The Value in Brownies

Michal Cohen

The first issue of The Brownies Book was published January of 1920. In total the magazine ran for roughly two years. The most famous name attached to the project was that of W.E.B. Dubois, author of the acclaimed Souls of Black Folk and founding member of the NAACP. The 1920s were a pivotal decade in regards to art and literature for the Black community. The Harlem Renaissance produced inspired works from authors like Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston. Naturally, the movement was largely directed towards an adult audience, however, it became apparent that works were desperately needed in order to inspire Black youth, and counteract the negative portrayal in the available media. A positive perspective was very difficult to find in literature as a whole, and was virtually nonexistent in children’s literature specifically. Brownies “challenged the “selective tradition” in children’s literature that negatively depicted Afro-Americans and Afro-American culture” (Harris 192). In a 1919 issue of the magazine “The Crisis” DuBois outlined the seven crucial goals that literature should strive to achieve in regards to Black youth. “1. To make colored children realize that being “colored” is a normal beautiful thing. 2. To make them familiar with the history and achievements of the Negro race. 3. To make them know that other colored children have grown into beautiful, useful, and famous persons. 4. To teach them a delicate code of honor and action in their relations with white children. 5. To turn their little hurts and resentments into emulation, ambition, and love of their homes and companions. 6. To point out the best amusements and joys and worthwhile things of life. 7. To inspire them to prepare for definite occupations and duties with a broad spirit of sacrifice” (193). These specific goals were largely successful, but the most impactful aspect of them was simply awareness. In her article “Free Within Ourselves” Rudine Sims Bishop explains: “While The Brownies’ Book functioned to lift the veil of invisibility and counteract false images and stereotypes in children’s books and magazines, it also had an active agenda related to the development of Black children and what was commonly referred to as “the race,” meaning a national Black cultural community.” The text certainly accomplished goals regarding awareness, and positivism towards children, but the question remains whether Brownies should simply be regarded as an important piece of history, or should it be considered a pivotal piece amongst the category of Black literature.

The reception of the text is severely limited. Simply, people are largely unaware that this text exists, and the consensus is that it should be more widely spread. The reviews that do exist, however, are overwhelmingly positive. They all emphasize the critical historical significance of the text, but no readers appear to analyze the text itself from a critical literary perspective. A large praise that the book has received is that it has an absolutely truthful portrayal. It does not attempt to sugarcoat history, but in fact shows important history in a positive light. Generally in the modern education system, any subject matter to deal with race carries heavy negative implications. According to readers, The Brownies Book does not shy away from sensitive subjects, but somehow finds a way to show Black history in a more positive light. Ultimately, this can seek to instill a much-needed sense of pride in Black youth, as well as providing a better-rounded education for those who otherwise would only be provided with heavily negative influences.

One anonymous reviewer of Brownies stated in her review on January 29, 2000: “This is an excellent book on an important subject. I sincerely wish it was still around. Self-esteem and a positive self-concept for children of color, especially African-American children are still areas that need a lot of work. Our world is still consumed with an abundant amount of negative images and stereotypes of people of color.” Certainly everything in this statement is true. We are far from living in a post racial society, and it is vital that education about issues regarding race becomes a priority. That being said, the question remains as to whether Brownies should simply exist as a piece of history, or whether it should be regarded as a distinct, literary work. Prior to Brownies, the texts available that were targeted to Black youth were severely limited. In recent history, however, the category of African American literature has been added to many book retailers including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. There, however, is no real gauge to see Brownies compares to other literature in the same category. Obviously in the past, with such a limited resource for such texts, it’s possible that readers were blinded by the notion that the text exists at all, and were unwilling to be critical, because doing so would further deplete an already limited supply of racially positive texts. Certainly, when the book was written it was incredibly difficult to find any works that appealed to the intended audience. In contemporary America, however, this is not only a growing, but also apparently thriving field. It begs the question as to whether this text needs to be reexamined. Of course it provides important historical context, but the question still remains, does it continue to accomplish the goals that it set out to achieve in such a different social setting, as well as holding up to a literary standard. A section of text from the issue published January 1920 reads as follows: “While she went for a knife to cut open the pumpkin for pies, Happy tried to get out; but the pumpkin-door had stuck fast. Just then Mammy Tibblets started to cut the pumpkin, but somehow that pumpkin was so hard and she sawed and grunted so hard that the pumpkin slipped and fell right off the table and rolled under it. There it broke into halves, leaving Happy kicking about, as big as he ever was. Mammy reached under the table and pulled. She thought she had the pumpkin, but she had Happy’s fat left leg.” (10). Frankly, the writing style is unimaginative and lacks sophistication. The sentence structure is largely the same throughout, and the word choice is utterly basic.  For example, the majority of sentences consist of contractions. The intention may have been to do with pacing, but this appears to be a common theme throughout the entire text. The word choice is fairly pedestrian, and doesn’t seem to deviate or explore any new avenues throughout the series. The style of story telling is extremely juvenile. All of these elements may be just fine in a text intended for very young children, but it seems as though Brownies was intended for a slightly older audience. This assumption, however true in historical context, serves to denigrate the intended readership. There is a lot of merit in artful simplicity, but Brownies struggles with issues of clarity, and stylistically suffers. There is a clear intention of the tone that the text is trying to accomplish, but the intention doesn’t appear to translate on the page. It is far from being regarded as an exemplary, literary work, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still have merit.

