Educating Harlem
A Century of Schooling and Resistance in a Black Community

Chapter 5. Bringing Harlem to the Schools: Langston Hughes’s The First Book of Negroes and Crafting a Juvenile Readership

by Jonna Perrillo

Chapter 5 Map

Map design by Rachael Dottle and customized for chapter by Rachel Klepper. Map research by Rachel Klepper. Map layers from: Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Department of Urban Planning, City of New York; Atlas of the city of New York, borough of Manhattan. From actual surveys and official plans / by George W. and Walter S. Bromley New York Public Library Map Warper; Manhattan Land book of the City of New York. Desk and Library ed. [1956]; New York Public Library Map Warper; and State of New Jersey GIS. Point locations from: School Directories, New York City Board of Education, New York Amsterdam News via ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and multiple archival sources cited in relevant chapters.

Langston Hughes’s The First Book of Negroes (1952) opens with a vibrantly painted scene. A Black man, dressed in a red velvet hat, wearing a loose tunic and pantaloons, sword tucked into his belt, gazes off into the horizon of seemingly endless desert. It is the Moroccan-born Estevanico, the explorer of what would become Florida and the U.S. Southwest, American Indian translator, treasure-seeker, and, eventually, murder victim of the Zuni. It is a unique, relatively obscure choice of beginning figures, but the enthralling story of Estevanico captures many of the major themes of the book and Hughes’s larger corpus, including Black achievement, intercultural contact and tension, and the import of language and the African diaspora to understanding Black identity. In The First Book of Negroes, young readers are introduced to Black people who were widely recognized and celebrated (Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Louis Armstrong), the lesser known (the Peruvian priest Martin de Porres, W. C. Handy) and the anonymous (African slaves, the thirty Black men who accompanied Balboa on an expedition). Interspersed with biographical and historical accounts of these figures are stories of Terry Lane, a fictional walnut-hued child whose phenotype tells the story of Black Americans; hundreds of years ago, Hughes writes, Africans, Indians, and Europeans met in the New World and “their children’s children are the American Negroes of today.”1 A resident of Harlem, Terry stands in as a Black everychild, connecting ordinary children of all races to the often larger-than-life figures they meet in the book. The son of a United Nations translator and the great-grandson of a slave, Terry makes the histories of Black accomplishment and Black servitude relevant and accessible at once to a wide range of juvenile readers. In addition, he ties the history of Black people in Africa and the Americas to Harlem of the 1950s and, through his southern grandmother and cousin, to Jim Crow (a “holdover from slavery”) and the Black folktale tradition that Hughes often drew on and celebrated in his own writing.2

This chapter examines Hughes’s production of the often-overlooked The First Book of Negroes because it offers a particularly compelling vantage point for examining how the author transformed ideas, images, and business practices that he developed as a young Harlem Renaissance writer to educate the nation’s youth. Moreover, thinking about the book’s readership provides a view into the politics of the books Harlem and New York City children otherwise were reading in 1950s classrooms. Over his career, Hughes authored a wide collection of works for children, including pieces he published in The Brownie’s Book in the 1920s; children’s poetry in the 1930s; his five-volume First Book textbook series that he published from 1952 to 1960; and his three-volume set of Famous Negroes (1954–1958), published by Dodd, Mead.3 The First Book of Negroes was not his first children’s publication, therefore, but it represented a unique and important response to Hughes’s long commitment to critiquing and reenvisioning the books children encountered in school.

Hughes’s political critique in The First Books of Negroes dated to some of his most seminal works as a writer in the Harlem Renaissance. Throughout his life and career, Hughes remained committed to the same questions that thrived at the heart of the Renaissance, including: What constitutes Black culture and art? What are the responsibilities of the Black artist to himself and his or her community? Can cultivating a Black readership serve as a pathway to community advancement? And what is the role of a Black aesthetic—and the Black diaspora—within a larger U.S. culture?4 Hughes, like the Renaissance figures discussed by Daniel Perlstein in chapter 1 of this volume, saw many threads linking education, broadly conceived, and these questions.

Hughes did not work formally as a teacher, other than a brief stint in Toluca, Mexico, in 1920, and a three-month guest appointment at the University of Chicago in 1949. This burdened him to make writing a constant source of income, but it also compelled him to engage with a wider range of schools and teachers. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, he visited hundreds of schools in Harlem and across the country and he developed significant relationships with collectives of teachers, many of whom taught his work and helped him to promote his books. All these aspects of his career—from Renaissance philosophies to the importance of promoting his works in schools—came together in the course of The First Book of Negroes, making it an embodiment of Hughes’s long-standing ambition to provide Black children with “books that will give them back their souls.”5 Hughes thus shared with the educators and writers Perlstein describes a common pedagogical ambition rooted in New Negro thought that endured well beyond the New Negro era: building Black personhood through teaching practices and materials.

