Tag Archives: African-Americans

Stop and Go Traffic: African-Americans, children’s lit, and driving

I have been thinking about driving a lot lately.  My beautiful, well-behaved, respectful, eager-to-be-a-grownup 16-year-old is learning to drive with me.  She’s a great driver, actually, which is something of a relief.  Not just because of the cost of accidents and speeding tickets, but because despite her pleasant and respectful demeanor (around adults, anyway), she is the wrong color for driving in America.


Nice work if you can get it, Nancy Drew; but driving cars in children’s books is almost exclusively for white people.

On our first lesson, I was doing some role-playing with her and I said, “Okay, you hear sirens behind you, what do you do?”  She said, without hesitation, “I pull over and put my hands high up on the wheel so the cop knows I don’t have a gun.”  This answer nearly made me cry.  But unlike me, my daughter has grown up hearing stories of cops shooting unarmed brown or black drivers on “routine traffic stops”.  She asked how she could get her license and registration if her hands were on the wheel.  “Don’t do anything until the cop tells you,” I found myself saying, “and tell him or her exactly what you plan to do before you move.” She trusts me, so I know she’ll follow this advice.  But I also know it may not be enough.

Last week, the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP warned African-American drivers to exercise “extreme caution” when driving in Missouri.  “Race, gender and color based crimes have a long history in Missouri,” the original advisory stated. “Warn your families, co-workers and anyone visiting Missouri to beware of the safety concerns” (http://www.npr.org/2017/08/03/541382961/naacp-warns-black-travelers-to-use-extreme-caution-when-visiting-missouri).  I initially thought the report was one of those “on this day in history” reports and that I’d just missed the beginning of it.  It was horrifying to think that it wasn’t.  But for most African-Americans, the automobile has long represented both freedom and threat.


Most children’s books depicting African-American travelers have them walking or using public transportation, both in history . . .


. . . and in more modern depictions.

The connection between cars and African-Americans has, until recently, been more or less ignored in children’s books, especially picture books.  When African-Americans are connected with transportation in books, it is everything but the car: slave ships on the Middle Passage, the Underground Railroad, maybe the occasional Pullman Porter or—even more rarely—the Tuskegee Airmen.  Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  These stories of African-American movement are generally not about freedom of movement (or at least not about legal freedom of movement) that you find in American children’s stories of the automobile—the freedom of the open roads was only for the (white) Motor Boys and Motor Maids, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew, the Man with the Yellow Hat from Curious George.  Picture books, when they depict African-Americans at all, generally have them walking or using public transportation; a young white reader could not be faulted for getting the impression that only white people drove cars based on what they were given to read.


While there are many Dustbowl Migration stories for kids, Jerry Pinkney’s God Bless the Child is one of the few depicting the Great Migration.

But as early as the 1910s and 1920s, automobiles were vital to African-American life.  For many families, a car was vital to the escape from poverty that occasioned the Great Migration from the rural south to the industrial north.  Many extended families packed everything they owned and themselves into cars in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and other southern states to find jobs in manufacturing cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York.  Although it is estimated that one and a half million people participated in the Great Migration between 1910 and 1940 (http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration), the image of this period in children’s books is usually of white sharecroppers, not African-American ones, piling up their cars to drive to better economic conditions.  Jerry Pinkney is one of the few illustrators to depict an African-American family piling up a car to drive north during the Great Migration; in fact, he has two different cars in his version of Billie Holiday’s and Arthur Herzog, Jr’s song, “God Bless the Child” (Harper Collins 2004).  There’s the broken-down car that a family of seven hope will take them north, reminiscent of the dustbowl families that went west to California. And then there’s the flashy car of a neighbor or relative who has already made it in the big city, indicating the rewards waiting in the industrial north.


Everyone should be able to enjoy a good singalong in the car, as in this illustration by Floyd Cooper from Ruth and the Green Book

One of the aspects that separates the Great Migration family from the Dustbowl migration family is that, while both are poor and both are looking for a better life, the discrimination against the dustbowl families was based solely on class factors—something understood by picture book audiences, who know that the poor characters in fairy tales often face rejection.  Great Migration families often could not find anywhere to eat or sleep or go to the bathroom, even if they had the money to do so.  Restaurants, hotels and service stations in the south—and in many parts of the north as well—refused to serve African-Americans, or offered them far inferior services.  Travel was not only difficult but frequently dangerous if an African-American family was caught out after sundown.  In 1936, an African-American postman by the name of Victor Green decided to do something about it, and made the first guide for African-American travelers, called The Green Book.  Initially only serving New York City, the guide expanded to the entire US, Canada, Mexico and Bermuda by its final edition in 1964, the year that Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill into law.  Calvin Alexander Ramsey (with the help of Gwen Strauss) wrote a picture book about Green’s guide, with illustrations by Floyd Cooper, called Ruth and the Green Book (Carolrhoda 2010).  The guide helps the family to travel safely, and more than that allows them to enjoy the experience without fear.  The author’s text gives the child character the power (Ruth is assigned the task of finding safe places in the guide).  Teen drivers rarely have such positive experience in books—Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give being a recent poignant example.


