“The Snowy Day” in Brooklyn 50 Years Later… Visual Emancipations Continued

Though I do not like cold weather or shoveling, spooning away the snow so that I could open up my iron gate and shoveling out my stoop and sidewalk to get myself out of the house today was, I confess, a little fun.  This is the first, real snow in Brooklyn this year and it seems to have brought calm and quiet (there are no power outages or serious emergencies nearby).  No one is driving, honking, walking, working, hustling, or hammering at the factories across the way.  So there’s really nothing to do but stay indoors or go out and play in the snow.   Of all things, snow like this makes me think about one of the cutest, little black boys I know.  His name is Peter and you can see him in Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (there is an online version at this link).  This Snowy Day today comes exactly 50 years after this children’s book was first awarded the Caldecott with Keats using his own hometown of Brooklyn as the inspiration for the book’s setting.

The book is about a child’s experience of wonderment after waking up from a night’s sleep to a world blanketed in snow.  What made this book such a landmark was that this child is black!  In 1962, a children’s book with a black male child as the subject was unheard of.  In fact, most people never even realized that Ezra Jack Keats was white, a Jewish artist who grew up poor in New York feeling the results of invisibility and ethnic hostility himself.SnowyDay

As Jerry Pinkney, award-winning African American illustrator of children’s books, reminds us (himself inspired by Keats’s depiction of Peter), in 1962, a children’s book about a little black boy would never have been published by a black author and illustrator. Keats faced some deserved criticism for never explicitly referencing the race and culture of the child in his written text.  We don’t really see or know much about Peter’s neighborhood, his family, or his (cultural) context.  What is striking though is that the book still upturned the children’s literary world anyway with just one thing: the visual rhetoric of a little, black boy who simply plays and smiles and looks out the window and wonders.  Keats himself was inspired to create the book after seeing a photo essay of a little boy in 1940 in Life magazine who he thought deserved to be the center of a really innocent child’s tale about joyfully playing.  Keats may not have understood cultural context, but he certainly saw the aesthetic beauty in black children. 41mVs1m7wPL._SL500_AA300_I myself have the book in three, different iterations and I even have the doll that was made a few years ago.  What Keats missed in cultural context, he captured in visual rhetoric by creating the cutest, little black boy in a red snowsuit who is absolutely mesmerized by seeing his footprints in the snow, finding a stick to shake snow off of a tree, feeling snow plop on his head after he shakes the tree, and making snow angels.  Yes, absolutely adorable!

I don’t think enough of us realize that the children’s literature that we have today that features (non-Sambo-typed) children and stories related to people of African descent was a result of Black Freedom Struggles related to the Civil Rights/Black Power Movements.  Before that, only white children counted as children/human in this literary world (not that this isn’t still the case given the fascination with Harry Potter, fairy tales, and the likes). The context of these Black Freedom Struggles explains not only why we have Black Children’s Literature now but also why so many prominent African American writers and visual artists, people who you would normally think would focus their attention only on adults and the world of art galleries, have always been involved with children’s literature.  I have always been mesmerized that artists like Tom Feelings turned their aesthetic gaze toward depicting beautiful and powerful images of black children rather than only toward the fine arts world.  The work of presenting an alternative, aesthetic and ideological world to black children will always be deeply political under structured inequalities.  We need only think back to how nervous Hoover and COINTELPRO became by the Breakfast Program for children that the Black Panther Party ran— this was what Hoover saw as most dangerous, as dangerous as guns.  This is worth noting, especially for those of us who think the images, contexts, and experiences that we serve up to black children can ever be racially neutralized.

Honey-I-Love-and-Other-Love-Poems-9780808567431While Keats introduced me to the cutest little black boy ever, it was the Dillons, as illustrators, and Eloise Greenfield, as writer, that gave me little black girls so that I could better see myself and the little girls I played with.  That book is Honey, I Love published in 1978.  In Rudine Sim Bishop’s interview, Greenfield tells Bishop, a noted historian and scholar of African American children’s literature:

I liked that phrase, “Honey, let me tell you.” It was a phrase that was used a lot by African American people, but it had not reached the point where it had become stereotyped. So I wanted to use that, and that’s where the title came from. And I wanted to write about things that children love, about childhoods where there may or may not be much money, but there’s so much fun.