The First Book of Negroes came at an important time in Hughes’s career; in 1953, the year after its publication and in a time of widespread fear about the Cold War, he was summoned before the Senate to testify about his ties to communism. In his trial, Hughes deftly explained that although he had “never read theoretical books of socialism or communism,” he had developed “non-theoretical, non-sectarian” ideas “born out of my own need to find some kind of way of thinking about this whole problem of myself, segregated, poor, colored and how I can adjust to this whole problem of helping to build America when sometimes I cannot even get into a school or a lecture or a concert or . . . library.”6 Hughes’s testimony captured many of the enduring preoccupations found in his poetry and prose, including his belief that racial oppression was legitimized and entrenched in educational and aesthetic institutions as much as in political ones. Despite the book’s purposeful omission of figures such as Walter White, Paul Robeson, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who served as easy targets for Cold War censorship, The First Book of Negroes embraces the same ideas Hughes professed in his trial.7 The book’s treatment of “the profitable business” of slavery—a topic that had long challenged Black writers when writing for children—offers a powerful critique of the collusion between race and capitalism, as well as a celebration of the aesthetic traditions slavery helped to birth. “Not only did slaves work the fields,” Hughes writes, “but some became fine builders, brick masons, carpenters, and iron smiths,” creators of the distinctive ironwork of New Orleans and Charleston and of slave songs alike. The Ethiopians and Egyptians of whom Terry’s grandmother tells him stories were great artisans and craftspeople. According to her, because Europeans were “more interested in conquering people than teaching them,” Africans still had not learned “to build factories or make gunpowder,” and instead called on the great traditions of “civilization” that were integral to the African past.8 Throughout the book, Hughes offers a compelling narrative of Black people who served as aesthetic, cultural, and scientific contributors of a wide range, despite or because of racial oppression.

In The First Book, Hughes’s Terry Lane embodies African diasporic history, and Harlem appears as the prime ground from which to narrate African and African American history.9 Terry Lane’s Harlem is a place that many children in the United States would have found appealing. From early in the book, readers learn that it is the home of famous Black Americans such as Joe Louis and Duke Ellington. It is multicultural and multilingual; in stark contrast to the school his cousin Charlene attends in Alabama, Terry’s classmates, like his teachers, are both white and “brown as Terry.” Some of his classmates are Puerto Rican and “just learning English,” but “all of these children are good friends, learning and playing together.”10 In this sometimes idealized description of Harlem, Hughes corrects absences and silences in historical understanding and counters one-sided or pathologizing depictions of contemporary urban Black life.

Critical response to the book was divided ideologically, which was typical for Hughes’s work in this period. The Crisis deemed that Hughes’s “presentation of his materials elicits pride and admiration. He is successful in his attempts to subtly but carefully counteract the usual stereotypes about Negroes and to integrate their lives with those of Americans of other races and nationalities.” Referring both to the book’s treatment of the past and its criticisms of Jim Crow, the Journal of Negro Education proclaimed that “one reads between the lines of this new book that not all is sweetness and light and that the need for a new earth and new heaven grows increasingly insistent.” Yet still, the reviewer continued, the book served to balance Hughes’s “obviously overdrawn pictures of the goings on in the Negro ghetto” in some of his other recent works, including Simple Speaks His Mind and Montage of a Dream Deferred. In contrast, The New York Times found the biographical descriptions too brief and the “space given to the regional treatment of the Negro a little out of proportion.”11 These reviews offer some perspective into what critics recognized (or failed to recognize) as the project of The First Book of Negroes, including Hughes’s adoption of the juvenile biography genre to tell a history of accomplishment as well as racial oppression for children. This was no simple feat within a Cold War culture that frequently limited young readers’ access to authentic stories about Black life. To understand one’s own time, Hughes argued, is to understand the past. To be a boy like Terry, living happily and comfortably in Harlem, is to be the son of a multilingualist, the great-grandson of a slave, and a descendant of a regal heritage at once. In his highlighting of Harlem as both an actual place and an ideal to be sought, Hughes used The First Book of Negroes to provide readers with a new vision of Black identity and social politics. It was a vision grounded in political beliefs he had developed since his early days as a Renaissance writer and now translated into a genre for the people he saw as the most vulnerable in the face of racial oppression, and thus most in need of nuanced and humane accounts of Black experience and accomplishment: children.

Black Identity, Black Art, and Books

In his 1926 seminal essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes lodged what amounted to a thinly veiled critique of some of his Harlem Renaissance colleagues. Writing about Countee Cullen, whom he identifies only as a “young Negro poet,” Hughes set out what he saw as the responsibilities of the Black artist. Paraphrasing Cullen in the Brooklyn Eagle two years before, Hughes criticized Cullen’s claim that he “want[ed] to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” and chastised his friend for fueling “an urge within the race toward whiteness.”12 Cullen was symbolic to Hughes of the Black middle class more broadly, which he described as “people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry—smug, contented, respectable folk, members of the Baptist church.” The children of Harlem’s elite, he wrote, “go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines. . . . The whisper of ‘I want to be white’ runs silently through their minds.” The essay, published in the Nation, constitutes one of the Renaissance’s most powerfully rendered arguments for the idea that there must be something authentically “Black” about Black literature. For Hughes, the source of this art was found in the aesthetics of the Black working class: jazz, the blues, dance, and the call and response traditions of the Black church. Overlooked by many in the larger mission of his essay, however, is another important claim: that the cultural curriculum of the middle-class home and the cultural curriculum of the school reinforced each other. By 1926, as historians including Thomas Harbison have shown, “mixed” public schools were becoming increasingly rare in Harlem.13 Most Harlem students attended schools that were exclusively Black. Nonetheless they, like their wealthier peers who may have attended school alongside white students, often encountered powerful lessons in whiteness as “a symbol of all virtues” through the texts they were assigned to read.14

