A term with a variety of charged meanings and purposes, “race” arose in English in the sixteenth century from the French “race” and the Italian “razza” and has been employed as a means of grouping individuals by ethnic, social, or national background. While the term has been applied generally to a range of collective identities—including the “human race” (Williams 1976) or the “German race” (Murji 2005)—at present the term invokes categorization attached to imagined physical similarities or to a group’s own sense of collective ideals and history. “Race” as a term points both backward toward injurious histories of eugenics and physiognomic pseudoscience (Gombrich 1970; Rivers 1994), and forward in its reclamation and revision within liberationist social movements, like the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and postcolonial movements in the Caribbean and Africa.
Within children’s literature and culture, representations of “race” often reflect history’s problematic racialist thinking. Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Dr. Dolittle (1920) and the series that followed are probably the most familiar examples of canonical children’s books containing race-based stereotypes. One might consider the ways in which racial stereotypes of the “other” emerge in children’s literature during periods of white anxiety about social domination, as in the cases of George A. Henty’s books, which articulate a British imperialist imperative, and Thomas Nelson Page’s texts, which attempt to ameliorate Southern American post-Reconstruction uneasiness. Focusing on representations of African Americans, Donnarae MacCann (1998) addresses “race” in American children’s literature, explaining that the rewards of emancipation were “neutralized in public consciousness by racist tale-telling. And the other institutions that impinged on children’s lives—schools, churches, libraries, the press—joined in promoting the notion of race hierarchies.” It is difficult to underestimate the pervasiveness of racist representations of nonwhite characters in children’s literature before the mid-twentieth century. Aside from the conspicuous examples of racist thinking in children’s literature, some of the most respected texts in the canon of children’s literature contain representations that offer prejudicial constructions of race, including Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1911).
Some contemporary texts representing race perpetuate conceptualizations that homogenize and belittle people of color, as in the case of Lynne Reid Banks’s The Indian in the Cupboard (1980). Some celebrated modern texts call up racist stereotypes from literary tradition, as does William H. Armstrong’s 1970 Newbery Award winner, Sounder. One might consider the purposes of invoking stereotypical representations of race. For Sounder, published during the Black Arts movement, images of racialized passivity may have deflected white anxiety about black activism (Schwartz 1970). Modern representations that invoke stereotypical representations of race sometimes attempt to justify or erase historical white oppression, as Magda Lewis (1988) explains about racist representations of Native Americans in children’s books: “[T]hat the invader’s treatment of the Native people, both through physical and cultural abuse and extermination, may be justified, in their minds and historically in the minds of their children, these books serve as a vehicle for Dehumanization of the Native in the eyes of non-Native children and for Mystification of the Native in the eyes of Native children.” On the topic of dehumanization, racialized characters have sometimes been used as a vehicle for the transgressive in white-authored children’s texts. “Dark” characters invoke fears of violence, for example, allowing white child characters to displace and distance themselves from their own violent impulses, a pattern that surfaces in some depictions of Native Americans, as in Alice Dalgliesh’s The Courage of Sarah Noble (1954) and others. Characters of color have been associated with libidinal energies and immoderate physical urges, as in the case of pickinniny figures, and are often set in contrast with white characters who seem ethereal in contrast. Racialized characters also enable white children to imagine themselves as liberated from restrictive social structures—by “going native,” for example—or become the occasion for white children to test social boundaries. Perhaps the most familiar example of experimentation with social boundaries comes at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)—a “boy’s book” according to Mark Twain—through Tom Sawyer’s sadistic treatment of Jim. In service to white child fantasies of power and agency, the racialized character becomes the site through which white children play out their suppressed desire to dominate, confine, and exploit the “other,” all under the cover of setting the African American man free.
Voices from within ethnic communities have been decrying the representation of race in children’s texts since early in the twentieth century. Writing in the 1932 Children’s Library Yearbook, Langston Hughes, premier poet of the Harlem Renaissance and an active children’s writer, protests the dearth of respectful literature for black children: authored by whites, most books, he explains, “have been of the pickaninny variety, poking fun (however innocently) at the little youngsters whose skins are not white, and holding up to laughter the symbol of the watermelon and the chicken.” The African American librarian Charlemae Rollins speaks at length against Little Black Sambo in her National Council Teachers of English publication, We Build Together (1941): “The illustrations in many of the cheap reprints and animated editions of this story have also done a great deal towards making it offensive. In some cities, it is reported, Negro children mutilate and destroy this book, showing in their own way their rejection and disapproval.” Antiracist efforts in the field of children’s literature came to fruition in the 1960s and 1970s, and included the organization of the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC) and the publication of Nancy Larrick’s landmark article “The All-White World of Children’s Literature” (1965) in the Saturday Review. Of late there has been resistance to antiracist efforts to reform the canon of children’s literature and intervene in educational, social, and political structures that affect the young. Critics claim that antiracist efforts create rancor and divisiveness, privilege political correctness, and sideline aesthetics in service to social justice (MacCann 2001). Oyate, a Native American group, presently issues children’s book evaluations in order to redress reductionist and derogatory race-based representations. Individual writers have interacted creatively with representations of race and childhood by white writers, whether that be staking a claim to children’s traditions that have largely excluded race (as do the representations of black fairies and brownies in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Brownies’ Book [1920–21] magazine) or recasting and recouping familiar texts (as do Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney in Sam and the Tigers ).
