Tag Archives: Floyd Cooper

Bodies, Power, Women, Race: How Children’s Books Depict Black Female Athletes, Pt. 2

Last week I looked at biographies of Black female athletes for older readers—and was largely disappointed at the way they depicted all females as defined by their looks, and Black females particularly as perennially unable to reach a male-set standard of beauty or female athleticism.  This week I am looking at picture books to see how they present Black female athletes.  Spoiler alert: books for older readers ought to look to picture book biographies as a model, as they are much less likely to concentrate on the female body in negative ways.


Mark Stewart’s biography comments on Griffith-Joyner’s fingernails, fashion–oh, and she runs too.

Interestingly, I found that books with photographs rather than illustrations to be more likely to focus on ideas of femininity and what a female athlete should be.  Mark Stewart’s biography of Florence Griffith-Joyner (1996), part of the Grolier All-Pro Biographies series, is for a much younger audience than the Venus and Serena Williams biographies that I looked at last week (though perhaps not as young as a typical picture book audience—somewhere in between the two).  However, like them, Stewart’s story opens with a focus on his subject’s urban environment: Griffith-Joyner was born “in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California . . . a poor but proud community comprised mostly of African-American families.  During the 1960s, its residents protested against racial prejudice, and they often clashed with police” (8).  And even more than the Williams sisters’ biographies, Stewart spends considerable time on Griffith-Joyner’s sense of “style,” describing the “explosive colors” of her outfits and “super-long fingernails” (31).  There is even a two-page spread entitled “Designing Woman” (32-33), and a quotation from earlier Olympic medal-winner Wilma Rudolph in which she says that Griffith-Joyner “brings in the glamour” (37) to running.  Stewart, according to the blurb about him at the end of the book, “is the author of every Grolier All-Pro Biography”—most of which are about men.  That the white male author focuses so much of his time on Griffith-Joyner’s fashion sense, rather than her athleticism, is disappointing.


Not enough to be a girl: Stauffacher and Couch’s biography of Althea Gibson requires men to support Gibson’s dreams.

Like the biographies for older readers, the picture books I found in my university and local public libraries (I visited two branches) about Black female athletes mostly concerned tennis players and track and field stars.  I’m sure a whole paper could be written on why this is; why Wilma Rudolph or Althea Gibson make better picture book subjects than the French skater Surya Bonaly or the American gymnast Dominique Dawes.  However, for now I will focus on what I could find, rather than speculate on what I couldn’t.  I want to start with a 2011 biography of Althea Gibson, written by Sue Stauffacher and illustrated by Greg Couch, both of whom are white Americans.  The book’s title suggests an attitude toward Gibson that highlights attitudes toward Black female athletes trying to succeed in white society; the book is titled Nothing But Trouble.  To be fair to Stauffacher and Couch, the book is exuberant (Couch’s illustrations which place a rainbow of color surrounding Gibson are quite striking) and make a concerted effort to highlight African-American success.  But Gibson is portrayed, as were athletes in other biographies I’ve covered, as wanting to be like a man; she wants to be “Somebody big, like Charlie Parker or Sugar Ray” (n.p.).  She is too wild to succeed in tennis until she meets jazz saxophonist Buddy Walker, who teaches her to conform to white society’s expectations: “With Buddy’s help, Althea realized she could dress up in white and act like a lady, and still beat the liver and lights out of the ball” (n.p.).


Despite the book’s title, Heather Lang and Floyd Cooper’s Queen of the Track focuses on Alice Coachman’s athleticism rather than her queenliness.

Many of the picture book sports biographies mention the difficulty of being a female athlete, as Stauffacher and Couch do. White author Heather Lang’s 2012 Queen of the Track, about Olympic high jump champion Alice Coachman does at least put gender inequality in historical context; Lang writes, “In the 1930s, running and jumping weren’t considered ladylike” (n.p.).  And the rest of the text is relatively gender neutral—as in, if a reader imagines the book is about Albert rather than Alice, the text reads the same.  There are no comments about fashion, no diminutive adjectives, no negative comparison of Coachman to either male athletes or “proper” ladies.  The illustrations, by African-American artist Floyd Cooper, depict an athlete who knows how to use her body to purpose, whether she is in training clothes running, playing basketball in a dress, or dancing to jazz.


Eric Velazquez’s illustrations for Anna Malaspina’s book about Coachman also highlight her strength and power.

Another biography of Coachman for picture book readers, also by a white author, Ann Malaspina’s Touch the Sky (2011), is similarly structured, with an admonition from Coachman’s father to “Sit on the porch and be a lady” (n.p.) early on, but with no further suggestion that Coachman’s gender got in the way of her dreams.  The text mentions Coachman’s long legs, but certainly not her outfits.  The illustrations by African-Puerto Rican illustrator Eric Velazquez, depict Coachman as strong and powerful, including in a text-free double-page spread of Coachman at the Olympics.  Both authors of these biographies write exclusively stories of strong women and social justice themes, according to their websites (http://www.heatherlangbooks.com/about/ and http://www.annmalaspina.com/bio.html); both illustrators are well-known for their depiction of African-American subjects.  Compared with books written for older readers, exclusively by white male sports writers, or picture books written and illustrated by white people only, these books focus on the achievements of female athletes rather than their “too masculine” or “unladylike” bodies or their need for male role models.


Manchester primary school students attribute Holmes’s success to hard work, full stop.

I’d like to end my discussion of Black female athlete biographies with a book that is different from those I’ve discussed so far because it is written and illustrated by children—more specifically, multiracial schoolchildren in Manchester, UK. Britain’s Black Olympians (2012), published by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Centre, contains biographies of male and female athletes, but there is no material difference in the text based on the athletes’ gender.  The biography of middle distance runner Kelly Holmes, for example, argues that “Kelly was a very good runner because she trained all the time” (13).  The child authors in this book tend to highlight hard work, persistence and training—not gender or fashion or even anything to do with the bodies of the athletes.  Kelly Holmes is a good runner not because of her determination to be like a boy, her fashion sense, or even her legs, but because she trained all the time.  And that is the best way to teach young readers how to be a good athlete.


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”.