A director on the Illustrators Ireland Board and IBBY Ireland member, Margaret Anne Suggs was in Bratislava recently attending the Biennial of Illustration, where she gave an illustrated presentation on the topic of 'The Identity of the African-American Child in 20th Century Picture books'. Here she kindly gives us permission to reproduce the abstract of her talk, which should give us all plenty of food for thought...
''In America, many groups claim their motherland, or their ancestral home as part of their identity, such as the Irish-Americans, the Italian-Americans, or the African-Americans. While most European immigrants “have been comfortably assimilated into the cultural mainstream”1, African-Americans have not easily assimilated as they are immediately recognised and separated by their skin colour. African-Americans have made an epic journey from being sold as slaves to being a vital part of the fabric of American society and in children’s books today, there is a growing and healthy emphasis on depicting a multiracial American society. But how did that change throughout the 20th century because unfortunately, the illustrations that are found of African-Americans in children’s books have not always been positive?
''In very early examples such as Little Black Sambo, 'Negroes' were often shown as minstrels or ‘golliwogs’ and language used in the writing of the story tended to be derogatory towards people of colour. By the late 1950s, books including minority characters begin to appear in shops and libraries, but they were often still written, illustrated, edited, and published by white people and language was carefully chosen to avoid any offense to minorities. It was truly the examples from the 1960s, as a direct result of the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that began to show multiracial societies authentically represented through illustration. Finally, by the 1990s, Black people began to appear in children's book illustration as self-appreciating, proud people sometimes using colloquial dialects in the writing of the texts.
''Children’s books of recent years show a greater mix of races, more shades of skin colour, many hair textures, and the joining of Black and White families. The previously skewed “notions of what was beautiful, appropriate, uplifting, or authentically Negro” have changed and are now being reflected positively and imaginatively in the illustrations, themes, and language of children’s books. This is only one step in the right direction for diversity in children's literature. Hopefully there are more to come.''
Margaret Anne Suggs