An Interview with Aisha Karefa-Smart on James Baldwin's Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood

 
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James Baldwin (1924-1987), world-renowned author and civil rights activist, wrote a sole picture book called Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood. It was Baldwin’s response to his nephew, Tejan’s burning question: “Uncle Jimmy! Uncle JIMMY!...When you gonna write a book about MeeeeEEE!?” The book offers a glimpse into the joys and challenges of Black life in 1970s Harlem through the eyes four-year-old protagonist, TJ. In spite of being surrounded by the very visible effects of systemic oppression, TJ and friends, 7-year-old WT and 8-year-old Blinky, dance, play, and experience joy, a clear form of resistance to the social inequity all around them. TJ is surrounded by a community that looks after him and a loving family who impart valuable lessons on him: “‘I want you to be proud of your people,’ TJ’s Daddy would always say.” Baldwin referred to the book as “a celebration of the self-esteem of Black children”.

 James Baldwin with nephew, Tejan Karefa-Smart

James Baldwin with nephew, Tejan Karefa-Smart

When it was originally published in 1976 by Dial Press, Little Man, Little Man was billed as “a children's story for adults, an adult’s story for children.” Unlike any picture book at the time, it was not well understood and went quickly out of print. Now, for the first time in 42 years, the book is being reprinted and re-released by Duke University Press. The effort to republish the book was spearheaded by Dr. Nicholas Boggs, Baldwin scholar and clinical assistant professor of English at New York University. He first came across the book at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library as an undergraduate student at Yale University. The son of civil rights activists, Boggs grew up in Washington D.C., reading almost everything Baldwin had ever written. After coming across Baldwin’s out-of-print Little Man, Little Man, he began extensive research on the book, flew to France to interview its Parisian illustrator, Yoran Cazac, and dedicated the last decade to getting the new scholarly edition published. With increased awareness around the need for diverse books, and more children’s books confronting challenging social issues, Dr. Boggs believes Little Man, Little Man can be understood and appreciated in a new light. The book is now being directed towards ages 8 and up, which is aligned with Baldwin and Cazac’s initial intention. In an interview with Dr. Boggs, Cazac explained that he and Baldwin wanted it to be meaningful to adults and children alike, whether they were “age 7 or 70”.

Dr. Boggs underscores the collaborative effort that made the new edition of the book possible. He worked closely with the Baldwin family, as well as the family of Yoran Cazac, to bring the book back into print. The new edition features an introduction by Nicholas Boggs and Jennifer DeVere Brody, a foreword by Baldwin’s nephew, Tejan Karefa-Smart, and an afterword by Baldwin’s niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart.

Aisha Karefa-Smart, author, niece to Baldwin, and inspiration behind the character, Blinky, sat down with us to share more about the book and her relationship with her beloved “Uncle Jimmy”. A transcript of our conversation is below.

Information on where to find the book, the Teacher Resource Guide for the book, and upcoming book-related events can be found after the interview.


The Conscious Kid (TCK): You grew up with Black literature outside of the education system that held a critical lens to minimal or problematic depictions of Black folks and other marginalized groups. How does Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man carry on the tradition of the critical literature you were exposed to, and what was the books impact on you?

Aisha Karefa-Smart (AKS): Little Man, Little Man was his first and only children’s book, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. There was a tradition in our household to be surrounded by Black literature by, for, and about Black people. Books that dealt with critical issues such as race, whiteness, and identity. It only made sense that our mother, Gloria, would continue that tradition with regard to the books she curated for us as kids. As my brother TJ mentioned in the foreword, Black books that reflected our experience were our world. When my uncle penned Little Man, Little Man for my brother, and for us, it was not anything novel. It was a continuation of something that was already present. It was novel to the literary world. His agents were like, why is James Baldwin writing this book? It’s a children’s book, but it also has adult themes. They didn’t know what to do with it and it quickly went out of print. Often times, especially with regards to my uncle’s work, he was way ahead of his time. It has taken several generations to be born, who totally get and embrace him.

