W.E.B. DuBois and The Brownies’ Book

An illustration of forest nymphs at night under a full moon.

The March 1920 cover of “The Brownies’ Book.” Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

—This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, an educational programs specialist in the Informal Learning Office. It appears in the Library of Congress Magazine and on the Library’s blog for families, Minerva’s Kaleidoscope.

In 2022, the movement for diversity and representation in children’s literature has ensured that more children can see themselves in books and 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. (The Library has and preserves the Brownies’s Books issues, along with many other Du Bois works and resources; use the two links above for more.)

The Brownies’ Book offered a groundbreaking mix of stories, advice, information and correspondence with the paramount goal of empowering Black children and validating their interests. Content included African folk tales, stories and poems about the origin of different races and messages about self-respect and pride in one’s appearance.

A story  from the Jan. 1920 edition showcased stories of “shining examples” of children’s achievement.

The magazine also asked for “pictures and accounts of the deeds of colored children.” Readers responded enthusiastically — each issue included many photographs of African American youngsters and their activities. There are images of Boy Scouts and Girl Reserve groups, football games, debating teams, dance students, nursing school graduates and more. These must have been a welcome affirmation and validation of readers’ experiences and interests.

After just two years, financial problems ended publication of The Brownies’ Book. Today, some of the language and attitudes seem old-fashioned, and there’s some difficult content. Still, they deliver real insight into the lives and concerns of Black children a hundred years ago.

With the publication of the magazine, Du Bois aimed to create “a thing of Joy and Beauty” — or, as he put it in the dedication of the first issue in January 1920:

“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.”

Sketching of a little Black girl in a white dress holding lilies, with a white rabbit looking up at her. The grass and title of the magazine are a delicate shade of green, matching the sash on the dress

The Easter 1920 edition of The Brownie’s Book.

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