I have owned many copies of this book in my day— all replicas of the original, small pocket version, pictured above, that I would stuff in my purse when I was trying to imitate the grown-up ladies, stuffing it, also of course with nothing but small toys and candies (I also, however, have the equally stunning later 1995 version illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist).  greenfield 2These little girls with hair/afros that come alive and dance all over the page as much as their arms and legs are absolutely stunning. Honey, I Love, just like The Snowy Day, offers us counter-hegemonic and revolutionary visual images of black children; but where Honey diverges is that we get a Black Story, a Black Girl story, a series of poems no less, to go along with the visual emancipation of what Greenfield calls “sweet little gingerbread girls” (see the poem, Keepsake).  In the book, you can find one of these little, black girls trying on her momma’s clothes and learning to stuff things in a pocketbook too; while yet another is dancing to Earth Wind and Fire and The Jackson Five!

As someone who studies, thinks and write about literacies and composition studies, these books— or, rather, these AfroVisual manifestoes— offer me an important reminder: radical texts do not simply offer us new, powerful ways to read and write and do language.  They also help us SEE.  After all my shoveling and playing in the snow today, this is what I will be thinking about.

Public & Private Writing on New Plantations


See 2008 South Carolina State Museum Exhibit

My graduate advisor, Suzanne Carothers, is one of the most thoughtful pedagogues that I know, someone who thinks about the education of pre-school and elementary black children in strikingly alternative and radical ways.  In a recent conversation, she reminded me that black children’s role on slave plantations was to take care of white children close in age group.  Until that conversation, I had not thought of the wide-ranging ramifications of this.  It immediately triggered the countless histories and narratives I have read of African American adults explaining how they learned to read and write in slavery via the required chores they had to perform as children: carry  white children’s books for them to school; stand outside the schoolroom and wait for white children to finish school and carry their things home; stand in attention while white children learned or played, eagerly awaiting a command from them.  We know from the archives that black children used these moments to eavesdrop on school lessons, learn the alphabet, and trick white kids in disseminating the information white children had learned.   We have not talked enough though about what this relationship between white children and black children as learners meant for the epistemological construction of plantation life.  What is most interesting to me is the way in which Carothers marks this relationship as central to classrooms today: black children are still always expected to teach and help white children understand race or African American lives.  In my teaching context, I am talking about those moments in the college classroom where the issue of race or black history comes up and all the white people in the classroom turn to look at the one (or two or three) black student(s) in the room.  Or, there is the moment where a certain theory or issue comes up that is so obviously racialized, but it is up to that one (or two or three) black student(s) in the room to point it out, not the teacher’s role, and the room (or digital interface), of course, just goes dead silent. This seems like a story every black college graduate I know can tell and you can read about this kind of psychic warfare in countless educational accounts of black students’ experiences in schools.  I don’t think, however, we are often inclined to call and link these experiences of black students to slavery in the way Carothers has for me: these kind of moments in classrooms are simply the vestige of a plantation economy of knowledge and learning in the context of white dominance. That kind of framework pushes me to think about race and classrooms in a whole different way and question how, when, and where white children are made dominant.


Slave Children on Board the “Daphne”

