Much like today, the early ’70s was a time when race was a central question in children’s books. A year after “The Slave Dancer” won the Newbery, Virginia Hamilton became the first Black woman to win the prize, for her book “M.C. Higgins, the Great,” a surrealist fable set in Appalachia about a young Black boy who sits on top of a flagpole. Two years later, Mildred Taylor, a Black woman, won the Newbery for “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” about a Black family in Mississippi in the 1930s.
“Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” became the standard for children’s books about race and has been read in classrooms for decades. My fifth grade teacher taught us both “M.C. Higgins, the Great” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” with the expectation that her students would understand the great political importance of representation and ownership of story. (If memory serves, we did to a certain extent but were mostly captivated by the flagpole-sitting scenes in “M.C. Higgins, the Great.”)
The assumption my teacher made was that the books children read would inform the people they would become. She had presumably made an assessment that we, in the fifth grade, were ready to learn about our country’s racist past. If we could be taught stories that highlighted our shared humanity, the white kids wouldn’t turn into bigoted adults and the minority kids would feel a stake in both the classroom and the country.
In recent years, the scope of those lessons has changed as children’s notions of race and racism have been studied by a variety of social scientists. The anthropologist Lawrence Hirschfeld has argued that very young children develop an awareness of human groupings on their own by observing the society that surrounds them. According to this thinking, social scientists like Kendi conclude that it’s not enough simply not to teach your kids racist behavior. They must be deprogrammed from the prejudice they will pick up from living in a racist society. As a remedy, they recommend early, explicit interventions to teach preschoolers about how to identify and combat systemic racism.
This is how we get from a narrative-driven, young adult novel like “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” to direct antiracist messaging for toddlers in the form of books like “Antiracist Baby.” As Kendi writes in the opening pages of the book, “Antiracist baby is bred, not born. Antiracist baby is raised to make society transform.”
All children’s books are propaganda. “Antiracist Baby” may be a bit less veiled in its intentions than, say, Deborah Diesen’s “The Pout-Pout Fish,” which demands children go through life with a smile on their face, or Doreen Cronin’s “Click, Clack, Moo,” which shows the power of union organizing among farm animals, but that doesn’t mean that it should be rejected.
On its face, “Antiracist Baby” is like many other children’s books: The illustrations are colorful and inviting, and the words are arranged into somewhat clumsy couplets, which is understandable given the awkwardness of the name of its main character: the Antiracist Baby.