It’s very important in the development of the self-esteem of Black children to have books that celebrate who they are. It’s very important to plant those seeds early in a child’s consciousness.
— Aisha Karefa-Smart

This is a time when there is a plethora of Black children’s books by Black authors that celebrate Black children’s self-esteem, hair, skin color, unique features, and unique culture. That’s there and so now the book can be welcomed in a different way. There’s an audience for it because people are now hip to the fact that it’s very important in the development of the self-esteem of Black children to have books that celebrate who they are. It’s very important to plant those seeds early in a child’s consciousness. My uncle always talked about that. He wrote an essay called “A Talk to Teachers,” where he speaks about the importance of building the self-esteem of Black children and Black children being educated by people who love, understand, and celebrate them. His experience, with the exception of one teacher who took an interest in him, was the opposite. So, Little Man, Little Man, for me, was adding to our collection of other children’s books that reflected and celebrated our lives.

 TJ and parents from  Little Man, Little Man . Illustration by Yoran Cazac.

TJ and parents from Little Man, Little Man. Illustration by Yoran
Cazac.

TCK: It’s clear that your brother, Tejan, is the character TJ in the book. However, it is unclear if you are the character, Blinky, or if you inspired the character. Can you talk about your connection to Blinky, and if there is any relationship at all?

AKS: Absolutely. I didn’t ask my uncle to write a book about me. TJ asked him to write a book about him and Blinky is definitely inspired by me. TJ and I are very close in age, we are only 14 months apart. I was his constant companion, big sister, and the person who had to go and make sure he wasn’t getting in trouble. I got sent to go find him if he had disappeared and was at a neighbor’s house, or somewhere in the neighborhood. I can definitely say Blinky was inspired by me because I was the older sister, closest to him in age.

TCK: Blinky was a very powerful character. One of the themes that comes from the book is this notion of sight and how one sees themselves. In the introduction, Nicholas Boggs and Jennifer DeVere Brody mention that Blinky’s glasses may be a metaphor for Du Bois’s double consciousness. Do you relate to Blinky’s double consciousness, and if so, can you speak to some of your experiences with double consciousness?

AKS: Absolutely, I mean, my uncle really zeroed in. As a child, I was raised in a household where there was discourse happening constantly around me about race. I was a critical race theorist before I was 12. When my uncle was home, Amiri Baraka, Toni Bambara, Maya Angelou, and various other artists, writers, and musicians were there, grappling with these issues. I wrote an essay called, “The Prodigal Son,” describing what it was like when he came home. I grew up in this environment, very rich in African and African American culture, and very positive in terms of how I saw myself as a person in the world. That was not reflected when I went out into the world and into school.

As a child, I was raised in a household where there was discourse happening constantly around me about race. I was a critical race theorist before I was 12.
— Aisha Karefa-Smart
 Blinky from  Little Man, Little Man.   Illustration by Yoran Cazac

Blinky from Little Man, Little Man. Illustration by Yoran
Cazac

It was very much a struggle for me because I grew up immersed in African American culture, history, and literature. I was very affirmed at home. I grew up in an environment of extreme love and positivity, especially with regard to my Blackness. Having an African father, and having an African name before they were popular, were all very much part of what may be termed now as Afrocentrism. Africa, Harlem, and Black music were central to my world. Never in my world growing up did I feel smaller because I was Black. Now, in the outside world, that was not the case. When I went to school, I had to deal with kids who didn’t have that environment. I’m a case study for what it’s like to have a certain level of self-esteem, self-awareness, education, and exposure to positive images of Black people, and then go out into the world. I had to deal with my classmates who thought Black was ugly, African meant primitive, and that if you were dark-skinned you were unattractive. All of the issues that come with Black children not knowing their intrinsic worth.

Never in my world growing up did I feel smaller because I was Black.
— Aisha Karefa-Smart

It was a mind totally of double consciousness. It was Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Masks. It was very, very difficult for me as a child because I was coming from a world that was so unique. Just imagine growing up as James Baldwin’s niece, post-civil rights movement. I was very close, and calling Auntie and Uncle, to many of the people who gave birth to the Black Arts Movement that came out of the 60s. People like Amiri Baraka, Dr. Eleanor Traylor, and Toni Cade Bambara. This was my environment and I am going to school with kids who had no clue. They’re watching television and they are not seeing their image being promoted in a positive way.

