A short, but nonetheless fascinating read in the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine is the collection of manuscripts and letters by William Faulkner and Langston Hughes. Hughes’ main goal in writing popular children’s books — some of which he also illustrated — was to bring positive images of blacks to young readers, particularly those of color. Faulkner, as well as other black authors, may also have seen writing children’s books as an outlet for their voices — a form in which they could be heard in a medium where they could be the center of attention and not only the voices of another reader, in addition to the one in the story.
The books themselves are quite interesting and reveal how little time children spent with African-American authors. In many of the above installments, a young narrator recounts all the things he or she will never forget: the birthday he’ll never forget, for example, along with all the other things he never forgets. That is, the list is seemingly longer than any child’s interest in or knowledge of Faulkner or Hughes as writers. In that way, the latter would seem to prefer that his characters be chosen by their ability to immediately capture the imagination.
The Hughes books are more difficult to read because they are “purely historical fiction.” In many instances, the narrators are not quite real, but rather the characters in a story are left to interpret them. But rather than setting their stories in reality, they are told through the eyes of children. They are alternately defiant or wholly sympathetic, dreaming of moving to the suburbs or becoming light-skinned “Negroes” or struggling with their weight and personality. Often they stop being children and begin becoming teenagers. As they grow up and realize how their struggles to survive are based on their color, the stories take on a completely different tone.
At its best, Hughes’ work possesses the universal truth of lessons learned from personal experience. At its worst, these are interspersed with titles like “Negro Kid.” The book is part of the “Did you know?” series and has a narrator growing up in a segregated South as a white child, liking the same things whites did (Westerns, Hello Kitty, Juicy Fruit). A surprising discovery in the files? A copy of the book in old black moldpapers. A beautiful — but fragile — artifact.