AUGUST 11, 2021
THE FOLLOWING CONVERSATION, adapted from an event at the University of Maryland’s Center for Literary and Comparative Studies, is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series, “Antiracism in the Contemporary University,” edited by Tita Chico. Click here for the full series.
WILLIAM A. COHEN: Nicole and Kandice, what are some initial questions or frameworks that you’d like us to consider at the start of our conversation on the pedagogies and fictions of Black childhood?
NICOLE KING: I’m writing a book, Black Childhood in Modern African American Fiction [Edinburgh University Press, 2022] about 20th-century representations of Black children. The stories and the types of representations that I highlight are also very present in our contemporary world. Some questions then, for our collective consideration include: What does it mean to see Black children, and attend to their complexity? What does it mean to explore the content of their childhoods? How might paying attention to Black childhoods be construed as a subversive act? In my book, that leads to a discussion of Black children and agency. There has been, for instance, sociological research that documents how Black children are often mistaken for having greater agency than their white peers and how this can place Black children in precarious, vulnerable positions with educators and law enforcement. Finally, I want to ask about what we learn in literature about Black children.
KANDICE CHUH: One idea I want to raise in this conversation is the horizon of the work we’re doing. We can understand focusing on these childhoods to be an act of antiracism. We might conceive of how and what we study in literature to be part of the broad project of addressing — so as to defunction — anti-Black racism. This is to remember the social and material lives of literature and intellectual work.
Relatedly, I also want to suggest we conceive of Black childhood as method along the lines of how Laura Kang proposes we deploy “Asian woman” as method. What knowledge is produced, what conditions are illuminated, by using “Black childhood” as a central heuristic? This seems important, in part so that we avoid consolidating a singular definition of Black childhood and instead emphasize how it comes to have particular kinds of meanings within certain contexts and conditions.
Lastly, I want to emphasize the joy of Black childhood, as much as we may identify the loss and trauma that is associated with it. This is to remember that the “problem” of Black childhood is white supremacy, not “being Black.” In the academic context, diversity and inclusion and minority under-representation are regularly named “the problem.” But really, it’s the over-representation of whiteness. Many of us have worked in committees and task forces that focus on diversity and inclusion in terms of under-representation. How does our thinking change when we talk about over-representation instead? Likewise, I’m emphasizing the importance of identifying the problem correctly — that is, white supremacy and not Black childhood as “the problem.”
Moving on, then, from our opening remarks. Nicole, I know you’ve moved to London from San Diego and to San Diego from Maryland, and your roots are in New York City. How is your work related to those locations, which is to say, how does place shape and inform your understanding of intellectual work?
NK: Good question! As I am nearing the end of the book project, aspects of how my personal experience have shaped it are becoming more visible to me. For instance, I note how migration, journeys, and place regularly shape literary depictions of Black childhood. Looking back, as London is the place I now call home, and where my partner and I have raised a child, I am, perhaps, more invested than I might have been otherwise in sharing aspects of Americanness as a parent. My sense of our son’s childhood taking place in a different country and culture from my own has made me consider my New York roots more explicitly and the important role of place in representations and experiences of Black childhood has become an important component of my work too.
We are all familiar with the bildungsroman form, and the journey it depicts from childhood to adulthood. I am less interested in the endpoint of adulthood and more concerned with how journeys and places shape the child. For instance, what does it mean for Selina Boyce in Paule Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones  to grow up in Brooklyn with parents who grew up in Barbados? This signals more than we might expect, more than the Black immigrant experience and more than generational tensions between parent and child. Once we begin to look closely, we find there are three distinct examples of Black childhood to explore; Selina is the conduit for different visions of Black childhood. She connects the strands of her parents’ varied experiences. Instead of assessing their childhoods in Barbados as irrelevant to her own youth in Brooklyn, she latches onto the contrasting joyfulness of her father’s childhood, and the self-determination of her mother’s childhood.