Driving is a rite of passage for American teenagers like my daughter, but for too many of them it does not offer the freedom to go wherever they want—even if they are following the rules.  Children’s books, including picture books, can play a role in changing the way that readers view African-American drivers by depicting the history of the unequal power relations that restrict(ed) the freedom of those drivers, and offering a space for readers to question why everyone does not have the same “rules of the road”.


Words of Danger, Words of Power: Radical Bookstores and Children


One of the longest-running Black British bookshops, started by John La Rose; the George Padmore archive is above the shop.

I have a collection of about 1000 children’s books specifically related to the Caribbean and Black Britain. They date back to the 1700s, but the bulk of them come from the twentieth century. This collection started when I discovered the radical Black bookstore, New Beacon, in London. New Beacon opened in 1966, and their children’s collection included both new books and impossible-to-find-anywhere-else books, pamphlets, educational texts, posters that they had offered for sale since the early seventies. Many of the items had been available for Black British supplementary schools, after-school or Saturday programming that aimed to solidify necessary skills as well as teach the history and literature that the mainstream British schools ignored. I could find anything here, from a 1971 poetry anthology to introduce secondary school students to poets like Martin Carter, Edward Brathwaite and Derek Walcott, to a Black History poster from around 2010 highlighting famous (and not-famous-enough) Black Britons. The major chain bookstores in Britain often kept new Black British titles only a few months at most, and even they usually only stocked such titles in London or Birmingham. If I had been out of the country when a book first appeared, I knew I would have to get to New Beacon. I spent tens of hours and hundreds of pounds there from the time I discovered it in the late 1990s.


I bought AN Forde’s 1971 anthology of (mostly Black Caribbean) poets at New Beacon for two pounds, sixty-nine pence.

By that time, New Beacon was one of the last remaining Black British bookstores in London. During the 1970s, New Beacon was one of many Black and radical community bookstores; others included Bogle L’Ouverture Press founders Jessica and Eric Huntley’s Walter Rodney Bookshop, Centerprise in Hackney, and the Peckham Publishing Project. All of these sold children’s books designed specifically to connect African, Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, and Black British children to their roots. Often, the bookshops encouraged radical activity, particularly with the rise of the National Front in the 1970s. Bookshop owners John La Rose and the Huntleys, for example, organized marches against the police after the New Cross Fire. The community bookshops published books from members of their community. Centerprise published the poems of Hackney schoolchildren, and Peckham Publishing Project produced (among other books) Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus, a book about a child with dreadlocks that I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog. In a hostile climate, Black British and radical community bookstores were safe havens where children could learn about their own history, culture, and place in British society.


Young Black Britons might know Malorie Blackman and Benjamin Zephaniah, but this poster I bought at New Beacon also introduces them to the first Black Briton to write his life story, Briton Hammon.

The tradition of the Radical Black Bookstore is not, of course, just a British one. Recently I came across a children’s book that celebrates the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem. The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (Carolrhoda 2015) is Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s tribute to her great-uncle, Lewis Michaux, who started the bookshop in the 1930s. The bookstore’s exuberant façade is captured in pictures by R. Gregory Christie, in which it is clear that Lewis Michaux was influenced by thinkers such as Marcus Garvey. His bookstore influenced others as well, both the ordinary reader and the famous, and Micheaux Nelson discusses visits by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. And through the viewpoint of the young son of the bookshop’s owner, Micheaux explains both the history of oppression of the African-American community and the need for African-American-specific bookstores. The young narrator tells a story familiar to anyone connected with books and the Black community: “When Dad went to a bank to borrow money to open a bookstore for black people, the banker said no. He said Dad could have a loan to sell fish and chips or fried chicken, but not books. The banker told him, ‘Black people don’t read’” (n.p.)


Black Bookstores do so much more than scratch a book itch, as Micheaux Nelson’s book attests.

