Du Bois had a somewhat radical vision of Black children as foot soldiers in the march toward social progress, “exhorted not only to participate in adult political programs but often to lead them,” as Kate Capshaw Smith, a scholar of children’s literature at the University of Connecticut, has put it. But alongside these more avant-garde ideas about the New Negro, Du Bois also espoused rather genteel Victorian ideas about family, comportment, personal responsibility, and morality—what we might now call “respectability politics.” The Brownies’ Book managed to reflect both views, normalizing Black childhood as reflecting American family values while elevating Black political consciousness.
Issues typically ran between 30 and 40 pages. They had striking covers, some of which, like the bust by Paolo Abbate of a young Black boy for the February 1920 issue—“I am an American Citizen,” read the caption—were explicitly political. Other covers featured illustrations of Black children in bucolic settings. Regular features in the magazine included short biographies of notable Black people, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman; a column called “Little People of the Month,” which celebrated the achievements of Black youth; and “Some Little Friends of Ours,” later called “Our Little Friends,” which featured photos of Black babies, usually seated in portrait studios. (Photos like these prompted Gertrude Marean, a white 10-year-old from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to submit a letter kvelling over “the pictures of the little dark babies.”) The magazine also published fiction in a range of modes: reimaginings of antebellum folktales such as the Br’er Rabbit trickster stories; adaptations of African and West Indian proverbs and myths, such as “How Mr. Crocodile Got His Rough Back” and “Mphontholo Ne Shulo”; and florid renderings of classic European fairy tales. The goal, Capshaw Smith explains, was to replace European motifs with African traditions of storytelling, marrying racial pride to the values and stories of Western Europe.
Read the entire piece here.