James Baldwin’s picture book shows realities of urban black childhood

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The manuscript was discovered 20 years ago by Nicholas Boggs, a Yale University undergrad. Now he teaches English at New York University.

“It sort of looked like a children’s book on first glance. And it is one, but it was described as a child’s story for adults. It was written entirely in black English. It explored mature themes that you usually wouldn’t find in a children’s book,” he says. Those themes include poverty, violence, crime, and drug addiction.

Boggs spoke with the book’s illustrator, Yoran Cazac, and learned that Baldwin wanted to create something new — something people could read if they were 7 or 70 years old.

Readers will also notice that some of the faces in the book are partially painted. Boggs says Cazac told him, “In the full light, no one is truly black or truly white.” America may not have been ready for that message in 1976, Boggs suggests.

Press Play spoke with Boggs and Baldwin’s niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart, about the book. Highlights are below. 

James Baldwin’s own nephew inspired the book

James Baldwin with his nephew Tejan. Courtesy of Baldwin Family Photos. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“Little Man, Little Man” is basically a day-in-the-life of TJ, a 4-year-old boy in Harlem.

The story reflects some of the experiences of James Baldwin’s nephew Tejan (aka TJ) and his niece Aisha Karefa-Smart, who grew up on the Upper West Side of New York in the 1970s.

Karefa-Smart tells Press Play that their Uncle Jimmy often came by to check on them, and find out what they were doing and learning. “One of my brother’s requests was always like, ‘Well Uncle Jimmy, when are you gonna write a book about me?’” she recalls.

She and TJ didn’t really think anything would come out of the request. So they were shocked when the book arrived one day. “We opened up the book, and the lead character was TJ. It was unbelievable. So basically, it was an uncle keeping a promise to a nephew.”

Karefa-Smart says she was about 9 years old at that time, and TJ was 8. It was surreal for them to read the book, and see pictures of people who were supposed to be them. “And the street life and the urban setting — it was all very familiar. It was just like our story being put into a book. So you can imagine how magical that is for a child.”

The character Blinky is based on James Baldwin’s niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart

A portrait of Blinky. Illustration by Yoran Cazac. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In the book, one of TJ’s friends is a tomboy named Blinky. Karefa-Smart says the character was based on her. “As an urban kid, it’s kind of rough and tumble. You’re riding your bike on the street. You’re doing all the daredevil stuff. I was like my little brother’s protector. Whenever my mom was looking for him, or we couldn’t find Tejan, I had to go and find him. I had to get him out of trouble. I had to be his keeper — my brother’s keeper.”

Blinky wears glasses, and for Karefa-Smart, this was a metaphor for a particular kind of sight that city kids have. “I was trained when I was growing up to watch if people came too close to you. I was told this person is picking that person’s pocket. Watch out for that person. Those people are over there exchanging drugs. I was taught to be able to see beyond my childhood world because I had to protect myself and my little brother.”

What Baldwin was trying to say about urban black childhood

Karefa-Smart says the book is about the realities of black kids growing up in the city, who have to be street smart. “There was a whole phenomenon in the late ’70s, early ’80s about the latchkey kids. Because parents were working, and kids had to take the subway by themselves and come home, or the bus by themselves and come home, and let themselves in.”

She believes the book can be read by children, but it must be explained in a proper context: “People have to say, ‘Well this story is a story of the reality that some children have to live in.’” She says it can be used to teach kids that different environments require different sensibilities and levels of maturity, growth, and understanding.

“I think my uncle was just keeping it real,” Karefa-Smart says.

How James Baldwin’s childhood contrasts with TJ’s childhood in the book

TJ with his mom and dad. Illustration by Yoran Cazac. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

James Baldwin grew up in poverty in 1920s Harlem. But Karefa-Smart says the book is a departure from that because TJ is playful and has a happy childhood. He runs up and down the streets where music is playing. And his mom and dad love each other, and dance to African music.

“I think he took elements of his childhood and what he was familiar with, and the reality of Harlem and New York City neighborhoods in the ‘70s — and coupled that with one generation after him, the type of childhood that my brother TJ and I were able to have. We had a lot of fun… We had neighbors who loved us, who gave us cookies and stuff like that. I don’t think he experienced much of that. So it definitely is an ode to what can happen in a generation,” she says.

How Baldwin describes skin color in the book

TJ’s mom. Illustration by Yoran Cazac. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In the book, Baldwin writes that Blinky’s skin color changes all the time — from “sunlight” to “real black coffee.” A grown-up, Miss Beanpole, is “a little bit white and a little bit colored.” Miss Lee is the color of “honey and watermelon.” TJ’s Mama is “peaches and brown sugar.”

Karefa-Smart says those descriptions are meant to let black children know how beautiful their color is. “Often times, the messages we receive about our skin color is negative. So I think he made the effort to describe and use metaphors about the different skin tones amongst black people in ways that were self-affirming.”

The new edition of “Little Man, Little Man” is published by Duke University Press. It’s edited by Nicholas Boggs and Jennifer DeVere Brody, professor of theatre and performance studies at Stanford.