Throughout his life Hughes contemplated the role that schools played in cultural transmission and in how they shaped—or failed to shape—a sense of cultural identity and pride. A year before he published The First Book of Negroes, he wrote his famous 1951 poem “Theme for English B.” The narrator of the poem is a twenty two-year-old Black southerner who boards at the Harlem YMCA and attends “college on the hill above Harlem,” the only Black student in his class. He is asked by his white instructor to “go home and write / a page tonight / And let that page come out of you— / Then, it will be true.” Hughes wonders “if it’s that simple” and the poem becomes a meditation on race and authenticity. The poem’s first stanza tells us that as a child the narrator attended Jim Crow schools first in Winston-Salem and then Durham; now a student at City College of New York, he believes “I’m what / I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.” In contrast to the poet of “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” the narrator here creates a theme that “[is] not white” and does not try to be. One implication, particularly when compared with Hughes’s earlier essay, is that the student is successful because he has been taught to “work, read, learn, and understand life” in segregated southern schools and in the streets of Harlem. But could students receive such an education in northern schools, where the great majority of Black children’s teachers were white and racist?15 The question of how to teach self-possession to Black youth appears across a wide span of Hughes’s work, from his turgid and didactic 1933 poem “Letter to the Academy” (in which he challenged “all you gentlemen who . . . are now old . . . come forward and speak upon / The subject of Revolution . . . I mean the gentlemen who wrote lovely books . . . that sold in the hundreds of thousands and are studied in the high school”); to his regular column in the Chicago Defender, where he exposed the lack of diversity in textbooks; to essays like “Books and the Negro Child,” in which he argued that to make Black children “feel that they will be men and women, not ‘just niggers,’ is a none too easy problem when textbooks are all written from a white standpoint.”16

In his interest in textbooks, Hughes echoed a major undercurrent in Harlem education politics and, more specifically, the political activism of Black parents and radical educators. Wartime patriotism and the popularity of interculturalism, coupled with ongoing school inequities, focused both groups’ attention on what students read in school. Beginning in the 1940s, Harlem parents worked with and independently of teachers to survey the content of textbooks. Mother Enid Tyler struck much the same chord as Hughes when she testified before the Board of Education (BOE) in 1950, “When I look into textbooks, the manner in which the Negro has been portrayed is that of an inferior personality.”17 Working at the famed Schomburg library on 135th Street, Augusta Baker supported parents and pressed for better inclusion of Black authors’ work in the curriculum, calling on many of the arguments about Black representation from the Harlem Renaissance and imbuing them with a wartime flavor. In her 1945 article, “The Negro in Literature,” she explained that “books play an important part in combatting or fostering racial prejudice, and no one working with books and children will deny the powerful influence of the printed word on them. . . . The time has come to . . . show the Negro in his true light—giving freely of his gifts and asking for nothing in return except a chance to live harmoniously and decently with others.”18 From books, Baker argued, children, Black and white alike, stood to learn courage and the skills of citizenship.

Although Black parents pressed on the BOE to address racist texts, teachers were often in a better position to enact change, both through the selections they made for their students and through political action. Few white teachers seemed concerned about the issue, but the Teachers Union of New York City, the more radical and leftist of the city’s two teachers unions in the period (as discussed in chapter 6 of this volume), represented an exception. The Teachers Union began publishing Negro History Week supplements to their union’s newspaper during the 1930s. These nationally recognized supplements contained Black history quizzes, literary excerpts by notable Black writers, including Hughes, and bibliographies. The Teachers Union’s Harlem Committee had served as the political backbone of the entire union since its inception in 1936, and its unique commitment to Black achievement and Black representation in the curriculum was important but hardly mainstream. Hughes corresponded with the Teachers Union and spoke at their conferences through the 1950s, and he was likely aware of the Teachers Union’s 1950 booklet Bias and Prejudice in the Textbooks of the Schools of New York, a publication that was the cornerstone of their work on textbooks and was written under the direction of Norman London, a teacher at James Fenimore Cooper Junior High School (JHS) 120 in Central Harlem, where Hughes had visited more than once. The booklet, reported on in the local Black press and disseminated by the Teachers Union to every teacher in the city, identified “approved poison” in Board of Education–sanctioned textbooks such as Our America, a book adopted for the fourth through six grades that claimed, “It is true that most slaves were happy. They did not want to be free,” and The Treasure Chest of Literature, an anthology edited by two New York City school principals that included passages such as this: “The degradation and suffering of the old leaders of the South was pitiful. Deprived of their homes, bankrupt, and terrorized by the Negroes and ‘carpet-baggers,’ they finally organized the Ku Klux Klan which, although wrong in principle, gave them some relief from their sufferings.”19 Across grade levels and academic subject areas, the Harlem Committee’s research persuasively showed, New York City children were presented with racist portrayals of Black Americans and minimized accounts of white racism. Perhaps students at JHS 120 also protested these texts, like they did racist advertising and media, as discussed in chapter 4 of this volume.