The banker might have told Michaux that some in white society prefer it when Black people don’t read. When Michaux finally gets his bookstore, his son comments that every time he looks out the store window, “There are some squad cars . . . Dad jokes, ‘Anytime more than three black people congregate, the police get nervous’” (n.p.). Michaux’s experience of the suspicion of white society is mirrored in other Black bookstore owners; the Huntleys’ Walter Rodney Bookshop, for example, was regularly sprayed with racist graffiti, and according to Margaret Andrews, “Racist material including National Front literature and animal excrement were pushed through the letterbox” (Doing Nothing is Not an Option 137). But despite the surveillance and the racist attacks, Black bookstores in the US and the UK stayed open through some dark periods in history because, as The Book Itch concludes, “WORDS. That’s why people need our bookstore” (n.p.).

Michaux’s bookstore closed in 1975, according to his great-niece. “In 1968, the area of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue was chosen for construction of a new state office building. Some felt that officials had purposely targeted this site to disrupt bookstore activities. Lewis was forced to relocate his store . . . It remained open for several years until Lewis received notice from the state that he was being evicted”. Washington DC’s Black bookshop, Drum and Spear, had closed a year before Michaux’s. The Walter Rodney Bookshop hung on until 1990, by which time rental costs in London had begun their sharp climb upwards, and years of the Thatcher government had reduced funding for multicultural initiatives.


R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations make it clear that Lewis Michaux had no intention of hiding his radical ideas, even when the police were right around the corner.

John La Rose’s New Beacon bookshop made it until their fiftieth anniversary, but now they too have closed their bookshop doors (they continue to maintain the George Padmore Institute Archives on the bookshop site, 76 Stroud Green Road—and it’s a vital archive of post-Windrush Black British history). For decades, the Black bookstore has provided history, culture and radical politics to populations that often have nowhere else to go to access these things. As we enter a new political era, I would argue that these spaces are more needed than ever. If you have a Black, radical, or community bookshop near you, no matter what your own background, go patronize it today. That bookshop’s existence may save the life of or provide the support for a young reader who will grow up to challenge our increasingly unequal society.

Dreaming of a White Christmas: ‘Race,’ Christmas, and Children’s Literature

It’s December, and my thoughts turn to . . . well, my thoughts turn to the end of term and not having to grade another undergraduate essay for a while. But the commercial world is thinking about Christmas, and many in the political world are wondering what 2017 will bring after the surprises of 2016. A report on NPR’s “Morning Edition” yesterday reflected this latter focus; reporter Frank Langfitt was in the northeastern England town of Sunderland, quite close to where I spent my sabbatical last year, trying to find out why people voted for Brexit. Langfitt commented, “what I found really interesting is people kept saying immigration. And immigration, I think, is a code word, frankly – and I had this long conversation with a bunch of guys basically in a pub working-class folk – for white identity politics, which we’ve been hearing a lot about in the United States. People feel that England is changing, that it’s not the same culture that it’s been” (http://www.npr.org/2016/12/08/504792243/the-challenges-facing-globalization); the report goes on to suggest that white working-class people don’t like immigrants because they don’t assimilate into the “culture”. The mainstream media, including the BBC and NPR, has received some criticism for their reporting of the apparently monolithic viewpoint of the white working-class, and this report is no exception, going onto compare British white working-class with American white working-class as well as going so far to suggest that a rise in suicide rates among “the” white working-class is connected with globalization (which is not, of course, the same as immigration, but never mind).


The Mall of America’s first Black Santa is also a veteran of the US Army . . . but racists complain that anything other than a white Santa usurps their “culture”.

But I want to return to this notion of “culture” and change, because if ever there is a period in the calendar year when white culture is dominant, it’s Christmastime. In Britain and the US, resistance to redefining Christmas as a multiracial or multicultural holiday is high. In the US, the Mall of America appointed its first African-American Santa Claus—and was inundated with racial abuse because of it that surprised even Fox News (http://www.foxnews.com/travel/2016/12/05/backlash-ensues-after-mall-america-hires-first-ever-african-american-santa.html). In the UK, some people complained that department store John Lewis had used a Black British family in their Christmas advertisement (https://politicalscrapbook.net/2016/12/racists-are-complaining-to-john-lewis-about-their-christmas-ad-because-it-features-a-black-family/). These stories are troubling, but it would be possible to argue that they are isolated incidents (or isolated racists)—if it weren’t for other cultural markers that suggest otherwise. One way of measuring the whiteness of Christmas in American or British “culture” is in the holiday section of the children’s bookstore. I went this year and looked at two: the big chain bookstore in the strip mall, and the independent bookstore within walking distance of my house. One glance at the chain bookstore display told me that white people had nothing to fear from other cultures taking over; 95% or more of the book covers had only white people or animals on the cover (perhaps we should send all the animals back where they came from—or at least send the Whos back to Whoville).


It looks as though the brown child is in the lead . . .

