For most of American history, black children rarely saw themselves in children’s literature, and even when they did, the portrayals were generally patronizing, paternalistic, or downright racist.
Amanda Gailey, associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, traces her interest in this topic to her time at Washington University in St. Louis, where a colleague approached her with the idea of create a digital collection of children’s literature that teaches children how race was communicated.
“I found it very intriguing,” said Gailey.
Gailey studied the period that began roughly during post-World War II reconstruction II. Copyright issues complicated such collection after this period.
Trends in children’s literature cannot be separated from the larger American history of those decades. As well as covering the nadir of race relations after slavery, “it coincided with the time when children’s literature as a genre exploded,” Gailey said. She cited the rise of free public education, more free time to read and the progress of inexpensive publication of illustrated books.
“Children’s literature often tells us more about adults than children,” she said. “It reflects what adults want children to think. You can browse children’s literature and get fascinating information about the racial imagination of adults and what they wanted to emulate in their children.
“The most common message that children receive about race, overwhelmingly, is the complete erasure of black people.”
Children’s literature was almost exclusively white, both in who wrote it and who was represented in it. The few children’s books that dealt with race tended to portray blacks as servile or caricatured.
“Sometimes there were paternalistic and condescending messages,” Gailey said.
A story could be that of a white protagonist who was compassionate and charitable to a person of color. Nineteenth-century Jane Andrews’ “Seven Little Sisters Who Live on the Round Balloon Floating in the Air” were highly regarded then, even today, for their benevolent portrayal of the peoples of the world as daughters of different kinds. races. But, Gailey said, her portrayal of the youngest, most helpless character as a black baby is problematic.
Another book told the story of a white boy and girl who embarked on various magical adventures. They were accompanied by a black girl, represented throughout the adventures as their servant.
There have been sporadic attempts to challenge literary stereotypes. The best known is the children’s magazine “The Brownies’ Book”, edited by Jessie Fauset, editor, poet, essayist, novelist and educator. Her literary work helped sculpt African American literature in the 1920s as it focused on depicting a true picture of black life and history. His black fictional characters were working professionals, which was an inconceivable concept for American society at the time.
“The Brownies’ Book” featured colored children on its covers and told their stories inside. Fauset believed “there needs to be more material written specifically for black children,” Gailey said, especially since today’s news was so dark for people of color.
The magazine only lasted a few years.
Much progress has been made in this century, and the 2020 calculation of race issues in America is leading to a recognition that more needs to be done, Gailey said.
University of Wisconsin Cooperative Children’s Book Center, or CCBC, has become the nationally authoritative source for tracking diversity in children’s and young adult literature. Since 1985, the centre’s librarians have indexed every new book, providing data for a long-awaited reassessment of the publishing industry and fostering a more precise reflection of a diverse world.
In 2000, the CCBC notes, less than 3% – 147 of the more than 5,000 children’s books published – had a black character. Only 151 books combined featured Asian, Latino / Latino, or indigenous characters. Today the CCBC says more than half of K-12 public school students are children of color, but less than 15% of children’s books in the past two decades have contained multicultural characters or stories. In 2018, about 10% of all children’s books featured black characters, 7% Asian characters, 5% Latino / Latino characters, and 1% Indigenous characters.
Gailey said the lack of representation is detrimental to white children as well.
“Their world too is impoverished when they are made to believe in their point of view and in their identity” is the only one that matters.