Children and Youth Studies Caucus

The Children and Youth Studies Caucus joins scholars who engage in interdisciplinary perspectives on the individual experiences, social conditions, and rights of children and youth in both historical and contemporary contexts. Children and Youth Studies aims to understand the complex experiences and conditions of young people in global, national, and local settings.

The Following panel is sponsored by the Children and Youth Studies Caucus at the 2016 Annual Meeting in Denver:

Children and Youth Studies Caucus: Home White Home: Childhood and the Racial Imagination

Childhood and children’s literature align with notions of home as a place of safety and kinship. However, as Mavis Reimer (2008) notes, children’s texts “proceed from determinate constructions of class, race, gender, and nation, and entail complicated understandings of the relation of self and other, kin and stranger, here and there.” This interdisciplinary panel (children’s literature, education, English, library science) interrogates home’s relationship to racialized childhoods in picture books, graphic novels, archival materials, and non-fiction travel writing. The papers explore how white supremacist ideologies are housed within pedagogical, historical, scientific, and literary discourses that circulate around the figure of the child and the cultural texts used to educate, entertain, and racialize childhood.

Launching the discussion with our earliest historical example, Anna Mae Duane shows how pathologizing youth and race renders the black child homeless, via the story of "Henry the Little Bushman," a youth "rescued" from South Africa in the 1840s, and brought to the U.S. Duane locates Henry at the center of historical arguments about the rightful "home" of black people, including U.S. Census reports that suggested freedom and temperate climates rendered black people mentally insane and physically disabled. During his brief life at New York’s Colored Orphan Asylum, Henry’s orphanhood — and physical health — became a national story, in which his race made him biologically unfit for the nation that adopted him.

Moving us into the twentieth century, Michelle Martin’s paper argues that Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes — responding to childhoods marred by fathers who encouraged the family to reject their own blackness — write children’s stories that figure home as the place a child must leave in order to develop a positive black identity. In Hughes and Bontemps’ narratives for young people, child protagonists can only develop a racially integrated subjectivity when beyond domestic spaces that have colluded in racial erasures. Their children’s books are acts of imaginary displacement in which children learn how to find a home in black cultural traditions by leaving the familial and familiar homes they know.

Focusing on works from later in the century, Elizabeth Marshall extends Martin’s interest in racial identities that develop away from home. As she argues, the classic Nancy Drew mysteries and their recent graphic-novel adaptations disguise racial tourism as multicultural education. Marshall contends that while Nancy Drew is allowed to travel unfettered, going undercover as non-white characters, her racial masquerades uncritically construct her whiteness as normative and all other races as a series of consumable tropes.

Concluding our discussion of race and home, Philip Nel’s manifesto for anti-racist children’s literature addresses how segregated neighborhoods of literature perpetuate structural racism, imagining children of color only in narrowly defined areas — while granting White children access to the full landscape of literary representation. It offers a plan for expanding the range of experiences housed by children’s literature, identifying specific changes the publishing industry needs to make. If U.S. publishers fail to respond to an increasingly diverse population, they risk engineering their own obsolescence.