Book Reviews -- the Alabama Angels by Mary Barwick / the Alabama Angels in Anywhere, L.A. (Lower Alabama) by Mary Barwick

Article excerpt

Concerning her efforts to find a publisher for her first children's book, Alabama Angels, Mary Barwick recalls: "New York publishers thought it was a regional book. Southern publishers thought it was a national one" (Garland Reeves, "Alabama Angels Enters Fourth Printing," The Birmingham News, 12 December 1990, p. 1F). That Barwick's Alabama Angels I and II have received such acclaim in her native state of Alabama is not surprising, given the state's recent scholarly and public efforts to celebrate its own authors, particularly those who write about Alabama. And given the distinctly regional focus of these books--the south--it is also not surprising that Barwick's books have found their place in the Southern History and Literature Archives of the Birmingham Public Library, in local Christian bookstores, and have been enthusiastically endorsed by The Birmingham News and Barwick's hometown newspaper, The Montgomery Advertiser and Alabama Journal. Garland Reeves of The Birmingham News describes Alabama Angels I as "something of a publishing phenomenon," citing the printing and selling of about 8000 copies in three printings. Most recently, Alabama Angels I went into its fifth printing, about 20,000 copies, evidence that a market does exist for Barwick's books. This overwhelmingly positive reception of the Alabama Angels series seems to signal the values and attitudes of a very specific reading audience for which the books are written: conservative white southerners who continue to romanticize a particular slave past that fortunately for African-Americans is "gone with the wind." As the phenomenal success of Barwick's books reveals, residual stereotypes and misrepresentations of African-Americans as "happy" slaves and pickaninnies by a dominant white culture linger on. Barwick's allegedly "heart-warming text[s] and charming pictures" (Mike Land, "Faith Helps Woman Share Gift of Story," The Montgomery Advertiser and Alabama Journal, 24 December 1989, p. 1F) should give pause to parents, black or white, who are looking to these books as socially appropriate for their impressionable youngsters.

The most problematic aspect of Barwick's Alabama Angel series are the actual illustrations of the black childlike angels and the black people themselves. Reeves insists that Barwick's angels are "the cutest little angels you ever did see," that "they are black, yet beyond any particular race." What Reeves means by the angels' being of no particular race is unclear since African-Americans have in America's history been the only race represented derogatorily and quite intentionally as happy slaves and unattractive pickaninnies. What Reeves describes as and Barwick intends to be "cute" is all but "cute" to black Americans who have been historically and continue to be dehumanized and misrepresented in what is euphemistically called "Americana," or southern folk art--the lawn jockeys, fishing boys and train conductors holding lanterns that decorate southern lawns; and the mammie and Amos figurines who smile and rest quaintly on so many southerners' kitchen counters and tables. Indeed, Barwick's angels are not brown or even shades of brown; they are black, literally as black as night--with facial features obliterated and hair that sticks out and is adorned with a myriad of small colorful bows. Such images recall historically racist depictions of black children as pickaninnies. The blackness of the angels also echoes the very uniquely American minstrel tradition of the 1800s, prompted by Thomas D. Rice and his "Jim Crow" (1832) creations, when whites, and later blacks, blackened their faces with burnt cork to mock and ridicule black people. Even when there is an effort on Barwick's part to make the angels brown, the brown is so dark that it seems black, and again facial features are absent. These consistent renderings of blacks in both Angels cannot, however, be attributed to the printing quality; these are high-gloss, quality printed books.

Not only do the illustrations give reason to pause, but the actions of the stories and the settings are not far removed from the documented plantation days, the angels themselves not far removed from slaves. …