KC: I think you’re talking about how all our work is shaped by the corporeal history of our selves. Your comments make me think about how we need to maintain heterogeneity in the discussion of Black childhood. There is no one “Black childhood.” We need to emphasize the differences and variety of the Black childhoods that are represented in literature to disrupt the undifferentiation that is racism’s gambit. Can you talk about the range encompassed by “childhood”? When, for instance, does Black childhood begin and end?
NK: Well, certainly the definition and idea of childhood is fraught. What delineates “childhood”? Temporality? Maturity? The nostalgia of adults? Literary representations often stretch definitions of childhood as far as they can go! However, in 19th-century literary contexts, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs offer two examples of the range of Black childhood that we should call attention to here.
In his 1845 text [Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave], Douglass’s fight with Covey is often seen as a pivotal scene, but for me, an even more pivotal scene comes when Douglass, determined to continue to learn to read even after his Baltimore master forbids it, resorts to trading bread for intermittent lessons from “the poor white children” he’d met in the street while out running his errands. In the Narrative, he recalls these indentured boys as “dear little fellows” whose physical hunger matched his intellectual thirst. For me, that juxtaposition of racially differentiated childhoods is essential to that text. Douglass makes plain for his reader how class and racial difference is experienced by children.
Similarly, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl  we first understand Linda (Harriet Jacobs’s narrative persona) as a girl who must use her wits to survive the predatory adults who own her. She is an adolescent, a teenager, seeking independence related to her age, gender, and her enslaved status — and revealing how she is very much subject to the combined authority of the white adult world. In the 18th century, Phillis Wheatley also writes with particularity about her life as a young person.
It was hard for me to know how to write about all of this at first, but I eventually began to consider, for instance, how children teach each other the structures of racial difference imposed on them by adults, and how racial difference is compounded by other aspects of identity to shape how we then retrospectively define and analyze childhood. In this regard, we might leap to the late 20th century and mention Reginald McKnight, and his novella White Boys . In this story, learning racialization, and specifically white power, is presented as a rite of passage for two friends, a Black boy and a white boy. White power, focalized through anti-Black violence, is the framing of childhood that these friends attempt to resist.
That’s a link to now, to our present moment. I think the US (and the UK) are seeing children taking responsibility for shaping their own worldviews. These are not so-called adults-in-waiting. Children and young people are demanding that we understand them and their childhoods without resorting to generalizations or filters that privilege our own experiences of youth. Recent films that center Black girlhood are doing this type of work too — films like Rocks [Dir. Sarah Gavron, 2019] and Mignonnes/Cuties [Dir. Maïmouna Doucouré, 2020].
KC: There’s something about what you’re saying that’s raising for me the question, who gets to figure the future? Who is doing the figuring? Part of what you’re suggesting — not only in the world we’re living in now, but through the African American literary tradition — is that we see the figuration of the Black child claiming that position for him or herself; they’re not waiting for that positioning by somebody else.
That image of Frederick Douglass being crafty, figuring out what he needs and how he’ll be the person who narrates for us: there’s something about that that is really powerful against the violence and anti-Blackness that is so much present.
As we began to think about our conversation, you were talking about Bigger Thomas [in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son], and I want to ask a question about stretching childhood. Who gets to be a child? And for how long? Within that, there’s something about a theory of time or temporality that’s hovering … Bigger Thomas appearing as a 20-year-old who seems to be more adolescent than adult in the ways he’s perceived by other characters in the novel — there’s something happening that’s not a waiting. Something is happening there with respect to how we understand Blackness as a temporal category.
NK: Yes, I agree. When we think about Black childhood, we are simultaneously made aware of the way in which Black adults are not allowed maturity. We are pushed to think about how and in what ways adulthood is denied, how Black adults are linguistically positioned as immature when men are addressed as “boy” or women domestic workers are casually referred to as the “girl” who cleans our house. This is the flip side of that temporal violence whereby Black children are pushed to and presumed to already have an extraordinary maturity, whether that’s sexual maturity or the presumption that they can take care of themselves.
Robin Bernstein’s study of innocence [Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011)] talks about this — the denial of innocence to the Black child is part of the denial of maturity to the Black adult. You can’t talk about 20th-century African American literature and childhood and not mention Bigger Thomas. He is immature, but he also has to take care of his family, assist his mother in providing for his family. Those are the complications. I think Selina Boyce is 20 by the end of the text, but for most of it she’s between 10 and 16.
