Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in this week’s CNN’s Race Deconstructed newsletter. Sign up for free here.
If you’d stepped inside a typical Black household not too long ago, you would have seen this: plastic-covered living room furniture, portraits of Jesus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the walls, and a collection of vinyl records with gospel, Motown hits and maybe a Richard Pryor comedy album tucked discreetly in the pile.
The visual centerpiece of the home, though, might be a coffee table displaying well-thumbed copies of Ebony and Jet. The famed magazines, which depicted attractive, middle-class Black people strutting down sidewalks in business attire, teeing up on golf courses and gathering around dinner tables in tastefully decorated homes offered a visual counterpoint to the usual media images of Black people as objects of fear or pity.
Long before there was Ebony or Jet, however, one of America’s greatest scholars created another magazine that served the same mission. And now, that magazine is making a comeback.
W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights activist and sociologist, published the first issue of The Brownies’ Book in January 1920. Subtitled “A Monthly Magazine for the Children of the Sun,” it has been described as the first magazine aimed at Black children.
Its pages contained portraits of self-assured Black children mixed with African folk tales, advice columns and illustrations — all designed, according to Du Bois, to provide kids with books “that told of Colored People’s glory.”
The Brownies’ Book ceased publication by 1922, but now — a century later — comes an updated version of the beloved magazine.
“The New Brownies’ Book: A Love Letter to Black Families” combines selections from the original magazine with contributions from contemporary artists and writers. The cover, showing a Black girl dressed in a ballerina outfit staring confidently ahead, distills the message of uplift the book’s authors want to spread.
Karida L. Brown, who coauthored the new book with Charly Palmer, says she wanted to offer a response to recent campaigns that have limited or banned books about Black children. She says she also wanted to offer an alternative to news stories that focus on Black people as victims of police brutality.
The book offers essays, poems, photographs and family-friendly stories that “reminds readers of all ages that Black is brilliant, beautiful and bold,” according to the publisher.
“I had just witnessed George Floyd being murdered on TV, and Breonna Taylor, and, and, and …,” Brown told The New York Times recently in explaining her impetus for reviving the book. “I thought, ‘If I’m feeling this level of despair because of this, what must a Black child feel?’”
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The new book’s release is part of a largely unheralded tradition in Black America. Black people have long created alternative publications to tell the stories that White America didn’t want to hear.
I grew up in Baltimore, where my relatives subscribed to another Black newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American. And groups like the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam also offered their own publications.
The mainstream press tends to focus on Black communities when there is some national racial upheaval — unrest after the 1968 assassination of MLK; the 1992 Rodney King protests; the George Floyd “racial reckoning” in 2020.
But that focus never lasts, says David Love, a writer and commentator. Love says there still aren’t enough empowered Black journalists working in the mainstream press. The result: “Certain stories are simply not reported or are told without the nuance of perspective the circumstances require.”
Ebony and other multimedia brands like TheGrio carry on the tradition that Du Bois evoked when he founded The Brownies’ Book. Black millennial writers also have carried on that tradition on Black Twitter or on digital platforms that cater to Black audiences.
“Far beyond using social media for entertainment, shopping or communication, African-American millennials have elevated Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other platforms to raise public consciousness about the issues impacting Black people,” Love wrote. “The hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite are prime examples of this phenomenon.”
I am the beneficiary of publications like The Brownies’ Book and Ebony. I grew up in a poor, inner-city Black neighborhood where a middle-class life seemed as far away as Pluto. But as I flipped through the pages of Ebony and Jet, it all seemed possible.
“The New Brownies’ Book” may do the same for a new generation of Black youth. It’s good to see that Black people are still finding ways to tell stories that depart from the stereotypical ways much of the mainstream media depicts Black life.
And yet it’s sad to realize that over a century after Du Bois saw a need to convince Black children in America of their worth, the need to do so still exists today.
John Blake is the author of “More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.”
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