I would like to hold myself accountable to offering black students something different from this “plantation economy of knowledge and learning in the context of white dominance.”   What this means concretely, for instance, right now is that in the first three weeks of my current class, my students do print-based writing (there is an informal writing assignment due each class) that they can email or hand in to ONLY me.  They are not posting their stuff online anywhere for the class or the world to read.  I need to see, hear, encounter their racial ideologies first and take them on.  I need to see who and what I am working with first.  I especially need to see the work we will need to do as a classroom before we can educate people outside of our classroom.  It is a seeming contradiction that so much, if not ALL, of my class depends on digital spaces; yet my students are not writing in the same open, digital spaces that contains the class materials (not yet).   To put it most simply: NO STUDENT in my class will be waxing on online with anti-black comments.  I am thinking here about my first semester teaching graduate classes where white male graduate students wrote quite freely in their weekly seminar papers about how lazy black people are and how slutty black women are.  I deal with that quite readily and willingly on my own, and pretty regularly (and have been able to count on white faculty not noticing or caring).  In my second year as an assistant professor, I encountered a white male student who had text-messaged sexually vile statements to the women of color in one of his classes where students were required to put their numbers on a class-distributed phone list.  When I reported his behavior, it was clear to me that I alone— the only untenured member of the department of the time— had to work with the women to file a complaint and would have to deal with the student alone in my own class in a way that would make sure he didn’t pass my class and, therefore, lose his position in the program— a program that certified teachers to work in urban high schools.  Like I said, I KNOW I am alone on all of this but I am also very clear: such students will not unleash racial violence and distribute their texts online in digitized classroom-discussion boards or in public online spaces as part of the work that happens in my class.  Not. On. My. Watch.  From my perspective, teachers need to be held accountable for such digital texts when white men such as the ones I described go online with this stuff. It is not the job of black students in the class to challenge them, to help them, to push them, all of which, as Carothers helped me to see, is a kind of ongoing plantation logic and relationship system.   Despite the liberalism that would say everyone is speaking their own minds, it is not a democracy when black people are being dehumanized.  I am not talking about the alternative liberal universe either where we don’t talk about race at all (hence, no one noticing the ideas of white male students I am talking about except me).  What I am talking about here is a kind of AfroDigital consciousness that works against these public spaces when the violence of racism is fully alive in classrooms.  No teacher’s classroom and no teacher’s assignment are ever innocent!

My class this semester always enrolls a large number of black female students, probably more than any other class on the campus (I learned yesterday that mine is the only class about black women).  I will not expose them to students who espouse anti-black/anti-black-woman diatribes on class digital, discussion boards. I know the damage that does given how many students of color come to me to talk about exactly such experiences in their other classes (I won’t even tell you how many white students have dropped my classes, no matter the subject, after the first day seeing me and seeing my syllabus).  Black women get enough of this kind of hostility elsewhere; they don’t need more of it in my classroom too.  As we move through the semester, I strategically choose when and where students will go public with their writing—whether with the class or with the wider digital universe.  I think this is especially relevant given a kind of liberalist mantra in my field about the general goodness of all, real audiences when students write digital texts.  I ain’t tryna hear that.  I experience writing and audience in very different ways.

I want to see teachers (and in my field, this means mostly white teachers) held accountable for the epistemological violence their students inflict on black bodies.  I am not suggesting that it is the fault of teachers when their students espouse racism but when they do that espousing within a public assignment that is teacher-required, then teachers need to be held accountable.   In fact, I think it is a crucial aspect of an AfroDigital pedagogy to further this kind of accountability.  It ain’t democratic to let students say and do racism; but we can surely ensure democracy by checking them and their teachers on it.  An AfroDigital pedagogy  does not comfort and take care of white children on our newest plantations in ways that maintain racialized hierarchies.  It must achieve the opposite.

Black Girlhood Stories: Love, Emancipation & Final Proclamations

Illustration from the children's book, Aida, told by Leontyne Price and illustrated by the Dillons

This is an llustration from the children’s book, Aida, as told by Leontyne Price and illustrated by the Leo and Diane Dillon.

If I don’t find some magical story about love— a black woman and a black man/ a black woman and a black woman— geared for children and young readers, I will have a coup on my hands in my classroom.   If I am saying all this foolishness in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog or Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters represents exploitation and neglect, not love, and that young women have been bamboozled, my black female students especially will ask me to show them some love then.

