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The Changing Image of the Black in Children’s Literature | The Horn Book, Inc.

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The Changing Image of the Black in Children’s Literature | The Horn Book, Inc.

By Augusta Baker, The Horn Book, Inc.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, children’s books seemed to foster prejudice by planting false images in the minds of children. Most authors were white, with little knowledge about black life, and yet they wrote as if they were authorities. No wonder it was an accepted fact in children’s books that blacks were lazy, shiftless, lived in shanties, had nothing and wanted nothing, sang and laughed all day. Black writers for children were practically nonexistent, and the few who had written — such as Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes — reached a very small audience. Consequently, few children knew that blacks lived just as other people lived, having the same aspirations and hopes.

Through the mid-thirties, the black experience in America was still described primarily in plantation stories. L. C. Pyrnelle wrote Diddie, Dumps, and Tot or Plantation Child Life; and Rose Knox was writing the same kind of story; Inez Hogan was writing the Nicodemus books, while Annie Vaughn wrote Frawg, about a character who just sang and ate watermelon. The dialect was as offensive as the illustrations. An insult to black children, books like these were being read by white children who were meeting blacks in them, and forming inaccurate ideas and opinions. By the late thirties, some parents and other adults realized that black boys and girls were reading about the heroes and history of every country without being told the truth about the contributions of their own African and slave ancestors to the progress of this country. They should have been able to read about Crispus Attucks, the Revolutionary War hero; Dr. Charles Drew, whose experiments resulted in the first blood plasma bank; and Phillis Wheatley, the black poet. Never mind the plantation stories!

Black authors, educators, and historians had become so frustrated and distressed over the lack of suitable material that they founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History — with its own publishing company, Associated Publishers, under the direction of the black scholar, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Jane Shackelford’s Child’s Story of the Negro and Dr. Woodson’s Story of the Negro Retold (1935) and Negro Makers of History (1938) provided children with information about the true history and culture of black people.

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