently from the mainstream of children’s literature. The genre that is now called “African American children’s literature” has, from the early twentieth century on, experienced a number of title shifts. In their 2003 study “Understanding of Race and the Construction of African-American Identity,” Vetta L. Sanders Thompson and Maysa Akbar summarize these descriptors: “African, African American, Black American, Black, and person/people of color… Negro, and Colored.” Likewise, this literature has been called Negro, Black, Afro-American and African American children’s literature. A brief examination of the changes in these descriptors will illuminate some of the perennial problems with defining Black American children’s literature.
In Race, Rhetoric and Identity: The Architecton of Soul, Molefi Kete Asante (2005) writes that from 1619 until 1817, most Black Americans felt a sense of pride about their connection with Africa. Black shipping merchant Captain Paul Cuffee even launched an expedition in 1815–16 through which thirty-eight colonists emigrated to Sierra Leone (Cuffee 1811); Cuffee believed this would “allow Africans and African Americans to realize their full potential” (Gaines 2007). In 1817, however, when a group of influential Whites formed the African Colonization Society, which also sought to resettle American Blacks in Africa, many Blacks, particularly freedmen, made a concerted effort to disprove their Africanness, offering reasons that ultimately illustrated their acceptance of racist, white supremacist ideology (Asante 2005). Hence, after 1817, the term “Negro” came to be preferred over “African American.”
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a “Negro” as a member of a dark-skinned group of peoples originally native to sub-Saharan Africa; a person of black African origin or descent.” The term “remained the standard designation throughout the 17th to 19th centuries, and was still used as a standard designation, preferred by prominent black American campaigners such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, until the middle years of the 20th century” (OED Online, s.v. “Negro”).
This linguistic history illuminates why Carter G. Woodson, widely known as the “Father of Black History,” labeled his contributions “Negro” rather than “African”: the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (1915), the Journal of Negro History (1916), Negro History Week (1926), and the Negro History Bulletin (1938) (Smith 2004).
During the 1960s Black Power movement, “black was reclaimed as an expression of racial pride” and “Negro” fell out of favor, though still employed in names of important organizations such as the United Negro College Fund (OED Online, s.v. “African-American”), and “Black children’s literature” is still widely accepted as a label for the genre. According to the OED, an African American is “An American (esp. North American) of African origin; a black American.” Although the OED identifies “Afro-American” as a synonym, because “afro” also recalls the hairstyle popularized during the 1960s, the connotations of this term are, perhaps, more politicized. The OED also notes:
Although both African and African-American were widely used in the United States in the 19th century, the adoption of African-American as a preferred term among black Americans dates from the late 1960s and early 1970s (particularly after an April 1972 conference at which Ramona Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, proposed its use). The term gained widespread acceptance following its endorsement by the Reverend Jesse Jackson (b. 1941) during his presidential nomination campaign in 1988.
Because of the turbulent history of African Americans and the power dynamics that remain in place within the American education system and publishing industry, the definition of this genre continues to be conflicted.
Although they were not specifically for Black children, early literary efforts to educate a rapidly growing literate Black population included pit schools, freedmen’s schools, and antebellum newspapers. Particularly important were church-based papers such as the African Methodist Episcopal’s Christian Recorder; established in 1852, which remains the oldest continuously published Black paper in the United States (Bishop 2007). In Children’s Literature of the Harlem Renaissance, Katharine Capshaw Smith (2004) offers an extensive analysis of “cross-written” texts—those that spoke to Black children and adults simultaneously, often with an eye toward influencing adults ideologically through children who, during Reconstruction and the early twentieth century, were often more literate than the adults who cared for them. Ironically, the novel widely considered the first work of Negro children’s literature, Clarence and Corrine, or God’s Way by Mrs. Amelia E. Johnson (1890), though written by a Black woman, features no Black characters. This, according to some, excludes it from the genre.