I had to deal with my classmates who thought Black was ugly, African meant primitive, and that if you were dark-skinned you were unattractive. All of the issues that come with Black children not knowing their intrinsic worth.
— Aisha Karefa-Smart

It’s post-Black is Beautiful/Black Power. One of my babysitters was a member of The Black Panthers. I was constantly immersed. When I stepped out, I had to have my armor on. It was rough dealing with my peers. Black children who were not being told that they were worthy, that they were beautiful. That they mattered. That there were images of us that were beautiful. It was a challenge when I look back. I don’t know if I appreciated it as much as I do now. I did recognize that that kind of access and environment was positive and self-affirming. Black affirming. It was crucial to who I am and who I’ve become as a person.

TCK: You mentioned Baldwin being ahead of his time. Another aspect that we discussed on our call with Dr. Boggs was that, back when it was initially released, the “adult issues” in Little Man, Little Man were not considered suitable for children and it was billed as a “child’s story for adults”. Now, over 40 years later, there’s a large body of research that says it is actually very important to talk to young children about issues such as race, racism, and police brutality. They are not too young, or too innocent. Or even innocent at all.

AKS: Especially with regard to Black children. Black children are targeted, treated, and tried as adults more often than white children. In many situations, things are projected onto Black children that are not necessarily projected onto white children, especially in terms of what our responsibility is in society. Black children, especially in urban environments, are perceived as older because of the issues they are grappling with in a society still struggling with white supremacy. People weren’t ready to have that conversation back then. Now, the language has been created for it because of studies and certain exposure. We know what happened with Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. How Black boys are perceived as older, bigger, and more adult than they actually are. These are children. That is the reality for Black people and Black children. Our perception in the world is going to be skewed toward more adult themes.

TCK: Right, and I think there’s a lot of privilege in the perception that these themes are not suitable for children. In the choice not to grapple with these issues. Issues that many children, and many Black children in particular, are already dealing with. While in the middle of working on Little Man, Little Man, Baldwin told a French journalist: “I never had a childhood, I was born dead.” He was speaking to the social death of Black children and the marginalization and oppression that they face. Can you talk about that and how the book is a form of resistance?

AKS: Absolutely. One of the things that my uncle always used to tell us was, “Everything that I’m doing, I’m doing for you.” He was so committed to making sure that the next generation, his nieces and nephews, had a different reality. He didn’t have any children of his own so his nieces and nephews were his children that he embraced. The fact that he was able to write a children’s book that celebrated a different kind of reality, that he himself didn’t experience, was a coup in many ways. A literary coup, in many ways. He often talked about the lack of a childhood. The abusive father, who was grappling with racism and white supremacy in his life and the work world, and often brought those stresses home. A father who often took it out on him because he was the oldest.

The fact that he was able to write a children’s book that celebrated a different kind of reality, that he himself didn’t experience, was a coup in many ways. A literary coup.
— Aisha Karefa-Smart
 Baldwin, with his Mother and Sister

Baldwin, with his Mother and Sister

Being the oldest of 9 children, he had to take care of his younger brothers and sisters. When my grandfather, David Baldwin passed, the torch was passed to him to take care of his mother and look after his younger brothers and sisters. He had to become the man of the house at a very young age. The sense of responsibility was immense, so he never really had a childhood. He never really had a teen life. He was an adult from a very young age, in terms of the responsibility he felt in taking care of his brothers, sisters, and mother.

One of the first things he did when he got a little bit of money was buy an apartment building for his mother and family so they could “get out of the Ghetto,” which is what Harlem was considered at the time. It was very different from the Harlem we know now. Due to the sacrifices he made, and because he wrote, changed lives, and was able to make some money, he made our lives much easier and different. It was a huge act of resistance for him to write that book and illustrate a whimsical, lighter side of a Black childhood. Some of the themes are considered mature for a kid, but still, TJ has a whimsical nature that’s fun. He’s adventurous, he sees the world as a magical place. That’s very different from his own experience.

TCK: What you’re saying ties into this quote where you said, “Not only was my uncle a patriarch but someone who gave many of us in the younger generation a way and a means of existing in complete fullness and with freedom. My uncle would say your crown is already bought and paid for. All you have to do is wear it. We take those sacrifices very seriously and we wear our crowns with great pride and dignity.” What are some of the biggest lessons you take away from your relationship with your uncle?

