Black American Classics in Fiction and Poetry for Young Readers

Article excerpt

Right under our children's noses, entering their consciousness, are images of African Americans that will remain for a lifetime and that will be passed on to our grandchildren. This is great news, for these are marvelous images connected to stories of power and meaning, tales that are well on their way to becoming classics - black classics.

Our legacy of storytelling has fueled our vision and nurtured our intellect for centuries. Having inherited that legacy, late-19th- and early-20th-century writers Arna Bontemps, Lorenz B. Graham, A.E. Johnson and others have passed the tradition on to contemporary authors.

Today, such writers as Eloise Greenfield, Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, John Steptoe and Mildred Taylor are capturing our children's attention, seizing their imaginations, lifting their spirits, and inspiring new readers and future writers.

Our children have been sent off to dreamland with Nikki Giovanni's "poem for rodney" and Eloise Greenfield's "Way Down in the Music." They have grown up with a sense of pride about themselves and their ancestors, thanks to characters like Jeeder from Virginia Hamilton's 1967 groundbreaking novel Zeely.

In my household, the poems from Eloise Greenfield's Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems became my daughter's mantra, her lunch-time companion and her bedtime reading. No other book held her heart as endearingly or for so long. Now that she's a parent, it has become part of my 7-month-old granddaughter's rapidly growing library.

Children have scores of new, powerful and passionate griots who look beyond the illusions of denial to examine the hard social realities unthreading the very fabric of our lives. These writers evoke a response in their audience with books that find their way not only into public and school libraries and classroom curricula, but also into our children's hands.

"The all-time favorite in my classroom is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," says Julia Williams, chair of the English department and teacher at Calhoun County High School in Edison, Ga. "The students ask for it year after year. Even the boys who hate to read, read this book, and often more than once."

"The copy of Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry that I'm reading is falling apart; I've had to tape it back together in order to read it," says 12-year-old Tatiana Small, who admits that she used to hate to read. "It was passed on to me by my sister after several of her friends read it. Now, I'm ready to read the sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken."

John Steptoe's Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, a "Cinderella"-type African tale, evokes strong feelings for both Small and her friend Thembi Gates Williams, who says, "Everything in |Cinderella' is so pink, and the women have ugly faces filled with warts. The pictures in Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters are so beautiful; they really make me feel good." Williams' home has floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books by black authors. "These books really do tell our stories, and they have taught me so much about history, slavery, and what it's like living now," she says.

"From books by these authors, I'm also learning that Africa is more than Somalia and South Africa," adds Small, with a definite tone of adolescent indignation in her voice. "I get a big picture of a continent filled with lots of countries and different kinds of people."

Small's conclusion is matter-off-fact: "|Cinderella' just doesn't seem like a classic to me anymore. It was just something that was passed on to me, but doesn't hold much meaning for me now."

If what distinguishes a black classic is clear, more interesting is the question of what makes a book an unqualified classic. …