“Intersections of Childhood/Slavery and the Invention of Global Children’s Literature”

By Courtney Weikle-Mills

In the Moravian archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I come across a school attendance book from 1841. Inside are several pages with children’s names and records showing their attendance of the school during the five days per week it was open. These pages are followed by notes about how school has gone each week: one day the children are “much interested” in an object lesson, another day they are “very wicked and troublesome.”[1] The children learn to read Bible verses, catechisms, and ABC books. The attendance book has every mark of an ordinary school record—except that the children are listed by estate. The book is from Danish St. Croix, and these children are enslaved.

The context for the record is as follows: Governor-General of the Danish West Indies, Peter Von Scholten, contracted with the Moravians to provide schooling on the Danish islands in anticipation of emancipation on the British Islands (which happened in 1834). The schools were meant to prepare enslaved youth for a much more gradual emancipation process and to quell immediate agitation for freedom. After this failed and a rebellion did happen in 1848, the schools continued and functioned to discourage further conflict, especially over class issues. Childhood remained an important concept; an 1857 record book includes the phrase “List of Children” on the cover.[2] This record contains lists of books that these colonized black children read, including The Play Grammar, Melodies for Children, and Mother’s Assistant.

Such records are challenging to think about because they defy expectations and pose hard questions: how can it be that some enslaved children were allowed to go to school five days a week? what does it mean that some enslaved and newly emancipated children were reading not only texts designed to save their souls and make them better workers, but texts that fostered learning through play such as The Play Grammar, a book that gamified grammar by having children pick out the grammatical elements of various illustrations and win coins? We might see the challenges in talking about these materials as an effect of the invisibility that intersectionality produces. Kimberlé Crenshaw bases her articulation of intersectionality on the key argument that black womanhood is often neglected when we talk about blackness or womanhood. The same is true of enslaved children; we often miss them when we talk about slavery or childhood. Groundbreaking studies by people like Wilma King and Marie Jenkins Schwartz have worked to correct such gaps as regards a U.S. context. New books by Sasha Turner and Colleen Vasconcellos argue that the concept of childhood also strongly informed views of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, especially between the abolition of slave trade (dates various for different islands) and the abolition of slavery. Such work is important because it allows us to think in a fuller way about what childhood is and does. Childhood is often aligned with whiteness and innocence, but what other roles can it play? What happens when childhood functions as part of a program of enforcing inequality, dating back to slavery?

The intersection of childhood and slavery, indeed, is a good place to think about what Jacob Breslow describes as the varying conclusions that can be drawn regarding the intersection of childhood and blackness: “On one side of this debate is the contention that anti-blackness . . . removes black children from the contours of childhood, denying them the protections of innocence. The other side of this debate re-frames childhood through a less sympathetic lens . . . childhood is, and has been, a subject position defined by its marginalization.”[3] The extension of childhood to enslaved children in 1840s St. Croix supports the latter argument in that childhood was a means of control. To define enslaved youth as children was to open them up to indoctrination in the form of learning and to disarm a potentially violent threat of youth rebellion, even if learning also gave young people tools that they could use in unintended ways.

The trappings of playful learning that were increasingly introduced after slavery likewise did not contest the regime of power established in slavery; they arguably made planter-friendly lessons about keeping one’s place post-emancipation more palatable. For all of its appearance as a fun game for learning sentence parts, The Play Grammar puts forth an ideology through which rewards are tied to work, a message which might have been chosen to help quell class conflict. Another book that the Moravians used post-emancipation as a reward book, Elspeth Sutherland, Or, The Effects of Faith (1823), reinforces this lesson. This story-tract focuses on a poor orphan, whose main characteristic is the pride she takes in the “scanty support” she receives from her own “laborious occupation,” which allows her to pay her rent and not take charity from her landlord.[4] When some of her neighbors criticize the rich, Elspeth professes her belief in the fairness of the class system: “Why, do not all their luxuries supply us with work?”[5] Such lessons, we might imagine, would have been considered useful to elites in a post-slavery economy that depended on impoverished people to choose to labor for little wages.

That these books were given to newly emancipated youth in the Caribbean is an important part of the history of children’s literature—and the presence of black readers would ultimately push some publishers and writers to account for their existence. Aside from making it difficult to talk about the experiences of enslaved youth, the invisibility of enslaved children has hindered literary histories charting the development of children’s literature. For instance, Cynthia James, in her landmark essay on the development of Jamaican and Trinidadian children’s literature, claims that “West Indian society . . . did not specifically place children in a category separate from adults . . . The need for community in the face of adverse conditions, and the near absence of ‘childhood’ knitted together old and young.”[6] James claims that children’s literature essentially did not exist in Caribbean culture until the early twentieth century, when black educators adapted traditional Anansi stories into schoolbook form. My own research proposes that nineteenth-century enslaved and emancipated black children did play important role in the history of children’s literature, even they were not yet able to exercise the agency that James traces. While it is true that Caribbean-authored books do not appear until much later, especially by black authors, European desires to spread children’s books to children in the Caribbean and elsewhere spurred developments in the children’s book world. Efforts to educate these children created a market for books with global aspirations; it led to the imagination of a so-called universal childhood, not primarily imagined as innocent, but as hard-working, pious, and globally aware.

