Rare Book of the Month: W.E.B. Du Bois’ Brownies

Cover on Issue One of The Brownies' Book

Cover of the first issue of “The Brownies’ Book.” Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

(This is a guest post by Elizabeth Gettins of the Library’s Digital Conversion Team.)

This month’s rare book honors William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois, born Feb. 23, 1868. It features one of his most beloved creations, The Brownies’ Book, a serial published in 1920 and 1921. It is digitally presented here—22 back-to-back chronological issues. It was the first magazine of its kind, written for African-American children and youths to instill in them a sense of racial pride and provide overall instruction on how to conduct oneself. Du Bois is credited with establishing the genre of African-American children’s literature. The Brownies’ Book is considered part of the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, a time of great African-American artistic expression.

The Brownies’ Book was created by founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (NAACP), among them, Du Bois. Hired as the group’s director of publicity and research with the primary duty of editing the NAACP’s monthly magazine The Crisis, Du Bois went on to launch and edit the serial aimed at youngsters. This publication was created in whole by black artists and authors and featured poetry, literature, biographies of successful black people, music, games, plays, and current events. Du Bois himself wrote the column “As the Crow Flies.” Many authors got their starts contributing to this magazine, including Langston Hughes.

Du Bois was a man of great conviction and valued education above all else. He particularly advocated for education in the arts, as he felt such schooling could lift one above his or her current station in life. He disagreed with another tireless African-American civil-rights advocate, Booker T. Washington, who believed in a more practical education in the trades. In the words of Du Bois, “Education must not simply teach work—it must teach life.”

Du Bois himself was a very accomplished man and likely arrived at his opinions due to his upbringing. He was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, into a socially progressive community which embraced a more racially integrated way of life. His experiences afforded him a good start in life and he noted, “I had a happy childhood and acceptance in the community.” Because of his progressive beginnings, he had the opportunity to receive a good education and went on to become the first African American to graduate with a Ph.D. from Harvard. Throughout his life he was deeply involved in the fight for the rights of African-Americans and was also a prolific author of such important works as The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America. He also wrote many treatises and essays as well as three autobiographies.

Who knows how many young African-Americans read the Brownies’ book and took inspiration from it? It was, and still is, a charming publication, filled with enchanting stories, adorable photographs and illustrations and good writing. It was Du Bois’ keen hope that he was helping to educate “the talented Tenth of the Negro race [as they must] be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people.”

The Brownies’ Book is also the focus of the Library’s latest Pinterest board.

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