I thought I found something positive for my anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls with the Nutmeg Princess by Ricardo Keens-Douglas and illustrated by Annouchka Galouchko, but it was just another story where a little girl must prove herself.  The little boy in this narrative is attentive and generous, unlike in Mufaro where men just need to be.  However, the little girl literally saves the boy’s life, the final proof that she is as good as him.  I like that the girl does the saving but why does she have to prove her goodness and worth and save a boy, while he has nothing to prove and saves absolutely no one?  In the end, the nutmeg princess is revealed to both children and they inherit a nutmeg farm (they are not romantic though, but real partners and community members, which I like).  I also looked at Aida— yes, as in the opera— that is also a children’s book with the story of the opera told by Leontyne Price and illustrated by the Dillons.  The artwork here is amazing and I love Price’s telling as well as her personal narrative at the very end.   In Price’s performances of this opera, she is able to take Verdi’s  imaginings and transform the entire experience into a powerful story with herself at center. The children’s book form, however, doesn’t manage to do this.  The plot?  Prob. Le. Ma. Tic.  Neither of these books challenge male domination and female subordination for children. I will certainly keep collecting children’s books for my campaign and discuss them here, but I have some final thoughts now.


African American Slavery Monument in Savannah, GeorgiaThis monument was erected in 2002. It depicts a black family in a tight embrace with broken shackles at their feet. The inscription is by Maya Angelou: "We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy."

African American Slavery Monument in Savannah, Georgia
This monument was erected in 2002. It depicts a black family in a tight embrace with broken shackles at their feet. The inscription is by Maya Angelou: “We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy.”

As for finding a radical fairy tale, black love story for children?  That white supremacy requires such a stunning erasure of such a thing seems telling.  So… I have decided that I will use history.  Since I am planning a group activity for the class on the day when we engage what I have been calling my anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls, I will ask the visual artists, spoken word poets, and creative writers in the class to take on a specific task: create a real love story, adding all the magic they want, as long as the historical context stays the same.  I plan to use a letter written by a slave that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has archived, a letter that Heather Andrea Williams features in her book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.  The letter is dated one month after the Emancipation Proclamation (February 4, 1863), almost 150 years ago today.   The man, living in Georgia, and his wife, living in Alabama, are still enslaved.  It was always highly unlikely that black spouses would ever see each other again since no slaveowner was required, encouraged or expected to accept slaves’ marriage as legally binding.  On top of that, the husband, James Tate, could not read and write so he had to rely on whites to write and read his letters to and from his wife, Olivia Tate, when they were separated and owned by different “masters.”  In what is apparently his last letter to her, Mr. Tate tells Mrs. Tate that his master does not like him writing to her and wants him to marry someone else.  Mr. Tate professes an undying love for his wife and closes his letter by telling her he will only contact her again if he gets married.  While many read this as representative of slaves understanding that their relationships/marriages were short-lived, it seems Mr. Tate may be also telling his wife something else here, a message she would have understood. I’m going to ask students to read between the lines, to see what the husband and wife are communicating and planning, 250 miles away from one another, with whites reading and writing every word. I want them to construct a narrative from this real-life love story.  As of 1870, according to Williams’s retrieval of their census records, the Tates were together again, with children, all living together in Fulton County, Georgia, a happy ending if there ever was one and a very rare one for newly emancipated African Americans too.  Too many— parents, children, spouse— simply never found each other again after being sold off to different corners of the world.

Just because the dominant storytelling machines won’t give us the black, love stories so many of my students want does not mean we do not have the stories.  So here will be some of the guidelines for students in this group to write their own fairy tale in class with Mr. and Mrs. Tate as very real characters:

  • Students will read my summary and excerpts of the husband’s letter (they can go to the Schomburg to see the actual letter and/or to Census records on their own).  So here you have a context where black people are not legally allowed to marry and are not legally allowed to read and write and, yet and still, you have two black people who are married, writing letters to one another.  Who/what will we personify as evil here?  How will we describe such seemingly insurmountable odds and such unyielding determination?
  • yemayaThe Emancipation Proclamation had just been signed at the time of this letter. Both Mr. and and Mrs. Tate would have known this so they would have had hope that slavery would be ending soon, especially seeing how many black men were enlisted in the Union Army.  This couple is clearly planning something.  What is their secret plan and how are they transmitting these secret messages to one another?
  • Mr. and Mrs. Tate would have needed a strong bond and ability to really “read” one another since their every word in every letter is being monitored.  Can we take magic all the way here?  Here are some examples: the couple could have a family ancestor/GodMother deliver messages between them; the couple could be protected by Yemaya who is watching over them until thy reunite (In Yoruba, Yemaya was known as the river goddess but she became the Goddess of the Ocean during the Middle Passage when she nurtured the millions who traveled/died in the Atlantic Ocean.)  How can we add a magical dimension to this love story that honors the history and legacy?  Remember: it must be a story for children.
  • The Tate family is finally re-united but this re-unionification does NOT come with the riches of a kingdom/empire.  The only wealth here is being able to be with one another and finally get married under God and U.S. law.  I want this point stressed given how in fairy tales, the girls are really my college student’s age and they all get over like a fat rat in the end  (Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog, is an immediately wealthy entrepreneur at 19.  Really?)   Can we use The Tates to define wealth and love OUTSIDE of commodification and materialism, since this is what The Tates would have had to do anyway since they KNEW what it meant to literally BE the commodity and the raw material.  What is the happy ending here? Or, rather, what is the  beginning?  What this will really mean is creating a male character who can forego patriarchy: i.e., NOT surrounding himself with women until he gets to be with his wife, ignoring his wife’s needs while focusing only on massaging his own self-esteem, or expecting a wife’s support and silence while he leads his own independent life/rules the kingdom.  Can we imagine Mr. Tate as someone who can take what he knows about being treated as a thing and make sure he doesn’t turn around and treat Mrs. Tate as a thing?
  • As newly emancipated, the Tates would not have had an inheritance from their parents to live on or a lifetime of money saved up from their work since their labor was clearly never remunerated.  Students will have to be creative, as creative as the Tates, in even figuring out how they physically reconnected (given the constraints of travel and their financial situation) that could very well have involved routes similar to traveling the Underground Railroad. How are the Tates imagining a future and how are they sustaining the image?  How can we push ourselves to imagine the success of their relationship as not resting on material accumulation?
  • The adinkra symbol for the "Power of Love."

    The adinkra symbol for the “Power of Love.”

    James Tate is not saving Olivia Tate; they are saving one another.  What would a mutually respectful relationship look like after all they have been through?

The Tates represent something different from Western tales where love is professed all over the place, all the time, right away, but never lived out as a practice.  As naive and silly as it might seem on my part, I just can’t imagine either one of The Tates even having the time or energy for anyone or anything other than, mostly, each other and their work.  To outsmart the forced separation of slavery and find one another again would have required them to be very mindful. It can’t be stressed enough that the very ability to focus on being together— given a context that had denied black folk legalized or self-sponsored relationships (for more than a century!)— would have been, in and of itself, radical.   Neither one can be so self-absorbed in their own individualized worlds that they do not truly notice or support the other— they simply wouldn’t have achieved their outcome.  I see Olivia and James Tate as people with a fierce, undistracted focus who get to exactly where they are trying to go, despite odds many of us can barely even imagine now.