Not only was my uncle a patriarch but someone who gave many of us in the younger generation a way and a means of existing in complete fullness and with freedom.
— Aisha Karefa-Smart
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AKS: The biggest thing to me is the importance of self work and holding oneself accountable. Since the resurgence of his personality and his fame, and who he is as an acclaimed writer, I ask people to remember the greatest impact he had on me. His mother (my grandmother), who I was very close to, instilled it in him. It’s that whatever art you produce should be towards bettering yourself as a human being. It should also be in service to your fellow man. He took his relationships with people very seriously. He saw that each person and each relationship was sacred, and that he had a responsibility to each person and each relationship. His role as a writer in the world was to make the world a better place, to become a better human being, and to take responsibility for whatever life deals you. To use art to try to lift yourself up out of a dreary place, if that’s where you find yourself. A writer named Harmony Holiday just wrote an article about my uncle’s attempt at suicide. A lot of people don’t talk about that. It’s interesting because I had just been grappling with the idea of bringing this theme into my talks about my uncle’s legacy. It’s called “Preface to James Baldwin’s Unwritten Suicide Note” by Harmony Holiday and it’s on PoetryFoundation.org. She was talking about the depth of depression and loneliness that he had to rise up out of to produce the incredible art that he produced. My message to young writers and to young artists is that the darkness is what compels us and pushes us to become better human beings. I think that’s the example he left for me, that he left for the world.

My message to young writers and to young artists is that the darkness is what compels us and pushes us to become better human beings.
— Aisha Karefa-Smart

You are not your circumstances, you are not your color, you are not where you were born. That does not define you. What defines you is what you do with that and how you allow it to transform yourself and others. That is our role as artists. Our role as artists is to disturb the peace in order to create a greater peace, to better the world, and to become better human beings. That is the legacy that he left me with and that stands out the most in terms of his life and what I was able to absorb from him.

TCK: Is there anything about yourself, the book, or your uncle that you would like to mention or discuss?

AKS: I’m just really happy. I don’t know if Nicholas Boggs talked about the process, but it took him over 10 years to get the book republished. He’s been trying for a long time and everything happens for a reason and in due time. The timing couldn’t be more perfect with James Baldwin, his work, his life, and who he was as a person being rediscovered and celebrated like it never was before. He always said, “I’m worth more dead than I am alive.”  He understood that he wouldn’t being taken seriously, or receive the accolades and recognition, until after he passed on. To me, the book is an example of the enduring power of his art. It’s true art and true transformative work never gets old. It always finds new life. I’m just so excited that this book found new life and is being celebrated and welcomed the way it is. It’s very touching.

To me, the book is an example of the enduring power of his art. It’s true art and true transformative work never gets old. It always finds new life.
— Aisha Karefa-Smart

You can find the book through Duke University Press here: https://www.dukeupress.edu/little-man-little-man

The Teacher Resource Guide can be found here: https://www.dukeupress.edu/Assets/PubMaterials/978-1-4780-0004-4_501.pdf

Little Man, Little Man Events:

Tuesday, September 11, 2018, 6 pm
James Baldwin’s Story of Childhood: A Symposium
NYU Center for Humanities
20 Cooper Square, Fifth Floor, New York, New York
Symposium free and open to the public, online RSVP required. Reception to follow.
 
Thursday, September 13, 2018, 6:30 pm
Home to Harlem Talks: Little Man, Little Man by James Baldwin and Yoran Cazac
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, New York
Hosted by Jacqueline Woodson, featuring Kia Corthon, Nicholas Boggs and Jennifer DeVere Brody, Aisha Karefa-Smart and Tejan Karefa-Smart. Free and open to the public. Reception to follow.
 
Friday, September 14, 2018, 11 am-4:30 pm
TJ’s Bash: A Happening Inspired by James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man
The Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling
898 Saint Nicholas Avenue, New York, New York
http://www.sugarhillmuseum.org/calendar/2018/9/14/tjs-bash-a-happening-inspired-by-james-baldwins-little-man-little-man
 
Saturday, September 15, 2018, 3 pm
Little Man, Little Man book event
McNally Jackson
76 N 4ht St, Brooklyn, NY