Baldwin’s Children

James Baldwin’s recently reissued picture book, Little Man, Little Man, positions itself within a larger textual world. In this sweet and lively story of four-year-old TJ and his friends on a summer ...

James Baldwin’s recently reissued picture book, Little Man, Little Man, positions itself within a larger textual world. In this sweet and lively story of four-year-old TJ and his friends on a summer day, Baldwin builds literary possibility into the very landscape of 1970s Harlem: “They pass the liquor store on the corner and they turn left. There the barber shop with the men standing in front of it and the men inside. There the dude outside who sells Muhammad Speaks. TJ’s father read Muhammad Speaks sometime, but then he say, ‘Don’t believe everything you read. You got to think about what you read.’ His Mama say, ‘But read everything, son, everything you can get your hands on. It all come in handy one day.’”

In the spirit of children’s right to “read everything,” the revival of the long unavailable Little Man, Little Man demonstrates the continued relevance not only of Baldwin but of the groundbreaking stories and styles of 1970s African American children’s culture. In our present moment of struggle for racial justice in children’s literature, revisiting the radical experiments of the 1970s uncovers the deep roots of the creativity, activism, and conflict reshaping the field today.

With TJ’s story, Baldwin joined a wave of black authors pulling previously prohibited styles and topics into young readers’ reach. The anti-racist principles of the civil rights and Black Power movements, as well as young people’s prominent roles in school desegregation and other activist work, strengthened attention to children’s cultural and political force. In response, African American writers crafted texts for children in Black English and portrayed young characters as powerful agents of change. Poetry, stories, and nonfiction both addressed harsh realities such as homelessness and drug addiction and sought, in the words of Nikki Giovanni, to “spin a soft black song” of relatable and affirming life.1 Writers and artists aimed not only to expand young people’s reading choices but to use children’s literature as a potent site for transforming African American representation at large.

Baldwin’s niece Aisha Karefa-Smart, who inspired the character of Blinky, points to this context in a recent interview. Little Man, Little Man, she observes, “didn’t come out of nowhere. There was a tradition in our household to be surrounded by Black literature by, for, and about Black people. … So, Little Man, Little Man, for me, was adding to our collection of other children’s books that reflected and celebrated our lives.”2 In this light, the request of Aisha’s younger brother, Tejan, that sparked Little Man, Little Man—“Uncle Jimmy, Uncle Jimmy! When are you going to write a book about me?”—is far from childish whim but rather an invitation to join a children’s cultural movement.

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Since its republication last August, Little Man, Little Man has been praised for its strangeness. Baldwin’s use of Black English and frank treatments of police violence and substance abuse dismayed some 1970s readers, while the 91-page picture book’s ambiguous status as “a children’s book for adults and an adults’ book for children” frustrated critics. Reviews now suggest that the tale came before its time.

The New York Times coverage of the Little Man, Little Man reprint typifies this take. Nicholas Boggs, coeditor of the new edition, tells the Times of his first encounter with Baldwin’s only children’s book: “It wasn’t like anything else he’s written, and the more I read it, it wasn’t like anything else I’d read.” This exceptionality helps explain why Boggs searched for 15 years for a new publisher for the book, and why, in his words, the 1976 original fell out of print so “quickly and quietly” in the first place. To claim, as the Times does, that the new edition “could scarcely be more timely” is to suggest that we are better than we were in 1976. We were not ready for Baldwin then, but we are now.3 What this narrative misses is that category-defying weirdness is precisely what makes Little Man, Little Man a children’s book of its time.

Placed next to other 1970s children’s works, Little Man, Little Man stands as a representative aberration, exemplary of the era in its very unclassifiable daring. In particular, Baldwin’s picture book highlights a broad commitment to narrating a black children’s New York, remapping the city—and the field of children’s literature—as a capacious landscape of African American childhood.

The revival of “Little Man, Little Man” demonstrates the continued relevance not only of Baldwin but of the groundbreaking stories and styles of 1970s African American children’s culture.

Little Man, Little Man continued a surge of innovative New York picture books, including John Steptoe’s 1969 Stevie. With the Black English voice of his child narrator and soft-lined, deeply saturated paintings, Steptoe captures the glow of everyday life in a Brooklyn brownstone. Featured in Life and on Sesame Street, this gentle story of two boys’ friendship seems to invite little controversy. But in his quiet way, Steptoe raises the same issues of poverty and parental absence that would appear in Little Man, Little Man, seven years later. Stevie comes to live with the narrator, Robert, and his parents for a week while Stevie’s mother works long hours, much to Robert’s annoyance. His wistful memory of Stevie once he is gone indirectly registers the pain of Stevie’s own separation from his mother while affirming a practice of community care. Stevie sets the stage for Baldwin’s attention to chosen kinship in Little Man, Little Man, in which protagonist TJ shares his parents with his friend WT, and both boys receive the care, however imperfect, of neighborhood adults.

