“Designed for all children, but especially for ours.” Thus read the inscription on the front page of the Brownies’ Book, a children’s periodical dreamt up by former Atlanta University professor W.E.B. Du Bois and read in homes across the country from 1920 to 1921. “At the time, Du Bois was busy,” says Dr. Karida L. Brown, a sociology professor at Emory University, who discovered the magazine while working on a book about the famous scholar and civil rights activist. “He was giving speeches around the world, he had cofounded the Pan-African Congress—and, still, he made time for our children. He thought they were important enough to create this thing.”
Brown and her husband, the artist and illustrator Charly Palmer, were enchanted by the periodical, which featured work from some of the Harlem Renaissance’s most celebrated artists, including Nella Larsen, Effie Lee Newsome, and a young Langston Hughes. Someone should do something with this, they said to each other. “Then 2020 came, and we realized, we should do it!” says Palmer.
That’s how The New Brownies’ Book was born. Published by Chronicle Books, this iteration gets a lusciously updated design while remaining true to Du Bois’s original concept. The anthology contains a mix of poetry and prose, including true stories, made-up tales, games, and quizzes, interspersed with sophisticated art. Brown and Palmer curated the book together, soliciting contributions from celebrated Black writers and artists—many of them their friends—just as Du Bois once did.
“I encountered the Brownies’ Book through the letters Du Bois was writing to potential contributors,” Brown explains. “He’s asking the literati of the Harlem Renaissance to please stop what you’re doing and send me a piece of your best work, so that our children will know they are thought about and loved.”
Brown and Palmer believe Black children need that message today as much as they did a hundred years ago. The couple began the book in the summer of 2020, as the country sheltered at home during pandemic lockdowns and reeled from the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Brown wondered about the impact of all this trauma on young Black Americans: What are our children going through? How are they processing this?
“It felt so important to be doing something for Black children, Black families in particular, that was not derived from a space of deficit and despair,” says Brown. “This [book] is about love and joy and the celebration of the full human experience.”
That doesn’t mean it shies away from the complex realities of being Black in America, notes Palmer: “These stories are dealing with the things that [kids] have to deal with.” One comic-style piece, with art by Palmer’s friend KEEF CROSS and written by CROSS’s wife, Shannon Byrd, is titled “I Don’t Wanna Be Black” and was inspired by their own daughter’s reaction to George Floyd’s televised murder, the subsequent media coverage, and arrests of Black Lives Matter protesters.
“I encouraged [CROSS] to pursue this piece when he shared the story of his daughter,” Palmer says. “I understand where [her] fear is coming from. I think we’re still addressing some of these same issues.”
But Black children, like children everywhere, also deserve space to feel cherished and buoyant and free, and The New Brownies’ Book makes ample room for all that joy. Frank X Walker and Kai Adia offer tender poems to their children; Damon Young pens an insouciant letter to the kid who will eventually break his record of “Most Bite-Sized Snickers Eaten by a Twelve-Year-Old in a Thirteen-Minute Span While Waiting Between Pickup Basketball Games at Mellon Park.” One astonishingly wise poem, “Kisses Make Things Better (but Sometimes They Don’t),” was written by four-year-old Zoe Jones.
On every other page, Black children dance their way through art, from Palmer’s own sumptuous portraits to mixed-media collages by artists like James Denmark, Lavett Ballard, and Marryam Moma. Each piece is credited by artist, title, and artwork medium—a dash of sophistication not typical in children’s books, but one that evokes the same seriousness with which Du Bois treated his own youthful readers. “[The original] was a rich, beautiful book,” says Palmer. “Can you imagine as a young person receiving this every month, how exciting it had to be!”
The New Brownies’ Book also contains a wealth of content from the original periodicals, including covers, photographs of children published in the series “Little People of the Month,” and several poems and stories. One chapter reproduces all the Brownies work published by Langston Hughes, who got his start in the magazine. “He submitted a few works to Du Bois when he was just graduating high school,” says Brown. “And from that blossoms this whole relationship.”
Artfully balancing old and new, the book honors its illustrious history while joyfully celebrating a young generation of Black Americans. “It’s a book of love,” says Palmer. “We hope you will see that from the very beginning to the end.”
Palmer and Brown have partnered with the literacy nonprofit Page Turners, which is raising funds to place copies into majority-minority Georgia public schools. Learn more at pageturnersgreatlearners.org.
This article appears in our November 2023 issue.