“Early African American Children’s Literature and Racialized Readerly Perspectives”

By Brigitte Fielder

In her 1922 essay “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils” writer, educator, and activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson laments the disparagement of African American literature, “frequently mentioned in whispers as a dubious quantity.” The remedy to instill pride in Black children, she argued, was to “give the children the poems and stories and folk lore and songs of their own people. We do not teach literature; we are taught by literature,” she writes.[1] Dunbar-Nelson’s argument about Black children’s education concerns pedagogy and curriculum. Moreover, it recognizes Black children as a potential readership for African American literature, a population who would recognize its value and benefit from their own racialized readerly perspectives.

Black writers have long acknowledged childhood as a key site for considering racialized readerly perspectives and employed writing for Black children as part of their multifaceted strategies toward racial justice. Even as white writers prioritized white child readers and white images of childhood to the erasure of other racialized perspectives and representations, Black parents, communities, educators, and writers recognized Black children as potential readers. In 1723, a group of enslaved Black Virginias petitioned the Bishop of London to grant their children access to literacy instruction, asking “that our childarn may be…putt to Scool and Larnd to Reed through the Bybell.”[2] Enslaved people who could read sometimes led covert “midnight schools” during which they taught others to read and write without their enslavers’ knowledge.[3] Some of the earliest African American literature directly addresses children or acknowledges children among its potential readers. Courtney Weikle-Mills recognizes Jupiter Hammon’s 1778 “Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley,” for example, as a “poem for children.”[4] In his 1785 personal narrative, John Marrant includes an episode about a young girl, which he hopes will be “profitable to my young readers.”[5] African American people have long recognized African American children as readers.

Considering child readers of early African American literature reveals how central childhood is to discussions of Black literacy, education, and uplift but also to Black experiences of racism and antiracism. Frederick Douglass presents a prominent version of the Black child reader as early as his 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.[6] Douglass shows how African American children’s literature included the kinds of antislavery writing that validated his own sense of injustice and affirmed his recognition of Black humanity. W.E.B. DuBois reflects on his own firstborn child – and that child’s death – in his theorization of the Veil in his 1903 masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, later dedicating Black Folk, Then and Now: An Essay in the History of the Sociology of Negro Race to his granddaughter in 1939.[7] If we recognize the existence – and importance – of Black child readers for early African American literary visions, we must radically rethink the relative inattention given to Black children – as readers, rather than just as subjects for white readers – in critical childhood studies.

Considering Black children’s readerly positions is essential to critical childhood studies’ engagement with intersectionality. When Kimberlé Crenshaw first put the term “intersectionality” into print in 1989, she was aptly describing a phenomenon that African American writers before her – and particularly African American women – had discussed and written about, though not named in these terms. As we discuss the importance of intersectionality for critical childhood studies we would do well to remember the very specific roots of this concept and the exciting field in which we see intersectionality most explicitly applied to include childhood: Black girlhood studies.

Scholars including Crenshaw, Priscilla Ocen, Jyoti Nanda, Monique W. Morris and others have shown how Black girls’ specific experiences evidences the compounding of sexism and racism.[8] These experiences of overpolicing and criminalization in schools have negative effects upon Black children’s educations, undoubtedly disrupting experiences of child readership that might otherwise be cultivated in these environments. In the state of Wisconsin (where I live) white children have a high school graduation rate of almost 93 percent, while Black children graduate at a rate of only 67 percent.[9] This is the worst racial gap in high school graduation rates in the nation. These disparities in education are not unrelated to the failure to recognize Black children as readers. But when Black children – and particularly Black girls – are recognized as valuable in their own right, they are empowered.

Nazera Sadiq Wright discusses Black girls as prominent subjects of and readers for the nineteenth-century Black print public sphere.[10] In her 1841 poem, “Advice to Young Ladies,” Ann Plato advises her readers with a mind to encourage their writing:

The greatest word that I can say,—
I think to please, will be,
To try and get your learning young,
And write it back to me.[11]

As the numbers of school-aged children in the United States dip below a white majority and African American children’s literature by twenty-first century authors such as Elizabeth Acevedo, Angie Thomas, and Jacqueline Woodson becomes increasingly prominent, recognizing Black children’s racialized readerly perspectives and experiential expertise for reading – and crafting –African American literature continues to be necessary.[12] Yet even as African American children’s literature becomes more and more prominent within children’s literature more generally, African American children have not had sufficient recognition and material support as readers whose perspectives and endeavors should be encouraged and cultivated.

