Writing for Social Change: Using the Brownies' Book as a Model Platform to Nurture a New Generation of Writers

Article excerpt

Childhood reading is what led me to believe that the whole world was mine to explore, and that no one could limit me--or any child--to only a small part of it. The Brownies 'Book gave many 'colored' or 'Negro' children, as we then were called, that same sense of boundless possibility. (1)--Marian Wright Edelman

In 1920 Franklin Lewis, an ambitious boy from Philadelphia, penned a letter to the editor of The Brownies' Book hoping to get some of his life questions answered. He wrote, "My mother says you are going to have a magazine about colored boys and girls, and I am very glad. So I am writing to ask you if you will please put in your paper some of the things which colored boys can work at when they grow up." (2) Lewis also expressed his hopes of one-day planning houses for men to build. His friends mocked the idea. They had never seen a colored man in such a position and Franklin wanted to know why. The Brownies' Book, reading material targeted toward Black children to promote a rich exchange of information, was the first of its kind. It was a catalyst for a new genre of literature celebrating Black History, self-love, and achievement of young readers and writers.

Between January 1920--December 1921, many letters similar to Lewis's poured into the editors of The Brownies' Book magazine from young readers and writers aged six to sixteen who asked similar questions, requested library suggestions, gave feedback on Brownies' issues, and offered ideas for future stories. The Brownies' Book promoted this type of exchange of ideas for the "Children of the Sun," as W.E.B. Du Bois, the founder of the Brownies' Book, more affectionately referred to children of African descent. The monthly magazine also had sections for families, for editors' works, stories, poems, folktales, entries from contributing writers, and international news to encourage appreciation of many cultures.

Du Bois, together with Professor Granville Dill and Jessie Redmon Fauset, created The Brownies'Book to provide positive portrayals of Blacks, to celebrate Black history, and to instill a sense of pride for African American children. However, they accomplished so much more as they ushered in a new genre of African American children's literature. Prior to inception of the Brownies' Book in 1920, few stories included characters of color. Books like The Story of Inky Boys (3), The Story of Little Black Sambo (4), and the many versions of Ten Little Niggers (5) were full of tales about boys with dark skin, without a personal regard or appreciation for their culture, race, or voices. The characters in these stories were viewed as passive, their voices silent, their identities demeaned, and their features enhanced in comedic fashion.

The Brownies' Book provided an entry point for new voices to represent African American children in a positive light. One noteworthy contributing author was high school student, James Langston Hughes, of Joplin, Missouri. Langston Hughes submitted his poems, "In a Mexican City," "Thanksgiving Time," "Autumn Thought," and "Winter Sweetness" to The Brownies' Book. Like Franklin Lewis, Hughes expressed concerns about his potential and future aspirations. He was vocal about the treatment of African Americans and wrote about his concerns in his novels, plays, short stories, essays, television scripts, and more. The Brownies' Book opened doors for Hughes to share his art form. He went on to become one of the most celebrated Black writers of all time, penning books for children, two autobiographies, and countless poems.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a writer, author, and professor and the first Black Ph.D. graduate of Harvard University, felt strong responsibility to foster the talents of African Americans like Lewis and Hughes. He made it his life's work to help rebuild an entire nation of people to greater achievement. In The Souls of Black Folk (6), Du Bois writes about redefining blackness and the importance of education and equality for blacks. …