That’s all I got right now as a fairy tale, black love story for my students— something we will need to write ourselves.  What I am hoping is that students will actually experience how they will have to drop the dominant, Disney fairy tale/princess narrative in order to write this kind of black love story with this very real history in our focus, now 150 years later.  After being at the bottom of everything, I want my students to see that black women do not come home and allow themselves to be at the bottom (or be objects) there too.  The kinds of men and the kinds of situations that require this bottom-dwelling are just not worthy of us.  The Tates actually remind me of an expression that I have always heard my grandparents’ generation say to younger people as a warning to wrongdoers (like a neighbor who had the time to be casually befriending a woman because he was emotionally neglecting his partner— well, former partner) or as a kernel of advice (for how you actually hold on to a valued partner, friend, or entity of value): you always take care of home.  I was well into my adulthood before I understood that “home” here was not a place, a house, a possession, or a nuclear family system even; taking care of home is about being fully present, bearing full witness to the lives of the people you love, and, thus, livin/lovin right.  Taking care of home isn’t always about romance either; it means fiercely recognizing and reciprocating all of the friends and supporters that have sustained you rather than neglecting them, runnin behind folks who do nothing for you. odonI don’t think it is a coincidence that the adinkra symbol, called the “power of love” (pictured above and right), defines home in a similar way: ODO NNYEW FIE KWAN, which, roughly translated from the Akan, means “love never loses its way home.”  I want to see the kinds of children’s stories/ fairy tales where black women are undoing men’s ongoing domination, indifference, neglect, and promotion of white/passive femininity and, instead, show black people takin care of home.


*I plan to also muck up the heteronormative and cisnormative center of fairy tales with another activity: a story of two, young black women’s romantic love for one another. I have given up all hope of finding a children’s book like that, especially because  I also want this story to move away from the white, male homonormative gaze that looks out on black women (read Edward Ndopu’s insightful analysis here).

I will look for another history here too and I will also look at some of the personal narratives and autobiographies my own students have written in my classes in the past.  It strikes me that the young black women in love with other young black women have told/written loves stories that go so far past the white princess chokehold.  For the young black women I have in mind here, in order for their love stories to survive, they have had to write a different script for their lives. That is where I am taking my reading and course planning now.

Like I said, if we do not have such fairy tales, we simply need to write them ourselves and in so doing, invent a whole new genre.


At the end of the day, I want students to confront these tricky narratives and ongoing emblems of white femininity that so many of them have bought into.  I always tend to really overplay the first few days and early weeks of a semester because that is where the foundation is laid.  By the middle of the semester, students have had their ideas shaken up and you can just flow and they will flow with you.  I can let the words and lives of women like Ella Baker, Elaine Brown, Maria Stewart, and Shirley Chisholm do all the work.  I don’t have to plan such counter-attacks on the dominant narratives that are holding their imaginations and ideological horizons hostage.  In the beginning of the semester, though, before they have fully met the women on the syllabus, things are rough.  Students often tell me that they don’t know what to make of the black women they are reading who simply are not very lady-like and are so political and, therefore, aggressive.  I intend to start the class by questioning these definitions of womanhood and keeping new hopes high for this new semester.

Black Girlhood Stories: Knowing Haints & “Her Stories”

SAMSUNG“I was the child who listened closely to grown-up women talking.  To this day, I remember how my grandmother, my aunts and great-aunts and elder cousins looked when they talked. I’ve never forgotten how they move their hands and gestured with their arms.  The sounds of their voices and much of what they said stays with me.  When I was a child, I heard stories told by women…”

These are the words of the renowned storyteller/folklorist and children’s author, Virginia Hamilton, at the close of her book.  I want to incorporate Hamilton’s text into my anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls, not just for the stories themselves, but because of Hamilton’s prominence in this literary world and for Hamilton’s description of her original desire to do this kind of storytelling archive to connect/hear the women in her family.  37223115So today I revisited  Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories.    The two stories most relevant to my “campaign” here are “Malindy and Little Devil” and “Woman and Man Started Even.”

Both stories have black women tricking the devil.  The first story (from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia) is about a little girl and revises the story of Faustus, the magician who sold his soul to the devil; the second story (from Tennessee) makes women the fallen angels but revises women’s usual partaking of the fallen apple.  I point back to my last post about Dr. Facile in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog in comparison to these actual folkways in which spirits, magic, and demons would have circulated in black communities’ orature.  Both tales are quite funny and offer completely different kinds of black female heroines.  I’m not one to turn my back on a good story with some magic and I have always loved a good story about, what my family calls, haints.  Every princess fairy tale has spirits and witchcraft, which are also always already cultural forms and stories too.  Since black orature might be the only space where black people are not THE DEMONS or DEVIL itself in such tales, seeing where black women figure in this tradition is important.

