Reviews 2016

Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks

Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks. Katharine Capshaw. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2014. 384 pages. $29.95 (paperback).

Reviewing Katharine Capshaw’s superb Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks during 2015 has been surreal. I began studying the text the evening before the church shooting in Charleston, SC on 17 June 2015, two days before I heard Capshaw participate in a panel entitled "Black Lives Matter" at the annual meeting of the Children’s Literature Association. Capshaw bookends her discussion with images of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, and too often while (re)reading this text I witnessed the unfortunate parallels between her discussion of race during the mid-twentieth century and contemporary American culture. Ultimately, in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and numerous others, Civil Rights Childhood is testament to the meaningful relationship between children’s literature and the most challenging issues facing America today.

The central concern of the book is that throughout the civil rights movement, "photographs of children held immense political power" (x). More specifically, the text considers "civil rights as a point of genesis for visualizations of youth citizenship, arguing that the movement authored a wide range of approaches to representation" (xi). "To represent an innocent black child," Capshaw argues, "permits resistance to racist systems of power that malign and distort blackness through caricature; enables resistance to the exclusion of black childhood from the terrain of childhood innocence; and allows black adults and children a renewed faith in the power of childhood to remake social relations" (29).

The first two chapters contextualize photobooks appearing before Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Chapter one, "Friendship, Sympathy, Social Change," focuses on fictional books that depict positive interactions between families and neighbors. Responding to a post-war emphasis on conservative patriotism and politicized domesticity, Jane Dabney Shackelford’s My Happy Days (1944), Ellen Tarry’s My Dog Rinty (1946), and Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava’s The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955) illustrate affirming black families while dismantling "assumptions of black familial degradation" as well as the "documentary tradition that emphasized black-child victimhood in the face of poverty and racial bias" (3). Collectively, these demonstrate how the politics of depicting a seemingly innocent black child participating in run-of-the-mill activities—such as walking the dog or a family reading together—is an act of resistance, thereby permitting "resistance to racist systems of power that malign and destroy blackness through caricature" (29). In chapter two, "Pictures and Nonfiction: Conduct and Coffee Tables," Capshaw turns to nonfictional texts Little Journeys into Storyland (1947-48) by Louis B. Reynolds and Pictorial History by Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer in order to consider how connecting photographs with historical narratives motivates social activism. Whereas the fictional photobooks discussed in chapter one explore books within the context of civil rights discourse, these nonfictional texts "repurpose and reframe documentary images, pulling photographs out of their original context of use and deploying them as counternarratives to African American historical exclusion" (67).

In the third chapter, "Today: Framing Freedom in Mississippi," Capshaw recognizes how the mission of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (1965-67), an organization that created one of the earliest Head Start program in the US, collaborated with photographers. Today (1965) depicts life at a CDGM center, where children climb, jump, nap, sing, eat, and read, and as Capshaw suggests, "In its process of composition, approach to visual representation, and engagement with psychology of child readership, Today is one of a kind" (122). Unlike some of the photobooks previously discussed, Today "was not aimed to cross boundaries of race or experience...It was intended as a...reflection of self that would help articulate the child’s values both aesthetically and politically" (132). Thus, while Today is a mostly forgotten book, by recording these children’s own descriptions of their daily actives, its aesthetic anticipates "the valuing of blackness and reclamation of the vernacular that were so central to the Black Arts Movement," the focus of chapter four. In "The Black Arts Movement: Childhood as Liberatory Process," Capshaw considers how black childhood personified the nationalistic ideals of BAM. Texts as diverse as Kali Grosvenor’s Poems by Kali (1970), John Shearer’s I Wish I Had an Afro (1970), and June Jordan’s Dry Victories (1972) remind readers of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. These photobooks demonstrate how photographs point to the work of children’s political activism. As Capshaw explains, they "enabled BAM artists to accomplish both the stabilization of the potential of the movement photographically and the insistence on the mutability of the child subject and the possibilities of transformation of the new nation" (169). Thus, children’s photobooks became a way to articulate the unlimited potential of BAM as well as of black childhood.

The final chapter, "Blurring the Childhood Image: Representations of the Civil Rights Narrative," examines photobooks published since the mid-1990s, including Walter Dean Myers’s One More River to Cross (1995), Ruby Bridges’s Through My Eyes (1999), Toni Morrison’s Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004), and Carole Boston Weatherford’s Birmingham, 1963 (2007). These texts complicate famous figures from the movement, such as Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emmet Till, and the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. By engaging with the civil rights movement much more explicitly and reflectively, these authors attempt to agitate change rather than simply creating memories (214). In her conclusion, Capshaw analyzes photographs of Trayvon Martin protests in 2012, demonstrating how protests spurred by such photographs mirror the events surrounding Emmett Till’s death in 1955. She concludes, "What of a Trayvon Martin children’s book?...Would it celebrate Trayvon’s beauty or imagine his anger, as do Black Arts Movement texts, or ask questions about the public construction of Trayvon’s history? Perhaps, instead, it would remind readers, as do so many of the books in this study, of the impossible yet poignant desire for black-child insularity, with the appeal to childhood innocence leading to the only viable mode, a stance for social action" (274).

Among the many contributions of Civil Rights Childhood is its participation in scholarly conversations about children’s agency, the politics of childhood innocence, and the significance of children’s photobooks. With no fewer than 75 black-and-white illustrations, the text helpfully includes dozens of the photographs Capshaw analyzes. Of course, Civil Rights Childhood is essential reading for anyone working with twentieth century American literature and culture, children’s or otherwise, but to read Capshaw is also to receive a lesson on the cultural importance and responsibility of literary scholarship. Civil Rights Childhood not only advances our scholarly understanding of the politics of childhood, but it also enables readers to better contextualize so many of the images and injustices we continue to encounter.

M. Tyler Sasser
University of Alabama, USA