There was one book in the “Bargain” section that had a single brown face, a mass-market board book edition of the song Over the River and through the Woods. Although prominent on the cover illustration, the African-American (?) child’s presence was actually considerably diminished in the inside illustrations. From one of three, the child became one of six, all the rest of whom were white; additionally, the brown child’s face or body is almost always obscured by something (usually a white child). The children travel the eponymous journey to grandmother’s house, where they are welcomed by two white grandparents. Since there are no parents present in the story, the reader is left to ponder the place of the brown child—a friend? a grandchild whose parents are of different races? or just a cynical marketing ploy?


. . . but in the inside pictures, the child is almost always obscured.

The full-price children’s holiday section in the chain bookstore was almost exclusively white, both on the cover and in the texts/illustrations inside the books (I did check). One exception—although just based on the cover, I had to look twice—was James Mayhew’s Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker (2012). Perhaps I had to look twice because, according to the Ella Bella website, the books are “Illustrated in a charming vintage style, inspired by screen printed books of the ’40s and ’50s, Ella Bella Ballerina’s adventures are full of colour and fun.Illustrated in a charming vintage style, inspired by screen printed books of the ‘40s and ‘50s” (http://www.jamesmayhew.co.uk/books/ella-bella).


The cover of Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker by James Mayhew.

“Vintage” is often—like Frank Langfitt says of “immigration”—a racially-coded word when it comes to American and British children’s books, but not in Mayhew’s case. Ella Bella is part of a racially-mixed ballet class who are learning about Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet (the book is part of a series that includes books about “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as well). Ella Bella herself might be of Asian descent, although the lack of any cultural context (or, again, parents) makes it difficult to tell (I haven’t seen the other books except for the covers).


Ella Bella’s ballet class.

Mayhew’s book almost normalizes the idea of a multiracial Christmas ballet. I say “almost” because—unlike other ballets, where racial background is unspecified (usually because presumed white), “Nutcracker” has as part of its second act (“The Land of Sweets”) exotic, racialized character dances. Mayhew depicts the Spanish chocolate, the Chinese tea, and the Arabian coffee dancers as distinctly not-white, with darker and more exaggerated racial features than those found in the ballet class girls, bringing their wares to a very white, very blonde Clara. “Isn’t this the best Christmas party ever?” Clara asks Ella Bella, who readily agrees: the vision of a white-dominated Christmas remains intact.


Like pictures of the three kings bringing gifts to the blonde baby in the manger, Mayhew’s exotic foreigners bring gifts to blonde Clara. Isn’t this the best Christmas party ever?

I had hoped to find something different at the independent bookstore, but—although they are normally quite wide-ranging in their children’s section—their holiday section contained the same sorts of books as the chain bookstore, perhaps with a higher percentage (or maybe just more obvious display) of Hanukah books. All the humans on all the holiday book covers (Christmas or Hanukah) were white. It could have been just that there was a rush on books with other kinds of characters (I can live in hope), but I think it might be time to ask both the chain and the independent bookstores to consider a kind of Christmas other than a white one.  Because having children’s books that represent all our children is everyone’s responsibility.

“Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat”: Lynching and Children’s Literature


Emmett Till’s story is told by poet Marilyn Nelson in a heroic crown of sonnets.

Last week, I wrote about the children’s books in my public library (the big central one) that discussed the lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells. I hadn’t initially intended to write about Wells; I was looking to see if there were children’s books on lynching available and her name came up first. I was pleased to find the Wells books, particularly the one by Walter Dean Myers—but in some ways I was also not surprised. Children’s biography subjects, even when bordering on the controversial (lynching is not exactly a good bedtime-book subject) also tend to stay safe in some way or another. The books about Wells certainly deal with lynching, but in a roundabout way; a lynching campaigner is a safer focus than a lyncher—or indeed, someone who was lynched.

But I had initially gone to the library hoping to find books about Emmett Till, because I had thought that Till would be the ideal subject for a children’s book about lynching. He was, after all, a child himself when in 1955 he was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, shot in the head and bound with barbed wire before being tossed in the Tallahatchie River. His murderers were acquitted despite the open casket funeral his mother held and despite the outrage his death provoked all across the nation. If you wanted to teach children about the crime of lynching, there could be no better subject, especially since his death prompted many who had opposed or been indifferent to the Civil Rights Movement to change their minds.