1Malindy is a little girl who loves to sing and dance: “everywhere she went, she sang about it… and she would sway this way and that, to and fro.”  The way the story is set up already makes me laugh—it just sounds like a description I have heard and a little girl who I might have met.  Well, apparently, Malindy would sway “to and fro” just a little too much and so one day she dropped her pail of milk on the ground and all over herself.  Crying and too scared to go home with no milk and a ruined dress, she sits on the fence and cries until the devil comes along, a wee little furry thing with a long tail, “no bigger than a minute.”   The devil is “just starting out with his devilment” and it’s his first case with a child so he makes a pact with Malindy: he will receive her soul when she turns 29; she will, in return, get a new pail of milk and a clean dress. The devil gives her until she is 29 years old to live and returns to collect her SOUL.   When he knocks on her door asking for her SOUL, Malindy takes off her shoe, tears off one SOLE, and gives it to him and him, not knowing any better, thinks he has the real thing.  Sometimes, to win in the end, you just need clever word-play!

“Malindy and Little Devil” dates back to the 1890s and highlights the kind of humor and love of language play that shapes how I understand African American rhetoric, language, and literacy.  I like this fusion of pleasure and politics.  There is a kind of joy in telling and hearing these stories, much like what Hamilton describes when she talks about her memories of women’s stories, both in how they sounded from women’s mouths and in the gestures that corresponded.  Joy and ongoing participation obviously do not come here from the paraphernalia/brand that you buy.  The point of such language play, however, is not merely to just be clever.  I can point to numerous examples of creative wordplay in black language, like Lil Wayne’s lyrics for instance.  Clever lyrical displays, however, without meaningful content/message mean nothing.  It’s the content of the wordplay and what you make it do that matter.  Even the meanest and evilest of things, in this case the devil, can be reduced to being “no bigger than minute,” which made me laugh when I first heard it.  Telling this kind of story that reduces even the devil to smallness is a rhetorical imagination that seems HUGE to me in the context of Post-Reconstruction, the time frame connected to this story.  And even though Malindy did a foolish thing that endangered herself, her life is not over.  She can always go back in her head, remember what happened in the past, and then re-cast that history for the present and future, even when the devil comes back.

2In “Woman and Man Started Even,” we learn two things about these two characters: “she couldn’t win over him, and he couldn’t beat her. That was the way it was. Just level.”  Well, Man just couldn’t stand this.  He couldn’t stand the idea of a woman being around that he couldn’t “whip.”   Yes, that is exactly what the story says, now if that’s not signifying on men, then I just don’t know what is!  So Man went up to God and asked for more strength so he could be better than Woman and was granted his wish.  Woman asked God to reverse this but was denied so she got highly upset.  In her rage against God, she opened herself up to the devil’s presence who she told her woes to.  The devil encouraged Woman to go back to God and ask for the “keys hanging by the left pearly gate.”  When she got the keys, she commenced to locking up all of man’s stuff and every place he liked, like the kitchen and bedroom.  Even though he was so much stronger now, he couldn’t unlock anything Woman didn’t want him to.  And because Woman refused to trade in or share her keys for some of Man’s strength, she’s the one who has the inside knowledge of everything and the real power.

Now if I can get my students to put aside their dutiful, Christian abhorrence of a story that includes the presence of the devil, then they might enjoy “Woman and Man Started Even.”  This second story still nests women with the devil and there are obviously all kinds of (subtle?) expectations about women’s chastity and virginity here (i.e., keeping everything locked up).  So the story doesn’t overturn men’s dominance but Woman here KNOWS that!  She does not believe in, value, or respect Man’s power over her and she will use them locks in every way she can.  Power is named and called out, even if it cannot be fully dismantled.  She is no victim or passive participant in an unchanging script.  There’s no reason why fairy tales and folktales can’t frame such a critical understanding of our social order, especially if black women are going to the main characters.  I find both pleasure and political power in knowing that African American folktales for children have offered such examples.