Baldwin’s and Steptoe’s New York tales resonate with Virginia Hamilton’s 1971 ode to the city, The Planet of Junior Brown. This YA novel of three outcast friends spills past the edges of realism and into the fantastical. Its heroes imagine a huge new planet in the solar system, join a vast underground community of homeless children, and hover on the brink of madness. Hamilton embeds this bizarre world within the map of Manhattan:

For Buddy, the city of darkness was deeply familiar and as fine a treasure as any he could have dreamed. … He had a place on Tenth Avenue in a boarded-up building that was due to be torn down in some vague future. He had chosen the building with care. The first floor had caved in on the basement. It had been necessary for Buddy to fashion a ladder out of rope, which he used to lower himself into the rubble.

Like the friends’ imagined discovery of a new planet, which alters basic premises of gravity and orbit, experiencing New York on the terms of black children demands a radical rethinking of reality in the city.4

To know the city comes at a cost. Hamilton gives shape to this danger in the imaginary figure of “the relative,” a fearsome, filthy companion who originates in the mind and cluttered apartment of Junior Brown’s reclusive piano teacher, Miss Peebs, before haunting Junior himself. Hamilton’s sanity-shaking relative could be close kin to an imagined being in Little Man, Little Man, whom I term “the witness.” Four-year-old TJ imagines the witness trapped in the apartment of his neighbor Miss Beanpole, whose seemingly peripheral story occupies the pages at the literal center of Little Man, Little Man. Like Miss Peebs, Miss Beanpole never reveals the backstory to her deep isolation. She removes the “long iron stick” that props her door shut to send TJ to the store for her and spends her days watching the street from her window. Baldwin describes TJ’s impression of her room:

It like a real weird room. Like a room in the movies or the TV where something happened in the room a long time ago and somebody hid in the room and they saw what happened and they still hiding in the room. They see everything in the room like now they can see every bit of change Miss Beanpole is counting out. Ain’t nothing so dark but they can’t see it. And then they going to jump out and tell what they saw and then something awful happened in the room.

The hiding witness suggests TJ’s intuition of traumatic memory in Miss Beanpole’s world. The witness seems variously to represent the ever-watchful Miss Beanpole, an enemy of hers, and TJ himself, who fears that the burden of the witness will be passed to him: “He might find out what happened and then Miss Beanpole pull that iron stick up out the floor and beat him over the head with it.” The witness gives TJ a sense that “something awful” both has already happened and threatens to occur in the future, foreshadowing the day’s painful ending. Hamilton’s relative and Baldwin’s witness assert young people’s ability to know and to come to terms with the pain of others, on the streets of New York as well as in its books.

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In Little Man, Little Man, both the suffering and the joy of children’s New York take shape between Baldwin’s words and the playful, pulsating pencil-and-watercolor work of his friend Yoran Cazac. As Boggs and Jennifer DeVere Brody note in the new edition’s introduction, the white French painter, who had never visited the United States, based his illustrations of TJ’s Harlem on Baldwin’s descriptions and photographs, in an attempt to “imagine the unimaginable.” Boggs and Brody mention that Baldwin provided Cazac with The Black Book (1974), the Toni Morrison–edited album of African American historical documents and images, from notices of human sale to family photographs and African American–held patents.5

Boggs and Brody leave unmentioned that The Black Book likely passed through the hands of Baldwin’s young niece and nephew as well. Children’s literature scholar Katharine Capshaw states that The Black Book attracted “significant child readership” and was “suited to family reading.”6 Capshaw also cites literary critic Cheryl A. Wall’s recollection of bringing home The Black Book to find that its historical images “triggered memories in my parents that had lain dormant for decades. … and elicited the stories that opened up a past I had not imagined.”7 The Black Book functioned not unlike Little Man, Little Man, using a complex dialogue of word and image to speak to readers across age. Baldwin and Cazac’s choice of the picture book form thus connected their work to the thematic range, stylistic ingenuity, and age flexibility of 1970s African American texts.

The new edition of Little Man, Little Man has rightly been celebrated as part of a resurgence of cultural interest in James Baldwin. If the book’s long dormancy provides a cautionary tale of cultural amnesia, Boggs and Brody’s important work of recovery serves as a reminder of the radical force of the past. As children’s and young adult literatures express a richer-than-ever diversity of young life, even as the field continues to confront the persistence of white supremacy, today is indeed a timely opportunity to take pleasure and lessons from change-making African American children’s books of the 1970s. icon

  1. Nikki Giovanni, Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children, illustrated by Charles Bible (Hill & Wang, 1971). I draw here on scholars’ recent efforts to bring new attention to African American children’s literature of the Black Arts Movement, such as in Michelle Martin’s foundational Brown Gold: Milestones of African American Children’s Picture Books, 1845–2002 (Routledge, 2004).
  2. Aisha Karefa-Smart, “An Interview with Aisha Karefa-Smart on James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood,” The Conscious Kid, accessed April 8, 2019.
  3. Alexandra Alter, “A James Baldwin Book, Forgotten and Overlooked for Four Decades, Gets Another Life,” New York Times, August 20, 2018.
  4. Virginia Hamilton, The Planet of Junior Brown (Aladdin, 1971).
  5. Middleton A. Harris, The Black Book, edited by Toni Morrison (Random House, 1974).
  6. Katharine Capshaw, Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), pp. xii, 157.
  7. Cheryl A. Wall, Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), p. 2.
Featured image: TJ and his parents in James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man