However, I had not grown up in the 1970s knowing about Emmett Till. Discussions of the Civil Rights Movement when I was a kid included other figures who had changed minds—Martin Luther King, Jr of course, and Rosa Parks (who was always portrayed, not as a campaigner, but as a tired lady on the bus). I remember seeing the photo of the first day of school desegregation in Little Rock Arkansas, African-American girls with their books against their chests as they were escorted by the National Guard. I even learned, eventually, about the 16th St. Baptist Church bombings and how innocent girls were killed. These figures and images were all made safe somehow for childhood consumption: King as a larger-than-life figure, giving his “I have a dream” speech, Parks rendered much older and weaker than she was, students supported by the symbol of the American government (see how good the US is, we protect against racists; somehow this message was congruent with the American racists who were spitting in the faces of the students), children killed by a bomb but in a church so it was straight up to heaven for them. Perhaps these interpretations were as much mine (protecting my child self) as of the children’s books I read about Civil Rights. But Emmett Till was not in them. He might have whistled at a white woman. This, apparently, was enough to keep him from being a notable figure of the Civil Rights era in books for children.


Freedman’s discussion of Till is quickly ended, and the reader is returned to the relative safety of Rosa Parks.


Even now, many children’s books that I found on Civil Rights do not even mention Emmett Till. The few that do put Till’s murder in the context of other Civil Rights actions. Russell Freedman’s Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Holiday House, 2006), for example, gives a couple of paragraphs to Till’s lynching in the midst of a discussion about Rosa Parks. The last line of the paragraph about Till, in which “the killers boasted to a journalist that they had indeed murdered Till” (32), and the first line of the next paragraph, “Rosa Parks had not expected to resist on that December evening” (32) are never directly connected, but narratively, the book returns to a position of safety by invoking Rosa Parks.


Irma McLaurin’s history of the Civil Rights movement gives Till two pages–but never uses the term “lynching”.

Irma McClaurin’s contribution to the “Drama of African American History” series, The Civil Rights Movement (Marshall Cavendish, 2008), has a two-page spread about Till’s murder, but they never refer to it as lynching. And, while the author notes that Till’s death had an impact, it is interesting that she writes that the verdict acquitting the white murderers, rather than the death itself, “had a dramatic impact on an entire generation of young African Americans”. The acquittal of white racists is seen as galvanizing, but for African-Americans only.


My public library did have books for children specifically about Emmett Till—but they were not available in the children’s section. Both Simeon Wright’s Simeon’s Story : an eyewitness account of the kidnapping of Emmett Till (Lawrence Hill, 2010) and Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) are listed in the library catalog as “juvenile literature” but neither are shelved in the children’s section. Instead, they can be found in adult non-fiction. And while Wright’s book could conceivably be seen as a book for adults, A Wreath for Emmett Till was written and designed as a picture book and a poetry book for young people. Nelson herself was nine years old when Till was murdered, and she wrote in her introduction that Till’s “name and history have been a part of most of my life” (n.p.). She wanted to write the collection of sonnets (a heroic crown of them, if you are well-versed in poetic forms) for young people who would recognize what it meant for a person of their own age and generation to be lynched. She felt that the strictness of the sonnet form would help protect herself as she wrote “from the intense pain of the subject matter” (n.p.). But although the book won multiple awards as a children’s book including the Coretta Scott King award and an ALA Notable Book for Children (it won several awards as a Young Adult book as well, including the Michael Printz Award), my public library does not encourage children to access it. “Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,” Nelson writes in one of her sonnets, but unless we teach children about the history of lynching and how it affected all Americans—including children—his name and story will not underscore the violence, current and historical, of racist Americans who take the law into their own hands.

“And the Rest of America has Remained Silent”: Lynching in Children’s Literature


A white mob prepares for a lynching in Myers’ and Christensen’s biography of Ida B. Wells.

Racist incidents are up around the US since the election. The fact that this was true after the 2008 election as well is little comfort; the idea of an increase in racism after an election as a “new normal” is not something to which any country should aspire. However, many people argue that the current climate on racist hate is different, because many of the people being invited to join the new cabinet have made openly racist statements themselves—which may embolden or enable racists to speak (or worse, act) out.

Because the US is not alone in experiencing an increase in racist hate crimes following an election (Britain’s Brexit vote produced a similar uptick), I thought it might be useful to look at children’s literature that deals with a particular kind of racist hate crime: lynching. It’s not an easy topic to explain to children, but it’s one that shows how deep and long a divide the US has had regarding racist crimes, and what can happen when people do and do not speak up against injustice. For these reasons, books about lynching can provide an important voice for social justice campaigners, as well as for victims of race hatred.


The cover of Hinman’s book is more forceful on lynching than most of Hinman’s text.

