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Reflecting on James Baldwin and His Celebration of Youth

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This post was co-authored by Kaleena Black, Educational Resources Specialist, and Monica Valentine, Program Specialist in the Library’s Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement.

August 2 would have been the 96th birthday of James Baldwin, a literary icon widely known for his compelling, powerful writing, social advocacy, and civil rights activism. With the ongoing conversations about race and racism in the United States, Baldwin’s words have been echoed and analyzed and remain relevant for adults and teens alike.

While Baldwin’s literary focus is largely for and about adults, in 1976 he wrote Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood. Re-released by Duke University Press in 2018, it is a fictional work based on the childhood adventures of Baldwin’s nephew Tejan (“TJ”) and niece Aisha in Harlem, New York in the 1970s. In addition to bold illustrations by French artist Yoran Cazac and unique subject matter, the narrative is written in African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

Portrait of James Baldwin by Carl Van Vechten, 1955. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

There has been some debate about whether Little Man, Little Man is a book for children, or a book for adults. Indeed, it explores the sometimes colorful experiences of childhood, as well as some more difficult, confusing aspects. In that sense, the book may also require some context and/or age considerations for younger children. Still, the themes raised (e.g., youth identity, childhood, growing up, documenting your own story in a way that is true to you)—along with these other resources that feature Baldwin and his perspectives on “youth,” may spark some productive intergenerational conversations.

Last February, the Library hosted a program for high school students to explore Little Man, Little Man and Baldwin’s legacy. The conversation included editor Nicholas Boggs, best-selling author Jason Reynolds, and Aisha Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s niece. Karefa-Smart remarked about her uncle wanting to “bear witness” (which seems evident from his decision to not only write about her and her brother’s childhood experience, but to capture it genuinely).

Included below are some highlights of the program with prompts to start a conversation:

  • 22:50-24:00: Karefa-Smart discusses Baldwin’s choice to write the book in AAVE, saying, “He wanted to write in a language that was recognizable to us” (23:34), “He felt that it was important to validate the way we speak when we’re amongst each other.” You may want to talk with kids about what they think it means to “bear witness” to young people’s lives in children’s literature, and why they think Baldwin chose to write the book in AAVE.
  • 26:51: Jason Reynolds shined a light on Baldwin’s influence on later writers, including himself and his mentor, the late Walter Dean Myers. Reynolds noted that Baldwin gave them both “permission” to write about “the interior lives” of young people. You may want to reflect on that idea, and get your children’s thoughts on what they think that means.

The Library’s online collections also include some resources about Baldwin’s life, work, and legacy, such as:

  • A brief biography in “Today in History,” a recording of Baldwin reading from his work, and a blog post published on Baldwin’s birthday in 2017.
  • Video clips of James Baldwin, including a conversation with young people in 1963 about race and civil rights and a presentation at a National Press Club Luncheon on December 10, 1986. Start listening at 48:12 to 49:36, when Baldwin reflects on “youth in America.” He proclaims, “…children, unlike their elders, are not very easily fooled. That’s what fascinates me today.”

And if you’re feeling inspired, here’s an activity idea: Baldwin begins Little Man, Little Man by describing the street TJ lives on in great detail, using colors, sounds, and descriptive words. Consider exploring your neighborhood (or a nearby place that is personally meaningful) with the kids in your life, and try to notice as much as you can around you together. Have kids describe what they see, hear, feel, and think and recreate the experience through words or illustration.

If any of these resources spark any thought-provoking conversation, please let us know in the comments section!

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