Julius Lester came to children’s literature via Harlem, folksinging, and the Civil Rights Movement. Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1939, by the early 1960s he was in New York City, singing songs of lynching (“See How the Rain Falls”) at rallies for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). “I wasn’t big for going on demonstrations and being thrown in jail and this-that-and the other, but music was . . . a gift that I had to offer” he says, in a PBS documentary about him (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=julius+lester+folk+singer&&view=detail&mid=668197C7D071911BC204668197C7D071911BC204&rvsmid=07E8F3E12C66EFF8984207E8F3E12C66EFF89842&FORM=VDQVAP). In 1964, he took his songs to the south (his “freedom songs,” he called them). In 1965, he returned to look for old blues singers on behalf of the Newport Folk Foundation. But he didn’t think the photographer who came with him understood what to look for, and Lester began taking his own photographs.
SNCC asked him to document civil rights movements in the south, and Lester did—although I wonder if SNCC got what they expected. Lester’s photographs focus on the reality of life in the south, and the people who had to live those realities. Whereas photographs of sit-ins and marches may have gotten all the attention, I find myself drawn to a photograph Lester took in Selma, Alabama in 1966. The photograph shows an African-American woman walking past a white Chevrolet with a bumper sticker proclaiming the single word, “WALLACE”. The bumper sticker, whether purposefully or accidentally, has a rip in it. (You can see the photograph here: http://www.profotos.com/pros/index.cfm?member=565). Lester wanted people to hear the words and see the lives of African-Americans clearly.
His early work led to him wanting to write about Black History for children, to tell the stories and give voice to the people he met and sang about. While his first book, To Be A Slave (1968) was historical, he turned to telling the stories he had heard growing up. But he quickly realized that many of the stories he remembered had been mediated in print through white authors, such as Joel Chandler Harris. The invented dialect that authors like Harris used to represent African-Americans often made the characters seem uneducated; but more than that, Lester knew that these characters did not speak like African-Americans—not the ones he knew in the south or the north. So he reclaimed the stories, by retelling them. He put in jokes that modernized the stories (talking about washing machines) or familiarized them to a new generation. In “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” when Brer Fox is going to barbecue Brer Rabbit, Brer Rabbit takes the time to opine, “If you got to go, go in a barbecue sauce. That’s what I always say. How much lemon juice and brown sugar you put in yours?” (15).
Lester performed similar reclamations with other stories that had been seen as racist texts that caricatured children of African descent. Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1900) is a folktale-like story in which Sambo is terrified by tigers who take his clothes; he only regains power (and his clothes) when the tigers are too busy to notice him. Lester rewrote the story as Sam and the Tigers, with pictures by Jerry Pinkney. Although the basic plot is the same, Lester does not depict his protagonist as cowering or weak. When a tiger threatens to eat him, Sam counters, “If you do, it’ll send your cholesterol way up . . . You could be the first Tiger smart enough to carry an umbrella” (Sam and the Tigers n.p.). Although both stories are called trickster tales, only Lester’s version has a true trickster character, one who uses his brain to talk the tiger into something different than what he wanted.
In addition to folktales, Lester produced (also with his friend Jerry Pinkney) stories of legendary African-Americans (such as that steel-driving man, John Henry) and of the historical realities of African-Americans. His historical stories, including Black Cowboy, Wild Horses and The Old African are, like his photographs, not about the famous, the celebrity, the well-known, but about ordinary people who struggled. Black Cowboy, Wild Horses concerns a former slave who becomes a legendary tamer of mustangs in Texas, Bob Lemmons. Lemmons was well-known in part because he persisted, and in part because (unlike most mustang-tamers) he worked alone. Lester’s story embraces this strength and persistence against the odds. Similarly, in The Old African, the titular character “had learned that enduring was a power too” (46) and because of his patience and endurance, he is able to provide visions and relief for slaves who are brutalized by the plantation owner and by a system that ripped them from their homelands in Africa. Based on a story from coastal Georgia, Lester manages to combine the historical reality of slavery within the confines of mythical storytelling (the slaves, under the leadership of the Old African, walk into the sea and return to Africa over the bones of their ancestors). His stories give voice and vision to African-Americans, and salutes their courage and persistence through struggle. Lester made the ordinary person a hero, and gave those historically neglected a central role in his stories, photographs and songs. His vision and voice will be greatly missed in children’s literature.