Books help fight racism but we must act on what we know
Book recommendations about race and racism in America have rapidly circulated on social media and news outlets as protests against anti-black violence continue for the third week.
Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, and Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist have soared to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list and Brittany Smith’s book recommendations for children — including Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harris, and Schomburg by Carole Weatherford and Eric Velasquez — went viral on Twitter.
The turn to books to combat racism is not new. During the Second World War, black women librarians created lists of antiracist books as an explicitly political act. While their work transformed the nature of education, the limitations of their work remind us that change only happens when people act on the ideas in books.
The racist ideology advanced by Nazi Germany inspired a new interest in “intercultural education” in America. Books, national teaching journals and curriculums, among other educational resources and programmes, emphasised tolerance towards others. These resources informed students about the political, social and cultural contributions of different ethnic and racial groups.
Black people at home agreed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt that “books are weapons”. As they worked to expose the hypocrisy of a war for democracy abroad while they were routinely denied their democratic rights in America, they, too, turned to education as an important front in the war against racism. Recognising that ideas about race developed in childhood, white and black parents, teachers and librarians sought out non-racist books about black life for children. Several black women librarians emerged to meet the high demand, turning reading and book publishing into an anti-racist campaign, long before the term itself was coined.
Charlemae Rollins, the children’s librarian at the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, was one of them. 1941 saw the publication of her pamphlet of 72 books about black life entitled We Build Together: A Reader’s Guide to Negro Life and Literature for Elementary and High School Use. One of the first of its kind, the pamphlet listed books that depicted black life truthfully, called out books that contained stereotypes and established criteria for evaluating children’s books about black people.
Rollins argued that stories should not encourage readers to feel superior or inferior to other racial groups, nor should they promote nostalgia for the antebellum South. Rollins also insisted that books avoid offensive language in reference to black people and avoid inauthentic dialect, which children had difficulty reading and understanding. The illustrations should not dehumanise black characters by exaggerating their features or playing into any stereotype.
In Rollins’s view, books that met these standards would boost black children’s self-esteem and foster respect for black people among white children. She argued that books had the power to reverse the dehumanisation of racial minorities, and so she recommended books like Jane Schakelford’s My Happy Days, Stella Sharpe’s Tobe, and Langston Hughes’s Not Without Laughter.
The book list was well received, in Rollins’s opinion, and there was enough interest and demand that she launched a second edition in 1948. The sociopolitical context was essential to its success. According to Rollins, the Second World War opened the doors for “the coloured peoples of the world” to demand “equal partnership with the white minority of humankind” and “back up their demands with appropriate action.” Rollins believed that reading books about black people’s contributions to all areas of American life would change racial attitudes and lead to the fulfilment of the country’s democratic principles.
She wasn’t the only one. Augusta Baker, the children’s librarian at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL), also created book lists to guide anxious Americans seeking antiracist book recommendations during the Second World War. In 1943, the NYPL published her Books About the Negro for Children, a list of books housed in her branch’s James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection. This special collection sought to “acquaint Negro boys and girls with their own heritage as well as racial achievements” and “help white children gain a truer, more sympathetic picture of their fellow Americans”. In 1946, the Bureau for Intercultural Education published Baker’s bibliography with a slightly different title, Books About Negro Life for Children, and the NYPL reissued it in 1949, 1957, 1961 and 1963.
In Baker’s view, this list of 140 children’s books “[gave] an unbiased, accurate, well-rounded picture of Negro life in all parts of the world”. Baker’s emphasis on children’s books that represented life in Africa and the African diaspora was unique. Using similar criteria to Rollins, Baker included books set in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, Oceania and Europe such as Rudolf Voorhoeve’s Tilio, A Boy of Papua, Margaret Baumann’s A Book of Nigerian Fairy Tales and Hellen Follett’s Islands on Guard.
In addition to writing bibliographies, Rollins and Baker wrote protest letters to publishers, illustrators and authors to influence their contemporary literary environment. They pressured them to create antiracist books about black life for children and urged libraries to acquire more of them when they became available. Rollins and Baker also lectured and published journal articles on the topic. To fill the void in books that accurately portrayed black life, they wrote their own children’s books as well.
Their activism helped reform the field of children’s literature. Rollins and Baker’s bibliographies led to a dramatic increase in the number of antiracist children’s books about black life. For example, Rollins encouraged Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks to write poetry for children and advised Langston Hughes on The First Book of Negroes. Rollins said “the crowning delight of [her] whole career” was Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day. Rollins and Baker also discredited classics such as The Story of Little Black Sambo and persuaded at least one publishing company to cease its publication.
And yet, the fact that we are still a nation marked by rampant racial inequality and widespread injustice forces us to face a sobering reality: reading is not enough. Baker and Rollins believed that books and education would transform the hearts and minds of Americans. They were wrong. The work of dismantling systemic racism does not end with making bibliographies or even reading all of the books on them. Americans must act on what they know. We must demand actual racial justice and equality in education, jobs, healthcare and housing, now, amid mass protests, and more importantly, we must continue to do so after the protests have subsided
• Ashley Dennis is a PhD candidate in African-American Studies at Northwestern University
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