I think you started out by asking, who gets to figure the future? That is tricky ground. I think in literature, we have so much room for maneuvering. We have narrators, flashback, retrospective narration, lots of ways to figure that child and think through the future. In our contemporary 21st-century world, that sense of “I’m going to help shape this future,” the way young people are taking that platform, I think that has a long history in the United States. I am thinking here of the Children’s March, leading up to the 1963 March on Washington, of the way in which, in the early decades of the 20th century, W. E. B. Du Bois and Jessie Redmon Fauset are strategically positioning children as part of the ideology of Black racial uplift. Their youth pages within The Crisis in the 1920s were used to specifically speak to children and to have the children speaking back to the adults.
KC: What about how innocence plays out across these texts? Innocence hovers around the idea of childhood and the ways that we’ve already begun thinking about the Black child as a figure, but also as keying us into the social conditions out of which “Black child” emerges as a legible figure and category. I’m not so much thinking about the easy withholding of innocence from Black childhood, but rather about the innocence of children racialized as Black. Does that make sense?
NK: Yes, that does makes sense: innocence can be dangerous. If you’re innocent, you’re not aware of how you exist in the world as a racialized subject, and what the consequences of being racialized means and that can make you vulnerable. We see that all the time in the literature. We see that pedagogical imperative of Black childhood — the imperative to understand the world and their place in it. This is, in one sense, Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness. In another sense, this is “the talk” that Black parents in majority white communities have with their children; making the child aware of how they are seen is a dismantling of innocence and therefore, one hopes, some protection, some reduced vulnerability.
You can’t talk about Black childhood without talking about Black adulthood and Black parenthood. Similarly, it is difficult to talk about African American literature without referencing Toni Morrison. Morrison has protective parents all throughout her literature. We have, for instance, in Beloved, Sethe’s sentiment and actions that she would rather her baby die than have it live the life of an enslaved person. But before that, in her earlier novel Sula, there is the penultimate line where Nel finally allows herself to mourn her childhood friend — “we was girls together” — in the fraught context of their experience as children involved another child’s death. Morrison exposes the layers, the warp and weave of childhood and its representation that never cease to shape the adult. Beginning with her very first novel, The Bluest Eye, Morrison demonstrates how the writing of childhood is supremely connected to the writing of adulthood (including parenthood), and is not something that is ever left behind. Her adults wrestle with the notion of their own innocence as children.
You and I have talked about how childhood punctuates American history, how Brown v. Board of Education, that key Supreme Court ruling that sets school desegregation in motion in 1954 — how that was won in part by research conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark with Black children: they measured attitudes and understandings of race using dolls. Morrison weaves this into The Bluest Eye with her wonderful character Claudia MacTeer: Claudia is given a doll she knows she’s supposed to love and cherish, because it’s blond with blue eyes, but she refuses that. She wants to decapitate it and take the eyes out. Robin Bernstein writes about this scene wonderfully in Racial Innocence. To circle back to your question, yes, innocence is dangerous, but at the same time, the literature also insists on allowing Black children to be children. We see Black kids being kids in the literature, whereas in the public discourse, I think we can become overwhelmed by the abjectness of the Black child and the violence enacted against the Black child.
KC: Thinking about the figuration of Black childhood and Black children I think prompts rewriting the terms of what constitutes justice, given that innocence is never an unfraught category, certainly in the US context, but globally as well. Ruth Wilson Gilmore has written powerfully about this problem. It seems to me there’s something in these literatures that might help us understand not only that innocence is a problem, but also that maybe crafts the possibility for thinking otherwise, for imagining, what does something like justice, something like joy or life or whatever it is, what does that look like and feel like? How do you inhabit that?
NK: Something you said or wrote to me I thought was so appropriate, getting back to this sense of pedagogy and what we see when we look at Black children. You said, the way in which we don’t see Black children — or the way in which we’re trained against seeing Black children as children — it’s literally training us not to see Black adults as human. It’s literally laying the groundwork for the brutalization of all Black bodies. It makes possible that sort of racial terror in adult life and in various discourses of law and order. That was not a way in which I had been thinking about this before.