The first category of books I found about lynching were focused on this social justice campaigning aspect. There are several books about the pioneering reporter, Ida B. Wells, and her attempts to bring light to lynching through her reporting and her writing. Some of these biographies try to discuss lynching in historical terms which—like books about slavery that begin with Ancient Greece or Rome—tend to minimize the racial motivation behind most modern-day lynchings. Eternal Vigilance: The Story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (2010) by Bonnie Hinman, for example, argues that “In pre-Revolutionary America, lynchings were often beatings rather than killings, and British sympathizers were the usual targets” (44). While this might provide historical background, it also has the effect of suggesting that lynching is just one of those things that most groups have to experience if they have unpopular opinions. Hinman’s book does go on to discuss the lynching of African-Americans more specifically, but it remains couched in a language seemingly designed to give credence to the lynchers. For example, Hinman writes, “The one reason [for an increase in lynching] trumpeted throughout the South was that black men were attacking and raping white women. Southerners were united in their condemnation of the awful crimes allegedly being committed against white women, and felt they couldn’t do less than hunt down and kill the criminals” (45). Despite the use of the word “allegedly,” the construction of these sentences have a “no smoke without fire” suggestion about them, and nowhere in the sentences or paragraphs that precede or follow them does Hinman say that those lynched were often innocent of the “awful crimes” of which they were accused.


Justice is sometimes an abstract concept in Dray’s and Alcorn’s version of Wells’ life.

Hinman’s book is for older readers, but books for younger readers on Ida B. Wells have also been published and because Wells’ lynching campaign was such a huge part of her fame, it cannot be avoided in the books. Philip Dray and Stephen Alcorn’s picture book version of Wells’ life, Yours for Justice, Ida B. Wells: The Daring Life of a Crusading Journalist (2008) is direct, but sparse, in its discussion of lynching. The initial case that led to Wells’ crusade was that of the grocery store owner, Tom Moss. Dray writes, “Tom hoped a judge would understand that they had been trying to protect their property. But before he and his friends could make their case in court, a mob of white men took them out of the jail and murdered them. This kind of execution outside the law was known as lynching” (Dray, n.p.). The illustration by Stephen Alcorn that accompanies this picture is understated and symbolic rather than direct: it shows only a brown hand holding onto a rose. Yours for Justice takes a direct approach in its text on lynching, but withholds a direct image of lynching and does not go into much detail in the text. Dray goes on to write that no one would come forward to accuse the guilty men, “(e)ven though many people knew who had lynched Tom Moss” (n.p.). This text is accompanied by a cigar-smoking white man on one side of the scales of justice, and several skulls, dripping tears, on the other side. The author’s and illustrator’s attitudes on lynching are clear, but indirect.


Myers book is the most direct in its treatment of lynching of all the ones I looked at for child readers.

Walter Dean Myers and Bonnie Christensen, in Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told (2008), however, take a different approach. Their book about Wells pulls no punches when it comes to lynching, being the only children’s book mentioned here that includes a picture of white people preparing for a lynching. Myers’ text describes lynching as being “killed by angry white mobs” (9) and—rather than talk about the awful potential crimes of African-American people—calls lynching a crime directly. But Let the Truth Be Told also discusses “the sadness and fear caused by the lynchings” (9) in the African-American community, and points out that Wells had to leave Memphis for Chicago because of her writing against lynching. Myers does not suggest Wells followed an easy path, but throughout he gives her character strength through her conviction that her cause is just. Myers quotes Frederick Douglass as well as Wells herself in the book to suggest that justice is a cause worth fighting for. Douglass calls Wells “brave,” and the quotation that Myers uses from Wells’ autobiography seems to be a challenge to readers. In red letters, in larger type than the rest of the page, Myers quotes her saying: “In the past ten years over a thousand black men and women and children have met this violent death at the hands of a white mob. And the rest of America has remained silent.” Black or white, Myers seems to say, you can’t be silent when injustice is done. It’s a lesson we must all, especially now, take to heart.

I had intended to write about the other major category of children’s book that deals with lynching, books about Emmett Till, but I’ve run out of space for today. So stay tuned for that next week . . .

Voting as a Battleground: Children’s Literature that Reminds Us Why We Vote

Today is election day in the United States. It has been an ugly election year and people of color (not to mention women) have been put in the spotlight at several moments in the campaign. From discussions about walls and judges who might be biased, to labeling whole groups of people as living in poverty and crime, to threats to remove all people from a particular religious group from the country, watching the news during the last few months has often felt like viewing a battleground.

So far, however, most of the American people have ensured that the verbal sparring has not spilled over into actual physical violence. This was not always the case in the US, and today I’ll focus on one of the many books available that remind us of those times. Paula Young Shelton and Raul Colón’s Child of the Civil Rights Movement (Schwartz and Wade 2010) is particularly pertinent for today’s election for a number of reasons.