The texts preach positivity, and include vital themes such as friendship, bravery, and honesty. The contributors to Brownies appear to have a solid grasp on the promotion of racial pride, the importance of history, interracial relations, inspiring joy, and to providing a sense of opportunity, as well as emphasizing the importance of social action. The tone of whimsicality is unwavering, but it does not shy away from sensitive issues. In the October 1920 issue it included a story entitled “The Pine Tree Folk” by Roy U. Plummer. The story is a clear metaphor for racism, but still appears to be approachable and clearly defined enough to impart a vital lesson to children. The story ends with a message of pride, and the importance of one’s history. “These pigmies determine that their children shall be somebody; that they shall rise in the world; and that instead of being little dependent plants, they shall be large, tall, straight, handsome, independent trees, to which boys will later come to carve their names. And their fond hopes are realized, for their little children—the Pine seeds—at the proper time are carried by the wind out into the world, where, if you do not cut them down at Christmas-time, you will find them growing into tall, beautiful Pine trees—the pride of the forest. You thus see that they are unlike their parents, the pigmies, while they resemble their grandparents, the tall Pine trees that you have so often seen in your strolls in the country” (293). It’s a solid metaphor which imparts universal values such as family and history and pride, but it employs this unique dilemma inherent in Brownies. Universal values are obviously important, but the emphasis on these values within a social justice movement is even more critical. Brownies continually resonates these same values, which speaks to the importance of community and consistency within a movement. Thematically, Brownies imparts a strong sense of whimsy while still grounding itself in social justice. It’s clear that the stories would appeal to children, and while some readers may not be able to glean the political notions behind the text, it would nevertheless serve as a source of entertainment. Furthermore, positive Black protagonists certainly would have served a vital role in developing a child’s relationship to reading. Not only would having relatable characters positively impact a child’s self-esteem, but also likely encouraged readership as a whole, further prompting Black youth in their own educations. Regardless of whether or not Brownies could be deemed a noteworthy literary text, the sheer encouragement of reading, regardless of the inherent or culturally perceived value in a work, is positive. Although there are clearly only benefits the text’s existence, there is no way to really determine how beneficial the text was during the 1920’s. We can however, see how this text should be viewed in contemporary society.

Criticism of Brownies appears to be utterly nonexistent. With such a limited resource for such texts, it’s possible that readers could be blinded by the notion that the text exists at all, and are unwilling to be critical, because doing so would other further deplete an already limited supply of racially positive texts. Certainly, when the book was written it was incredibly difficult to find any works that appealed to the intended audience. In contemporary America, however, this is not only a growing, but also apparently thriving field. It begs the question as to whether this text needs to be reexamined. Of course it provides important historical context, but the question still remains, does it continue to accomplish the goals that it set out to achieve in such a different social setting.

The category of African American literature is currently a thriving market place. Children’s literature promoting the intrinsic values that Brownies set out to accomplish now exists in abundance. While Brownies is absolutely an important piece of history, and an interesting literary examination of the time period, is not necessarily the most effective text to present as the basis for continuing to inspire Black youth, or to educate those of privilege on issues of race. Simply because it is the first documented piece of children’s literature that set out to accomplish these goals regarding social justice doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the bedrock or most exemplary text that exists. Certainly, Brownies should be more widely spread, and could certainly be used as an education tool, but it may be that its comeback will not consist of literary prowess, but simply stand for its historical worth.

Overall, there is no doubt that The Brownies Book remains an important work. The problem is that this text needs to be shared much more widely than it currently is. Only then will it receive the necessary social analysis that racially driven children’s literature needs to thrive. With such important historical context, it would be a shame if this text disappeared altogether, but it is vital that it be reexamined in contemporary society so that it can be given proper and advisable context. The impact of the text seems to be largely positive, but only a more widespread audience can determine if it stands the test of time.

Regardless of whether Brownies exists as an archetypal example of excellent children’s literature, the outcome does not denote from its value as a warmhearted, well intentioned, and simply fun piece of history. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is certainly admirable and should absolutely be given more critical reception than it has currently received. The Brownies Book has a lot of heart, and the optimistic aims of the authors is utterly apparent. Individual readers should determine for themselves whether they find the text to be worthwhile from a literary perspective, but regardless of that Brownies imparts a vital sense of whimsy, and a captivating perspective on history.

 

Works Cited

Dubois, W.E.B. (1919). The true Brownies. The Crisis, 18, 285-286.

Harris, Violet J. “Race Consciousness, Refinement, and Radicalism: Socialization in The Brownies’ Book.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 14: 192-196. Web. 22 May 2014.

Bishop, Rudine Sims. “For the Children of the Sun: African American Children’s Literature Begins to Bloom.” Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2007. Print.

Plummer, Roy U. “The Pine Tree Folk.” The Brownies Book 1 Oct. 1920: 293. Print.

Poe, Peggy. “Pumpkin Land.” The Brownies Book 1 Jan. 1920: 3-4. Print.

Anonymous. Rev. of The Best of the Brownies Book. Amazon.com. 29 January, 2000. Web. 18 June 2014.

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