The committee reserved particular criticism, however, for the New York City school superintendent William Jansen, author of the widely-adopted geography textbook, Distant Lands. The Teachers Union exposed Jansen’s racist beliefs about Black Africans and white colonialism, echoing critiques that Hughes had made earlier of geography textbooks’ depiction of “African natives as bushy headed savages with no culture of their own.”20 And without offering any specific figures, they also exposed the ways in which Jansen profited financially from these beliefs by requiring or encouraging the book’s use in schools. The sophisticated attention the Unionists afforded to Jansen’s work highlighted the ways in which racism and racial inequities in New York City schools were not, as school administrators often contended, produced by political factors that were out of their control but rather were a product of their own failings and their willingness to profit, financially and otherwise, from the marginalization of students of color. In retribution for the Teachers Union’s work on this one publication, the Board of Education effectively dismantled it by targeting involved teachers. In 1950, the year Bias and Prejudice was published, eight Teachers Union members were suspended by the Board of Education for reasons that they saw as directly connected to their work on race and equity in the city’s schools. “Our children’s minds are poisoned by race hate in school books,” a Teachers Union flyer announced in prominent lettering. It named as one of the eight Alice Citron, a veteran teacher with nineteen years of experience, who taught the subject of “Negro History and Achievement” to her students.21 Because of the risk Teachers Unionists posed in empowering the activism and claims of Harlem parents through Race and Bias and other means, approximately four hundred Teachers Union members were suspended or forced to resign by the end of the decade. The BOE’s censure of the Teachers Union, as well as additional waves of teacher firings as Cold War anticommunism grew in power, weakened an antiracist vision of unionism, as Clarence Taylor explores in chapter 6 of this volume, and left parents and community members to protest racism without teachers as strong allies.

The production of Race and Bias itself had a far greater effect on the union—and Harlem schools—than it did on the curriculum. Text adoption in New York City in the 1950s, despite a highly bureaucratized system, was a politically inconsistent process of contestation between multiple, competing ideologies. Hughes’s novel Not Without Laughter appeared on a 1958 list of recommended readings by and about “American Negros” for a district-mandated eleventh-grade unit on “The Individual and the American Heritage,” but there is little evidence that teachers were encouraged to teach Black literature outside of units focusing on multiculturalism or in other grades.22 In fact, a great deal of racist literature remained in the curriculum and in the schools. In 1960, for example, a BOE committee unanimously approved the inclusion of the ten-volume set of children’s literature Through Golden Windows in school libraries, including the volume that contained “Little Black Sambo,” which was praised for its “historical as well as aesthetic value.” By contrast, committee members protested Astrid Lindgren’s Sia Lives on Kilimanjaro on the grounds that “while the photographs are beautiful . . . there seems to be no justification for the children’s disobedience to their parents.”23 As these examples show, race representation competed with a Cold War reverence for authority and suppression of dissent—as well as a host of other factors—as city administrators made decisions about texts.

When New York education officials did assign texts that included Black Americans, the images students encountered were often deeply problematic, particularly in the history and social studies curriculum. Importantly, students read virtually no original writing by Black authors and instead were assigned white authors’ representations and stereotypes. A survey of social studies texts in use in the New York City schools from 1950 to 1960 revealed that of the books’ combined 183 depictions of Black men, 164 portrayed them as farmers or laborers, as opposed to professionals or sports, arts, or entertainment figures. Of the 45 portrayals of Black women, 36 were as laborers or domestics.24

The First Book of Negroes offered a portrait of Black Americans that radically differed from depictions in the books that New York City and other northern children encountered in their social studies readings; southern children, due to the region’s politics and textbook adoption policies, most often encountered none at all. Importantly, Helen Hoke Watts, who oversaw the production of The First Book of Negroes for Franklin Watts publishers, instructed Hughes not to worry about the southern book market. “We have no hopes of it anyhow, except for the enlightened,” she wrote, and left Hughes to appease northern antileftists.25 In addition to his publisher’s political support, the genre of the Black biography offered Hughes an advantage in creating a book that would “effect social change” by documenting Black achievement and contribution, as he hoped The First Book would.26 Its elementary-level intended audience reflected his long-standing commitment to and concern for young children, who may yet have received fewer damaging messages about the desire to be white. Moreover, as Julia Mickenberg has illustrated, the genre of the Black juvenile biography allowed writers to teach “children African American history in a way that implicitly challenged postwar racial hierarchies, communicated radical ideas about citizenship, and made a direct connection between past struggles against slavery and present struggles for civil rights” all in the guise of biographical stories.27 Hughes’s representations of Africa in the book, a striking contrast to the arguments made by Jansen and others, offer one clear example of how this worked.

In his early work, Hughes had often conceived of Africa, as did other Renaissance writers, as a symbolic motherland and a metaphor for the “otherness” of Black Americans (see the poems “Negro” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”). In The First Book of Negroes, by contrast, Hughes is more interested in African resistance to European colonialism, symbolized in the African rejection of technologies of conquest, including factories and guns. His stories of the University of Sankore in Timbuktu and of Ethiopian society pre-Christ offer more than simple historic lineages for African Americans (in fact they appear halfway through the book); they offer an argument about the importance of African independence and the flourishing of African civilization before European colonization. These arguments, made explicit in other of Hughes’s work of the period, as well as his travel to and relationship with Africa and African artists, are embedded throughout The First Book of Negroes.28 They demonstrate how Hughes shared interests with Harlem-based intellectuals who had long looked to Africa for a historical and aesthetic foundation beyond the confines of U.S. racism and with U.S.-based activists attuned to growing anticolonial movements on the continent.

