When Black kids – shut out from the whitewashed world of children’s literature – took matters into their own hands

A newspaper boy hawks copies of the Chicago Defender.
Library of Congress

Paige Gray, Savannah College of Art and Design

Hanging on the wall in my office is the framed cover of the inaugural issue of The Brownies’ Book, a monthly periodical for Black youths created by W.E.B. Du Bois and other members of the NAACP in 1920.

The magazine – the first of its kind – includes poems and stories that speak of Black achievement and history, while also showcasing children’s writing.

Although much of American children’s literature published near the turn of the last century – and even today – filters childhood through the eyes of white children, The Brownies’ Book gave African American children a platform to explore their lives, interests and aspirations. And it reinforced what 20th-century American literature scholar Katharine Capshaw has described as Du Bois’ “faith in the ability of young people to lead the race into the future.”

Most likely inspired by The Brownies’ Book, several Black weekly newspapers went on to create their own children’s sections. While the children’s publishing industry may have shut out Black voices and perspectives, the editors of these periodicals sought to fill the void by celebrating them, giving kids a platform to express themselves, connect with one another and indulge their curiosities.

A pioneering publication

The cover image of that first issue of The Brownies’ Book, published in January 1920, epitomizes this effort. In it, a young Black girl stands on the tips of her toes, dressed in a ballet costume.

Already, this image represented a radically different vision of Black childhood. Children’s literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries very rarely focused on African Americans. The few Black children who did appear in print were often written or drawn as variations of Topsy, the enslaved young girl from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” who is initially considered “naughty” only to be redeemed by Eva, who plays the role of the “white savior.”

A smiling girl dressed in white raises her arms and stands en pointe.
The inaugural issue of ‘The Brownies’ Book.‘
Library of Congress

As children’s literature scholar Michelle H. Martin has noted, “children who wanted to read about black characters in children’s literature could read about buffoons, mammies, Sambos or savages,” but not about “the beauty” of Black children.

The girl on The Brownies’ Book cover offers a vastly different vision of Black childhood than the caricatures seen throughout popular culture of the time. She’s confident, excited and talented. The pages that follow feature an assortment of fiction, commentary, history and news for young readers that honors and extols Black identity.

One of the most compelling recurring sections is titled “The Jury,” which features children’s letters to the editor. In the magazine’s first issue, a boy named Franklin writes to ask about “things colored boys can work at when they grow up.” Eleanor wants the editor to recommend “some books on the Negro” so that she “can learn more about [her] race.” And a 15-year-old girl inquires about possible funding sources so that she can attend a boarding school that accepts African American students.

The Brownies’ Book had a relatively short run – 24 issues from January 1920 to December 1921. But it nonetheless seems to have encouraged a number of other Black newspapers to launch children’s sections in the early 1920s. The Pittsburgh Courier, Baltimore’s Afro-American and the Journal and Guide, published in Norfolk, Virginia, each experimented with children’s sections.

But by far the most successful effort was that of the Chicago Defender, which would launch a periodical section for Black youths that ran for decades.

‘Let us make the world know that we are living’

The Chicago Defender was perhaps the most influential Black newspaper of the 20th century. Its readership extended across the United States, and it helped spur the Great Migration, a time during which millions of African Americans left the South, by promoting job opportunities in Northern industrial cities like Chicago. Roi Ottley, biographer of Defender publisher Robert S. Abbott, wrote that only the Bible was more significant to Black Americans during the first half of the 20th century.

It contains spaces for a child's name, address, age, city and state.
An application form to join the Bud Billiken Club from the April 29, 1922, edition of the Chicago Defender.
ProQuest Historical Newspapers

In 1921, the Chicago Defender started publishing a section called the Defender Junior, run by a fictional editor named Bud Billiken. Billiken was really a 10-year-old boy named Willard Motley, who later became a noted novelist, though sometimes the paper’s adult editors wrote under Billiken moniker. In his first column, Billiken tells readers that he wants to fill “this column with sayings and doings of we little folks,” and implores them to submit their poems, questions and opinions.

