Exploring Black Images in African-American Children's Literature by Cheryl Willis Hudson

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” —words spoken in the Disney movie, “Snow White”

“Who can be born black and not exalt?” —Mari Evans, author, I Am A Black Woman
“The seeds of an African American children’s literature were sown in the soil of Black people’s struggles for liberation, literacy, and survival.” —Rudine Sims Bishop, educator-author, Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature

Images bombard children and adults on a daily basis via television, videos, advertisements, movies, textbooks, newspapers/magazines and social media. Although some of these images are positive, many are negative and simply perpetuate and reinforce age-old stereotypes of race, gender and social class without a balanced regard for the portrayal of true diversity within our country and our world.

When assessing the impact of imagery on the psyche of all children, but upon Black children in particular, it is important to know who is telling the story and who is painting the pictures. It is essential that we tell our own stories.
As an author and publisher of Just Us Books, I’m committed to helping present authentic and realistic stories, illustrated with images that reflect and reinforce positive and realistic aspects of being born Black and living on this planet. That means embracing authentic stories told by us, in our voices, from our perspectives, lenses and brushstrokes. It means rejecting messages of inferiority, mediocrity, marginality, assumed deviant behavior and demonstrating clearly through our books that “Black lives matter.”
The books and materials selected for this display are a small sampling of works from the canon of African-American literature for children. This literary canon includes a wide range of books, which mirror and reflect the diversity of our history, culture and experiences as members of the African diaspora. Included are alphabet books, counting books, baby board books, illustrated nursery rhymes, folktales, picture books, biographies, novelty books, fantasy, comic books, and covers of some books for middle grade and young adult readers.

These books are filled with skillful and thought-provoking illustrations in a variety of styles, whose imagery serves to teach, entertain and illuminate. Within them, Black culture is represented in all its variety and is not simply relegated to a narrow shelf of historical stories about slavery, civil rights and selected biographies of familiar Black personalities.

While many of the books displayed are published by major commercial houses, it should be noted that a very important component of presenting positive imagery of Black culture is the work done by independent Black presses and self-published authors. Literature from independent presses offers a wealth of creative works for young readers.

Many books displayed in these cases are available from your public library. Many are also available for purchase from booksellers and make valuable additions to your own home libraries.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, where are the fairest books of all?

The word “fair” has so many meanings: pretty, light complexioned, equal. However, in terms of the power of imagery and illustrations, when thinking about “fairness” in publishing books for children, the answer the mirror gives should not consistently be “Snow White,” which in essence reflects dominance of an all-white world of children’s book publishing. (See Nancy Larrick’s article from September 11, 1965).

Children’s books should be inclusive and representative of diverse cultures. That means they should include the beauty and richness of the Black experience and the vision of Black illustrators as well as others who have traditionally illustrated children’s books. Black children should be able to see images of themselves in the literature that they read. Fairness then means equity and expansion of publishing boundaries so that children’s literature is inclusive of the multicultural diversity of our world.

This article was written as a contribution to the Newark Public Library's exhibit, My Soul Has Grown Deep, celebrating African-American literature. 

illustration copyright Damian Ward from the book Bottle Cap Boys Dancing on Royal Street by Rita Williams Garcia