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Why I Teach Ebony Visions and Cowrie Shell Dreams: Black Storytelling and Children’s Literature Across the Generations

IN 1967, after a four-month stint in corporate America, I announced to my supervisor that the job was not my suit of clothes. She was dismayed that I was turning my back on an opportunity to uplift my race. The Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company was investing unprecedented amounts of money and training for negroes, like me, to join management teams. 


Within days after resigning, I found myself teaching a first-grade class at Hines Elementary School in Washington, DC.  That first day was a test by fire--students teased me with ditties, called me out of my name, and after being terminated broke into the school and tore up the classroom. 


Still, it set me on a trajectory that became one of the enduring pedagogical and intellectual heartbeats of my life: Teaching. I would come to learn how the historical hands, creative passions, and depth of intellect of Fisk University Librarian and Harlem Renaissance writer and poet Arna Bontemps were essential to me navigating my life on this path. 


Along with teaching that first grade class, I held a second job as a stock clerk at Brentano’s Bookstore. The Black assistant manager knew I was eager to find books that held images and shone light on the storytelling of our culture and enriched the lives of Johnny Thomas, Anna Banana, and Cynthia Mobley. He directed me to Drum and Spear a newly opened bookstore on 14th Street NW. in one of the major corridors of Black life in what was then referred to as Chocolate City--the place where I was born and came into formation at the parental and instructional hands of cadres of demanding Black teachers; their standards of excellence eventually resulted in me teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the nation’s premier public institutions of higher education.


As I spoke with Drum and Spear’s then-manager Joe Gross about selecting books for my first graders, he admonished me for working for those white people; he extended an invitation in the form of a not so tactful command that I come work at his store. That visit turned into a mission to harvest the works of so many writers who had authored books focused on the worlds of Black children and young adults.

 

Through collaboration with my colleagues Juadine Henderson, Jennifer Lawson and Judy Richardson, who became friends, this mission became more possible than I had ever imagined. Our team developed an impressive Third World Children’s Literature section in the store.  Drum and Spear Press also published Children of Africa, a coloring book for children with an accompanying narrative for parents; it became a best seller that was translated into Kiswahili by Tanzanian Publishing Company.  In addition, Mimi Hayes produced Sa Yaa Watoto, a storytelling hour that aired on WOL radio. Judy Richardson, Tony Gittens and I produced a citywide phenomenally successful children’s book festival and art contest.


Educators began inviting members of the staff to participate in curriculum projects highlighting the works of Sharon Bell Mathis, Eloise Greenfield, Virginia Hamilton and Tom Feelings.  Writers, Toni Morrison, who would go on to co-author eight children’s books with her son Slade, and community members purchased stacks of children’s books documenting and edifying the creative voices, inventions and activism of poet Phyllis Wheatley, Dr. George Washington Carver, writers of the Harlem Renaissance and driving forces in the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Pan African/Diaspora movements. 


I also searched out the history and scholarship related to the field; I came to realize that sociologist and scholar W. E. B. DuBois, along with writer and teacher, Jessie Redmon Fauset, created the Brownies Books: A Magazine for Children of the Sun, a version of which was reissued in 2023 as The New Brownies Book: A Love Letter to Black Families by Dr. Karida Brown and Charly Palmer, who pioneered the steady inclusion of books for Black children in the New York Public Library. 


Independently, I began to study children’s literature and its evolution: who the writers were, the sources from which they drew their stories, the torching stereotypes and relentless tropes that countered the truth and justice seeking narratives of our lives. The scholarship of Jonda C. McNair, Katherine Capshaw, Rudine Sims Bishop and Violet Harris have been instrumental to my ongoing research. The pages of picture books by Lucille Clifton, John Steptoe and Sharon Bell Mathis and young adult novels and biographies by Candy Dawson Boyd, Shirley Graham (DuBois) and Walter Dean Myers intrigued me.  The illustrations of Leo and Diane, Jerry Pinkney and Floyd Cooper drew me even closer to these amazing stories. And Eloise Greenfield broke ground by centering a perfectly capable disabled character in her picture book Alesia, an extraordinary move for the times.


