In the early 1970s, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard published three children’s books by the playwright Edgar White, Sati the Rastifarian, Omar at Christmas, and Children of Night. All the books were illustrated by the woodcut artist, Dingda McCannon. Both were products of Harlem, McCannon having been born and raised there and White having been brought there from the Caribbean island of Montserrat at the age of five. The books reflect this Harlem heritage, but they also reflect a larger story of Caribbean migration and struggle to succeed in Western imperialist countries. The fact that the story was bigger than Harlem can be seen by the publication of the books in the UK in the late 1970s; Rosemary Stones heralded the arrival of the “[t]hree stunning picture books . . . currently being distributed in the United Kingdom after US publication in the early ‘70s” (“Stories for the Young” 17) in a May 1979 review in Race Today.
The publication of books about African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans in the UK was nothing new; perceiving a “lack” of suitable authors, illustrators and stories coming out of the Black British community (perhaps they did not know the places where many British Caribbean authors and illustrators gathered, like the meetings of the Caribbean Artists Movement or John La Rose’s home and bookshop, New Beacon), many mainstream publishers turned to the US to fill the “diversity” niche in their market. Thus, picture books by Ezra Jack Keats such as The Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie and novels by Rosa Guy such as The Friends or Edith Jackson found their way into print in the UK. Keats and Guy are still in print (Keats more widely available than Guy) in the UK, but Edgar White’s books are not, despite the fact that they were widely praised when they first appeared. (Rosemary Stones, in the same Race Today review, called White’s books “a profound and lyrical statement to children about the hard and lonely journey of the black immigrant”, p. 17). Why didn’t White’s books survive?
In many ways, the books (especially Sati the Rastifarian and Omar at Christmas) can be directly compared to Ezra Jack Keats’s stories. They are all about the urban, Black communities of New York City, and they are all concerned with everyday life there. The brownstone buildings of Brooklyn and Harlem feature in both sets of illustrations, and the children play and interact with their neighbors and families. But Keats—a white author who drew and wrote about the children he saw around him in his community—concentrated on the universal experiences of childhood, playing in the snow and having pets. Conflict is avoided as carefully as Peter avoids the big boys in The Snowy Day, and the narratives concentrate on action and the immediacy of emotions—pleasure in making noise with a stick, sadness at a melting snowball. There is no wider context or sense of history—which, perhaps, makes the books “timeless” and “classic”.
In contrast, White’s books highlight the social and economic conditions that dictate the lives of Sati and Omar. Sati the Rastifarian begins with Sati being told by his mother that he will have to go and live in America without her. When he arrives in America, his aunt takes him home: “Then the taxi arrived uptown where the poor people lived. Sati could tell that this was where the poor people lived because it was darker here than downtown . . . Everyone looked surprised, as if they did not believe this was how they lived” (n.p.). In Omar at Christmas, the title character spends Christmas Eve, not setting up a Christmas tree or visiting relatives, but going along with his mother to help clean and cook for rich white people. When he asks his mother why she has to cook for them on Christmas Eve, she responds, “Because they old. Besides they rich” (n.p.). These too are “timeless” and “classic” situations—the sending of a child to a “better” life/education, the necessity of the poor working wherever and whenever they can to make ends meet—but they are not comfortable for the reader, particularly the white reader. Keats relies on a kind of nostalgic sadness—parents reading the book can look back to a time of innocence when it was possible to believe that snowballs wouldn’t melt—but White offers no such nostalgia, and his childhood “innocence” is troubled by unanswered questions about power relationships and poverty linked to structural racism.
White’s and McCannon’s last collaboration, Children of Night, is about a race riot. By 1979 in the UK, books for teens and adults had been published by mainstream and independent publishers about riots or other interactions between the Black community and the police (Farrukh Dhondy’s The Siege of Babylon is one such example), so in that sense a book about a riot was nothing new. However, Children of Night, while certainly designed for older children than Sati the Rastifarian and Omar at Christmas, is still a picture book. It starts, again, with the everyday experience of poverty: twelve-year-old Chaka sleeps in the same bed as two of his brothers, and is waking from “his favorite dream, someplace where there was always enough food” (9). But his waking experience is one of constant hunger and want, and when the riot comes, “Natural like the shining of the moon on a clear night” (33), Chaka (who was not part of the riot’s beginnings) goes to see what is happening. He becomes a looter because he sees food going spare, and wants to bring it home to his mother. She, of course, is not happy, but Chaka does not understand why, and again, White uses the technique of questions without answers to make his political point: “He was confused . . . They were hungry and besides, didn’t she always say that the people who owned the stores were always robbing poor people?” (38).
White’s and McCannon’s books, like those of Ezra Jack Keats, showcased ordinary Black urban life in the 1960s and 70s. But where Keats stuck to the noncontroversial, White pressed for answers to questions about a different kind of ordinary: the structural racism and poverty experienced by those communities. The answers to those questions—like White’s and McCannon’s books—remain highly elusive.