"For the children of the sun": African American children's literature, 1914--1954

Date of Completion

January 2000


History, Black|Literature, American




The New Negro Renaissance, that period associated with the flowering of the arts in 1920s Harlem, begins a tradition of African American children's literature, for the central writers of the Renaissance made youth their subject and audience in drama, pageantry, biography, poetry, and magazine writing. Whether as teachers like Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Jessie Fauset, as artists like Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, or as cultural leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, New Negro Renaissance figures took an impassioned interest in the literary models offered children, believing that the “New Negro” would ultimately arise from the young negro. By analyzing the ideology and cultural history of New Negro Renaissance texts for youth, the dissertation defines the parameters of early African American children's literature. ^ Employing interdisciplinary critical strategies, including social, cultural, and publishing history, gender theory, canon-formation issues, illustration studies, and extensive archival research, the dissertation analyzes the New Negro Renaissance's image of childhood as a site of emerging cultural nationalism, explores the period's vigorous theoretical debates surrounding the nature and identity of black childhood, and uncovers the networks of African American philosophers, community activists, schoolteachers, and literary artists who worked together to transmit black history and culture to an economically and socially diverse audience. While many New Negro Renaissance studies emphasize the relationships between black artists and white patrons in Harlem, this dissertation helps reimagine the field by concentrating on the ideology of work written by blacks and for a black audience in Harlem, for example those by Hughes and Bontemps; in other urban centers like Washington and Philadelphia, such as those by Woodson and Willis Richardson; and in the rural South, including texts by Rose Leary Love and Elizabeth Perry Canon. ^ Whether in plays produced in community centers and churches, the “Children's Page” of black magazines, biographies produced by black publishing houses, dialect poetry and country life stories, or verse originally written for an adult audience but appropriated by child readers, African American children's literature became a crucial medium through which a disparate community forged bonds of cultural, economic, and aesthetic solidarity. ^