This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, Educational Programs Specialist in the Informal Learning Office.
To Children, who with eager look
Scanned vainly library shelf and nook,
For History or Song or Story
That told of Colored People’s glory,
We dedicate THE BROWNIES’ BOOK.
In 2022, the movement for diversity and representation in children’s literature has ensured that more children can see themselves and their experiences in books, and can learn about others’ lives too. A century ago, things were very different. Writer, scholar and activist W.E. B. Du Bois recognized the need for young African Americans to see themselves and their concerns reflected in print–The Brownies’ Book, a monthly magazine for the “Children of the Sun…..designed for all children, but especially for ours” was his response. Du Bois aimed to instill and reinforce pride in Black youth and to help Black families as they raised children in a segregated and prejudiced world. There’s more about the creation of the magazine here.
You can access digitized issues of The Brownies’ Book on the Library of Congress website; you will find a groundbreaking mix of stories, advice, information, and correspondence. In every issue, the goal of empowering Black children and validating their interests was paramount. Content included African folk tales, stories and poems about the origin of different races, and many messages about self-respect and pride in one’s appearance.
Each month featured “As the Crow Flies,” a roundup of current affairs. The column in the first issue of January 1920 demonstrates its range. Post-World War I peace negotiations and the situation in Europe, unrest in Egypt, Irish and Indian independence movements, and strikes and race riots in America are just a few of the events covered. Death announcements of “persons of wide renown” mention former congressman George White, businesswoman Madam C. J. Walker and musician James Reese Europe. A short but poignant last sentence honors the war dead – “Nor may we forget the thousand black boys dead for France.”
The magazine asked for “pictures and accounts of the deeds of colored children.” Readers responded enthusiastically, writing in to The Jury on all topics, as pages from March and June 1920 show. Letters from January and April 1920 in The Grown-Ups’ Corner column speak eloquently to adult appreciation for how The Brownies’ Book would instill “race love and race pride” in children and tell “them something of what their own race is doing.” There are pages of pictures of children and teens submitted by readers. The impact of so many published photos must have been a welcome affirmation and validation of readers’ lives and interests. Every issue included images of African American youngsters going about their daily lives. There are pictures of Boy Scouts and girl reserve groups, football games, debating teams, amateur dramatics, dance students, nursing school graduates, and more. Images of life in other countries feature too, such as a princess and school girls from Ethiopia, African boys, Filipino schoolgirls, and a wedding in Cameroon. These were supplemented by articles on geography, history and world affairs like this one, from the first issue, and another published in March 1920.
There were many requests for stories about “colored men and women of achievement,” as in this mother’s letter. Schoolgirl Claudia Moore was “tired of hearing only of white heroes.” The Brownies’ Book obliged – there are articles on Black icons such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Toussaint L’Ouverture and others including sailor Captain Cuffee, Senator Blanche K. Bruce, and musician Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Little People of the Month held up peers as role models, as in these examples from October 1920 and March 1921.
After just two years, financial problems ended publication of The Brownies’ Book. The final copy from December 1921 isn’t in the Library’s collections, but you can read it here. There’s only room here for the briefest outline of the magazine, so I encourage you to look through the issues online. The language and some of the attitudes are old-fashioned and there’s some difficult content, but they deliver a real insight into the lives and concerns of African American children a hundred years ago. As we read the many wide-ranging materials available today, let’s remember W.E.B. Du Bois’s foresight in creating The Brownies Book and his goal of producing “a thing of Joy and Beauty” that would “seek to teach Universal Love and Brotherhood for all little folk.”
The Library has hosted a symposium on children’s literature for several years. You can find a recording of the 2021 symposium here, a recording of the 2019 symposium here, and a recording of similar program from 2015 here. For more on the history of “The Brownies’ Book” and diversity in children’s literature, see this 30-minute documentary, “Tell Me Another Story,” from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.
Note: Images of swastikas appear between articles in some of the early issues. This is jarring for readers today, but in 1920, before its association with Nazism, it was viewed as a good luck symbol, reflecting its long history as such in Asia, Europe and Africa.