In the early 80s, I also produced the Right On Rainbow Children’s Book and Film Festival during my time at Mills College and Ms. Greenfield was one of our featured speakers.  For more than 30 years, Cheryl and Wade Hudson of Just Us Books have persevered by writing and publishing some of today’s most widely read Black children’s books.


The portal of entry into this field grew wider. I received a request to serve as a curriculum consultant to the Berkeley Unified School District and teach a course at UC Berkeley Extension, after moving to California in 1971, which took me into the scholarly depths of this work. That course surveyed the historical arc of this literature, as well as the cultural and pedagogical impact dating back to precolonial times and the richness of a continent raped and plundered not because it was destitute but because it housed massive wealth and resources for so much of the rest of the world.  American and European museums are bursting through the rafters with artifacts, art, spiritual iconography, furniture and script that tell the stories of the treasures pillaged across the massive African continent.


The storytelling traditions of that continent remain vital to the cultures spanning from the horn to the cape. My teaching continues to pay homage to the fact that many African nations had literate populations that included the reading of the Quaran and evidence of writing systems and the establishment of Fez, Morocco, and Timbuktu centuries before colonialism. Much of the documentation comes out of West Africa, where the Griot was assigned the role of troubadour, historian and sometimes diplomat, all of which have been critical to preserving the genealogies, historical narratives and oral traditions of African peoples. Storytelling remains essential to Black lives and cultures and resonates in rap, jazz, 21st century tall tales and poetry found on murals and in picture books and young adult novels.

I teach Ebony Visions and Cowrie Shell Dreams: Black Storytelling and Children’s Literature across the Generations to incubate the creativity of future writers, encourage ongoing research and the teaching of the field as part of the canon. I also teach it because our children are not Little Black Sambo or any of the other stereotypical images in which we are cast. Our children manifest across the spectrum of humanity and are the beautiful, brilliant, and complex characters found in the works of Amina Luqman Dawson, Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, and the characters beautifully illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dindga McCannon, and Kadir Nelson. After mounting a panel on Black children’s literature as the Elder-in-Residence at the Black Studies Collaboratory in Abolitionist Democracy in the Department of African American and Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley (2021-2023), Dr. Nikki Jones, chair of the department invited me to teach the course.


 I like children, whom I sometimes refer to as “cheerins.”  I love their sense of curiosity, the sometimes-unfiltered ways in which they speak on matters beyond their years and witnessing them grow through the various stages of their lives, becoming who they will be. I do have to admit that I have met some who were born grown, prominently wearing the capes of their ancestors.


I want them to inherit things beyond the legacies of trauma and know that we are a people whose histories built so much of the world and what the world depends on to make it function, including major technological inventions, musical genres, and groundbreaking medical treatments. There are authors including Kenesha Sneed, Jason Reynolds, Toni Medina, and illustrators and Javaka Steptoe, whose works hopefully will be read by millions of children around the world and go on to become decades long held classics.  The works of Afro-Futuristic authors Tomi Adeyemi, Yehudi Mercardo and Jewell Parker Rhodes are also gaining readerships.


I feel compelled to carry forward the inherent legacy of Drum and Spear, including its founders--Charlie Cobb, Courtland Cox, and Judy Richardson--and the responsibility placed on my shoulders when Joe Gross hired me to join a group of unwavering activists whose work transformed and shifted the tectonic plates of racism and the axis upon which the world of social justice turns.

 

Daphne Muse is a writer, educator and social justice activist who lives in Brentwood, California and maintains a collection of more than 10,000 rare and first edition books documenting Black lives and cultures. She is the editor of The New Press Guide to Multicultural Resources for Young Readers (The New Press, 1997).

 Photos from a card drawn by my first-grade student Cynthia Mobley at Hines Elementary School in Washington, DC circa 1967. Additional; photos credits in order of appearance: book cover from Jennifer Lawson collection of Drum and Spear Bookstore; Lucille Clifton courtesy of The Clifton House; Kwame Alexander VMRM Ventures.

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