The history of African-American representation in modern picture books is characterized largely by absence. When a book did feature African-Americans, they were nearly always racist caricatures, as in the highly popular Little Black Sambo and Nicodemus stories.
Nevertheless, Ezra Jack Keats’s achievement in The Snowy Day is not without precedents. The 1920s saw a boom in cultural and intellectual empowerment in the African-American community, known as the New Negro movement. A handful of influential black authors, such as Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes, worked to counteract the prejudices ingrained in youth literature and to promote self-worth in African-American children through such publications as The Brownies’ Book. But in an industry dominated by white authors and controlled by white editors and publishers, these efforts rarely received wide distribution—the degrading stereotypes persisted in mainstream children’s literature throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.
Things began to change after World War II with the rise of the civil-rights movement. As desegregation took hold, interest grew in integrated children’s books: more African-American authors were published, characters of color emerged, and plotlines promoted racial understanding. Still, most juvenile literature that addressed race was for older readers, as the theme was not deemed appropriate for picture books. The majority of integrationist books, such as Fun for Chris, were still authored by white writers for a white audience: people of color were usually secondary characters whose role was to conform to and seek acceptance in a white culture.
It was not until the late 1960s that African-American children’s literature truly took flight. As the racial empowerment movement progressed, black authors and illustrators such as John Steptoe renewed the ambitions of the Harlem Renaissance authors, writing about black heritage, culture, and identity for a growing African-American audience. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s children of color could increasingly see realistic and positive reflections of themselves in picture books. Even so, today fewer than 10 percent of children’s books have significant African-American content.
List of Related Picture Books
Little Black Sambo, 1899
By Helen Bannerman
Little Black Sambo is the first children’s book in English with a black child as protagonist. It is the story of a boy whose parents give him new clothes, which he forfeits to a group of tigers so that they won’t eat him. Sambo himself actually has personality and wit, but the book is shaped by British colonialist prejudice: the names Mumbo (Sambo’s mother) and Jumbo (his father) are clearly meant for ridicule, and Sambo’s name may derive from the Spanish and Portuguese zambo, bow-legged. Despite the Indian setting, Bannerman’s amateurish illustrations draw on negative imagery of African-Americans—Mumbo in particular appears as a plantation “mammy” stereotype of the black domestic worker.
Little Black Sambo, 1932 edition
By Helen Bannerman, illustrated by Florence White Williams
Helen Bannerman’s early loss of the U.S. copyright to Little Black Sambo allowed numerous other artists to produce their own illustrated editions, often depicting Sambo and his family in racist caricatures, with the bug eyes and thick red lips typical of minstrel imagery. The book’s success rapidly popularized the name Sambo as a generic derogatory term for any black man or boy.
Project Gutenberg: eBook
The Brownies’ Book, 1920-1921
In 1920 the author W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), launched The Brownies’ Book, a monthly children’s magazine. It featured pictures, poems, and fiction and nonfiction stories intent on making “colored children realize that being ‘colored’ is a normal, beautiful thing,” as Du Bois wrote. Although it was published for only two years, it had considerable influence and can be credited with offering the first thoroughly uplifting images of black children in American juvenile literature. The first issue bore an inspiring dedication by the coeditor, Jessie Fauset: To Children, who with eager look / Scanned vainly library shelf and nook / For History or Song or Story / That told of Colored Peoples glory / We dedicate The Brownies’ Book.
Library of Congress Digital Collections: digitized version of The Brownies Book
Nicodemus and the Houn’ Dog, 1933
By Inez Hogan
For many decades, if a black child was not represented as a “Sambo” in popular culture, he or she was a “pickanniny,” originally a mocking term for slave children in the antebellum South. The stereotype conveyed the idea that rural African-American children were naïve, ignorant, laughably gullible, and abjectly poor. Inez Hogan’s very popular Nicodemus series exemplifies this racist portrayal: Nicodemus is clumsy, lazy, and dimwitted, and has caricatured physical features, shabby clothes, and bare feet. Hogan wrote twelve Nicodemus books in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of them went through several printings well into the 1950s.
The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, 1932
By Langston Hughes, illustrated by Helen Sewell
The Dream Keeper, by the eminent Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902–1967), is a landmark: one of the first poetry collections intended specifically for black children produced by a major publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf. The illustrator chosen for the project, Helen Sewell, was white, and Hughes was very concerned that her images of black children be truthful and positive. He was deeply committed to improving African-American children’s literature, and had begun contributing his own poems to The Brownies’ Book when he was just eighteen years old—April Rain Song is one such poem.
My Dog Rinty, 1946
By Ellen Tarry and Marie Hall Ets, illustrated by Alexander and Alexandra Alland
Ellen Tarry (1906–2008) was one of the few black authors of the 1940s to dedicate her literary career exclusively to children. For this book, Tarry was approached by her white co-author Marie Hall Ets, who had been struck by the lack of books on urban black life. Viking Press insisted that it be illustrated with black-and-white photographs—a device that enabled the publisher to avoid the distorted and racist imagery common in artists’ pictures. The photographs have a documentary and rather idealized quality, so that the book transcends the plot of David and his dog Rinty to consciously promote the image and values of middle-class Harlem for a mixed-race readership.
Fun for Chris, 1956
By Blossom E. Randall, illustrated by Eunice Young Smith
Overwhelmingly, race was addressed in juvenile literature for older readers, but one of the few integrationist picture books for the young was Fun for Chris by the white author Blossom E. Randall. The white title character Chris befriends Toby, a slightly older black child. But Toby is not presented as a realistic individual: his features are clearly modeled on a white ideal, and his purpose is to allow Chris—and the white reader—to learn about race and tolerance. Although Fun for Chris was well-received by critics, it did not sell well because many parents disapproved of the interracial content.
By John Steptoe
The African-American author and artist John Steptoe (1950–1989) started to work on Stevie when he was just sixteen years old, and it was published three years later. Set in the inner city, the book is about the relationship of Robert, the narrator, and Stevie, whom Robert cares for while the younger boy’s mother works. Steptoe’s book is notable for its richly colored and textured illustrations and realistic dialogue. Told in a visual and linguistic style that reflects contemporary black urban culture, Stevie is often cited as one of the first modern African-American children’s books.
By Camille Yarbrough, illustrated by Carole Byard
Cornrows is about an elderly woman who braids the hair of her great-grandchildren while telling them the history and symbolism of the hairstyle. The book draws on important African-American themes, such as storytelling traditions, strong cross-generational family ties, and an embrace of African roots. Byard’s evocative monochrome illustrations emphasize the beauty and humanity of the contemporary black characters and their ancestors. In 1980 Cornrows won the Coretta Scott King Award, established in 1970 to honor African-American authors and illustrators for outstanding contributions to multicultural and ethnic literature.
Sam and the Tigers, 1996
By Julius Lester, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
The writer and activist Julius Lester (b. 1939) has reclaimed a few classics of children’s literature that have been tainted by racism. Lester offers a witty retelling of Little Black Sambo, in which the streetwise title character is neither a caricature nor the object of condescending white amusement. He lives in the whimsical land of Sam-sam-sa-mara, where everyone is named Sam (including his parents), adding a humorous twist to the dialogue. Stunning illustrations by Jerry Pinkney (b. 1939) complement the updated text. Together, Lester and Pinkney recover the protagonist’s heroism from the years of racism that had undermined him.
Emily Casden, Curatorial Assistant