“I never had a childhood,” the writer James Baldwin once said. “I was born dead.”
Baldwin delivered this bleak assessment of his youth when he was around 50, and in the middle of writing “Little Man, Little Man,” his only children’s book.
The story unfolds from the perspective of a curious, irrepressible 4-year-old boy named TJ, who loves music and playing ball, and navigates a neighborhood where gun violence, police brutality, alcoholism and drug addiction are looming threats — an outside world that even his warm home life with loving parents can’t shield him from.
When “Little Man, Little Man” was first published in 1976, critics didn’t know what to make of an experimental, enigmatic picture book that straddled the line between children’s and adult literature. It received lukewarm reviews and quickly went out of print.
Now, roughly four decades later, Baldwin’s relatives have resurrected the work, with a new edition from Duke University Press, and it could scarcely be more timely. It’s arriving at a moment when children’s book authors and publishers are more frequently placing black and brown children at the center of narratives about everyday life, often taking on charged social issues like mass shootings, addiction and police violence against African-American youth. They are finding an avid audience among young readers growing up in an increasingly diverse nation.
Some Baldwin fans and scholars hope that with the new edition, “Little Man, Little Man” will rightfully assume its place in the canon of African-American children’s literature, alongside works by Langston Hughes, Julius Lester, Walter Dean Myers and John Steptoe.
“When it came out, people weren’t ready for it, and now people are,” said Aisha Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s niece, who wrote an afterword for the new edition. “My uncle’s voice, his ability to speak to the challenges that many of us face in America with regard to race, has come back into the national consciousness.”
Ms. Karefa-Smart, who was likely the inspiration for a character in the book named Blinky, said her uncle had deep respect for young people, and felt compelled to write about the experiences of African-American children, and the pervasive inequality many face.
“He didn’t want to create a fantasy,” she said. “It was a book that dealt with the realities of black childhood.”
The rerelease of “Little Man, Little Man” coincides with a broader revival of Baldwin’s later works. Barry Jenkins’s upcoming adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 book, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” has rekindled interest in the novel. Last year, Taschen printed a new edition of “Nothing Personal,” Baldwin’s collaboration with the photographer Richard Avedon. His work has been celebrated in homages like “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir about race and identity, and Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was inspired by one of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscripts.
Baldwin wrote the picture book in part for his nephew, Tejan Karefa-Smart, who used to beg his famous uncle to write a story about him.
“I knew he was important and he was special, and I wanted some of that energy,” said Mr. Karefa-Smart, a photographer and artist living in Paris, who wrote the foreword to the new edition. “I said, ‘Uncle Jimmy, when are you going to write a book about me?’”
Baldwin was daunted by the assignment. When he spoke to a group of students in 1979, he described how challenging it was to write a children’s book.
“I must tell you, I was very frightened to try to write a children’s story or a story for children, because first of all, I think children object to being called children,” he said. “The one thing a child cannot bear is to be talked down to, to be patronized, to be talked to in baby talk. So what I tried to do was put myself inside the minds of the kids in my story, trying to remember what I myself was like when I was a kid, and the way I sounded, and the way TJ sounds.”
When he wrote “Little Man, Little Man,” Baldwin was living in the south of France, where he moved after growing disillusioned with persistent racism in America. Far from his relatives, he became even more preoccupied in his work with family dynamics and bonds.
In France, Baldwin became friends with the artist Yoran Cazac, after his mentor, the painter Beauford Delaney, introduced them. He asked him to illustrate the story. Cazac had never been to the United States, so Baldwin showed him photographs of his family and described what Harlem was like, according to the scholar Nicholas Boggs, who wrote an introduction to “Little Man, Little Man” with Jennifer DeVere Brody, a professor of theater and performance studies at Stanford University.
The resulting watercolor images of Harlem — which took shape from Baldwin’s recollections, filtered through a French artist’s imagination — have a dreamlike, impressionist quality that can be almost jarring when juxtaposed with the sometimes menacing elements TJ confronts in his neighborhood. TJ seems carefree, playing ball and dancing with his friends, but he also dreams about a violent police chase that ends in a shooting. He sees older boys in his neighborhood taking drugs: “They go up to the roof or they go behind the stairs and they shoot that dope in their veins and they come out and sit on the stoop and look like they gone to sleep.” When TJ tells his friend, WT, that he’ll never end up like that, WT says, “They didn’t think so, neither.”
Some critics were put off by the way Baldwin subverted expectations and conventions of children’s literature.
“If it had not been written by James Baldwin, I doubt that it would deserve more than a mention in a reviewers’ roundup of recent books,” Julius Lester wrote in The Times in 1977. “While it is always interesting to see what literary figures will write when they attempt children’s books, the results are not always satisfying.”
Even Baldwin seemed unsure of his intended audience, referring to the book variously as “a children’s story,” “a child’s story for adults” and “a story of childhood.”
After it went out of print, “Little Man, Little Man” received scant attention from scholars, who largely overlooked it as an inconsequential footnote to Baldwin’s towering literary legacy.
“It’s one of the few books by Baldwin that has been off the radar,” Douglas Field, author of “All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin,” said. “It confounded Baldwin scholars because it doesn’t fit in with the rest of his oeuvre.”
Its path back to print was jump-started by Mr. Boggs, a clinical assistant professor of English at New York University, who saw an edition of “Little Man, Little Man” at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in the 1990s, when he was an undergraduate.
“It wasn’t like anything else he’s written, and the more I read it, it wasn’t like anything else I’d read,” he said.
He began a campaign to republish the book, and started searching for Cazac. In 2003, after emailing some art historians in France, he got a phone call from Cazac, who invited him to visit him in Paris. Cazac, who died two years later, told him stories about his collaboration with Baldwin. Mr. Boggs saw the original crayon illustrations and early drafts, and later visited Baldwin’s home in France, where the pair had worked on the book together.
Mr. Boggs also got to know Baldwin’s niece and nephew, and recruited them to write material for a new edition of the book after the estate agreed to republish it.
With the release of the new edition this month, Baldwin fans and scholars hope “Little Man, Little Man” might draw a new generation of readers to his work.
“Now that we have a children’s book, we can start people off even younger,” said the poet and children’s book author Jacqueline Woodson. “It’s a book that young people can read or have read to them, but it’s also a new Baldwin for adults.”
For Baldwin’s relatives, the new edition feels like a chance to share an old family treasure with a broader audience.
Ms. Karefa-Smart still remembers the excitement she felt when a box holding the finished copies of “Little Man, Little Man” arrived.
“It was just magical,” she said. “It showed us how much we meant to him, and how sacred and precious our young lives were to him.”
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