In the first half of the twentieth century, literature and illustration for African-American children was frequently the work of white writers and illustrators. Some showed a sensitivity and respect for African-American culture. A good example is Lynd Ward’s dramatic figures for Hildegarde Swift’s moving biographical sketches in NORTH STAR SHINING. Some, however, would promote stereotypes doing little to advance a child’s self esteem, instead using exaggerated and comical dialect along with “pickaninny” imagery.
Much of the literature by African-American writers was written by authors primarily for an adult audience who wrote only an occasional book for children. Arna Bontemps wrote A FASTER SOONER HOUND (a personal favorite about a dog who loves to outrun trains), and Countee Cullen, noted African-American poet, collaborated with his cat to write MY LIVES AND HOW I LOST THEM. Langston Hughes, one of the most important of the Harlem Renaissance writers, didn’t write specifically for children, but drew from his body of work those pieces that he thought would speak to children, and published THE DREAM KEEPER. W.E.B. Du Bois founded the periodical “The Brownies Book” for “children of the sun” and filled it with African stories, riddles and songs.
All of this, along with the civil rights movement and the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, set the stage for an African-American literary explosion in the second half of the century. Stay tuned. Part duex next week!