le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Where are the pre-1960s nonwhite children's books?

Last year, a lot of my thinking about all things related to children's literature culture revolved around money - class, wealth, etc. This year, it seems everything's about race. In fact, it's probably both (and a few other things as well), but the problem of racial underrepresentation is currently the most pressing, and shocking.

I'm working on my syllabus for a children's lit class in the spring. I've decided to just go with a mix of classics and obscure texts that cover a broad range of time. I'm sticking with Anglophone, mainly British and American, texts because they are what I know best. I've been eagerly adding titles to my list of possibles, dreading the moment when I have to actually make a decision and choose which stay and which get cut.
In reviewing my list, which has mainly concentrated on the 19th and early 20th century (since more recent texts that I want to teach I have in abundance), I realized: Gosh, all of my titles are by white authors, with white characters.
Then I thought: Wait, WHICH books by nonwhite authors and/or with nonwhite characters can I even think of from the decades before the 1960s?
Aside from some Langston Hughes and one or two other texts I've seen referenced in various people's scholarly work, I can't think of anything. The Hughes, and the references I remember, were mainly in the picture book genre, and I want novels or short stories. Not for or about teenagers, but legitimately children's literature.
So I turned to the Collective Brain of the child_lit listserv, because they always know everything there, and asked for nonwhite children's books, NOT picture books or poetry, from before 1960.

I have not gotten very many responses.
Most of those responses have directed me to Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes. There have also been a number of suggestions of collected folktales.
Rudine Sims Bishop's Free within ourselves : the development of African American children’s literature has been recommended, and I am heading to the library tomorrow to get it.

But I feel discouraged that folktales and Langston Hughes are what we, as people who know children's literature very well, can come up with. Perhaps because I've recently been thinking about representations of American Indians (thanksgiving, of course), folktales and Langston Hughes, even, feel like they give the impression of a past, historical people. Like they don't deal with contemporary-to-their-time children. Hughes and Bontemps do, I think, though I'll have to do some more checking on that. But folktales?
Don't mistake me: folktales, the oral tradition, are hugely important, especially in any culture that has been marginalized and/or oppressed (in the case of African/Americans, denied literacy as slaves, and kept from decent schooling by such terrible legal trickery as Plessy vs. Ferguson).
But folktales also, as far as I've ever been able to tell, have their feet very firmly grounded in the past, in a historical or even mythic past. Those folktales have as much to do with the contemporary lives of kids reading then in 1930 as they do with kids reading them in 2013. Perhaps, in reading Rudine Sims Bishop, I will learn that African-American folktales have a very different existence than any of the Anglo/European folktale traditions I have some knowledge of. This could be true. But it's still a very specific tradition, a specific genre, that is distanced in several ways by its generic conventions from its audience.

So why don't we know - and we should know at least one or two token titles!  - nonwhite children's literature from before 1960 or so? W.E.B. DuBois's  Brownies magazine made efforts at providing African-American children with African-American children's stories, but can anyone name any of those authors or stories? [Answer: yes, obviously someone, probably more than one someone, can - but they have a too-specialized knowledge].

We learn/teach/are taught the Golden Age narrative of children's literature, which definitely is important and plays rather an important role in the development of the genre, and also in the dominant Anglo-American culture of the last 200+ years. Knowing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan is still important. But I am really flabbergasted to realize that I don't know any African-American, or Native, or Latino, writers or texts for children from before the later 20th century. I do spend, and have spent, rather a lot of time trying to know everything about the field of children's literature, but I am happy to admit I don't know everything - so it would be easy for me to say "argh, a horrid oversight on my part!"

But the fact that the Collective Genius and Knowledge of the listserv didn't have a couple of go-to authors or titles really does surprise me. Maybe it's because it's the end of the semester and folks are too busy to reply. And the responses I DID receive are definitely helpful - I don't want to dismiss them at all, because they knew more than I did. But the absence is noticeable, and notable. If you'd ask the list for, say, picture books with black child characters, you'd get heaps of replies right away saying "The Snowy Day" or "Amazing Grace" or Chris Raschka's books, or Faith Ringgold's, or any number of others.

I don't know how - or rather, I am afraid I know too well how - to understand the depressing absence of nonwhite writers and characters from the children's literary tradition. I am hoping Rudine Sims Bishop can help me out (and Michelle Abate's and Kate Capshaw's work), because I am now determined to find and include an early nonwhite (probably African-American) work of children's prose on this syllabus.
I had hoped for a nice easy-to-assemble syllabus, so I could attend to the sadly neglected dissertation, but this is too important to let go. So I'll give up a few dissertation hours to poking around the libraries and internet, and reading Sims Bishop, and seeing what kind of fiction I can find, written for and about and by the nonwhite population.

When I find those texts, I will do my best to wallpaper my tiny corner of influence with their names.