Recent work by Nina Christensen, Charlotte Appel, and M.O. Grenby has proposed that much of early children’s literature was transnational—comprising translations and adaptations of similar texts and formats, such as the ABC book, tailored to specific local contexts. Grenby, for instance, has shown that missionaries—such the Moravians—created primers using very similar structures and content in China, India, the Philippines, Mexico, and Tranquebar, a Danish colony in India. In my work on the Caribbean, I have noticed that the books used there are far less transnational than what I’m calling global—and I hypothesize that this difference is due largely to slavery. The Moravians in St. Croix did initially tailor children’s books to the local language and culture. For instance, in 1825 they published an ABC book in the Dutch creole language of Negerhollands, which was spoken on the Danish islands. The book is comparable to other ABC books, such as The New England Primer, but has elements of Caribbean culture represented, such as the creole word, “buzzer,” meaning hummingbird (an animal native to the area).[7]

However, as slavery and enforced schooling meant that missionaries did not have to rely on buy-in from the culture of the people they were educating, there was a quick shift to using children’s books produced by organizations with broader aspirations. While missionaries complained at times that foreign books were not good for children in the Caribbean, as they would not understand them, they increasingly relied on imports and did not engage in the careful work of tailoring children’s books to a specific local culture and language. We can look to the books they chose to import for insights into the kind of childhood that they wanted to construe as universal. The 1857-8 ledger that I mentioned shows expenses for book orders, including: “12 Bunyan Pilgrim’s Progress, 2 Travellers /for rewards/, [and] 12 Great Truths in Plain Words.” Another page records: “Blair’s Catechism, Scripture Lessons, Play Grammar, Mother’s Assistant, Melodies for Children.” The majority of the books they used came from the London Religious Tract Society and the American Tract Society. As we might expect, much of the content is religious, but the books also imagine readers as part of a wider, explicitly commercial world. Blair’s First or Mother’s Catechism, for instance, surprisingly does not hold religious knowledge, but a compendium of colonial and capitalist ideologies billed as “Common Things Necessary to Be Known at an Early Age.”[8]

The need to create books that could be used by black child readers meant that there is some notable variation among the books as to what their publishers imagined a global children’s literature—and a global world involving relationships between people of different races—might look like. Blair’s Catechism gives a basic education in racist ideology, with exchanges like: “Q. In what parts of the world are the greatest number of savages found?”[9] There, furthermore, are said to be “eight or ten” “varieties of men,” organized solely by skin color.[10] Such passages might be seen as an acknowledgment of the potential diversity of readers and of the global locations where they might be located, even as they advance racist ideologies attached to colonization, foisting them on black children. Another book on the list, The Traveller, is somewhat more sensitive about the potential for reading by children elsewhere in the globe (and of different races) than its main child characters. The book depicts several storytelling sessions that a gentleman and his three boys have with a traveler who is visiting their English estate, who dazzles them with stories about foreign landscapes. A section on the invention of the printing press acknowledges an audience outside of Britain, while allowing the traveler to reinforce the main evangelizing aim of the book: “when we look at the multiplication of copies of the holy Scriptures, and the millions of religious tracts scattered through the earth by means of the printing-press, we may well consider printing to be one of the most important inventions of the world.”[11] Within this wide lens, the book often departs from evangelizing as an aim, including a section on earthquakes that includes Muslims and Christians working together and a section on Africa that pushes against European prejudices. The traveler points out, for instance, that scissors were first made in Africa. In this moment, the text anticipates, though does not rise to the level of, multicultural global children’s books that we see today, which emphasize the contributions of multiple cultures to our modern lives. Both books’ global aspirations, though, depend on the difficult category of enslaved—and emancipated—child, a child who in this moment was a captive audience for the universal child education their publishers and circulators envisioned.

[1] Moravian Archives 9.3, Records from LaGrande Princesse Rural School, 1841-1846.

[2] Moravian Archives 32.1, Freidensthal Dayschool 1857-1858.

[3] Jacob Breslow, “The BUZZ in American Quarterly: ‘Adolescent Citizenship, or Temporality and the Negation of Black Childhood in Two Eras’” Critical Childhood Studies.

https://ccsproject.org/2019/10/22/adolescent-citizenship-or-temporality-and-the-negation-of-black-childhood-in-two-eras/ (accessed December 13, 2019).

[4] Elspeth Sutherland, Or, The Effects of Faith (Edinburgh: Published by Thomsons Brothers, 1823), 2.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Cynthia James, “From Orature to Literature in Jamaican and Trinidadian Children’s Folk

Traditions.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. 30.2 (2005): 165.

[7] ABC-boekje voor die Neger-kinders na St. Thomas, St. Croix en St. Jan. Gnadau: 1825.

[8] David Blair, Blair’s First or Mother’s Catechism. Containing Common Things Necessary to Be Known at an Early Age. (London: William Darton and Son). 

[9] Ibid., 37.

[10] Ibid., 42.

[11] The Traveller: Or, A Description of Various Wonders in Nature and Art (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1839), 160.

Courtney Weikle-Mills specializes in early American literature and children’s literature, with interests in citizenship, Atlantic and early Caribbean studies, readership, and the history of the book. Her first book, Imaginary Citizens: Child Readers and the Limits of American Independence, 1640-1868, won the Children’s Literature Association’s Honor Book Award in 2013. Her most recent essay, on Jupiter Hammon’s children’s poetry, appears in Who Writes for Black Children?: African American Children’s Literature Before 1900 (Eds. Anna Mae Duane and Kate Capshaw). Her work can also be found in Children’s Literature, The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature, Early American Literature, and American Periodicals.


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