Tag Archives: Malcolm X

Panther Cubs? The Black Panthers and Children’s Literature


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.


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.


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.


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.


The Devil in the Details: Malcolm X as Revolutionary—or not?

In honor of May 19th being Malcolm X day, I thought I’d take a look at some of the biographies available for children of the Civil Rights leader. This is not as easy a prospect as if I were looking for biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., of course. MLK has thousands of biographies written about him—new ones appear all the time, and they are easily available in libraries and schools for kids of all ages. This is partly because of his message of non-violence, but also because in children’s publishing, editors prefer books (in America, Canada, and the UK, anyhow) that they think white readers will accept. And Malcolm X, who once proclaimed white people as devils, is a much harder sell than Martin Luther King, Jr.


Archer places Malcolm X next to other leaders–and concludes Malcolm X is the voice of the “young ghetto blacks”.

All of the biographies (there are three of them) available in the Newcastle University Robinson BookTrust collection (a children’s literature collection given to the university by the charity BookTrust) are for older readers, and one has no pictures. The pictureless text is in a collection entitled They had a dream: The Civil Rights struggle from Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Penguin 1996). Archer, a white radical who mistrusted the government, once said, “I cannot tell how much good my books have done in developing a new awareness of the whole truth about America and the rest of the world in the younger generation, although they are fortunately in tune with the thinking of many young people about what is wrong in our society and how to correct it” (http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv77986). But Archer’s biography of Malcolm X begins with the idea that “Malcolm X was stung when The New York Times ran a poll of the city’s blacks that found Martin Luther King, Jr., chosen by 75 percent as doing the best work for blacks.  Only 6 percent voted for Malcolm.” (186). The entire biography places Malcolm X’s work alongside of King, and in the context of how white people reacted to it. The phrase “black ghettos” is constantly repeated, and Archer labels Malcolm X’s mother a “mulatto” (188), a word that even in 1993 (when the book was first published) was not considered a reasonable way to describe someone of mixed heritage. The final lines of the biography attempt to praise Malcolm X, but instead remind the reader of Malcolm X’s criminal past and also emphasize the poverty of African-Americans: “The young ghetto blacks could believe and follow a man who had been there himself as an underworld pimp, dope addict, con man, armed robber, and convict, and who had then transformed himself into a world-famous, respected black leader, entirely on his own initiative. What he could do, they could do, too” (222). Despite Archer’s good intentions, the book’s discussion of race would not do anything to debunk the sense of white superiority that Malcolm X fought against.


Just the facts–including the fact that “black people are not really the chosen ones”.


Michael Benson’s Malcolm X: Just the Facts Biographies (Lerner 2005) also subtly suggests a racial hierarchy, beginning by describing how “Malcolm had the lightest skin of any of the family.  He looked like his mother more than his father.  Malcolm’s hair and skin were reddish brown, while his brothers and sisters had darker coloring.  (At the time, some people thought that a black person with paler skin might be mistaken as white.  Looking white could be helpful in getting a job.)” (7). There is no follow-up to suggest the inequality of a system that makes it easier to get jobs based on your skin color; in fact, it is inserted as though Malcolm X might have been luckier than his siblings. Benson’s biography is also careful to emphasize that Malcolm X was a reformed racist himself upon his return from Africa in 1964: “He was a changed man.  He had gone to Africa to find his true religion.  He had learned that many of his earlier beliefs about race were false.  White people were not really devils, and black people were not really the chosen ones” (80). It is only when he realizes that white people are all right that he is “able to do things he never dreamed of” (80).


Malcolm X for beginners–and for “us”.


Only one of the biographies I looked at was written by a Black author, and this is clear from the book’s text. Bernard Aquina Doctor’s Malcolm X for Beginners (Writers and Readers 1992) does not talk about “young ghetto blacks” or even “African Americans” but “we, us, and ours”: “Malcolm believed that the destiny of Blacks in America was up to Blacks.  We could not, should not, expect any politician, any group, no matter how well meaning, to attain for us what we want.  We need to take our destiny in our hands, do whatever we must to obtain our freedom, our human and civil rights” (164). The book’s publisher, Writers and Readers, “was formed in England as a publishing cooperative where everybody shared the work and the profits. [The publisher, Glenn Thompson] wanted to prove that nonreaders would read if offered books that addressed their concerns; but most importantly, he wanted to “advance the needs of cultural literacy, rather than cater to an ‘advanced’ but limited readership” (From the Firm’s declaration of intent). Out of these ideologies, Writers and Readers began publishing the immensely popular Beginners series, a comic-book style, trade-paperback series of nonfiction reference titles” (http://www.forbeginnersbooks.com/aboutus.html). Doctor’s book is the only one that is designed, not as a reference biography (something kids use to look up quotations for a report) but an actual artistic creation, with illustrations (unfortunately somewhat let down by the printing process) that place symbols of American freedom next to examples of American oppression.


