Civil Rights, History, and the Left: Inventing the Juvenile Black Biography

Article excerpt

It is the "unique experience of Negro youth," the playwright Lorraine Hansberry noted in the left-wing, African American newspaper Freedom in 1955, "that from the time he is born the Negro child is surrounded by a society organized to convince him that he belongs to a people with a past so worthless and shameful that it amounts to no past at all"(7). How were African American children expected to grow up with any hope for the future--indeed, how could they possibly be inspired to struggle for equality themselves--when history, for them, was "shorn of its power to enlighten or inspire?" (Collins).

School curricula and school textbooks generally supported the racial status quo during the years leading up to the civil rights movement's full flowering in the 1960s. But many children nonetheless were exposed, in and out of school, to the pedagogy of civil rights. This essay highlights the ways in which children's literature, that is, trade books (not textbooks) for children, became important vehicles for civil rights activism. Using the cloak of history, personalized as biography, writers on the left taught children African American history in a way that implicitly challenged postwar racial hierarchies, communicated radical ideas about citizenship, and made a direct connection between past struggles against slavery and present struggles for civil rights. Children's literature became a key medium for dissenting ideas during the Cold War for a number of reasons. In this instance, anti-Communist "civic education" programs that developed after World War II ironically helped create a market for a genre of books that were a specialty of the Communist left, that is, historical children's books, especially biographies, focused on African Americans. In fact, the juvenile black biography was largely an invention of post-war US "progressives" or the Communist, post-Communist, and "fellow travelling" left. (1)

Contexts

Between 1945 and 1965, the early years of the Cold War, more than a dozen writers on the left--many of whom were African American or Jewish, most of whom were women--wrote and illustrated books for children about American history, often using the medium of biography. (2) Focusing on four authors--Shirley Graham, Dorothy Sterling, Ann Petry, and Emma Gelders Sterne--this essay looks at the pedagogical role of children's literature in the movement for African American civil rights. Secondarily, it emphasizes the role of the Communist movement in the civil rights struggle: through literature, leftists taught children to question the logic of white supremacy.

Writing in Freedom in 1951, teacher, left-winger, and union activist Alice Citron argued that children in Harlem's schools received a distorted view of African American history and culture, or no view at all:

 
   They will never learn that their people fought for freedom. They will never 
   learn in the public school that Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Denmark 
   Vesey, Nat Turner raised the torch of freedom high. They will never hear 
   the name of Frederick Douglass. They will hear instead that the Civil War 
   and the Emancipation Proclamation were a mistake. (8) 

Shortly after this article's publication Citron would be fired from her teaching post because of her "subversive" beliefs. But her radical political convictions did not diminish the truth of Citron's claims: she pointed to a real void in school curricula. A 1947 study of school social studies textbooks, done for the liberal journal Common Ground, found almost no discussions or illustrations of African Americans. Textbooks that did include some discussion of African Americans diminished or simply ignored their historic achievements as well as those of other minorities. Aubrey Haan, the author of the study, noted that "the texts omit the positive contributions of the Negro people to the physical upbuilding of the nation, their creation of an original music, their part in all the wars the United States has fought, their importance in labor and political history, and their development of educational institutions" (3-5). …