Since the First Book was a trade book that read like a social studies text, rather than a textbook by one of the larger publishing houses that produced many of the books taught in the city schools, its best chance stood in its being adopted by school librarians, who were often more progressive and took a greater leadership role than teachers in pushing for text diversity (in this light, it is of little surprise that Hughes thanked the influential Chicago librarian Charlemae Rollins and included a brief sketch of her in The First Book of Negroes).29 Then, teachers could read or assign the book to their classes. In the decade following the book’s publication, letters that Hughes received from students prove that this happened with frequency. Fourth–grader Emily Elefant wrote to Hughes to tell him that her teacher assigned her to read The First Book after she gave a report on Harriet Tubman for her class; Elefant confided, “I am glad she did because this way I learned about great American Negroes in our time.”30 At Public School (PS) 29 in Queens, a fourth-grade class wrote to Hughes to let him know that they used the First Book as their source text for a play they wrote for Negro History Week.31 After Hughes spoke about the First Book at PS 184 in Harlem in January 1953, many fifth-grade students wrote to him to tell him that they and their class were saving their money to buy the book for their school library and for themselves.32

Simultaneously, Hughes’s other works were taught across grade levels and to older students in Harlem and elsewhere in the city. One Harlem junior high school teacher sent Hughes her students’ writing in response to a column he wrote in the New York Post, “Fray or Pray?” Most of the students argued for fighting. Seventh-grader Joyce Rembert wrote, “I would go with flay [sic] because if they, the white people fight us, we can fight them back too. . . . We could picket stores and get dogs of our own. Build our own stores, schools.”33 “I say violence because I do not believe in a person or persons who believe in no non-violence,” classmate Mary Smallwood concurred, “because in someway [sic] or other you have to take up for yourself.”34 “The world doesn’t belong to the white man,” wrote yet another student. “If we had colored executives maybe some people would have more faith in them and they will have more faith in themselves.”35 According to Harlem students, their self-image was vastly different and more civil rights–focused than it was when Hughes wrote “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” nearly forty years earlier. And Hughes’s own writing, he was delighted to see, played no small part in bringing about the change. “I found the resulting student essays most intriguing . . . and I must admit that I sometime feel that a little fraying might make the speed of desegregation less deliberate,” Hughes wrote to teacher Nancy Bowe.36 By the 1960s, Hughes was frequently included in Negro History Week performances and was treated, like Dr. Martin Luther King, as a symbol of brotherhood and tolerance.37

Time and again, teachers and students who thought of themselves as “brotherhood conscious” saw Hughes, despite his alleged communist affiliations, as one of their best role models. Often this impulse, as was also the case for King, required teachers to sanitize and depoliticize Hughes’s ideas to a certain extent and reify some works while ignoring his more provocative and critical essays, poems, and other writings. But correspondence between Hughes and students shows that teachers asked their classes to read a broader range of his works than those often canonized in the elementary and secondary curriculum today. Teachers’ desire—if not that of the textbook adoption committees—to make Hughes a part of their literary education certainly stemmed from his deep and residing confidence in the capacity of Black Americans and in his larger sense of concern for children, a group to whom many writers of Hughes’s stature gave little attention.

Harlem and Its Publics

From his Harlem apartment window, Terry can see City College and the Empire State Building. The A-train takes him to Broadway or Radio City, or ice skating at Rockefeller Center. What might have appeared to be a seemingly simple detail to many readers was, in fact, an important point for Hughes to highlight. As a young man, he explained in a 1963 essay, he believed that Harlem was “a world unto itself.” But he soon learned that “it was seemingly impossible for Black Harlem to live without a white downtown. My youthful illusion . . . did not last very long. [Harlem] was not even an area that ran itself.”38 Hughes’s seemingly rosy version of Harlem in The First Book of Negroes inverted many people’s assumptions about it; it is not just white people who patronize Harlem but Harlemites who were at home in the rest of the city. Terry’s father translates at the United Nations or Terry and his cousin visit the Statue of Liberty. Implicitly, The First Book of Negroes points to the ways in which Harlem and Harlem residents were intrinsically linked to the rest of Manhattan, often through their labor or art. Terry’s neighborhood is a place where “different people get along all right,” an ideal that Hughes never abandoned.39 It is no small coincidence that Terry lives on Convent Avenue, a “nice tree-lined street” that Hughes once disparaged as a place where “even though you’re colored, it would never occur to you to riot and break windows.”40 In contrast to the children of “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Terry belongs to the Black middle class, but without compromising a sense of self-identity and respect.

Hughes’s decision to figure Harlem as a place of thriving cosmopolitanism stands as both his statement on an ideal race politics and a response to his own role in making Harlem a place both symbolic and real for Americans Black and otherwise. That children across the nation, including many who had never traveled to New York, would have recognized Harlem as an epicenter of Black life was due largely to the aesthetic corpus and accomplishments of Renaissance-Era artists of all types, including Hughes. Yet by the 1950s, the incipient suburbanization of New York’s Black cultural, intellectual, and financial elite was under way. Harlem no longer served as the physical home for most Black artists, even as it continued to serve as a setting for some of the decade’s most important Black-authored texts, including James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952).41 Hughes’s lifelong commitment to residing in Harlem, like his faith in racial diversity and multiculturalism, was seen by some Black artists whom he had once mentored, including Baldwin, as out of vogue. But for Hughes, to leave Harlem for somewhere more avant-garde, in New York or abroad, would also have meant abandoning the decades of work and relationships he had established there, including his own personal history. Like Hughes, Terry Lane could also have lived elsewhere. Hughes’s decision to present a happy child from Harlem against the history of Black America captured his very argument that Black achievement was compatible with a deep sense of history, identity, and place. Owning and telling this history, in literature and in lore, was key to the process.

