JAMES BALDWIN’S Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood, originally published in 1976, is dedicated to the author’s niece and nephew, whose lives it chronicles, from their jump-rope and handball antics to their impressions of their neighbors. These two youngsters and their friend, WT, are the focus of the tale, while their parents take a backseat to neighborly adults who invite the children in to share cocoa and stories. The daily pattern of living for TJ, WT, and Blinky (named for her glistening spectacles) includes competing over who is the most mature and trustworthy in the eyes of these adults — who will be given the honor of heading to the corner store for the sophisticated and boozy Miss Lee or the husky-voiced and mysterious Miss Beanpole.
Police chasing people through the neighborhood become hunters who mark and map each place of note — the record store, rooftops, stoops, candy store, playground, and liquor store. In cinematic storytelling and storyboarding, Baldwin and his illustrator, Yoran Cazac, capture the gunshots echoing off walls as the police corner and murder a suspect, the takedown rendered blithely as an interruption of the streets’ usual rhythms: Mr. Man’s record player, the children dancing, the Puerto Rican greengrocers chuckling softly. The other soon-to-be adults in the neighborhood are just waking up from or heading into drug-induced nods.
The scene is disrupted again when a bottle thrown from a rooftop lands like a bomb on TJ’s head. WT tries to care for TJ without noticing that he has walked through glass to get to his friend. Mr. Man and Miss Lee wash WT’s foot with peroxide and iodine, removing the glass piece by piece. Pepsi Cola and his steely little-boy determination not to cry are the only anesthesia available.
These adult neighbors spark much curiosity in the children. They are the guarantors of the children’s taken-for-granted security, pounding the pavement “until the street lights come on.” They make it possible for the children to hear and trust their parents’ words. TJ explains that, even if he “don’t really exactly understand everything about that […] he know it got to be true if his Mama say so.” Their parents’ respectful and careful explanations are given gravitas and dignity because they are not the only adults in the community invested in the children’s well-being. A regular reader of the African-American newspaper Muhammad Speaks, TJ’s father admonishes him, “Don’t believe everything you read. You got to think about what you read,” while his mother urges him to “read everything, son, everything you can get your hands on. It will come in handy one day.”
TJ’s parents dote on him, as does his Uncle Jimmy. His mother makes clear that, “If he want to know the answer to something or if something bother him, don’t care what it is, don’t go creeping around strangers trying to find out, come to her or his Daddy.” She has already earned his trust, but it is the strangers who authorize her fulsome assurances. Little Man, Little Man reminds me of nothing more than the instructions I overheard among adults to “spoil a black child” — an early precursor to the current trend of “Black love in public.” These parents have the emotional capacity to absorb WT (whose mother works late and whose father went away long ago) into their household on an informal and as-needed basis, and they generously pass on racial pride through outings to see Stevie Wonder at the Apollo Theater and to Jones Beach.
Baldwin’s story is about children who have been taught empathy by and for the adults in their lives. Unlike the neighborhood teens, who seek stairwells and other hideaways to consume drugs and escape the lingering unsettled feelings from questions never answered, these wondrous and precocious littlest ones (Baldwin’s character TJ has not even started grade school) have been inoculated with love and radical acceptance. The drugs and police are still present, but so is a loving uncle who has time to talk and neighbors who give each child some sense of their futures and of the missteps to avoid. They provide the children with a notion of whom they might need or want to become. While the older kids have had childhoods marked by loneliness and fear, TJ, WT, and Blinky — dancing in vivid watercolors to Mr. Man’s records — have been handled with care and told that their longings and queries matter. They are worthy of being the protagonists of a whole book.
An award-winning sitcom about black childhood like Everybody Hates Chris (2005–2009) has precursors in the long tradition of black children’s book writers, illustrators, publishers, booksellers, librarians, and storytellers — including Margaret Musgrove, John Steptoe, Verna Aardema, Virginia Hamilton, Kadir Nelson, Jacqueline Woodson, Faith Ringgold, Tom Feelings, Mildred D. Taylor, Sherley Anne Williams, Ann Cameron, Eloise Greenfield, Lessie Jones Little, Gerard Sekoto, Youme Landowne, Pauline D. Manaka, Leo Dillon, Diane Dillon, Toni Morrison, Slade Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Christopher Paul Curtis, Carole Byard, Gloria Jean Pinkney, Jerry Pinkney, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Brian Pinkney, Mary Hoffman, Gail E. Haley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Caroline Binch, and Victoria Burnett. These figures, among so many others, have expressed their commitment to a politically sophisticated and more beautiful world through generations of stories like Little Man, Little Man, composed and drawn by artists who were shaped by collaborations — in France, Jamaica, Ghana, South Africa, India, and everywhere in between.
Tiffany Willoughby-Herard is associate professor of African American Studies at UC Irvine and the author of Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability (University of California Press, 2015).