What is Black Boy Joy?
Black Boy Joy is that sparkle in their eyes, that smile on their face, and most importantly that feeling of being seen, acknowledged and respected as a human being. After the turn of events in this world where Black people in general, and Black Men and boys in particular have been demonized and demoralized by society, Black boys deserve a re-affirming and abundant dose of human kindness and consideration.
This article will examine how books can play a roll in increasing Black Boy Joy through:
Black Boy Joy - Book Cover Selection
One of the top questions we are asked when children walk through the doors of Afriware Books, Co. is "Do you have books with Black characters that look like me?" Witnessing a young boy hug a book and dance after receiving "Crown" by Derrick Barnes brings happiness to the heart. This is Black Boy Joy. On the book cover is the most adorable image of a proud Black boy sporting a new cut from the barbershop. Though the saying goes, "don't judge a book by its cover," it can boost Black Boy Joy instantly after seeing a positive reflection of his image on a book cover.
I appreciate the laser focus of author Suyi Davies Okungbowa who wrote an excellent article called, "Where Are Our Black Boys on Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Novel Covers?." He proposed a number of definitions and "parameters" to keep in mind when searching for books with Black characters displayed on covers. He states,
If the cover imagery, which is the first point of contact for this deduction, is not representative of the self, there’s an argument to be made that reader confidence in the characters’ ability to represent their interests would be significantly reduced.
In other words, a picture is worth TEN THOUSAND words and critical decisions are being made based on the cover alone. The plight of the "Invisible [Black] Man" is not just a classic work by Ralph Ellison that explains the insidious ways the nameless Black male main character is looked past or ignored; it is real for too many to this very day. If you can see yourself in the world, perhaps you are a contributor, perhaps you are valuable, perhaps you actually matter. When you see visual signs of your importance in the world, you want to allow that Black Boy Joy to shine brightly.
Books with Black Characters
If sales figures are any indication of the importance of Black characters in boosting Black Boy Joy, ours are quite telling. In late 2019 - before the pandemic we had a book signing of "I Can Be Anything!" with author Jarrett Robinson. On a summer afternoon in Maywood, IL about 10 parents and children showed up to purchase the book. Let's compare that to what we experienced almost one year later. Well into the wrath of the COVID19 pandemic, without the author, but with the clearly identified importance of instilling positive images of Black children by a society who depicts them otherwise, we sold 54. Over 5 times the number of books sold by comparison, and let's not forget, this was during a pandemic... truly amazing.
Books with Black Characters - History
In a seminal article written in 1975 called, "The Changing Image of the Black in Children's Literature," Augusta Baker reflects upon the content of children's literature over a 50 year period starting in the 1920's. When she describes the 60's as the height of the Civil Rights movement, I expected the number of books with Black characters to shoot through the roof, or at least aim toward it. It is interesting to note that only 6.7% of the 5,000 books surveyed at that time had characters that were Black.
Since 1985, The Cooperative Children's Book Center School of Education at the University of WI, Madison has kept data on Diversity in Children's Books. For example, in 2014 Walter Dean Myers wrote an Op-ed piece in the NY Times that reported only 93 of 3,200 books published that year contained black characters. This represents a paltry 2.9%. After we plotted the data since 1995 (table above), it's clear that the Op-ed piece garnered enough attention to turn around the downward turn the data took previously. Looking at the stats for 2018 and 2019 there was some improvement. 2018 was 10.9% and, 2019 11.7%. When the need to increase the number of books published about Black characters was exposed so widely, there was a sharp turn around that will likely be buoyed by the heightened awareness of events impacting and portraying Black People in a negative light in 2020. Stated succinctly, Myers says,
Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?
Update: In 2020, and 2021, the numbers are: 409 out of 3447, and 450 out of 3420. Doing the math, that's 11.9% and 13.2% respectively according to the same source, Cooperative Children's Book Center, School of Education. Graph update is shown below.
It is unfortunate that a more balanced publishing industry doesn't prevail on its own. Without an outside stimulus, prompting and possible embarrassment, the turn around may have never taken place. As the great Frederick Douglass said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. " Advocating for important causes like this are no different and have become our common road to change in this country.
What Can be Done?
We can always advocate for fairness, equity and humane treatment across the color line especially for our children. The power of one Op-ed piece by Walter Dean Myers changed the course for the publishing of books with Black characters. But of course the work is not done. The need is great, after all. The physical and psychological trauma of 2020 world events pertaining to brutality by police and beyond requires a heightened awareness of "positive identification for Black children," prophetically expressed by Ms. Baker. Black Boy Joy should be commonplace. It shouldn't need advocacy and analysis of data. Let's continue listening to our children who will share their experiences and feelings as they navigate this life. Our involvement as parents, teachers, educators and family members is ongoing, and is the noble work required for a better society. What will you write? What critical questions will you ask to expose the truth? What child will you gift a Black book to? There's so much that we can do...
Being exposed to books and images that are reflective of our cultural heritage has been on of the most important missing links to our community's growth, success, and independence. Afriware Books' part in all this is making sure there is exposure and promotion for the books that are being published that support Black Boy Joy and Black People Joy. Please check out some of the books that will lead to Black Boy Joy or from our Children's books Category - for children up to age 10.
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