Just an ordinary friend of the family–Shelton’s description and Colon’s illustration of “Uncle Martin”.

Paula Young Shelton is the daughter of Andrew Young, the first Black mayor of Atlanta. The book is her story, her childhood spent in the midst of Civil Rights leaders such as her father, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the most surprising and tender moments of the book is when Shelton describes learning to swim with Martin Luther King, Jr, at the local YMCA, because it is a good reminder that MLK and other Civil Rights Leaders were also ordinary people, albeit living through extraordinary times.


The sit-in strike–as old as childhood itself.

The ordinariness of people is one of Shelton’s messages in the book, but so too is the idea that ordinary people can choose to do the harder thing, and thus become extraordinary. At the beginning of the book, Shelton’s family is living in the northern part of the country “where there was no Jim Crow” (n.p.). But during the Freedom Rider protests, Shelton’s family sees how “racists pulled the students from their seats and set the buses on fire” (n.p.) and rather than simply shake their heads and say what a shame it is, both of Shelton’s parents, in separate declarations, announce that they need to move to the South to stand up for the rights of all people to do ordinary things. Shelton describes her first “sit-in” strike at a restaurant in Atlanta. When her family was refused a table, Shelton was so hungry that she sat down and essentially had a temper tantrum. Her parents did not make her stop. Any parent who has ever had a child break down in a restaurant or store knows that even that takes courage.


Doing the hard thing is easier when you are together.

The culmination of the story is the Selma to Montgomery march, and this too is a triumph of the ordinary. Shelton lists all the various groups who came, and includes in it “a man with one leg who everybody called Sunshine” (n.p.). This is the only individual she mentions besides Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King, and again it highlights the way that ordinary people making hard choices can make a difference. This march led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which “would make sure all people—black and white—could vote and no one could stop them” (n.p.).


Civil Rights are for all people–and you can make a difference, no matter who you are.

Raul Colón’s illustrations underpin the book’s message. As I mentioned earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. is first mentioned in the story as “Uncle Martin” who teaches little Paula Young to swim. Colón’s first illustration of King is, not as a statesman or even a leader of marches, but of him in his swimming trunks. Colón depicts him filling up the page—larger than life, as we have come to think of him—arms wide open and smiling, but as a person, rather than a Civil Rights leader. This everyday action, of King teaching Shelton how to swim, makes Paula feel a part of a family, “the family of the civil rights movement” (n.p.). Her family—birth and “adopted”—gives her strength to become a protestor herself, to protect the rights of people who don’t have a family like hers to stand behind them. The book ends with this connection to family and to protest: “And one day, when Mama and Daddy were too tired to march, too weary to carry us on their shoulders, too exhausted to fight another battle, the baton would pass to us and we would march on—children of the civil rights movement” (n.p.).

And although Shelton mentions “other battles” that would have to be fought, Colón’s illustrations remind the reader subtly that civil rights affect everyone in all times, not just African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. His cover illustration, which is not drawn from any of the pages of the book but is a separate and unique illustration, with no text other than the book title and authors to accompany it, is of the little girl Paula holding a flag. The flag says EQUALITY, and is rainbow-colored. The book appeared in 2010, during the fight in the US over another kind of civil right—that of same-sex couples to marry. Civil rights, Colón appears to suggest, are more than just a historical issue. And voting is the citizen’s way to protect those civil rights for all people (even the non-citizens) who live in a country. In that way, we are all children of the Civil Rights movement.

Locked Out: Hair, Children’s Books, and people of African Descent

Early in my university teaching career, Carolivia Herron came to speak to my children’s literature students. She had not too long since published her first children’s picture book, a book which had a bright, strong, African-American girl main character, and which could also teach readers about the African-American storytelling tradition of call-and-response. However, it was not the narrative technique that had brought the book to attention, nor the protagonist’s character. It was a single word—half of the book’s title. Carolivia Herron’s first picture book, illustrated by Joe Cepeda was Nappy Hair (Dragonfly, 1997), and the book raised a heated debate over whether the word “nappy” was an insult or not, and who was allowed to use the word in a picture book, and who was allowed to read the word to children.


Carolivia Herron’s book raised controversy about who could talk about nappy hair.