While the term “race” in the context of children’s literature conjures up a variety of injurious uses, the other main valence of the term emerges through efforts at communal self-articulation. As Roderick A. Ferguson’s “Race” entry in Keywords for American Cultural Studies (2007) reminds us, twentieth-century civil rights movements “intersected with sociological arguments that displaced notions of race as a strict biological inheritance and forced scholars to confront it as a category with broad political and economic implications. . . . Race emerged out of these movements as an expression of cultural and political agency by marginalized groups.” As critics and writers have recognized that “race” as a concept is a social construct, and have worked to displace the idea of race from biology, the concept has been claimed by communities as a way to articulate shared history, culture, and political goals. Children’s texts often emerge during periods of cultural nationalism, such as the Harlem Renaissance and the Chicano, Black Arts, and American Indian movements, as a means to articulate and inculcate qualities that define “the race.” Within these contexts, debates about inclusion and exclusion sometimes blur the line between understanding race as cultural legacy and adhering to the sense that race involves biology, particularly when using blood as a signifier of racial inclusion. The question of whether one is “black enough” or “Indian enough” based on blood or on cultural context surfaces in texts like Virginia Hamilton’s Arilla Sun Down (1976).
The distinctiveness of children’s literature within larger racial-political movements becomes apparent when considering the masculine cast of many civil rights efforts. Ferguson explains, “Anti-racist social movements within Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and North America not infrequently became sites where women, especially, were subject to gender and sexual oppression and regulation.” Children’s literature on race enabled women writers to participate in movements, as did Effie Lee Newsome during the Harlem Renaissance; by framing authorship as an extension of child-rearing, women appeared to adhere to conventional expectations for female domesticity. While there are a range of approaches to race literature for children, women writers often used children’s texts as a means to resist the patriarchal restrictions of race movements, and to reshape the race by resisting sexism as well as racism. Sonia Sanchez wrote the children’s column for the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, in the early 1970s, issuing texts like “Rashada Receives a Gift” (1975) in which women fight valiantly: “[T]he women had slain thirty . . . and someone said loud, ‘Lo what women are these that do battle like men?’” As Sanchez’s example makes clear, resistance to sexism sometimes comes through claiming male qualities. If, as Cynthia Enloe notes, “Anger at being ‘emasculated’—or turned into a ‘nation of busboys’—has been presumed to be the natural fuel for igniting a nationalist movement” (quoted in Ferguson 2007), race-nationalist children’s literature frequently presents a construction of childhood that invokes typically adult concerns, sometimes by invoking militarism and masculinity, as does Nikki Giovanni’s “Poem for Black Boys”(1973): “a company called Revolution has just issued / a special kit for little boys / called Burn Baby / I’m told it has full instructions on how to siphon gas / and fill a bottle.” Even if militarism in service to social revolution is not the goal, many children’s texts emerging from race movements figure the child as aware of exploitation and injustice, as does Tomás Rivera’s “ . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra / And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1971). Such constructions reject the idea of childhood as innocent and sheltered, preferring instead to spotlight the child’s investment in adult concerns, sometimes with the goal of demonstrating child capability and leadership, and sometimes with the intention of rendering child exploitation in order to inspire social change.
Currently, several small presses are issuing texts that work to represent the lived experience of children who identify through race, including Lee and Low (New York), Cinco Puntos (Texas), Children’s Book Press (California), Groundwood (Toronto), Northland (Arizona), and Fulcrum (Colorado) (Gangi 2005). Study of race in children’s literature can turn in productive directions, toward recovery of lost writers as well as reinvention and reassessment of the canon. Attention to race can problematize discussions of childhood that tilt toward the universal or that assume a white, middle-class subject. As a site of inquiry, however, race presents numerous challenges, since critics and writers struggle to define “insiders” and “outsiders” in ways that do not reflect biological determinism and that respect the multiplicity of expressions of identity within communities. There is not one monolithic “black” identity, for example, and literature for children reflects a variety of African American cultural expressions. As sensitivity to individuals of mixed backgrounds increases, any simplistic use of “race” as a critical category dissolves.