To recognize Black children as readers we must recognize them as good readers, capable not only of possible or secondary readings, but of excellent readings, based on their racialized positions of expertise. We can look to African American literary culture for examples of how early Black writers and editors recognized this readerly potential in Black children. Nazera Sadiq Wright, for example, shows how even as early as the 1840s, items published in the Colored American’s Children’s Department section worked to train Black children as “devoted” and “sophisticated readers” of Black print culture.[13] Writers of African American children’s literature – and African American literature more broadly – have understood the sophistication and capability of Black children. What would critical childhood studies look like if a majority of our scholars imagined Black children not only as readers, but as capable and sophisticated readers for children’s literature? How would recognizing and dwelling in this readerly perspective – and its advantages, and capabilities – affect our readings? How might our readings change if we acknowledged this readerly perspective for all texts, even those not intended for Black children?

[1] Alice Dunbar-Nelson, “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils.” Southern Workman 51.2 (February 1922): 60.

[2] Anonymous to [Bishop Edmund Gibson], Aug. 4, 1723, The Fulham Papers, American Colonial Section, 42 vols., Lambeth Palace Library, London, vol. XVII, Bermuda and Jamaica, i67-i68. For a transcription, see Ingersoll, “Releese Us out of This Cruell Bondegg,” 780-782.

[3] See, for example, Laura S. Haviland, A Woman’s Life-Work, Labors and Experiences (1881), quoted in Gerda Lerner, ed., Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1972; New York: Vintage, 1999), 32–33.

[4] Courtney Weikle-Mills, “Free the Children: Jupiter Hammon and the Origin of African American Children’s Literature,” in Who Writes for Black Children, African American Children’s Literature Before 1900. Ed. Katharine Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 26.

[5] John Marrant, “A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black” (1785), in “Face Zion Forward”: First Writers of the Black Atlantic, 1785–1798, ed. Joanna Brooks and John Saillant (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002), 70.

[6] I further discuss Douglass’ Narrative as a narrative of enslaved childhood in “Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of Childhood,” The Futures of Frederick Douglass forum, Ed. Hélène Quanquin, Cécile Roudeau, and Michaël Roy. Black Perspectives, blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) https://www.aaihs.org/frederick-douglasss-narrative-of-childhood/

[7] I further discuss DuBois’ relationship to Black children and childhood in “Before the Brownie’s Book.” The Lion and Unicorn Special issue, From The Brownies’ Book to Black Lives Matter: 100 Years of African American Children’s Literature 43.2 (Summer 2019): 159- 171.

[8] See Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw with Priscilla Ocen and Jyoti Nanda, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected (New York: Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies and African American Policy Forum, 2015) and Monique W. Morris, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (New York: The New Press, 2016).

[9] See the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Public High School Graduation Rates: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_coi.asp

[10] See Nazera Sadiq Wright, Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth-Century. University of Illinois Press, 2016.

[11] Ann Plato, Essays, including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose and Poetry (Hartford, Connecticut: Autor, 1841).

[12] For these statistics, see the United States Census Bureau’s 2019 Population Estimates, here: https://www2.census.gov/news/press-kits/2019/so-demographers-assocmeeting/ presentations/race-of-children-in-population-estimates.pdf.

[13] Nazera Sadiq Wright, “‘Our Hope Is in the Rising Generation’: Locating African American Children’s Literature in the ‘Children’s Department’ of the Colored American.” Who Writes for Black Children? African American Children’s Literature before 1900, edited by Katharine Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 148, 151.

Brigitte Fielder is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is (with Jonathan Senchyne) co-editor of Against a Sharp White Background: Infrastructures of African- American Print. Her first book, Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America is forthcoming from Duke University Press in fall 2020. She is currently working on a second book, on racialized human-animal relationships in the long nineteenth century.


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