Saturday, October 27, 2007

Propaganda of The Brownie's Book 10/29

When I first began reading the Du Bois article “Criteria of Negro Art” I wondered what connections I could make with The Brownie’s Book. Since Prof. Wells had told us that it was intended for children, I guess I picture it as an old time Highlights, but I was considerably struck by the letter in the ‘grownup’s corner.’ While I knew that text book history did not consider the contributions of African Americans until rather recently, I hadn’t thought of what it might feel like to be a child growing up with out role models or a mother unable to tell her child about the people the text books forgot. It was then I thought about what Du Bois said about propaganda.
“Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be…I stand in utter shamelessness and say whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.”
Du Bois argued that there was no positive example of the lives of African Americans, even in art or literature, white publishers, directors, or managers only supported arts which portray African Americans as seedy, immoral or laughable and never as “lovable or inspired” as many works about white characters did.
With this in mind, I turned a critical eye to the stories of The Brownie’s Book, searching for the ways in which positive ‘propaganda’ were used. Probably my favorite example of which was the story of Dolly, the little girl who wanted golden curls, and was thus turned into a white girls because “as you know golden curls belong to people with pinky white skin and blue eyes (42.) So much of the other texts we’ve read have dealt with passing or interracial relationships, it was interesting to read a short story which pointed out that children were are of this color scale too and thus, might wish for features which seem to them more ‘white’ or fair. However, instead of making Dolly happy with her new appearance, she learned that she could not be with her family if she was a white child, and that, essentially, although she had only changed on the outside, she had lost a part of who she was.
I also found the article on Harriet Tubman very interesting (94-96.) Clearly, one of the functions of The Brownie’s Book was to provide a history left and out in schools, and to highlight the contributions made by Tubman that affected not just African Americans, but the United States. Additionally, articles like these were probably beneficial to adults as well, who like the mother in the grown-up’s corner, acknowledged neither her nor her husband knew much about African American history.
Lastly, I tried to analyze the stories of Br’er Rabbit, but really wasn’t sure what they meant. Maybe I am looking to deeply into a children’s story, but all the stories had a rather obvious message positive message for black children. However, when I read “Br’er Rabbit Wins the Reward’ I couldn’t help but think that wolf, fox, and rabbit were sharecroppers. Expected to do manual labor no one else would, for only the promise of something once it’s completed. In the end, the rabbit seems to trick the King, not complaining, but instead talking while he worked, and completing the task for the reward. Is the author saying children and other African Americans should continue to work hard and will one day receive recognition? Is it a comment on the labor or jobs open to the lower class, or does it have something to do with the fact that the rabbit essentially tricked the King?

1 comment:

William J. Zick said...

I would like to comment on the observation that text books did not teach the accomplishments of African Americans until recently. Prof. James Loewen brought this home to me powerfully in his 1996 book "Lies My Teacher Told Me". He documents the intentional exclusion of Black contributions from textbooks, because of the belief of publishers that school boards and textbook adoption committees don't which to see such facts included.

I read the book while compiling books and recordings to document the contributions made to classical music by people of African descent. I used my findings for a website which is now known as It profiles 52 Black composers, conductors and instrumental performers of classical music. A few months ago I started a companion AfriClassical Blog to deal with some of the hundreds of additional classical artists who have been brought to my attention.

Over a period of seven years of maintaining the website, I have found that year after year, curious students and teachers have continued to come to my site for material which I believe should have been made part of textbooks by now. I first focused on Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), the son of a slave who was educated with the sons of the nobility, and who became the finest fencer in France before he was a fashionable composer, virtuoso violinist and conductor of the best orchestras in Paris. During the French Revolution, Colonel Saint-Georges commanded 1,000 volunteers of color, and heroically halted a military advance by a far larger force sent by the treasonous Gen. Dumouriez, secretly allied with Austria.

In 2003, CBC TV first aired a documentary called "Le Mozart Noir"; it was released on DVD in 2005. My name is in the credits because I made my research available for the production. It remains the only documentary film on Saint-Georges.

Why is the life of this amazing man of color still not presented in most History textbooks? While it is certainly true some Black classical composers and musicians are now mentioned, many other important musical figures and their works are still missing from textbooks today.