Civil Rights Childhood

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capshaw-150x150Katharine Capshaw is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. Her newest book is Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks (Minnesota, 2014). The former Editor of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Capshaw won the 2006 Best Scholarly Book Award from the Children’s Literature Association for Children’s Literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

Can you briefly describe your book?

Civil Rights Childhood explores photographic books (from the 1940s to the present day) read by child audiences. Whether offering provocative photographs or yoking together word and image, these photobooks asked young people to think about social justice and the role of young people to the civil rights movement. The term “photobook” encompasses many kinds of texts, including documentary books, historical narratives, picture books (in the tradition of illustrated books), poetry collections with photographs, and experimental texts. I examine books by major authors, like Langston Hughes, June Jordan, and Toni Morrison, as well as texts by lesser-known black writers and artists. When one thinks about civil rights photographs of children, one often thinks either of victimhood—as in Emmett Till and the four little girls of Birmingham—or of group involvement in protests—children headed to march or to jail. But when you look at books that speak directly to children, or books that children appropriated through reading practices, you see that writers and photographers are telling a different story about young peoples’ political possibilities. The black child has been and continues to be a social agent, and these books aim to get a child reader thinking about her place in the world and to take action.

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From Today by the Child Development Group of Mississippi. Edwards, MS: Mississippi Action for Community Education, 1965.

What initially drew you to your topic?

My scholarship has been on black cultural studies and childhood, and I became interested in photographs when working on the Harlem Renaissance. I found wonderful and peculiar photos of children published in the Crisis magazine during 1910s and 1920s. Once I finished that project, I started thinking about why African American authors and publications would gravitate to photography in order to chart alternate versions of childhood, especially given the way the documentary had been used to engender sympathy and, some might say, pity in the Farm Security Administration photographs of rural people in the 1930s. I found that by the 1940s, black writers began employing the photograph as an alternate narrative of black life, offering photo books of suburban black life, for instance. I also found that these photographs challenged stigmatizing visual representations of urban black communities: for example, I found photo books of glamorous Harlem made in the 1940s, and 1950s books that describe an ambiguous and evocative Harlem, like Langston Hughes’s and Roy De Carava’s Sweet Flypaper of Life.

capshaw4Since I am interested in questions of genre, text/image relationship, and representation, I began to wonder about the relationship of photo books to illustrated picture books. Is there a different reading experience in photo books? How might photo books resist the immersive and lead a child instead to have to think in order to make sense of text/image relationships? Some of the books I found use text boxes, pastiche, ripped headlines, and all kinds of disruptive and provocative visual strategies which force a child reader to work to see the connections between the material on the page and the world around her. I think, in fact, that this work—this reader involvement and implication in constructing meaning—might be distinctive to photographic picture books and might be one of the main reasons African American writers from the mid-century onward used the form in order to engage child readers in civil rights inquiry and efforts. My book traces the emergence of the photograph and its potential to speak the unspeakable (especially in terms of arguing for civil rights change in the 1940s and 1950s texts), and to engage readers in considering the implications of history and struggle. These books push child readers to think about themselves as political and social actors.

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Poems By Kali by Kali Gorsvenor. Photographs by Joan Halifax and Robert Fletcher. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.

What was the strangest/most interesting thing you found in the archives/while doing research?

One of the most interesting dimensions of researching the book was the discovery of Kali Grosvenor, an eight year old in 1970 who published a tremendously popular book of poems and photographs (taken by the civil rights photographer, Bob Fletcher). Thinking about Kali allowed me to consider the way childhood as a concept influenced black writers and thinkers of the Black Arts Movement of the early 1970s. When we think of that moment, we remember radical poets and dramatists like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Larry Neal, and others. But writers also issued photographic books, including one by Baraka, during this period and often these picture books included profound images of children. I found that writers were using child photographs to embody both abstract ideas about the possibility of the black nation as well as the concrete, evidential articulation of cultural beauty and grace. Since children’s bodies are in process, photographs allowed writers to point to the ongoing reinvention of blackness through the unfinished body of the child. An image of a Black Arts Movement child evoked an essential aspirant state for the black nation, one untouched by miseducation and psychological colonization. Kali’s book and her cultural prominence spoke to me of the centrality of childhood to cultural reinvention. I had the privilege of interviewing Kali, and she reflected on the involvement of young people in the social and aesthetic transformations of the era. She said, “Children were expected to participate in any part of any movement, as far as I was concerned. I was taught that all of the work being done was for a better life for the children so we too had a responsibility.” Her observations about the interactions between adults and young people helped me think carefully about the assumptions readers bring to children’s books. Children’s literature can be radical, can seek to propel civil rights action. I found that research on Black Arts Movement childhood and interactions with Kali were the most fascinating dimension of my research.

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From Little Journeys into Storyland: Stories That Will Live and Lift by Louis B. Reynolds and Charles L. Paddock. Nashville: Southern Publishing, 1947/48.

What do you see as the future of childhood studies and histories? Of civil rights visual culture?

I think we are in a moment right now of thoughtful debate about the political implications of visual representation, particularly in terms of images of black youth. When we engage photographs of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, or other young people, we recognize the stakes of imagining black life through the photograph. When making sense of images, civil rights activists of the current moment invoke the narratives a viewer brings to a picture of a black child, particularly in terms of childhood innocence and possibility; through language, image selection, and editing, these activists shape stories about black childhood that can articulate civil rights struggle. This activist construction of word and image is not a new phenomenon within black experience. Historians of civil rights visual culture, like Leigh Raiford, Erina Duganne, Martin Berger and others, return to photographs and word/image documents that sought to propel action, uncovering an archive that helped influence populist change. I think that scholars will continue to include childhood in the conversation about the scope and impact of civil rights representation. We remember that children—whether Emmett Till or Trayvon Martin, or whether child protestors at Selma or young audiences for texts of the Black Arts Movement—have been at the heart of representations of civil rights action.

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