America as land of the free–and home of the brave–in Doctor’s text.

And it is the only one that suggests that Martin Luther King, as well as Malcolm X, changed his mind: “Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as an advocate of peaceful civil disobedience.  But before he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. King was forced to reconsider his views.  Like his followers, he was beaten by police, thrown in jail, and denied his civil rights” (104-105). By showing MLK’s experience with a racist society, Doctor puts Malcolm X in a different light from other biographers—not a white-hating advocate of violence, but a man who experiences the same everyday racism as other Blacks—even those most acceptable to white people—and wants to do something about it.


Consciousness-Raising by the Numbers in Diverse Children’s Books

A week ago, the Cooperative Center for Children’s Books at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published its annual review of the diverse books published in the United States in the previous year (you can see their findings here: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp). The statistics held good news, bad news, and curious news. The good news is that books by and about African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and American Indians are all up over the numbers for the past few years. The bad news is that, in most cases, the numbers are not significantly higher, and are still only a tiny percentage of the books published in any given year. The CCBC receives about 3500 of the approximately 5000 new books published in any given year, and of those 3500, the largest group of books, those by and about African Americans, represents only 2.5% (written by) and 5% (written about) of the total number. Neither number comes anywhere near being representative (statistics vary, but about 13% of the US population self-identifies as Black or African American). The numbers are even worse for the other groups represented, particularly for Latinos, who represent 12.5% of the US population but less than 1% of the books published every year.

The curious aspect of the statistics for me was the correlation between books written by and books written about a particular group. In terms of both Asian and Asian-Pacific Americans and Latinos, the number of books written by and the number of books written about these groups are relatively close; so, for example, 59 books were written by Latinos, and 66 were about them. Although there’s no guarantee that the books written by Latinos were also the books about them, the numbers are fairly even, suggesting at least some correlation between them. However, in terms of African Americans and Native Americans, there are more than double (African Americans) or almost double (Native Americans) the number of books written about them as by them. This means that many books are being written about these groups from outsider perspectives.

Diverse books aren’t always by diverse authors . . .

There is not necessarily anything wrong with outsider perspectives; it is impossible to tell merely from someone’s ethnic background or skin color the experiences they have had in life or what drew them to writing about difference or diversity. Some authors and illustrators from European backgrounds have produced good, thought-provoking books about how we think about racism and diversity; British author Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (1991) has become an international bestseller because of its positive message about achieving your goals despite facing the racist and sexist attitudes of others, and Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee (1990) introduces middle-grade readers to a character whose eyes are opened to the effects of racial prejudice in his town.

But even if all diverse children’s books by outsider groups are entirely positive, accurate, and thought-provoking portrayals (and they aren’t—both the award-winning books above have faced their fair share of criticism as well), the very fact that at least half of the books published about African Americans and American Indians are by an outsider group suggests that somehow, the experiences of these groups are a known quantity. European Americans can know what it is like to be and what matters about the history of African Americans and American Indians. And publishers, by publishing twice as many books about these groups as by authors from those groups, are reinforcing these ideas of what matters. And this has a big impact on how child readers (of any background) understand diversity in the US. Martin Luther King, Jr. matters, for example, as do the folktales of American Indians—these books have traditionally made up a large percentage of the diversity children experience through books. And I absolutely agree that they should matter, to all children (and adults, for that matter). But so too should Malcolm X. So too should the experience of American Indian tribes living both on and off reservations in our contemporary society. A quick check of any online bookseller will show that Malcolm X is considerably less present than Martin Luther King, Jr., and in less child-friendly (more textbook-y) fashion. The numbers for other Black political leaders, such as Marcus Garvey, are even worse; and I could find only one, out-of-print, book about Angela Davis. A similar search for children’s books about American Indians will reveal almost no books at all about today’s experience of being an American Indian, especially at the picture-book level

Angela Davis, where are you?

Diversity matters in children’s books. But diversity should be diverse. I don’t think that means entirely quashing the publication of books by outsider groups (especially Europeans or those of European-descent); the perspective of white authors and white characters working for justice and equality in a diverse society can teach child readers valuable lessons about standing up for what is right. I don’t think we need fewer books about Martin Luther King, Jr., or fewer versions of American Indian folktales; these books highlight important pieces of American history and culture for all readers. But these voices and these depictions should not dominate the already-too-limited diversity publishing for children. The CCBC’s statistics do indicate a change in publishing habits (when they began keeping statistics, in 1985, they found only 18 books published by Black authors and illustrators). But in order to really change these numbers for the better, publishers must begin to broaden their own definition of “the African American (or American Indian, or Latino, or Asian and Asian-Pacific American) experience”—not to mention their definition of other diverse groups, such as Gay and Lesbian Americans or multiracial Americans. If we want to teach our kids that all lives matter, we must provide children with opportunities to read about a larger percentage and a greater variety of those lives in our children’s books.