At the same time, Hughes feared the Harlem Renaissance had failed to cultivate what he would describe in 1930 to Walter White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as “an interest in racial expression through books” for many Americans. He believed that much of its literature (if not his own) had neglected the concerns of working-class Black people who faced more imminent problems and held more pragmatic concerns than questions of art and representation. In response, backed by the Rosenwald Fund, Hughes toured the South in the 1930s to introduce, promote, and ultimately sell his work and to build what he called “a black public.”42 For Hughes, these tours were important not only for bringing literature to the masses, but for doing so on his own terms, unmediated by white publishers or philanthropists who might “giv[e] a million dollars to a Jim Crow school, but not one job to a graduate of that school.”43 Hughes would speak out about the publication of literature that addressed the “race problem” for the rest of his life, precisely because he saw its importance to societal enlightenment and true Black advancement. At times, he feared that his efforts to create a Black reading public had failed. In 1954, he wrote to his Renaissance colleague and ongoing friend and collaborator Arna Bontemps: “Negro professional folks are building 80 and 100 thousand dollar homes in suburbs, with landscape lawns and swimming pools. We’re rising!” he contended. “And they have practically NO books to go with the rest of the furnishings.”44 And yet Hughes never gave up on his convictions, nor his experimentation with “book caravans” as a means to sell his work, including in schools.

Schools and teacher networks played an especially important role in Hughes’s conception of how to promote and disseminate his work. When developing a plan for promoting The First Book of Negroes, Hughes sent to the publisher Helen Hoke Watts a list of Black librarians and teachers whom he considered “especially active in racial and intercultural fields.” He encouraged Watts to send promotional materials to them; many of the teachers worked in Harlem schools where the Teachers Union’s Harlem Committee had been particularly active.45 In his letters to Arna Bontemps, Hughes charted his success in selling The First Book of Negroes through his relationship with teacher groups and PTAs.46 He maintained contact with some Teachers Unionists and other progressive teachers and visited their schools when he could. Listening to Hughes read his work, reported a ninth-grade student from Harlem’s J.H.S. 136, was “as if he were talking and telling his listeners all about his troubles and personal affairs . . . his experiences seem very familiar and interesting to us.”47 Both teachers and students praised Hughes for the readings and talks he gave, lauding particularly his accessibility, approachability, and interest in students. More than seeing this work as a simple financial necessity, Hughes appears to have enjoyed developing a relationship with his audience and was particularly kind and attentive to his juvenile readers. With great regularity, he responded to letters children wrote to him, particularly when they did so of their own accord rather than as part of a class assignment. Repeatedly, young people wrote to him with vague or repetitive questions about his life or about how to become a writer, yet he responded to them at length, personally and individually. Often he included a book with his letters, in an act of what seems to be both simple generosity and another means by which to build a reading public.

At the heart of the Harlem Renaissance a belief had existed among its members that images mattered and that changing the cultural images of Black Americans and creating what Hughes termed in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” as “racial art” could lead to society’s changed treatment of them. For children, he argued, these images took on particular import. When students only saw in their civics textbooks “Negro neighborhoods as the worst quarters in our cities” and in their history texts “the backwardness of the South but none of its amazing progress in only three score years of freedom,” both white and Black people believed that the images represented blanket fact.48 What Hughes sold in his books written for young writers was an image of Black Americans—young and old, renowned and ordinary—as talented, high achieving, and vital contributors to American culture. Predominant sociological and cultural arguments of the 1950s held that Black children possessed “damaged psyches” from economic and social isolation; these arguments were employed more than they were challenged by civil rights campaigns, most especially in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. By contrast, in characters such as Terry Lane, whose life was far from typical for most children growing up in Harlem, readers met a boy who is happy, successful, and aspiring, despite living in a city where “colored people find it difficult to rent a house except in streets where Negroes live.” His cousin Charlene, who grew up in Jim Crow southern schools, is valued for “know[ing] a great many things that [Terry] did not know,” including many of the most important skills required in rural living.49 Children in The First Book of Negroes are both shaped by and come to terms with race politics at once, much as Hughes wanted for the readers of the book. It can be easy to dismiss the political importance of these messages over sixty years later, or to see the book as simply an idealistic portrait Hughes created because of the age of his audience. To do so, however, is to misread the importance of the The First Book of Negroes as well as its continually adaptive writer, who sought to bring central, long-developing principles of political rights and aesthetic representation to some of the nation’s youngest and most impressionable citizens.

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  1. Langston Hughes, The First Book of Negroes (New York: Franklin Watts, 1952), 18. ↩︎

  2. Hughes, First Book of Negroes, 40. ↩︎

  3. Hughes’s ideas for Famous American Negroes series came under much greater revision and censoring from Dodd, Mead than did his work for The First Book of Negroes, which is the reason that it is not a subject of this essay. See Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 229–30. ↩︎

  4. For a broader look at Hughes’s literature for children, see Katherine Capshaw Smith, Children’s Literature of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2004); Gizelle Liza Anatol, “Langston Hughes and the Children’s Literary Tradition,” in Montage of a Dream: The Art and Life of Langston Hughes, ed. John Edgar Tidwell and Cheryl R. Ragar (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 237–58; Dianne Johnson, Telling Tales: The Pedagogy and Promise of African American Literature for Youth (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990); and Langston Hughes, Collected Works for Children and Young Adults (The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, v. 12), ed. Steven C. Tracy (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. ↩︎

