Book Review of African American Childhoods: Historical Perspectives from Slavery to Civil Rights
Updated: Oct 30, 2018
Composed by Dr. Magda A. Cabrero, Edited by Andrew L. Saraf
Wilma King’s goal in writing African American Childhoods is to fill a gap in historical knowledge. In the book’s introduction, she argues that there has been inadequate attention to the historical experiences of African American children. King’s historical framework is unique. She selects ten topics in historical chronological order, many of which have not been explored in depth before. And she presents them in the form of essays. The essays offer attention not only to the big picture but to the personal experiences of African Americans, adding a strong human touch to the book.
African American Childhoods should be read by anyone whose profession involves the wellbeing of African American children. This book will provide them with a unique understanding of how significant moments in history have impacted the lives of African American children from the colonial era to the present. This book can be especially useful for teachers of African American children. It can serve, not only as a source of insight about their students’ backgrounds, but also as a curriculum topic which can help students understand their forefathers’ struggles.
African American Childhoods describes how certain episodes in American history have affected the lives of African American children. The book is divided into two parts, focusing on the periods before and after the end of slavery. The first part begins by describing the conditions of African-born children as they were brought on slave ships to America. Their experiences are made personal through its account of the early experiences of the writer Olaudah Equiano, who was captured in Africa at the age of 11. King goes on to discuss the relationships between enslaved children and the children of slaveholders. While they played together often, their games reflected the hegemonic relationships between masters and slaves. In addition, black children were often treated like draft animals by the slaveholding children. This first part also relates how the level of education of the household owners made no difference in the level of abuse suffered by these children. Moreover, it illustrates the relationships between slave parents and their children, describing how the parents instructed their children to behave in a way that would keep them out of trouble. Children are portrayed as courageous in their efforts to protect their parents, as seen in the example of Jacob Branch, who stood between the master and his mother as she was being punished. King discusses the substantial prevalence of sexual abuse, the high incidence of children resulting from the rape of slaves, and the jealousy that some mistresses felt against their female slaves. We also learn about children like Cornelia Smith, who were traumatized indirectly by the mistreatment of their mothers, who often decided against running away from their abusive conditions for the sake of not abandoning their children. The last chapter in the book’s first part discusses the free African Americans who, by 1860, made up 11% of the African-American population, and of whom half were below 20 years old. King explains that being born to a free woman guaranteed the child’s freedom from slavery. Nevertheless, while free African American children had advantages relative to slave children, they still were victims of discrimination wherever they went. Free children were considered anomalies during the slavery era and suffered as a result.
The second part of the book illustrates not only the systematic injustices that African American children have had to endure since the Civil War, but also these children’s dignity, courage, sense of community, and inner strength. This part discusses the Reconstruction Era; the joint education of Native Americans and African Americans; the Great Depression; the often hostile and derisive depiction of African-Americans by the media during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and the violence endured by African American children during the civil rights era. The book’s afterword discusses the challenges that persist in the twenty-first century, but ends on a note of optimism, arguing that “[i]t is important that my generation be able to show that we can take the place of the generation before us. Things aren’t going to fall apart when we take over” (p. 178).
In the introduction to African American Childhoods, King explains that the goal of her book is to begin to remedy public ignorance about African American childhoods. She also expresses her intention to integrate the personal with the universal, providing a human face to her historical account. She uses a variety of sources to accomplish this, including autobiographical stories by former slaves Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs and Booker T. Washington, as well as those of free-born people such as Charlotte Forten Grimke. King’s discussion of the post-Civil War African American experience similarly draws on autobiographical accounts, such as one by Anne Moddy on her experience of being poor and black. King also uses narratives collected by the Works Progress Administration, in which former slaves describe the transition between slavery and freedom. Other forms of documentation are wills, divorce decrees, diaries, letters, church records, and newspaper commentaries.
The book does not aim to cover every episode in African-American history. Instead, it focuses on how certain important historical events affected African-American children’s lives. As King writes, she hopes to challenge “the ‘traditional’ ways of historical thinking about black children” (p. 5). The sources she chooses not only are excellent sources of historical evidence, but also liven up, enrich, and personalize the stories King tells.
The use of photographs adds further power to the book. Perhaps the most striking image depicts the smiling faces of white men who are looking at the lynched and burnt body of eighteen-year old Jesse Washington. This picture puts a dehumanized, human face on the prevalent white hatred of the time.
King’s book brings well-needed recognition and dignity to the lives of countless children who have been diminished and humiliated throughout American history. It movingly shows us these children’s humanity, courage, and struggle for survival, both informing and engaging the reader.
This book would be a fine addition to the curricula of schools across the country. It can help African American children understand their own history, while teaching children of all races important lessons about racial tolerance. Moreover, teacher preparation programs can use this book as a way to impart knowledge and cultural sensitivity to future teachers.
The book is also enlightening in the contrast it draws between the perspectives of white and black people throughout American history. An example of this can be found in the book’s chapter on the Great Depression. The African American girl’s journal featured in this chapter never makes reference to this terrible period in American history. It is as if her poverty prepares her for what many whites had considered unthinkable. It is also shocking to read about the mistreatments endured by African American children at the hands of white children. But what is most impressive is the courage of children who did nothing to deserve their dehumanizing conditions; who did anything to survive; who cared deeply for their siblings; who got beatings to protect their parents; who were treated like animals by their peers; who spent the civil rights era marching and struggling side by side with adults.
King does a very effective job of dignifying African American children while filling gaps in historical knowledge; she brings new perspectives to a story that has generally been told by white male adults who have too often neglected others’ perspectives, particularly those of African American children. African American Childhoods is a powerful work which should be in the library of every believer in social justice.