By Andrea J. Loney
As a young black child growing up in the suburbs, I was often leery of “old-fashioned” children’s books published before the late 1960s. Sure, there were the lovely and colorful Golden Books with their shiny spines, and the stodgy Dick and Jane primers, always fun for a giggle or two. But in those older books I seldom saw anyone who looked like me or my family members. It seemed that black children were invisible in the early days of children’s books.
Well, not completely invisible. There were books like the wildly popular Little Black Sambo (1899), which often featured grotesque caricatures and painful stereotypes that usually positioned the black characters as buffoons. While those stories may have been written from the author’s perception of black children, none of those stories were actually written for black children. Back then there were few opportunities for African American children to see positive, uplifting, and heroic reflections of themselves in the pages of a book.
But around 1915, the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro movement brought a boom of cultural, literary, and intellectual empowerment to the African American community. It also brought the first magazine published for African American children. Lovingly illustrated with images of black boys and girls of all shades and types, this publication featured fairytales, African folktales, fantasies, realistic stories, poems, games, songs, articles on current events, and biographies. It even shared photographs of and letters from the readers themselves.
Its publisher, the legendary scholar and visionary W.E.B. Du Bois, named it The Brownies’ Book, and it became a foundation of African American children’s literature.
As founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the editor of the popular NAACP publication The Crisis, Du Bois had previously published the “Children’s Number,” a yearly issue of The Crisis for kids featuring stories, photographs, poetry, and games. But these issues still reported on the rise of racial violence against black Americans, such as lynchings and riots. Du Bois grew concerned for the emotional welfare of the children reading these issues.
So in 1919 Du Bois decided to create a monthly magazine – “for all children, but especially for ours, ‘the Children of the Sun.'” He wanted the publication for children ages six to sixteen to be a thing of joy, beauty, happiness, laughter, and emulation. He wanted to promote self-esteem, education, and leadership skills in young black children. Most of all he wanted to help African American children realize that being black was a normal, beautiful thing.
The Brownies’ Book was the first concerted effort to create a body of literature exclusively addressing the needs of African American children. The magazine ran from January 1920 to December 1921 under the leadership of Du Bois (editor), Augustus Granville Dill (business manager), and Jessie Fauset, (literary editor in 1920 and managing editor in 1921). It cost 15 cents a copy or $1.50 for a year’s subscription.
This magazine was instrumental in promoting future African American children’s literature. It advertised and sold books that were not readily available in bookstores – works by writers such as Benjamin Brawley, poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and more. The Brownies’ Book ran an ad for Unsung Heroes (1921), Elizabeth Ross Haynes’s acclaimed book on African American historical figures. After writing for several issues of The Brownies’ Book, poet and naturalist Effie Lee Newsome later published a volume of poetry for young children called Gladiola Garden (1940), which was gorgeously illustrated by the African American painter Lois Mailou Jones.
In 1921, The Brownies’ Book was the first magazine to publish the poetry of Langston Hughes, one of the most celebrated writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The Dream Keeper (1932) contains many of his poems for children. Throughout his career Hughes wrote many books for children, and he also wrote with his friend Arna Bontemps. Under Hughes’ influence, Bontemps also enjoyed a long and productive career in children’s literature.
The Brownies’ Book was the first magazine to take black children and the vast range of their particular life experiences seriously. The magazine encouraged imagination and play, but it also faced the reality of racial prejudice while celebrating cultural distinctions specific to the African American childhood experience. Through story and history, photos and illustrations, The Brownies’ Book fostered a deep cultural pride in young African American readers that still resonates to this day.
The Crisis. Vol. 18, No. 6 (October 1919), Pg. 285 http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1295989365421875.pdf
The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children’s Literature, 1880-1939
Appropriating Change Through The Brownies’ Book
A nearly complete set of all the issues of The Brownies’ Book
Andrea J. Loney was the winner of Lee & Low’s 2014 New Voices Award and her picture book, BUNNYBEAR, will be published by Albert Whitman and Co this fall.