  5. Langston Hughes, “Books and the Negro Child,” Children’s Library Yearbook, vol. 4 (Chicago: American Library Association), 108–10. ↩︎

  6. Testimony of Langston Hughes, before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, Tuesday, March 24, 1953. For more on the effect of red baiting on intellectuals and artists, see, for example, Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999); Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006); and Gerald Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994). ↩︎

  7. Although no known records exist proving that Hughes was specifically pressured to omit these figures, he later regretted that “it was impossible at that time to get anything into children’s books about either Dr. DuBois or Paul Robeson.” See Langston Hughes to William G. Horne, October 25, 1965, folder 1225, box 213, Langston Hughes Papers, James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (hereafter LHP). ↩︎

  8. Hughes, First Book of Negroes, 12–13, 25. In contrast to the support Franklin Watts showed to Hughes, Henry Holt publishers fired every editor who worked with Hughes on his Montage of a Dream Deferred (1952) and Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952) in response to the trial. Rampersad chronicles this and the financial pressures Hughes was under when he signed on to write The First Book of Negroes; see Rampersad, Life of Langston Hughes, 189–230. ↩︎

  9. In contrast to many of Hughes’s other writings, The First Book of Negroes marked an important contribution to the social studies (rather than literature or reading) curriculum. The scholarship on the teaching of Black history and African American contributions to social studies education is extensive, but for an understanding of developments predating The First Book of Negroes, see Clare Corbould, Becoming African Americans: Black Public Life in Harlem, 1919–1939 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009); Pero G. Dagbovie, African American History Reconsidered (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010); Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002); LaGarrett J. King, “When Lions Write History: Black History Textbooks, African American Educators and the Alternative Black Curriculum, 1890–1940,” Multicultural Education 22, no. 4 (Fall 2014): 2–11; Jarvis Ray Givens, “ ‘He was, undoubtedly, a wonderful character,’ Black Teachers’ Representations of Nat Turner During Jim Crow,” Souls 18, no. 2 (October 2016): 215–34; James A. Banks, “African American Scholarship and the Evolution of Multicultural Education,” Journal of Negro Education 61, no. 3 (Summer 1992): 273–86; and Jacqueline Goggin, Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993). ↩︎

  10. Hughes, First Book of Negroes, 18. ↩︎

  11. June Shagaloff, “Book Reviews,” Crisis, January 1953, 61–63; John W. Parker, “A Book of Positive Faith in America,” Journal of Negro Education 22 (Autumn 1953): 496–97; and “Terry’s People,” New York Times Book Review, November 16, 1952, 32. ↩︎

  12. Margaret Sperry, “Countee P. Cullen, Negro Boy Poet, Tells His Story,” Brooklyn Eagle, February 10, 1924. ↩︎

  13. Davison M. Douglas, Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle Over Northern School Segregation, 1865–1954 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); David Ment, “Patterns of School Segregation, 1900–1930: A Comparative Study of New York City, New Rochelle, and New Haven,” in Schools in Cities: Consensus and Conflict in American Educational History, ed. Ronald K. Goodenow and Diane Ravitch (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983), 67–110, 72; Jonna Perrillo, Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); and Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983). ↩︎

  14. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” The Nation, June 23, 1926, 692-694. ↩︎

  15. On city teachers’ racial attitudes, see Perrillo, Uncivil Rights; Zoe Burkholder, Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900–1954 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Clarence Taylor, Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); and Jennifer deForest, “Tilting at Windmills? Judge Justine Wise Polier and a History of Justice and Education in New York City,” History of Education Quarterly 49, no. 1 (February 2009): 68–88. ↩︎

  16. “Books and the Negro Child,” Children’s Library Yearbook, vol. 4 (Chicago: American Library Association), 108–10. ↩︎

  17. “Address Made at the Meeting of the Board of Education on April 6, 1950, in Re Item #26, Banning Teachers Union,” folder 13, box 2, Charles J. Bensley Papers, 1947–1954, Board of Education of the City of New York Collection (hereafter BOE). ↩︎

  18. Augusta Baker, “The Negro in Literature,” Child Study 22 (Winter 1944–45): 58–63. ↩︎

  19. Quoted in Celia Zitron, The New York City Teachers Union, 1916–1964 (New York: Humanities Press, 1968), 102–3. ↩︎

  20. See Hughes, “Books and the Negro Child.” ↩︎

  21. “Our Children’s Minds are Poisoned by Race Hate in School Books” (flyer), May 19, 1950, folder 3, box 44, Papers of the Teachers Union of the City of New York, 1916-1964, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library. On Citron, see also chapter 3 in this volume. ↩︎

  22. Teachers were instructed to teach with a focus on “American heritage” throughout the year, but they were not required to do so in a way that addressed or included race. Board of Education of the City of New York Bureau of Curriculum Research, Reading List for the Theme Center on “The Individual and the American Heritage” (New York: Board of Education, 1958), 49, folder 30, box 3, series 661, BOE. ↩︎

  23. Bureau of Libraries, Board of Education, “Sixth Supplement to Library Books for Elementary and JHS, 1960,” January 1960, folder January 20, 1960, series 617, BOE. ↩︎

  24. Fred Turetsky, “The Treatment of Black Americans in Primary Grade Textbooks Used in New York City Elementary Schools,” Theory and Research in Social Education 2 (December 1974): 25–50, 33–34. ↩︎

