Panther Cubs? The Black Panthers and Children’s Literature

black-panther-children

This week, Artlyst announced that Tate Modern will be holding a summer exhibition on the art of American Black Power (http://www.artlyst.com/previews/american-black-power-explored-new-tate-summer-exhibition/). Tate Britain’s display of photographs, Stan Firm Inna Inglan, has already begun (http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/display/walk-through-and-spotlight/stan-firm-inna-inglan-black-diaspora-london), and the photograph used on the website about the exhibition by Colin Jones has the phrase Black Power prominently displayed. It is a pity that these two exhibitions are not more obviously linked, but the artistic and cultural adult world in general has been thinking back to the Black Power/Black Panthers era with increasing frequency (including a recent programme on Sky on the British Black Panthers). Children’s literature on the other hand, as I’ve pointed out in other blogposts, tends to avoid images of violence or aggression, especially if either is directed toward the dominant white power structure. So while photos of white people shouting at young African-Americans going to school or police officers threatening Black citizens are common in children’s books about this era, pictures of Black people taking control of a situation aggressively are not. In fact, most recent children’s books that include the Black Panthers go out of their way to take the claws out of the cat, as it were.

Colin Jones The Black House, 571 Holloway Road, London 1976, printed 2012 Tate. Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2016 © Colin Jones Digital Image courtesy of Autograph ABP  Photo by Colin Jones.

As with books about more radical individuals in the Civil Rights and Black Power era, such as Malcolm X and Claudia Jones, there aren’t many that exclusively address the Black Panthers. In fact, try this fun game: type “Black Panthers” into Amazon’s children’s book search (US or UK) and see what comes up. Yes, there are more books about the animal than there are about the movement—a lot more. I went to the library to see if perhaps I could find older books. Most books in the section about African-Americans started with slavery and ended with civil rights (minus the Black Panthers/Black Power) with nothing much inbetween, as if African Americans ceased to exist in the hundred years between the two periods. Civil Rights book covers were telling; the most common cover image for these books was of African-Americans singing, often as part of a multiracial and harmonious group. To be acceptable, Black people must generally appear to be non-threatening to white people.

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Civil rights is often portrayed as harmonious–literally–in children’s lit.

Some of the books on Civil Rights do mention Black Power or the Black Panthers, but carefully. Casey King’s and Linda Barrett-Osborne’s Oh, Freedom! Kids talk about the Civil Rights Movement with the people who made it happen (Scholastic 1998), which also has a cover illustration of singing African-American children, nonetheless includes a remarkably frank exchange between Menelik Coates and his former Black Panther father Paul. Menelik begins by asking his dad if he was “in charge of all the guns”; his father is quick to respond that Black Panthers “rarely carried guns openly” although they did have them in their homes, and that the main focus was uplifting Black communities. Paul Coates may admire Huey Newton for calling police “pigs,” but he concludes his interview with his son by saying, “It’s not about blacks wanting to be superior or treat anyone badly. It’s simply a way for us to be equal in this world”. It is unclear whether this interview is a transcription of an actual event, or if the book’s authors edited or organized the questions and responses, but the interview seems to be designed to both acknowledge and deny the connection between Black Panthers and violence.

This way of beginning with the potential for violence and ending with a peaceful message is common in children’s books. Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement (Capstone 2015) has a chapter on Malcolm X (unsurprisingly titled “By Any Means Necessary”) which begins with Malcolm X quoted calling Martin Luther King Jr a “fool” but which ends with a very different quotation where X says, “Dr. King wants the same thing I want—freedom!” In order to introduce controversial figures—whether famous or not—children’s books remove any threat the individuals might pose. In the end, Mortensen’s book suggests, the radical Malcolm X came around to the viewpoint of non-violence held by Dr. King—a portrayal that at best smooths over the truth, and at worst is a gross misrepresentation of Malcolm X’s viewpoints.

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They were pals, really–and Malcolm X in children’s books has to learn that MLK jr is right. From Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.

Even when a children’s text mentions the aggression associated with the Black Panthers and Black Power, it is often euphemized, countered or contradicted by other elements of the text. Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement (Core 2014) uses both softening techniques and textual design to deflect any inference that violence or direct opposition to government and institutional policies had a positive effect on power gained by African-Americans. Like other texts, the Rissman description begins with the “strong actions” taken to achieve change, but concludes that “the majority of black power movement activities were nonviolent” (27), again both acknowledging and denying Black Panther militancy. The chapter title, however, refutes the idea that strong action was successful; and the photographic illustration shows African-Americans looting and rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (which can only indirectly be connected to either Black Power or the Black Panthers). The people in the photograph do not appear powerful; rather, the opposite. The book’s design has the overall effect of raising doubt about the efficacy of Black Power and Black Panthers as positive forces within and for the African-American community on the very page it discusses their “strong” actions.

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Were the Black Panthers “strong” if they caused people to act like this? Textual design guides the reader to think not. From Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement.

The embrace of non-violence by authors of books about Black Power may seem just the result of the intended audience for these books; children are not “supposed” to read about violence, ostensibly because it might frighten them. Children’s nonfiction, however, often includes violence, aggression and damage to government property; just look at any text about the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party is not portrayed as colonists looting private property, and the minutemen (who never, by the way, feed any children breakfast) are not brought round to peacefully protesting the monarchy. In England, Guy Fawkes Day is a holiday, but there aren’t any kids’ books (that I know of) about the Bradford Twelve. The fact that children’s books portray Black Panthers/Black Power organizations as either violent but ineffectual or initially violent but later allied with/embracing non-violence suggests that the author’s/publisher’s motive has more to do with their own fears than that of the child reader’s, and their need to ensure that readers dismiss the potential attraction of power for oppressed people found in movements like the Black Panthers.

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