The Brownies' Book
Appropriating Change Through the Brownies' Book
As a very small child growing up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, W.E.B. DuBois remained ignorant of the "Negro problem" that paralyzed the nation socially, politically, and economically in the late nineteenth century. However, on entering school, he experienced the suffering of young African Americans first-hand. In the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, he writes, "I remember well when the shadow swept across me." His class had begun exchanging visiting cards, and a little white girl refused his card. DuBois explains this jolting awareness of his place in the world: "Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil" (Souls 10). He aspired to the same life as his white classmates but suddenly felt shut out from that world. DuBois earned his way to Fisk, then Harvard, and even studied in Europe, and, along the way, he learned to walk on both sides of this veil. He could appreciate, for example, the distinctly Negro legacies of slavery and sorrow songs. He could confidently engage white academia in their own discourse, and even manipulate these to further his own purposes. He could not, however, join the white table for dinner, and, so, he also realized, the road was a lonely one (Souls 48).

Thus DuBois embarked on a mission of racial uplift that called for the most exceptional of his race to lead the lower portion by their example. He called this group "the Talented Tenth," and in an essay of the same title, he declares: "The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education…is the problem of developing the Best of this race that may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst in their own races" (33). He extols the accomplishments of Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Alexander Crummell, and others who achieved greatness despite the crushing weight of white rule. He claims that neither slavery nor lynching nor the raping of black women by white men could break the spirit of "manhood and chastity and aspiration from black folk. A saving remnant continually survives and persists, continually aspires, continually shows itself in thrift and ability and character. Exceptional it is to be sure, but this is its chiefest promise; it shows the capability of Negro blood, the promise of black men" (44). This remnant, however, bore the responsibility of raising up his brethren for, DuBois insists, "…it is, ever was and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters. The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth saving up to their vantage ground" (45). This program of education and uplift, in DuBois' vision, extended beyond the classroom, and he also demanded increased appreciation for the black family. In "The Talented Tenth," he concedes"that [the Negro people] have no traditions to fall back upon, no long established customs, no strong family ties, no well defined social classes. All these things must be slowly and painfully evolved" (54). He goes on to claim that "…human education is not simply a matter of schools; it is much more a matter of family and group life--the training of one's home, of one's daily companions, of one's social class" (61).

DuBois, in fact, invoked the popular theory of eugenics to reconcile his position as "an elite, yet paradoxically, representative" black man (English 296). Biology made him, and it could also produce a cadre of black middle class families. His call to recognize the black family, then, took an exclusionary tone for, in truth, he advocated the creation and recognition of the right kind of black family. In 1909, with his co-founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization dedicated to promoting interaction among the best individuals of both races, DuBois found a ready audience for his agenda. In that organization's major publication, The Crisis, he writes, "There are to be sure not enough children in the families of the better class" (qtd in English 298). Therefore, as Daylanne English observes, "DuBois' 'Talented Tenth' comprises not just an already uplifted representative body but a carefully breeded, selected, and trained elite" (298). He had captured the attention of the adult middle class, but DuBois needed a vehicle by which to educate their children, the future generation of this elite.

In October 1913, The Crisis printed its first Children's Number, which incorporated photos of African American children and a fairy tale into the monthly's normal political and social news coverage. As an installment of The Crisis, however, the Children's Numbers included many instances of "human hatred," and, therefore, DuBois determined to offer a more positive approach to enlightening and entertaining children. In the October 1919 issue of The Crisis, in a statement titled "The True Brownies," he announced:

We shall hereafter publish not one Children's Number a year, but twelve! Messrs. DuBois and [Augustus] Dill will issue in November, in cooperation with The Crisis, but as an entirely separate publication, a little magazine for children--for all children, but especially for ours, "The Children of the Sun." It will be called, naturally, The Brownies Book, and as we have advertised, "It will be a thing of Joy and Beauty, dealing in Happiness, Laughter and Emulation, and designed especially for Kiddies from Six to Sixteen. It will seek to teach Universal Love and Brotherhood for all little folk--black and brown and yellow and white (qtd in Johnson 17-18).

In January 1920 DuBois and Dill offered their first thirty-two page issue of The Brownies Book, which featured a cover photo of a young black ballerina. Dressed all in white and gracefully posed with her arms reaching toward the heavens, she resembles an angel or, perhaps, a fairy.