  25. Helen Hoke Watts to Langston Hughes, March 3, 1952, folder 1225, box 63, LHP. For a more extended analysis of Franklin Watts’s decision to commission and publish The First Book of Negroes, and the publisher’s relationship with Hughes and other leftist writers, see Julia L. Mickenberg, Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 151–58. ↩︎

  26. Quoted in Mickenberg, Learning from the Left, 157. ↩︎

  27. Julia Mickenberg, “Civil Rights, History, and the Left: Inventing the Juvenile Black Biography,” MELUS 27 (Summer 2002): 65–93, 65. ↩︎

  28. For more on images of Africa in the work of Hughes and other Renaissance writers in the 1920s, see Corbould, Becoming African American; Jeff Westover, “Africa/America: Fragmentation and Diaspora in the Work of Langston Hughes,” Callaloo 25, no. 4 (Autumn 2002): 1206–23; and David R. Jarraway, “Montage of Otherness Deferred: Dreaming Subjectivity in Langston Hughes,” American Literature 68, no. 4 (December 1996): 819–47. For more on Hughes and anticolonialism in the 1950s and 1960s, see Daniel Won-gu Kim, “‘We, Too, Rise with You’: Recovering Langston Hughes’s African (Re)Turn 1954–1960 in ‘An African Treasury,’ the ‘Chicago Defender,’ and ‘Black Orpheus,” African American Review 41, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 419–41. ↩︎

  29. For more on librarians and liberalism, see Louise S. Robbins, Censorship and the American Library: The American Library Association’s Response to Threats to Intellectual Freedom, 1939–69 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996); Christine Jenkins, “International Harmony: Threat or Menace? U.S. Youth Services Librarians and Cold War Censorship, 1946–1955,” Librarians and Culture 36, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 116–30; E. J. Josey, ed., The Black Librarian in America (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1970); and Sara L. Schwebel, Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms (Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011). ↩︎

  30. Emily F. Elefant to Langston Hughes, January 22, 1964, folder 3586, box 212, LHP. ↩︎

  31. Michael Graham to Langston Hughes, February 17, 1965, folder 3672, box 219, LHP. ↩︎

  32. Shirley Givens to Langston Hughes, January 13, 1953; Irvins Maleare to Langston Hughes, January 13, 1953; and Mildred Clark to Langston Hughes, January 13, 1953, all in folder 3676, box 220, LHP. ↩︎

  33. Joyce Rembert, “Flay or Pray?” JHS 136, Class 7–4, November 16, 1962, folder 3671, box 219, LHP. The terminology in these letters is confusing because the teacher, students, and Hughes himself go back and forth between using “fray” and “flay.” I have recorded all terms as they are found in the original documents. ↩︎

  34. Mary Smallwood, “Violence,” JHS 136, Class 7–4, November 15, 1962, folder 3671, box 219, LHP. ↩︎

  35. Mildred D., “Flaying or Praying,” JHS 136, Class 7–4, November 16, 1962, folder 3671, box 219, LHP. ↩︎

  36. Langston Hughes to Nanny Bowe, January 17, 1963, folder 3671, box 219, LHP. ↩︎

  37. See, for example, PS 53, “Brotherhood Is Everyday,” February 1959, folder 3671, box 219, LHP; and PS 9, Brooklyn, “Negro History Week and Brotherhood Program,” February 26, 1953, folder 3672, box 219, LHP. ↩︎

  38. Langston Hughes, “My Early Days in Harlem,” Freedomways 3 (1963): 312–14. ↩︎

  39. Hughes, First Book of Negroes, 16, 18, 38. ↩︎

  40. Langston Hughes, “Down Under in Harlem,” New Republic, March 27, 1944, 404–5. ↩︎

  41. For more on this, see James Smethurst, “‘Don’t Say Goodbye to the Porkpie Hat’: Langston Hughes, the Left, and the Black Arts Movement,” Callaloo 25, no. 4 (Autumn 2002): 1224, 1237, 1228. ↩︎

  42. Quoted in Arnold Rampersad, I, Too, Sing America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 214. See also Rampersad’s account of Mary McLeod Bethune’s influence in convincing Hughes to conduct a reading tour, 211–14; and Langston Hughes, I Wander as I Wander (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 56–57. ↩︎

  43. Langston Hughes, “To Negro Writers,” American Writers’ Congress, ed. Henry Holt (New York: International Publishers, 1935), 139–41. For more on the relationship between Harlem Renaissance writers and publishers, see John K. Young, Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006); George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996); and Elizabeth Davey, “Building a Black Audience in the 1930s: Langston Hughes, Poetry Readings, and the Golden Stair Press,” in Print Culture in a Diverse America, ed. James P. Danky and Wayne A. Wiegand (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 223–43, 227. ↩︎

  44. Langston Hughes to Arna Bontemps, February 10, 1954, in Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925–1967, ed. Charles H. Nichols (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980), 320. ↩︎

  45. Langston Hughes to Helen Hoke Watts, September 28, 1952, folder 1225, box 63, LHP. ↩︎

  46. Langston Hughes to Arna Bontemps, December 19, 1952; and Langston Hughes to Arna Bontemps, February 18, 1953, in Nichols, 299, 302-303. ↩︎

  47. Ivetty Santana, “With the Poets,” Views, Reviews, Interviews, January 1956, folder 3676, box 220, LHP. ↩︎

  48. Hughes, “Books and the Negro Child.” ↩︎

  49. Hughes, First Book of Negroes, 57, 53. ↩︎