James Baldwin’s Beautiful, Complex Vision of Black American Childhood

His 1976 kids’ book, which refuses to sanitize the reality of growing up black in the U.S., feels more urgent than ever now.

The cover of James Baldwin's Little Man, Little Man.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock and Dial Press.

When Tejan Karefa-Smart asked his uncle, James Baldwin, “When are you going to write a book about me?” he may not have expected his Uncle Jimmy to follow through so quickly. Baldwin’s only children’s book, Little Man, Little Man, which was published in 1976, chronicles a day in the life of three black children in 1970s Harlem. Four-year-old TJ, 7-year-old WT, and 8-year-old Blinky skip rope, dance in the streets, and run errands for their neighbors, but they also see the cops shoot a fleeing suspect, neighborhood boys do drugs, and the friendly Miss Lee drink gin out of sadness. “A children’s story for adults, an adult story for children,” Little Man, Little Man’s dust jacket beamed at the time, “that only a great novelist can produce.” And yet, reviewing the book for the New York Times in 1977, Julius Lester panned it as a great novelist’s admirable but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at producing children’s literature, and the book quickly went out of print. Almost four decades later, Little Man, Little Man is being reissued for a contemporary audience that may be more receptive to its ambition not to smooth over the complexity of growing up black in America.

Signaling early on Baldwin’s interest in realism over escapism, the book opens as TJ is almost hit by a car while bouncing his ball against the sidewalk. Later, he scrapes his knee and WT falls on his “ass,” and they get back up as all children do, but they are also exposed to threats other children are not. Reading Baldwin’s story, you find yourself dropped onto the streets, sidewalks, and rooftops of Harlem, which serve as both playground and danger zone for the three young protagonists. At one point, their childhood games are interrupted by a police manhunt. TJ, who seems eerily familiar with how the scene will unfold, perhaps because he has witnessed it before, narrates the chase: “One thing for sure, by the time the cops get this far they know they got their man. He sweating and running and ducking but he done for.”

The book’s illustrations switch first to television screens that imitate a clip on the nightly news and then to a film reel that follows the chase frame by frame, capturing the way mass media shapes how children understand the world around them. While the manhunt is exciting and everyone in the neighborhood is drawn in, it also ends violently. “The guns go pow! and blam! he fall,” TJ declares, “maybe he turn over twice before he hiccup and don’t move no more.” Through Baldwin’s 4-year-old spokesman, readers implicitly learn about the legacy of tension between black communities and the police, a story that remains as current today as it was in Baldwin’s time.

Yet Baldwin’s interest in realism, and therefore social complexity, should not be confused with an insistence on portraying the African American experience in solely negative terms. In fact, I read Little Man, Little Man as an answer to that reality, as a book that is deeply attentive to, as Baldwin himself put it, the “self-esteem of black children.” The book affirmatively embraces blackness in all its different shades, highlighting the children’s ability to perceive skin color as part of a rich gradient, compared with the reductive labels that adults apply. While WT is “the color of tea after you put in the milk,” Blinky is “the color of real black coffee, early in the morning.” Similarly, when TJ sees Mr. Man, the super that lives in their building, his complexion is introduced through a playful comparison to dessert: “He about the color of chocolate cake without no icing on it.” TJ’s mom, whose beauty and coal-black hair is celebrated, is “the color of peaches and brown sugar.” At the same time, those descriptions are not always fixed. TJ notices that Blinky’s skin shifts in color depending on the light she stands in. The book’s striking watercolor illustrations mimic that variability, as different characters’ skin tones seem to change from page to page. Even the typography alternates between regular and boldface font.

The illustrations for Little Man, Little Man were created by the French artist Yoran Cazac, whom Baldwin had met through their mutual friend, the Harlem Renaissance painter Beauford Delaney. Literary scholar Nicholas Boggs, who has done much to revive this curious piece of Baldwin’s legacy, notes how Cazac had actually never been to Harlem. Baldwin tried to remedy that fact by showing him photographs of his own family as well as images from The Black Book, a visual and verbal scrapbook of African American history put together by Toni Morrison in 1974. Cazac’s lively drawings not only convey the emotional energy of the children’s urban world, but also complement Baldwin’s rhapsodic celebration of blackness as a spectrum.

When TJ’s father explains to him, “I want you to be proud of your people,” Cazac matches that feeling of pride: a massive tree, populated with a sea of brown faces in varying hues, shoots up across two pages with yellow rays of sunlight emanating from the background. That call to self-esteem is almost a wishful reversal of Baldwin’s own childhood. In The Devil Finds Work, published the same year as Little Man, Little Man, he describes the beatings he received from his father for being “the ugliest boy he had ever seen.” By contrast, TJ has a loving family. His father takes him to the movies as well as to the beach; his mother answers all of his questions patiently, including those about where babies come from. When TJ goes to bed at night, he is worried at first but confidently reasons that Mama and Daddy would never leave him.

That sense of warmth and intimacy is mirrored within the little coterie the three children form. When WT and TJ encounter several older boys doing heroin, WT immediately assumes the role of big brother, letting TJ know that he will look out for him. Conversely, when WT gets beaten by his brother, TJ runs to soothe him. Siblinghood is a familiar theme for Baldwin. In If Beale Street Could Talk—which is being adapted into a film by Barry Jenkins due out later this year and which also takes place in 1970s Harlem—Tish and Fonny’s romantic relationship begins as a familial kind of friendship: “I got to be his little sister and he got to be my big brother. He didn’t like his sisters and I didn’t have any brothers. And so we got to be, for each other, what the other missed.”

Baldwin insists that we stop pretending children are incapable of understanding the complexity of the world around them. In a famous 1963 speech delivered to educators, he spoke poignantly of how a black child is already aware “that there is some terrible weight on his parents’ shoulders which menaces him. And it isn’t long—in fact it begins when he is in school—before he discovers the shape of his oppression.” For Baldwin, that anxiety must be channeled and cultivated through education into something greater:

America is not the world and if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way—and this child must help her to find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy which this child represents. If this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy.

Little Man, Little Man is less polemical in tone but no less urgent about the need for education that does not simply teach students to “obey the rules of society.” At the beginning of the book, TJ notes his confusion about why, when he looks through Blinky’s glasses, given to her by the “white folks at school,” the world seems blurry. How can she see through them when he cannot? That deceptively simple metaphor is transformed toward the book’s end, as Baldwin emphasizes reading as a means of coming to see the world in a deeper way. TJ notes how his father sometimes reads Muhammad Speaks, the official newspaper of the Nation of Islam under Malcolm X. Yet he also warns his son, “Don’t believe everything you read. You got to think about what you read,” to which his mother adds: “But read everything, son, everything you can get your hands on. It all come in handy one day.”