The Brownies' Book
Appropriating Change Through the Brownies' Book: Adapting White Conventions to Create an African American Genre
The late nineteenth century, which is often referred to as the Golden Age of children's literature, witnessed a profusion of books designed specifically for a young audience, including Grimms' Fairy Tales, Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Jungle Book, and the Horatio Alger stories (Wall 19). Despite their abundance, however, these works represented only a portion of the literate youth in America. African American children, in particular, would have found few depictions of themselves, and, of these, even fewer would have presented unbiased portrayals. The same held true for children's textbooks and periodicals. As late as 1900, the prevailing popular magazine for children, St. Nicholas, which targeted a white, middle-class audience, portrayed black characters merely as "features of the settings in which white American children act": cooks, janitors, and the like (Kory 93, Sinnette 134). During the early 1920s, the same publication featured a poem titled "Ten Little Niggers": "Ten Little nigger boys went out to dine/ One choked his self and then/ there were nine…." (qtd in Sinnette 134). One man, however, recognized the urgent need for characters whom black children could respect and emulate. As the only black founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the editor of that organization's The Crisis magazine, W.E.B. DuBois tested his theory for a children's magazine through the yearly publication of The Crisis' "Children's Numbers." They met with such popularity that in 1920, DuBois, along with business manager Augustus Granville Dill and literary editor Jessie Redmon Fauset, established a new magazine aimed specifically at 6- to 16-year-old "Children of the Sun." He called it The Brownies' Book, and for two years it provided the only true, nonreligious African American children's literature, or "that literature written especially though not necessarily exclusively for Black youth by Black authors" (Johnson 2)1. In this respect, Dubois proved a pioneer in African American children's literature. His endeavor to infuse black youth with a sense of self-worth and to impress upon them the importance of education mimics his efforts to alter contemporary adult discourse and engage in his own myth-making. In The Brownies' Book, DuBois appropriates popular constructs from white literary and visual culture--especially the easily identifiable forms of fairy tales and Victoria photography--and molds them to suit developing Negro children. The result, an over-idealistic and somewhat contradictory portrayal, offers esteem-raising role models but fails to portray a true reflection of childhood, be it an African American or a Caucasian child's life. Still, with this adaptation, DuBois invented a new genre and encouraged the development of realistic African American children's fiction in the latter portion of the twentieth century.
Before The Brownies' Book, Black children would have been exposed mainly to racist stories such as Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo, published numerous times at the turn of the century. The book's illustrations portrayed black characters as cartoon figures with animal-like features. The cover of a 1905 "Christmas Stocking Edition" of Sambo boasts an umbrella-toting child of indeterminate sex, clad in a red shirt, knee-length blue pants, and elfish-looking shoes. Although clearly a dark-skinned child, the body is unevenly colored with hands three shades lighter than the rest of his body. A foolishly wide nose and unnaturally red grin both protrude beyond the rest of the face, giving the impression of a monkey. On the cover of a 1923 edition, a pink-skinned face peaks from under an unruly mass of wavy hair so that the child appears furry rather than dark-skinned. In both images, Sambo appears to be dancing rather than merely walking, pandering to the reader in the fashion of black-faced minstrels or cakewalkers.
Inside, brightly colored sketches that recall comic-strip art further the derisive and racially charged depictions of African Americans. On the frontispiece, a family of three sits around a dinner table. The parents' respective genders would be indistinguishable if not for the blue bandana around the mother's head. Both are barefoot. The adults sit on either side of the table, and their profiles exhibit a more greatly exaggerated protrusion of the mouths and noses than that on the cover. In the 1905 edition, the title page features a pair of tigers, standing on their hind legs and facing one another with top hats and canes in each of their hands. They smile broadly, as if giving a performance. Above them, Sambo balances one foot on either tiger's head and holds a yellow umbrella over his own head. The image is highly reminiscent of a circus poster. Moreover, while the tigers are carefully colored with orange, yellow, and brown, all of Sambo is an inky blue-black color save his bright red lips, jacket, and shoes--as if accurately depicting the animals was a higher priority than the portrayal of Sambo, himself. The later edition eliminates this abominable illustration, but it adds a preface. This attributes the story to an English woman living in India who invents tales to amuse her two daughters. The author describes India as a place "where black children abound and tigers are everyday affairs" (iii). The title page and preface serve the same purpose: to equate black children, and by extension all black people, with animals.
Sambo's mother, Mumbo, made him a red shirt and blue shorts, and his father, Jumbo, bought him shoes and an umbrella. Observing Sambo dressed in this new outfit, the narrator asks, "And then wasn't Little Black Sambo grand?" poking fun at a child trying to dress up nicely. The mockery is especially apparent when one considers the parents' clothing. The mother wears a red-and-white vertical striped shirt with a red, green, and yellow plaid skirt. A blue scarf covers her head, but she wears nothing on her feet. The chubby figure, who carries a big black pot and lacks any womanly shapeliness, is strongly suggestive of stereotypical images of "mammy" (5).
The father, drawn with equally mismatched clothes, dons a wide-brimmed hat, smokes a cigar, and totes an umbrella. He's barefoot, and his shirt buttons are mismatched. In effect, Mumbo plays the part of the poor serving woman while her husband tries, unsuccessfully, to pass as genteel. Bannerman adds insult to injury by capitalizing the words "Fine Clothes" with every use, mimicking the characters' attempt to put on airs by turning common attire into a proper noun.

As the story progresses, Sambo meets a succession of tigers and, with each, trades a piece of his "fine" attire in exchange for his life: one takes his red shirt, another his blue shorts, a third his shoes, and the last, his umbrella. The tigers, however, argue over "which of them was the grandest," and, while they fight, Sambo retrieves his outfit (38). Because black boys and tigers already have been linked, the tigers' fight can be read as a commentary on the behavior of the African race, a people so busy fighting amongst themselves over frivolous matters that they both look foolish and inhibit the advancement of their people. Additionally, the tigers stealing Sambo's clothes further equate him with the animals, possibly even pushing him lower on the social hierarchy. The tearful child ends up wearing what appears to be a grass skirt, and, though he reacquires the clothes, he is hardly redeemed: his attire is fit for animals, literally.

The results of such racist tracts were many. They evidenced white popular sentiment toward the black race and perpetuated the ignorance of the white community, for their children were offered no other literary portrayal of their black counterparts. Most disastrous, however, Little Black Sambo and books like it threatened to devastate a slowly growing sense of self-worth among a new generation of African Americans.

1 Beginning in 1887, Mrs. A.E. Johnson, an African American woman printed a number of religious tracts for children, including an eight-page magazine, The Joy.