Fuse 8 n’ Kate: Black Misery by Langston Hughes, ill. Arouni
It’s our 5-year anniversary of starting this podcast! To celebrate we’re examining something both obscure and of note. Haven’t heard of this particular picture book? You aren’t alone. Originally published in 1969, the book is perhaps best known as being the last book Langston Hughes, its author, ever worked on. I was just meticulously weeding my library’s adult 811s and stumbled upon it. Black Misery is a children’s book marketed as an adult title yet in spite of its copyright date it has a lot of similarities to the children’s books today that are calling out elements in our own racist culture. Microaggressions and outright racism vie for space on the pages. The central question for us is this: Is this book a picture book for children or not? It’s not easy to answer, particularly when you weigh how little change has happened with some of these moments and how beautifully they’re called out here verses the use of the n-word and some of the more dated elements.
In the end, we do wonder why it hasn’t been reprinted in the last few decades. Seems to me a forward thinking publisher might benefit from bringing this one back again. Then again, even that sentiment may be overly dated. We live at a time where the need for Black Joy in books for kids is particularly keen. Does it make much sense then to bring out again the true antithesis of the statement? Or does Black Misery have more going on here then its title implies? We take a deep dive into its pages to find out.
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Curious about other Langston Hughes books for children? The 1955 publication The Book of Jazz is beautifully remembered by Vox here.
You can read what the Missouri Historical Society has to say about Black Misery here.
Sets the tone for the rest of the book. This is the first two page spread.
There are some elements that do date the book, of course. Any bets on what a “floorwalker” is?
With this word, this is where we determine if this is for kids or not. This is the reason the book itself has probably never been printed specifically for a child audience as well.
Also, can I please note that the printer, for all that they were proud for publishing the final Langston Hughes book of his career, did not take the time and attention to make sure that the printing job on the darker hues of the ink adequately bring out the details in the faces and hands. It’s not consistent either. This next image, as you can see, does a better job of distinguishing between the white children outlined in white and the Black character
This is another instance of where the context is so key. And we find it so interesting that the illustrator, for the first time, has the Black kid looking STRAIGHT at you, the reader. You are either being implicated or appealed to.
There are also some historical moments that taught in context are necessary.
In other news, the true pink mohawk does exist in at least one picture book. Voila! Many thanks to Laura Bultman for sending this on.
Kate Recommends: Fargo, ND.
Betsy Recommends: Stranger Things, Season 4
Filed under: Fuse 8 n' Kate
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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