COLLEGE LITERATURE

a journal of critical literary studies

Call for Proposals - Special Issue

For My People: Dismantling the Child/Adult Dichotomy in Black Literature, a Special Issue of College Literature
Edited by Ellen Donovan and Laura Dubek

In 2018 Duke University Press reissued James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man: A Record of Childhood. In “A James Baldwin Book, Forgotten and Overlooked for Four Decades, Gets Another Life,” New York Times writer Alexandra Alter notes that in 1976 Little Man received lukewarm reviews: “critics didn’t know what to make of an experimental, enigmatic picture book that straddled the line between children’s and adult literature.” Alter posits that because of a changed social and political climate, Baldwin’s book will now have an easier time finding an audience. Jacqueline Woodson, the 2018 winner of the Children’s Literature Legacy Award and the Library of Congress’ 2018–19 national ambassador for young people’s literature, defines that audience broadly: “It’s a book that young people can read or have read to them, but it’s also a new Baldwin for adults.”

For the last twenty years, scholars of African American children’s and young adult literature have been calling for the “critical crossover” Woodson describes. Whatever terms scholars use to challenge traditional ways of categorizing audiences and considering individual writers—cross-writing, cross-reading, dual audience, critical crossover—the consensus is clear: without such a challenge, our understanding of the African American literary tradition, its readers, writers, and texts, will always be partial and incomplete.

To problematize the developmental model that makes distinctions between a child and an adult reader, to “queer,” as Katherine Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane put it, “the narrative of age as a straight path on which childhood is a stop along the line to an empowered adulthood,” is to occupy the intersection of two fields too often thought of as separate—African American literature and Children’s/Young Adult literature. While both fields claim Langston Hughes, many other writers whose work participates in what we can call the tradition of Hughes’ writing for “my people,” are claimed by either one field or the other. This lack of cross-over, noted by both Diane Johnson-Feelings in 1998 and Capshaw and Duane in 2017, exacerbates persistent problems—too few books about black experiences circulating as well as the continued marginalization of children’s and YA literature within African American literature, itself a marginalized field within American literary studies.

The title of this Special Issue takes inspiration from Hughes, the most widely recognized black writer to produce work marketed to and read by people of all ages. In response to the idea that black writers should produce work that reflected a certain type of “new Negro,” Hughes declared his and his peers’ artistic freedom in his 1926 manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Often read within the context of a generational divide—W. E. B. Du Bois vs. the young writers of the Harlem Renaissance—Hughes’s essay dismantled various dichotomies, insisting on the black artist’s freedom to create without consideration of an overtly political agenda determined by racism and valuing didacticism over aesthetics in art.

Putting writers in conversation, authors currently considered as writing for either young people or adults, constitutes a challenge to a critical “racial mountain” Hughes and his twentieth- and twenty-first century successors continue to face in both fields of study. Scholars should be asking how our understanding of the didactic impulse in black children’s literature changes when we read, for example, Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men alongside Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales, beautifully illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. How does Walter Dean Myers’s YA novel Monster echo and revise the call of Richard Wright’s Native Son? What do we learn about the politics of art and aesthetics when we read Jacqueline Woodson’s work alongside Jamaica Kincaid’s or when we read Mildred Taylor’s historical fiction alongside that of Ernest Gaines or Alice Walker? Visually stunning adaptations of texts, such as the 2017 graphic tribute to Octavia Butler’s Kindred, introduce a new generation of readers, of all ages, to a prolific writer of genre fiction. Individual texts, such as Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, prompt explorations of how authors negotiate dual audiences: divided into two parts, the first letter in Fire addresses Baldwin’s fifteen-year-old nephew and the second, his white adult countrymen. Ta-Nehisi Coates adapted and revised Baldwin’s rhetorical device for Between the World and Me (2015), a nonfiction bestseller that preceded Coates’s edition of the comic Black Panther.

We seek essays that challenge the child/adult reader dichotomy in black literature via

  • analyses of reading and/or reception practices that bridge generational divides (e.g., the collaborative reading between child and adult that takes place with alphabet books, primers, and picture books, the communal experience of theater, or other social practices that circulate texts across generations)
  • a focus on specific work(s) of a particular genre of African American writing, including but not limited to Picture Books, Comics, Life Writing, Poetry, Novels, Film/TV/Digital Media, Folklore, Biographies, and Cultural Histories
  • genre-bending or adaptations of texts for different audiences
  • intertextual analyses of texts within a single author’s oeuvre or of texts by authors currently claimed by different fields
  • intertextual analyses of texts by authors representing other historically marginalized groups
  • considerations of the relationship between the didactic impulse, a tradition of uplift, and aesthetics
  • investigations of the paratextual historical circumstances (e.g., access to publication) that contributed to such dichotomies, particularly as they relate to African American writing and reading
  • analyses of social and literary constructions of black childhood and/or adulthood as depicted in specific texts
  • analyses of the ways in which a text reveals the relationship between the author and cross-generational readers

Please submit a CV, a 500-word abstract (for essays between 8000-10,000 words) a working bibliography of 5–10 sources to Ellen Donovan and Laura Dubek at formypeoplespecialissue@gmail.com by March 30, 2020. When submitting, also copy College Literature (collit@wcupa.edu). Essay drafts will be due January 30, 2021, and sent out for anonymous peer review. For conditionally accepted proposals, it is our hope to have a writers’ workshop during Fall 2020 held at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. The special issue will be released in Spring 2022.