Young readers could become members of the Bud Billiken Club by mailing in a form with their name, but they could also mail in letters and poetry as a way to correspond with their fellow Billikens. In June 1921, a girl named Ruth McBride of Oak Hill, Alabama, submitted the following letter to Bud:

“As I was reading the Chicago Defender a lovely paper of our Race, I came across some beautiful poems written by some of the members of your club. It filled my heart with joy to read such sweet poems. I am a little girl 9 years old, and I wish to join your club. If there is any space for me. I go to school and am in the fifth grade. My mother gets the Defender every week. Here is a poem I am sending:

  Down in the sunny South, where I was born,
  Where beautiful flowers are adoring,
  The daisies white and the purple lily.
  This is where the land is hilly."

In July 1921, Juanita Johnson of Washington, D.C., sent the Defender Junior her poem:

  "When you are lonely and don’t know what to do,
  When you must admit that you are feeling blue, 
  Take your pen in hand, my dear child, I entreat,
  And write the B.B. Club something nice and sweet.
  Your blues will depart, I’ll surely guarantee.
  You’ll cheer up at once, for so it is with me."

Black children could find – or at least attempt to find – their voices on the pages of these periodicals. For Bud Billiken, there was no greater urgency. In his introduction to the April 23, 1921, edition, he tells the story of a fly that “sat on the axle of a chariot wheel and said, ‘What a dust I do make.’”

“The fly imagines that he is causing the wheel to go around,” Billiken continues. “Let us not be like the fly, thinking we are doing something when really we only move as the world moves us.”

He concludes by writing, “The world would move on if we were not in it. This paper would be published just the same without our space. Let us make the world know that we are living and helping to make the noise and dust.”

The Defender Junior proved popular – so popular that the newspaper launched the Bud Billiken Parade in 1929 in Chicago’s South Side. By midcentury, the annual parade had become one of the largest gatherings of African Americans in the U.S., attracting national figures such as Duke Ellington and Muhammad Ali. In 2020, the beloved event was canceled for the first time in 91 years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A birds-eye view of a throng of kids marching in the parade.
Kids march during the 1967 Bud Billiken Parade in Chicago.
Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

The Brownies’ Book, the Defender Junior and the children’s sections of other African American weeklies gave Black children a space to tell their stories, express their anxieties and assert their ambitions.

In that photograph of the ballerina on The Brownie’s Book’s first cover, I imagine her saying something similar to Bud Billiken’s appeal – “Let us make the world know that we are living.”

Or perhaps more simply, “Black lives matter.”

[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]The Conversation

Paige Gray, Professor of Writing and Liberal Arts, Savannah College of Art and Design

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s no such thing as a ‘faithful retelling’ of the Arthurian legend

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Edward Burne Jones.

Amy Louise Blaney, Keele University

Justice League director Zach Snyder has said he is interested in working on a “faithful retelling” of Arthurian myth. Cut to a small horde of Arthurian scholars (myself included) entering stage left to loudly proclaim that there is no such thing as a “faithful retelling” of the King Arthur myth. King Arthur is one of the most pervasive legends of all time. What scholars call the “Arthurian mythological concept” has developed over several centuries – and over several cultures. Indeed, what makes the Arthur legend so enduring is its very lack of fidelity.

Although many of us today get our first taste of the Arthurian legend from films such as Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) or TV shows such as the BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012), the core elements of the story that we recognise remain largely medieval.

Arthur’s name first appears in the work of ninth century Welsh historian Nennius. However, the legend as we know it today – knights in shining armour, damsels in distress, Round Table, Holy Grail etc – gallops into view from around the 12th century onward. This heralds the start of what is now known as the “Romance Tradition”.

Painting of Merlin being seduced.
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne Jones depicts the wizard being seduced by the Lady of the Lake.

Chances are that if you’ve read a version of the Arthur story today it is likely to be one of these Romances – most likely Thomas Malory’s 15th-century Morte D’Arthur or an early 20th-century re-telling such as TH White’s The Once and Future King. The tradition also proved very popular with the Victorians – especially with the Pre-Raphaelites, whose visual depictions of Arthurian legend frame the way we see the legend today.