Those who define the genre exclusively consider the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance the beginning of African American children’s literature because this was the first time that so many Black writers composed texts specifically for Black children. Prior to this time, Black children appeared primarily in children’s books written by White authors for White children’s entertainment—usually at the expense of the Black characters. Although abolitionist tracts such as The Slave’s Friend (1836–38) had made some efforts to portray the humanity of Black people, more common were plantation sketches such as E. W. Kemble’s A Coon Alphabet (1898) and the rhyming ditty The Ten Little Niggers (1875). These stories looked nostalgically at plantation life, depicted Black characters as idiotic and dispensable pickaninnies with wooly, unkempt hair and exaggerated facial features. Although it is about a South Indian boy, and not an African American child, Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899), one of the most controversial picture books in the history of children’s literature, is often considered within Black children’s literature partly because of the proliferation of unauthorized versions reillustrated by Americans in the minstrel tradition. While some readers appreciate Sambo because he was for a long time one of the few children of color in the “all-white world” of children’s fiction (Larrick 1965), others see Bannerman’s images as demeaning and resent her use of the term “Sambo.” Because mainstream American publishers had no interest in positive representations of the Negro in the early twentieth century and argued that Negroes neither read nor bought books, positive portrayals of Black children were rare until the 1920s.
The Brownies’ Book Magazine, though it survived for only two years (1920–21), established many important ideals that still undergird African American children’s literature. When W. E. B. Du Bois, Augustus Granville Dill, and Jessie Fauset, leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which published Crisis magazine, first envisioned a magazine specifically for “Children of the Sun,” they articulated seven goals for the publication. Three of these remain basic tenets of the genre: “To make colored children realize that being ‘colored’ is a normal beautiful thing”; “to make them familiar with the history and achievements of the Negro race”; and “to point out the best amusements and joys and worthwhile things of life” (Harris 1986). Their magazine, called Brownies’ Book, included works of fiction, histories of important African Americans, poems, songs, plays, photographs from subscribers, riddles, puzzles, games, and more. Some of the most important authors within the African American literary canon published pieces in the Brownies’ Book. Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, two such writers, collaborated on children’s books from the 1930s through the 1970s. Bontemps contributed such a significant body of literature to the genre that Violet J. Harris (1990) characterizes him as the “father” of African American children’s literature.
While the Harlem Renaissance saw the first proliferation of literature written specifically for Black American children, and also established the precedent for what this literature should seek to accomplish, the Black Arts movement of the 1960s—the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept”—brought dedicated Black authors to the genre, and with them came some significant ideological shifts (Neal 1971). Larry Neal notes that texts of this era reject the White aesthetic and confront the historical realities of the painful past so that they are not forgotten or repeated, and so that this knowledge can empower Black people. Community connections are key to this movement, and within it, the Black artist’s “primary duty is to speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people” (Neal 1971). Both nationalism and separatism fueled this movement, but since authors of children’s books must always be mindful of the child, the militancy of the Black Power movement rarely surfaces in these books. What the genre has taken from this 1960s movement is an intolerance of the unequal treatment of Black children and a confrontation with harsh historical realities in forms that children can understand. Since this era, Black children’s books have spoken much more directly than before to the cultural and spiritual needs of African American children—not necessarily excluding other readers, but addressing “cultural insiders” as the primary audience. Among others, Tom Feelings, Nikki Grimes, Julius Lester, Jerry Pinkney, and Walter Dean Myers—whose careers as children’s and young adult authors began in the 1960s and 1970s—have approached these themes directly.
Where the 1960s gave the genre a sense of reality, the 1990s brought an explosion of delight—both thematic and visual. The last decade of the twentieth century saw more African American children’s books published than ever before, along with a proliferation of Black authors and second-generation Black children’s writers and artists, as well as a new strand of literary themes that invites readers to explore elements of Black culture—such as call-response, signifying, and celebrating nappy hair—that had previously remained more within the domain of Black oral culture. While these texts validate the cultural heritage of African American children, this new level of openness invites all children to learn about, understand, and celebrate some of the common truths of Black American life.