“Ain’t Nobody’s Respect Worth More Than Your Own”: African American Children’s Literature, Self-Esteem, Education, and Hope

Adrianna Gordey_512x768
Adri Gordey (BA ’19, MA ’21)

I asked the students in my Spring 2020 English 725 “African American Children’s Literature” course to produce a piece of public writing that answers the question of Why African American Children’s Literature Matters. Everyone from ill-informed pundits to well-meaning relatives question the value of courses in the humanities: “Why do universities offer such classes?”  Or, “Why are you taking that class?”  I wanted my students to be able to articulate why a course on the history of African American children’s literature — beginning with eighteenth-century abolitionist texts and ending with contemporary Afro-futurist fantasy — matters.  They had the liberty to decide on their audience and on their particular focus — as long as the piece engaged with key ideas of the class.  Adri’s piece, included below, was one of the best responses.

— Philip Nel, University Distinguished Professor


 

I grew up in a household surrounded by books filled with characters who looked like me. Jack and Annie from the Magic Tree House series inspired my future travels. Junie B. Jones affirmed my childhood fear and anxieties while teaching me how to combat them with humor. The Baudelaire children in A Series of Unfortunate Events showed me the strength, courage, and perseverance it takes to overcome adversity and unibrowed treachery.

The schools I attended also affirmed my experiences and identities. My schools’ libraries were filled with popular, anglocentric series such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Spiderwick Chronicles. Our assigned reading followed White children defeating monsters, bending global mythologies to their will, and asserting themselves as conquerors.

It wasn’t until my second semester of graduate school that I read a children’s book written for an African American audience. Mildred D. Taylor’s book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, made me realize the libraries I grew up in favored anglocentric literature. There was no advertising for diverse children’s literature. Either my schools didn’t have many books to advertise or it didn’t bother people in positions of power enough to renovate the children’s literature section.

The books I grew up reading also showed White children in a variety of genres: fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, etc. African American children’s literature usually places Black children in the real world. (Again, this is based on my limited experience and reading. I know the relative lack of generic diversity within African American children’s literature is the fault of the publishing industry, and is not due to any lack of creativity among authors of the literature. Tomi Adeyemi, Nnedi Okorafor, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and others have written great speculative fiction — but their rise to mainstream prominence has been relatively recent.)

When I began pondering why this is, I came to a sickening conclusion. White children are allowed to exist in any world because they will always overcome adversity. Historically, books not only show them as the heroes of their own narratives, but as the conquerors of those narratives, too.

Meanwhile, Black children’s literature is focused on how to survive and overcome real-world problems. Since society and its systems don’t endorse their success, African American children’s literature instructs Black children how to live within oppressive, demoralizing, and hateful environments.

Racism, colonialism, and systemic injustice will be promoted as long as children’s literature portrays White kids thriving and Black children surviving. This is dangerous because it endorses the persecution of children of color in favor of White children.

Although it’s important to teach Black children the truth about discrimination and prejudice certain sects of society harbors for them, I can’t help but wonder how we do this productively. How do we teach the past without harming the future? Is it possible to protect and develop children of color’s sense of worth if they are taught the atrocities wrought upon their ancestors?

My cautious answer is yes, children can learn about problematic history while preserving their self-esteem and self-worth. In order to do this, children have to understand the relationship between racial theories and narratives.

Educators – teachers and librarians in elementary schools specifically – need to be prepared to explain the real-world applications and hard truths these texts present to young readers. Therefore, education majors with an English focus should be required to take diverse children’s literature courses. If the next generations of educators are prepared to teach the theory embedded within children’s literature, they will serve all of their future students more effectively and more diversely.

Mildred D. Taylor’s novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, presents children – and college students – with an engaging, challenging read. The book forces its audience to recognize past atrocities and societal failures. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry opens with Cassie Logan and her brothers walking to school along a dusty, Mississippi road during the Great Depression. Tension walks alongside the children as they dread the appearance of the White children’s school bus. The bus attempts to run them off the road each time it passes, and is both a literal and metaphoric representation of the White children’s privilege and society’s racism.

Elementary educators would need to explain to children how race – a social construct that relies on marginalization of people of color – creates almost all the trials that Cassie and her family face. The symbolism of the school bus allows educators to teach children about the consequences of racism in a simplified way because it is a concrete example of violence and racially motivated prejudice.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry gives power back to its Black characters as much as it demonstrates society’s attempts to strip them of it. One day, Stacey, Cassie’s oldest brother, enlists the help of his younger siblings to dig a trench in the rain-soaked road. After school, the bus drives straight into the ditch and the White children are forced to walk home in the rain just like the Black children. Taylor’s awareness of the Black experience mixed with the empowerment she gives to the Logan family shows readers ways to resist systemic oppression.

Educators can also use Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry to teach children about racial innocence and double consciousness. As Robin Bernstein explains, the category of innocence has historically been raced White, and has excluded Black children. Recognizing that children of color have been exiled from the protections of an innocent childhood, African American children’s literature teaches them how to overcome oppression to survive. W. E. B. Du Bois’ term, double consciousness conveys people of color’s dual awareness of society’s perception of them and their own self-image. Here, too, African American children’s books can help young readers of color fight the false perceptions they have been encouraged to internalize. “Black children are diverse and beautiful and loved,” as Brigitte Fielder writes, evoking the mission of The Brownies Book, Du Bois’ pioneering magazine for “children of the sun.”

When, in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Cassie ventures to Strawberry with her Big Ma, she runs into Lillian Jean, her blonde-haired childhood nemesis. Lillian Jean orders Cassie to apologize for bumping into her. After Cassie refuses to apologize, she is thrown into the street and her arm is twisted by Lillian Jean’s father. Big Ma reluctantly forces Cassie to apologize because Big Ma doesn’t want any harm to come to Cassie. This demonstrates how innocence is racialized because Cassie has to recognize her Blackness makes her vulnerable to oppression, bias, and violence. After this incident, Cassie is aware of White people’s perception and response to her racial identity while still figuring out what it means to her to be Black. This illustrates her dawning double consciousness.

Cassie learns to fight back against her enemies on her own terms. She enacts revenge against Lillian Jean by befriending her, learning her secrets, then threatening to reveal those secrets to the world. Cassie responds to the hurt and humiliation she endured by inflicting the same emotions on Lillian Jean. While Cassie’s actions aren’t necessarily moral, neither is racism.

Taylor’s book demonstrates an attention to balance and self-respect. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry has the potential to speak to Black children about advocacy, agency, and activism.

When elementary teachers and librarians understand the theories within diverse children’s literature, they can use narratives to help children of all races understand systemic injustice and combat it. These stories will allow children to better connect narratives with social justice and become more aware of experiences beyond their own.

— Adri Gordey (BA ’19, MA ’21)

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