For example, their paintings popularised captivating female figures such as the virginal Maid of Astolat (or Shallot), the dangerous enchantress Morgan Le Fay and the beguiling Lady of the Lake, the temptress Nimue.

One thing that remains consistent throughout the centuries however is the Arthurian myth’s ability to remain relevant to the people, countries, and eras in which it is being retold.

Reworkings and re-imaginings

In the late 17th-century, for example, Arthur was enlisted in the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as a means of bolstering support for the new Protestant regime and their political allies. Physician-poet Richard Blackmore wrote two lengthy epic poems – Prince Arthur (1695) and King Arthur (1697) – comparing the new King William III to Arthur and praising the way in which the monarch’s religious (and, crucially, Protestant) piety would “fresh Life to Albion […] impart”.

This was certainly not the first time Arthur had been associated with the English throne. Both the Tudors and the Stuarts adopted the mythical king to suit their own political purposes, with Henry VII going so far as to repaint the Winchester Round Table with a Tudor Rose at its centre. The paint job was probably in honour of a state visit by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1522 and – just to ensure that Charles got the message – Henry also had himself depicted on the table, sitting in Arthur’s place.

The Winchester Round Table, showing Henry VII sitting in Arthur's seat and with a Tudor Rose at its centre.
The Winchester Round Table, showing Henry VII sitting in Arthur’s seat and with a Tudor Rose at its centre.
Wikimedia/Mike Peel, CC BY-SA

Nor was it the last time that Arthur would find himself so conscripted. Elements of the Arthurian story – most notably the figure of Merlin – were used in the early 18th-century by the Hanoverian monarchs and their supporters to bolster their own claims to an inherently “British” identity.

Queen Caroline, a clever and well-informed curator of her own public image, capitalised upon the 18th-century’s rediscovery of its national history through ancient heroes. In collaboration with architect William Kent, she developed Merlin’s Cave – a name suggestive of a grotto but in reality more of a thatched folly (a round house with a thatched roof) designed around the Merlin myth – in the gardens at Richmond in 1735.

Numerous panegyric poems – poems designed to publicly praise and flatter – followed including two by “a lady subscribed Melissa”. The first praises “Her Majesty Queen Guardian” as the inheritor of Merlin’s legacy. The second, entitled Merlin’s Prophecy, envisages Frederick, Prince of Wales as “Ordain’d, to wield the Sceptre Royal […] And rule o’er Britons, Brave, and Loyal”.

As these examples illustrate, the one thing we can really say with any certainty about the Arthurian mythos is that fidelity is – as with any myth – an impossible concept.

Arthur has come a long way since his ninth century origins and our modern interpretations show no signs of altering that trend. Whether it’s making us laugh about the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) or putting women centre stage in Cursed (2020), the appeal of Arthur’s mythical world is its adaptability.

He might be “The Once and Future King”, but there’s no such thing as faithful in Arthur’s mythical world.The Conversation

Amy Louise Blaney, PhD Candidate and Associate Lecturer in English Literature, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

James Hogg at 250: the farmhand who became one of Scotland’s greatest storytellers

Sir George Watson Gordon, CC BY-SA

Daniel Cook, University of Dundee

James Hogg defied categorisation. A prolific poet, songwriter, playwright, novelist, short story writer and parodist, he wrote with equal skill in Scots and English. Labelled as the Ettrick Shepherd, the former Borders farmhand, whose life spanned the 18th and 19th centuries, befriended many of the great writers of his day, including Walter Scott, John Galt and Allan Cunningham.

Even though he was celebrated off and on in his own lifetime, some details of the author’s life remain unclear. Records place his baptism on December 9, 1770. But Hogg long believed he was born in 1772, on January 25 – Burns’ Night no less. This complicates attempts to commemorate his 250th birthday, unless we embrace his fantastical worldview. Fiction mattered to him more than fact. Besides, Hogg’s sestercentennial will inevitably be overshadowed by Scott’s own such celebration on August 15, 2021.

