Constructing Childhood: The Christian Recorder and Literature for Black Children, 1854-1865

Article excerpt

African Americans have been producing and publishing literature for their children as early as 1854, (1) but much of it has been buried in the pages of black-owned periodicals and newspapers, such as the Christian Recorder. This previously lost literature embodies theories which provide insight into how, in response to the specific social conditions that Northern free blacks faced, they deliberately constructed model families, model children, and model behavior for an ethical or religious agenda and for political and social reconstruction. I offer, as examples of this conscious construction of childhood, a few discoveries gleaned from the pages of the Christian Recorder's publications between 1854, the year the Recorder began publishing children's literature, and 1865, the end of the Civil War. Agreeing with Abdul JanMohamed's admonition that "archival work is essential to the critical articulation of minority discourse" (5), I introduce this new material for those who are interested in periodical or serial publication history and in children's literature extending back from 1887, (2) and for those who seek to rediscover more about African American literary production and the roles African American churches played in it.

In order to get a more complex understanding of this new material, I do not, to borrow from Carla Peterson, "privilege any one literary form over others and reify early African American texts into a monolithic literary canon or tradition" (5). Instead, I refer to varied types of literary expression that capture the goals and intentions of the Recorder's editors and readership for their children. So in addition to referring to poems, short stories, and serialized novels, I also refer to letters written to be read to children, briefs about the works of children, and articles thought to be of significance to children. Furthermore, while not pretending to be speaking for all nineteenth-century black periodicals which may have published children's literature, I expect that my discussion of such literature produced in the Recorder will prove applicable to African American children's literary production generally during this time.

It is important to discuss specific historical situations blacks were facing between 1854 and 1865 in order to understand the social and political roles that the production of literature in the Christian Recorder was to serve and to understand how the times affected the themes and content of the children's literature produced there. The mid-nineteenth century was extremely precarious and disillusioning for blacks. With slavery still at its height in the South, laws were being passed to confound black life even more. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it more difficult for slaves to escape, providing for the return of escaped slaves to their masters and making it a federal crime for any person, white or black, to aid in the escape of slaves. The Compromise of 1850 added strength to the Fugitive Slave. Act by stipulating that federal officials were to return escaped slaves, and the officials' cooperation was made enticing by offering fees for apprehended slaves. Furthermore, in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that blacks were not citizens. The Court concluded that Scott could not sue for his freedom in a free state because of his status as property, for as property, he had "no rights a white man was bound to respect."

Free blacks in the North were also affected by the racist ideologies informing slavery and the laws surrounding it. Given the fees associated with capturing slaves, free blacks constantly faced the possibility of being kidnaped and sold into slavery. Antiblack laws restricting and degrading blacks were also enacted. As a result of these "black laws," or "black codes," blacks were not granted citizenship and had to live in the worst neighborhoods, sit in balconies or "black sections" of churches and theatres, and ride in the baggage sections or decks of trains and ships. …