Again, the literature gives us all of that. You are so right to identify how that is in the literature, that sort of training of whiteness, of how whiteness will police adult as well as juvenile Black bodies. Thank you for that point.
WAC: Thank you for this captivating conversation. Part of what’s wonderful about the way the two of you talk with each other is that you’re both literary scholars who have a deep, ingrained commitment to literature. That is such a prevalent theme in both of your work and has been an enduring interest and concern of yours.
You discuss the ways in which the literary enables certain kinds of learning, understanding, and formation for children especially. How do you think about that now when young people may not read as much or in the same ways as previously, and where the media they experience, especially social media, gives them a different kind of sense of agency and of what it means, for Black children in particular, to inhabit their Blackness.
Do you see that there’s change, and is there possibility? Is it more of the same or less so, because of the lack of literary nuance, of unreliable narrators and irony and the things that we’ve learned to read in complex and interesting ways in literary texts?
KC: Thanks, Bill. Nicole, you and I were talking earlier about the curriculum in a K-12 school — and whatever the K-12 iteration is in the UK — and what they don’t read. My kids going through the public school system are still reading more or less the curriculum that I read going to high school in northern New Jersey in the early 1980s. The sophomore English curriculum as it was taught recently, for example, included only one book written by a nonwhite man author.
Obviously, this is not necessarily representative — it’s one school — but it’s a public school in an incredibly diverse school district. About half of our student body identifies as nonwhite; about 20 percent of the student body is available for subsidized school lunches, which is one measure of class difference.
It is striking to me that here, in a school which cherishes the idea of multicultural diversity, we haven’t gotten to a place where the curriculum has changed. That’s a roundabout way of noting that I think my kids had more encounters with books featuring Black characters, brown characters, and younger characters in their earlier school years. It’s when they start to become adults, suddenly that all goes away and they’re left with the terrain of the whitened cultural landscape.
There’s a part of me that’s like, “I want you to read more stuff.” But I recognize they’re really good at reading the landscape already. They’re taking their cues in the ways that you’re talking about, through peer-to-peer education — they’re taking their cues in these lateral forms.
Some of what they learn, I wish they could thicken. I think that’s our job now, to provide that context they don’t or won’t get from social media. But I think that they have a huge amount of knowledge that they are taking from being able to read the stories that are out there in these very smart ways, in ways that are not being seduced by what they’re “supposed” to think, but what they do think.
I think literariness can and does exist outside of literature. We can train people to be mindful of that. I also wish that people would read more books. There’s something about the stretching of time, getting inside of a world, being able to look at the world from inside of this story — that’s how I see the world. I want other people to understand it that way.
WAC: You’re preaching to the choir here. I also wanted to convey a [Zoom chat] question from someone who’s been a mentor to all of us, Mary Helen Washington. How do you think class bias affects Black children, and specifically what she calls the “Jack and Jill hierarchy effect”? How does it affect children who are ostracized? This is a question of Blackness not as a unitary category, but one that is subdivided and sometimes internally in conflict.
NK: Thank you for that question from Mary Helen, Bill. It is an important point that she raises in her own work too. In addition to questions of class, we haven’t really specified gender either and the nuances and differences in terms of children who are figured as girls and figured as boys. But class is also fundamental: there is the othering that happens through the representation of a working-class child, and very often that is the journey of development. On the one hand, students might arrive with the common-sense idea, gleaned from other coming-of-age narratives that one must leave behind humble beginnings in order to make it. But on the other hand, when I present my students at Goldsmith’s with literary representations of Black families and communities who are figured as middle class, for instance in Andrea Lee’s work, that seems inauthentic to them, and they can be confused by it because they are so used to narratives of Black abjection. I think that exposes the limitation around the ways we think about race and class together that cuts across the literature, that exposes and encourages us to think through the “Jack and Jill hierarchy,” as Mary Helen calls it. We could go back to The Bluest Eye here and think of Maureen Peal and the privileges that accrue to her in contrast to Pecola Breedlove. Morrison was attending to the very issues that Mary Helen raises.