Despite lacking in formal education, Hogg never lacked in confidence. The Poetic Mirror, or The Living Bards of Britain (1816) purports to be a collection of the leading poets of the age (Hogg included). But actually Hogg, the editor, fabricated the works under the guise of big-name writers. There are moody romances after Byron, mystical musings in the style of Coleridge and ponderous poems for Wordsworth.

Cover of Canongate's imprint of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg feature two silhoutted heads in top hats.
Best work.
Canongate, Author provided

Aside from mimicking medleys, Hogg’s own body of work is made up of mountains of bits and pieces – and must be enjoyed on those terms. Seeking conclusions or definitive statements will only frustrate. Tales can drift off into fragments of poetry both familiar and new. Within stories he flips perspectives with little warning.

Presented as a found document, Hogg’s best work, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is deliberately left with holes. Dark, humorous, violent, sweet, light, weird, wild, celebratory and cruel, the book has many tones, often all at once.

Hogg was 53 years old when he created his finest and most unsettling work. Drawing on a large box of tricks carefully cultivated over a long if chequered career, he infused Calvinist doctrine with a brooding gothic mood. A mysterious shapeshifting figure, Gil-Martin, goads the fanatical Robert Wringhim into taking extreme measures against the local sinners. Is Gil-Martin a manifestation of madness or the devil himself? Where does evil come from? Denounced by hostile critics at the time as anti-religious, nowhere in literature is the divided self so tantalisingly imagined.

It’s not enough to call Hogg an experimental writer ahead of his time or a genre hopper who challenged the conventions of his day. And he was much more than a born storyteller. Hogg favoured word for this type of art was “intermixing”. He was Scotland’s great intermixer. In hindsight, the Borders bard seemed destined for the make-believe world of literature.

Fairytales and family

Hogg’s mother, Margaret Laidlaw, was an important collector of Scottish ballads and a canny taleteller. His maternal grandfather, known as Will o’ Phawhope, was said to have been the last man in Selkirkshire to speak with fairies. Fairytale figures certainly fill Hogg’s most imaginative stories, most notably in his first collection of prose fiction, The Brownie of Bodsbeck and Other Tales (1818).

Burns was an early influence on Hogg, who considered himself to be the rightful heir to the Bard of Ayrshire and published his own collection less than four years after his idol’s death. Long before then, the locals dubbed him Jamie the Poeter, and he wrote countless songs for local girls to sing.

Portrait of Scots bard Robert Burns.
Robert Burns inspired James Hogg.

After writing a popular patriotic song, “Donald Macdonald”, in 1803, Hogg was recruited to collect ballads for Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. He also undertook extensive tours of the Highlands with a view to securing his own farm, but became more interested in the songs he heard along the way.

By 1819, he was recognised as a leading expert on Scottish ballads when the Highland Society of London commissioned him to produce the Jacobite Relics of Scotland, which became the benchmark of Scottish anthologies for many more decades.

He endured many failures on the way. In 1810, at the age of 40, Hogg moved to Edinburgh to settle into the life of a full-time writer. Within a year of starting it, his magazine The Spy folded. Readers weren’t ready for a publication that covered shocking themes such as extramarital sex.

Hogg spent the next few years scribbling more poetry and prose, and in 1817 he helped William Blackwood establish Scotland’s most influential literary periodical, the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine (later, Blackwood’s Magazine). In time, displaced by punchy younger contributors, Hogg eventually became a figure of fun in the same periodical. But he kept writing and writing. Winter Evening Tales (1820), produced in the middle period of his life, is especially rewarding.

Hogg’s literary afterlife

A collected edition of works was published shortly after Hogg’s death in 1835, but the publishers pruned the more indelicate (and inventive) passages, and even entire texts. The great forgetting of Hogg set in.

Photograph of Robert Louis Stevenson in black and white.
Hogg’s most famous work preempted Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Jekyll and Hyde.

This only began to change in the mid-20th century, when the French writer André Gide championed Justified Sinner in an enthusiastic introduction to a 1947 edition, describing himself as being “voluptuously tormented” by the book.

