‘Give The Children The Poems And Stories Of Their Own People’

K.L. Ricks via The New York Times

A reading list hints at the richness and breadth of African American children’s writing before Brown v. Board of Education.

In her 1922 essay “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils,” the author, editor and educator Alice Dunbar-Nelson argued that, instead of idealizing white literature, we should “give the children the poems and stories and folklore and songs of their own people.”

Black children’s literature has a long history, although early examples are not always easy to find; in addition to structural barriers to publication and circulation, it was often mingled with writing for adults. But some of this material is being recovered for 21st-century readers, as academics, child educators and others work to shift views of the genre and its history.

This reading list features African American writing for children published before Brown v. Board of Education and the civil-rights-era increase in Black-authored children’s literature. While there is much yet beyond this list to be rediscovered, it gives a sense of the attention and care these writers paid to their younger readers.

‘To S.M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works,’ by Phillis Wheatley (1773)

Wheatley was kidnapped from her home in West Africa, enslaved and brought to North America when she was 7 or 8 years old. A young poet, she wrote this poem to another enslaved child. “S.M.” is the artist Scipio Moorhead, who had probably made a portrait of her. Wheatley praises the artistry of this “wond’rous youth,” writing that seeing his “beauties” “doth give my soul delight.” When Wheatley’s “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” was published, it included a frontispiece that is believed to have been based on Moorhead’s portrait of her.

‘A Poem For Children With Thoughts on Death,’ by Jupiter Hammon (1782)

Hammon was an enslaved poet whose interest in emancipation extended beyond his own life, to the next generation. This poem contemplates how precarious life may be, even for children, but offers hope in an afterlife as “Little children they may die,/Turn to their native dust,/Their souls shall leap beyond the skies,/And live among the just.”

‘The Story of the Flying Africans’
(sometime after 1803)

The story of enslaved Black people rising up and flying home to Africa is a hallmark of African American folklore. While it is difficult to date folk tales founded on oral storytelling, this one has its roots in the 1803 escape of captive Igbo people on St. Simons Island in Glynn County, Ga. Since then, this story has been told and retold in African American literature for both children and adults, including by Julius Lester in his 1969 collection “Black Folktales” and Virginia Hamilton in “The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales,” from 1985.

‘Student Essays Addressing the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition of the African Race,’ by George R. Allen, George W. Moore, Eliver Reason and Isaiah G. Degrass (Printed 1829)

In March 1829, Freedom’s Journal, the first known African American newspaper, printed several essays by New York African Free School students, commenting on emancipation in New York State (in 1827, enslaved people born before 1799 were freed), arguing for emancipation elsewhere and lauding their own educational opportunities. The students writing here were, so far as we know, between 12 and 15 years old. In his essay Allen wrote: “What sound can be more delightful to the ear of a slave than the expression, ‘The Laws have made you free’? This is the happy case with us in the state of New York. Liberty is an invaluable blessing to us; and we often feel compassion for the thousands of our brethren in the South who are groaning under the chains of bondage, while we are enjoying the benefits of freedom, and one of the most important of these, I conceive to be education.” A letter to the editor confirms that the newspaper provided a gratis subscription to the New York African Free School, where it was available to these and other students who were the children of both free and enslaved Black parents.

‘A True Tale for Children,’ by Sarah Mapps Douglass, writing as ‘Zillah’ (1832)

Douglass was an educator, artist and antislavery activist. This short piece relays an anecdote about a young student bringing flowers to his teacher (the author) and stresses the importance of children’s appreciation for their educators. It appeared in the antislavery newspaper The Liberator and also carried the message that “gratitude is not confined to a fair complexion.”

‘Advice to Young Ladies,’ by Ann Plato (1841)

This poem was included in one of the first known books of essays published by an African American woman, Plato’s “Essays: Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose and Poetry.” Not much is known about the author’s life, but she was a teenager herself when she wrote the collection. In this poem Plato encouraged girls to “try and get your learning young/And write it back to me.”
‘A Child’s Invitation,’ by Joshua McCarter Simpson (1854)

This song was included in Simpson’s collection “The Emancipation Car,” which he described as “an original composition of anti-slavery ballads; composed exclusively for the under ground rail road.” Several songs in the collection feature children. This is described as a “school song” and begins “Come children young and gay,/Come, come to school.”

‘The Little Builders,’ by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1871)

Harper was the most prominent African American poet of the 19th century, and also published short fiction, novels, essays and speeches. This inclusion from her collection “Poems” addressed “precious children” whose “fingers are unskilled” for the task of “building freedom’s throne” in this Reconstruction moment. The poem is hopeful that they will eventually be suited to the task and encourages them to “Fill your minds with useful knowledge” in preparation.

‘Clarence and Corinne; or, God’s Way,’ by Amelia E. Johnson (1890)

Published by the American Baptist Publication Society, this is a religious novel about temperance and uplift. In addition to her children’s fiction, Johnson founded two periodicals, The Joy, a literary magazine marketed to girls, and The Ivy, focusing on African American history. Neither children’s periodical has (yet) been recovered by current researchers.

‘His Heart’s Desire,’ by Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1900)

Dunbar-Nelson was a prolific writer across genres, but this story — about a boy who wants a doll and eventually gets one, with the help of his teacher and younger sister — has only been recently recovered. “His Heart’s Desire” was sold to The Chicago Daily News in 1900, but Dunbar-Nelson intended to include it in a collection of stories about children called “The Annals of ’Steenth Street,” inspired by her own work as an educator. The collection did not come to fruition during her lifetime, but is now being recovered by scholars.

‘After School,’ by Jessie Fauset (1920)

This playful poem about students who are better able to perform academic tasks after their teacher is no longer watching them appeared in the first issue of The Brownies’ Book in January 1920. The Brownies’ Book was one of the earliest magazines marketed explicitly to Black children and was created by W.E.B. Du Bois, Augustus Granville Dill and Fauset, who contributed regularly and served as the magazine’s literary editor, then managing editor until the final issue in December 1921.

‘Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti,’ by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (1932)

In a celebrated children’s novel collaboration, two of the best-known Harlem Renaissance writers depicted children of the Black diaspora and their family. The novel was illustrated by the African American artist E. Simms Campbell.

‘Children Know,’ by Effie Lee Newsome (1940)

Newsome was a teacher, librarian and prolific children’s author. She also edited The Crisis’ monthly children’s column, “The Little Page,” from 1925 to 1929. This poem, from “Gladiola Garden: Poems of Outdoors and Indoors for Second Grade Readers,” gives a child’s perspective on adults who understand and pay attention to children.

Brigitte Fielder is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of “Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America.”