Making Books Available: The Role of Early Libraries, Librarians, and Booksellers in the Promotion of African American Children's Literature

Article excerpt

Librarians still have the chance to grow with their libraries, and Negro youth come in closer touch with teachers and librarians who may guide their reading. For the book which has meant something to its reader is never allowed to moulder on the shelves, and the smaller library, well-used, may serve to light a chain of torches. (Curtis 95)

Literature can be used as one of the tools to build images and concepts in the minds of children. Literature written for and about African American children can today be found on many bookstore shelves and in public and school libraries throughout the United States. The characters in these books can be historical figures who reach back to the arrival of the African in America and to the continuous struggle and development that is evident even today; other books reach further back - to the continent of Africa before there was an America. The characters also display the different regions, class levels, and family structures of African Americans.

African American children's literature enables the African American child to feel a sense of value and self-pride, and this literature also helps white children to understand and appreciate the rich culture, history, and tradition of the African American. As Mary McLeod Bethune stated in an address to the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, "It is important to give to all children a true picture of [the] races" (9).

African American children's writer Walter Dean Myers has discussed the importance of telling African American children stories that recount their historical past, inform them about their culture, and display images from their own African American family values and traditions. "Is it not logical," asks Myers,

for the child to assume that if the books denote who is significant, and that if people of color are not represented, then they don't count? It is this idea, this defining of value precepts, that should concern all parents. Children need books, in and out of school, that depict people who look like them because they are being told on a daily basis that these books are indicators of importance. (30)

Approximately seventy years ago, African American children were routinely exposed to negative images of African Americans and African American culture in children's books which African American parents, librarians, and educators realized were detrimental to both African American and white children, and which therefore needed to be removed from library shelves. Mary McLeod Bethune's concern for children and history led her to argue that "the ideals, character and attitudes of races are born within the minds of children; most prejudices are born with youth and it is our duty to see that the great researches of Negro History are placed in the language and story of the child. Not only the Negro child but [the children] of all races should read and know of the achievements, accomplishments and deeds of the Negro" (10). It was time to examine carefully the books that were being used to educate children, and for African American writers to create works that could be more useful and much more truthful. The Associated Publishers, an African American publishing company founded in 1927 and backed by African American authors, educators, and historical scholars such as Carter G. Woodson and Charles Wesley, began publishing informative books that taught the history and culture of African Americans, but the company and its efforts were not large enough to remove the negative depictions of the African American from the minds of many children throughout the United States.

African American librarians realized that African American children who came to their branch libraries needed to see images that were appropriately reflective of themselves in the books they read, but few books addressed this need. Augusta Baker, an African American librarian in the Children's Department at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, observed in 1975 that,

by the late thirties, some parents and other adults realized that black boys and girls were reading about the heroes and history of every country without being told the truth about the contributions of their own African and slave ancestors to the progress of this country. …