Only in 1995, when the colossal Stirling–South Carolina Research Edition of the collected works began to appear, would the wider body of Hogg’s works be publicly available in the form they deserved. In recent years, Scottish novelists such as Irvine Welsh and the playwright Marty Ross have proclaimed the importance of Hogg’s fantastical imagination for their own thinking. Before that, Justified Sinner also pre-empted that other great Scottish gothic masterpiece of the divided self, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The University of Dundee recently produced a free online edition of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which includes explanatory notes and copies of the earliest reviews. Scotland’s great intermixer awaits new readers.The Conversation

Daniel Cook, Reader in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature, University of Dundee

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Poems for long distant loves in lockdown

Olga Strelnikova/Shutterstock

Kate North, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Many people are not lucky enough to be with their loved ones this valentine’s day. If that is the case, or if you simply want suitable words to mark the day, then there are plenty of long-distance love poems that you can reach for, to share or to read for comfort.

Some of them can be found in unexpected places, such as Song of Solomon, also known as Song of Songs, a book found in the Old Testament. But if you want an account of longing at a distance, a celebration of sexual intimacy, praise for lust and passion, then this is where you’ll find it: “How much better is thy love than wine!” declares Solomon, “By night on my bed I sought him…” speaks his lover. The lovers were not married and lived separately, and were perhaps in the early days of their courtship. The verse describes their visits to each other in erotic detail, and their yearning for each other when apart.

A slightly more traditional and obvious source for love poetry in the English language is, of course, William Shakespeare. Sonnet 98 gives us a meditation on love and distance. In it the speaker is so distraught that their lover is not present, they can no longer recognise the beauty of nature, even as spring bursts into bloom around them.

Love lost and changed with time

Distance is not always about a physical measurement of proximity though, it can also relate to the passing of time. Lost love, love that is no longer and first loves are all forms of love that are unreachable through time.

One example that speaks to this kind of love can be found in former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, his final collection. Hughes’s relationship with his first wife, poet Sylvia Plath, has been much written about. People have long been fascinated with the turbulent trajectory of their relationship and the tragic end to Plath’s life.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Flikr, CC BY

Many years after Plath’s passing, Hughes produced a collection of poems that he wrote throughout the decades after her death. It was published months before his own death and it can be read as an homage, a marking, an exploration and a final word on his passionate relationship with Plath:

I look up – as if to meet your voice

With all its urgent future

That has burst in on me.

For a more contemporary take on past love, I recommend reading Kim Addonizio, who has previously won the Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation award and many other accolades. Love is a topic she returns to in her work time over. In her poem Stolen Moments she takes the reader back to the early throes of love, to an instance where it feels like love will never end, in which she finds a perfect memory of what it is to feel in love:

Now I get to feel his hands again, the kiss

That didn’t last, but sent some neural twin

Flashing wildly through the cortex.

Alice Willitts’ recent publication With Love is a collection in which every single title begins with the word “love”. In her poem love / couples who sleep in separate rooms live longer, she refuses to trade possible health benefits for the joy of being able to:

…open a dozy eye

right into your precious face

Read more:
How to write a love poem

Love from afar and in the moment

Another former poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, explores the complete arc of a romantic relationship, from the heady beginnings to the crashing end, in her collection Rapture. The opening poem, Text takes us through feelings of anticipation, excitement and desire as experienced in a brand new relationship. The moment of waiting for a lover’s message to appear on your phone, the thrill of the ring tone as it is received, the compulsion to read and reread it, over and over.

I tend the mobile now

like an injured bird.

We text, text, text

our significant words.

In the past year Duffy has invited poets from around the globe to write directly of their time during the pandemic. This has resulted in a large body of poetry, which will act as a record of lived experience from the pandemic’s earliest stages.

In the scores of poems on the project website, it is interesting to see how the themes of distance and relationships have shone through. For the poet Kim Moore:

now distance is a physical thing

that has crept into my heart

One of the most thought-provoking poems on the site draws on our primal need for intimacy as humans. It’s a need that cuts through familial, platonic and romantic relationships. In her poem Harbour Grace Nichols is willing to trade all, “for the simple harbour of a hug”. If you are unable to reach for a hug this Valentine’s Day, then finding one in a poem could be the next best thing.The Conversation

Kate North, Reader in Creative Writing, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.