Herron, on a website to celebrate the book’s twentieth anniversary, explained the reaction: “why were folks so upset? I’ll tell you two of the real reasons. They were upset because they did not want a white teacher talking about black hair, and since many of them always used the word nappy as a negative word, they couldn’t appreciate a book that used nappy as positive” (http://nappyhair.club/nappier-hair-brendas-own-voice/). Obviously, since the book is celebrating its twentieth anniversary, it has survived, and even been followed up by other books, such as the poet bell hooks’ Happy to be Nappy (Jump at the Sun, 1999) and Nappy (Brand Nu Words, 2006) by Charisse Carney-Nunes, illustrated by Ann Marie Williams. Carney-Nunes, a former classmate of Barack Obama, weaves the idea of African-American history into her picture book by including biographical sketches of famous women with nappy hair, including Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Josephine Baker, and Sonia Sanchez. The reviews of all of these books have been mixed. Many are positive about the idea of celebrating African-American hair (and particularly female hair; although Stevie Wonder famously used the word to describe his own hair, all of these books focus on African-American girls). Others still worry about the connotations and history of the word nappy, and of its potentially negative use outside the African-American community.


Carney-Nunes’ book mixes hair and history.

Girls, and African-Americans, are not the only people who have had hair concerns, however. The politics of Black British boys’ hair became an issue in the 1970s with the rise of Rastafarianism and Black Power movements. Paul Gilroy, in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack quotes from the 1981 Scarman report. Lord Scarman led the inquiry into the 1981 Brixton riots; Scarman suggested that “young hooligans” (Gilroy 135) had appropriated the symbols of the Rastafarian religion, “the dreadlocks, the headgear and the colours” (135) to excuse their destructive behavior. Scarman was not the only one to believe that dreadlocks were associated with criminality; Sally Tomlinson, in Race and Education, points out that schools debated whether or not to ban dreadlocks (49) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A young person’s hair was not, as in the case of the “nappy hair” books, simply a reminder of a (possibly negative, possibly positive, depending on your point of view) past history, but a political and particularly anti-authoritarian statement, one that faced censure from official government institutions such as the police and the schools.


Why is the Rasta hat-wearing girl placed outside the fence when all other unaccompanied children are in? Illustration by Dan Jones in Inky Pinky Ponky.


British children’s books had an uneasy relationship with dreadlocked or Rastafarian-symbol-wearing child characters. Especially in picture books, if child characters wore dreadlocks or green, gold and red Rasta hats, they tended to appear incidental at first glance. Illustrator Dan Jones’s follow-up to Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann’s Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street (Kestrel, 1977) was another collection of playground rhymes set in London’s East End, Inky Pinky Ponky (collected by “Mike” Rosen, as he was known then, and Susanna Steele in 1982). Unlike Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street, which shows turbans and burkas and saris and dashikis but not a single red, green and gold Rasta hat, Inky Pinky Ponky has two: both children, one boy and one girl. The girl is watching a policeman’s interaction with an older white gentleman; she doesn’t appear to like what she sees. The boy is pictured on the book’s cover, raising a fist at a white girl who is looking down at the ground. Neither of these illustrations seems in any way directly connected to the playground rhymes that accompany them, so it is difficult to know if there is any significance to the Rasta hats. But given Gilroy’s and Tomlinson’s comments, it is difficult to see these characters as random, especially given that the only two characters associated with Rastafarian symbols are depicted as connected with the police and with aggression.


The only closed fist belongs to the boy in the red, green and gold hat.


That the negative meaning of Rastafarian and reggae symbols had filtered down to children is obvious in Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus, originally published in 1984 by the community-based Peckham Publishing Project. The story is of a four-year-old boy worried about being made fun of in school because of his dreadlocks. But interestingly, the class has been prepped for Marcellus; the teacher tells him, “When I told the children you had locks/ They all wanted to see” (n.p). However, Marcellus’s dreadlocks are not associated with any kind of political or religious statement in the book; they are just a mark of difference, and one that the other children, after their initial curiosity, ignore. My copy is a 1995 edition published by Black Butterfly in the US, and I am unsure if the text was changed along with the pictures (which were originally done by Yinka Sunmonu, and which were done in my edition by Alvin Ferris). Dreadlocks have a potentially negative connotation, but without any kind of reason given. Having solved the “problem” of wearing dreadlocks to school, the sequel, Marcellus’ Birthday Cake, shows the same little boy—but without dreadlocks.


To cover or not to cover your dreadlocks? If kids are just curious, then it doesn’t matter.


More recently, dreadlocks have become normalized through characters like Rastamouse. But Rastamouse is a case in point for the use of children’s literature to contain the potentially “dangerous” Rastafarian. Rastamouse, unlike the Rastafarian-symbol-wearing “hooligans” of the Scarman report, is a crime-fighting mouse who works for the president of Mouseland. He has been co-opted. His dreadlocks are, in keeping with his character, kept neatly under his hat, and the history of the politics of Black British hair is tucked away with it.


A different vision of Rastas and the law . . . Rastamouse as depicted on CBBC, characters by Genevieve Webster and Michael da Souza.