In one part of my book, where I’m writing about Brown Girl, Brownstones and Caucasia , I start with the first paragraph from Gwendolyn Brooks’s only novel, Maud Martha , and the young protagonist is delighted by the dandelions in her backyard. Brooks tells us that Maud not only values these flowers, flowers that others might consider weeds, they are jewels to her and her backyard is like a painting. She places herself in that painting and so the book begins with a celebration of ordinary Blackness, an ordinary, working-class, brown-skinned Black girl. This assertion is as powerful as Claudia MacTeer’s rejection of the white doll she is gifted. If we’re going to read the literature carefully, we cannot have limited ideas of how the Black child is figured. I ask my students to be aware of, not just differences, but antagonisms of class and difference within Black communities.
WAC: That’s a great segue to the final question, a question about teaching. Both of you are renowned teachers, so I’m sure you’ve thought about this. The question comes from a Black teacher teaching a course on Black childhood in a predominantly white area. They ask for advice on teaching this material and highlighting joy.
NK: As teachers, I think one of the things we can do is to look at the archive of this Antiracism series at the University of Maryland. There are some wonderful scholars who have spoken about highlighting joy as praxis. That’s the first thing; there’s a wealth of knowledge that has been gathered.
Another strategy is to set ground rules and refer back to them and to invite one’s students to help set ground rules for how the class is going to proceed. Remember, in the late 1990s, Kandice, you and I taught that course on Asian American and African American literature? I learned so much from you during that year. So another idea is to find a teaching partner, even if you’re not teaching together, they could be someone with whom to share the draining part of teaching, so that it doesn’t become corrosive.
KC: I don’t really have anything to add to that except that I think to acknowledge that it’s hard. I think the teaching partner suggestion is brilliant. This reminds me of something you and I have talked about, and which I continue to think about in terms of relationality, the long-livedness of us as colleagues, and thinking about collegiality as something that can sustain you through things that are just really hard.
There is something about making sure that you’re connected with people beyond the classroom, maybe beyond your institution. That feels really important, since most of us teach — if you’re teaching in a university in the United States or the UK — in predominantly white institutions.
The white fragility thing … do we have to do that work? I guess it’s not really an option not to. People who want to fight anti-Black racism by talking about white privilege suck up the air in the room, always. Thinking the over-representation of whiteness does not mean recentering of whiteness.
One thing that maybe can help, and I use this in all sorts of circumstances, is a tactic that keeps all those experiences from fully getting in and under your skin. For me, anyway, it acts as a shield or armor around the taxing nature of those experiences. This tactic is: Try to treat those [classroom or office hours] circumstances as research laboratories in which you’re the scientist asking, “Why do certain subjects respond to this in this way and not another? Why do certain subjects believe and act as they do and not in other ways?” And make these research questions the point of engagement and response. Depersonalize and intellectualize … maybe that can provide a little cushion.
NK: That might be a good place to end this iteration of our conversation. Thank you, Kandice, for the chance to think in new ways about fictions of Black childhood and for the chance to revisit the work we do as teachers.
KC: And you, Nicole, I’m ever so grateful for the long-lived and ongoing thinking and learning in common we’ve gotten to do, and I’m looking forward to your book!
William A. Cohen is professor of English at the University of Maryland, as well as associate provost and dean for Undergraduate Studies. He is the author of Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (2009) and co-editor of the special issue, “Revisiting Dialogue,” of Narrative (2019).
Dr. Nicole King is a lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she teaches US, Caribbean and Black British literatures and chairs her department’s teaching and learning committee. She is the author of C.L.R. James and Creolization: Circles of Influence (2001).
Kandice Chuh is professor of English, American Studies, and Critical Social Psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she is currently executive officer (chair) of the PhD Program in English. The author of The Difference Aesthetics Makes: on the humanities ‘after Man’ (2019), Chuh is at work on The Disinterested Teacher, a collection of essays on pedagogy, and a project on contemporary Asian racialization tentatively titled Studying Asia.