The new periodical, which was "conducted by" DuBois and listed Dill as business manager and Fauset as literary editor, purported seven goals beyond pure amusement. The first three directly addressed the hole in African American children's literature: to make African American children proud of their color and race, to teach them the history of their race, and to offer examples of successful African Americans. The last four proved more general and somewhat applicable to children of all races, though they articulated a clear philosophy on the proper behavior of African American children: "to teach them delicately a code of honor and action in their relation with white children; to turn their little hurts and resentments into emulations, ambition and love of their own homes and companions; to point out the best amusements and joys and worth-while things of life; to inspire them to prepare for definite occupations and duties with a broad spirit of sacrifice" (qtd in Diggs 391).
To that end, The Brownies' Book offered a number of monthly columns aimed at both parents and their children; these also urged readers, young and old, to contribute. "The Jury," a letters-to-the-editors page, allowed children to air grievances (usually against society, not the magazine), introduce themselves and their lives, ask questions, and make requests for future stories. "The Grown-Ups' Corner" provided a channel for adult communication, and in the inaugural issue, the editors here note, "this magazine is published for Children, but no one understands the needs of children, or the problems that arise in their training, particularly in colored families, so well as their parents" (1: 25). "The Judge," written each month by Jessie Fauset, addressed parents' concerns by responding to questions posed to a grandfatherly figure by four fictional friends. "Little People of the Month," which included write-ups and photos, spotlighted young African Americans excelling at school, music, writing, art, or community service. Similarly, photo collages filled the "Our Little Friends" pages. Both offered children a sense of self-worth by praising and nonprejudiciously photographing their peers. The magazine engaged children's minds and imaginations, as well, printing a plethora of short stories, biographies of black history, plays, poems, and even games from around the globe. Multicultural awareness and responsibility also pervaded the column "As the Crow Flies," a collection of worldwide news events penned by DuBois, himself. In effect, DuBois culled the best ideas of St. Nicholas, enhanced them, and molded them to better fit a predominantly black audience.
St. Nicholas, which appeared monthly from 1873 to 1940, included fairy tales, morality stories, informational essays, news, poems, plays, and puzzles. The June 1921 issue, for example, offered an essay on tennis by world-champion player William Tilden, a collection of Aesop's Fables, an installment of a serialized story, a play called "The Making of the Flag" (complete with a reproduction of a Henry Mosler painting of Betsy Ross), tips for campers, a story about the children of New York's Governor Nathan L. Miller, and science essays on both constellations and boating. Over the years, St. Nicholas also published a number of regular columns. Those appearing regularly during the tenure of The Brownies' Book included "The Letter Box," which allowed children to address their concerns to the editors; "The Riddle Box," where children found puzzles and brain-teasers; and "The Watch Tower," a report on current events. Significantly, these departments parallel the respective purposes of "The Jury," "Playtime, " and "As the Crow Flies." Although St. Nicholas did not provide an outlet for adult commentary, its editors strongly encouraged young readers' contributions through the "St. Nicholas League," which showcased original work--stories, essays, poems, art, photographs and puzzles--through a competition. Winning submissions earned gold or silver buttons.
However, St. Nicholas neglected to address, much less accurately represent, the presence of African Americans in society. Between May and October of 1921, for example, black faces appear only twice. In May, printed beneath a story about a "rogue" who tricks honest people out of their money until an equally clever man beats him at his own game, is a four-frame cartoon that depicts a small black boy attempting to roller skate. In frame one, he walks with a skate on one foot and a sock on the other, and the caption reads, "I wish des wuz n't so hard ter learn." The second frame shows the boy sitting, legs straddled, on the ground with one hand on his hip and the other on his head. The caption says, "Dar I go fo' de fo'fe time!" Next he is shown falling backward and landing on his head. He muses, "Daddy done tole me ef I wan' ter learn, I mus' use ma head." Finally the child balances on the skate in a head stand, and the caption announces, "An I jes' reckon daddy's right. Thes de way he alluz is!"(649). The sequence portrays the black child as foolish, stupid, and, thanks to the use of dialect, ignorant.

In the August issue, black characters appear disheveled and excitable compared to white characters. "The Conquest of the Reaper," which traces Cyrus McCormick's creation of that machine, includes a lithograph reproduction with the caption: "An old lithograph which depicts the testing of the first reaper, near Steele's Tavern, VA., July 25, 1831" (892). In the picture, well-dressed white professionals leisurely assemble in the shade to observe a demonstration of the reaper. A black man on horse-back pulls the machine. Other poorly dressed black field workers raise their arms and faces in ambiguous gestures that could indicate concern or fear just as easily as relief or happiness. Whatever the emotion, their postures suggest great agitation, especially in contrast to the dignified white spectators (892).
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