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.
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. 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.
While 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). These 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.