Julie Blake: Golden Slippers

Golden Slippers – recovering lost, forgotten and neglected poetry written for black children

Anthologists tend to follow anthologists. Their choices of poems constitute an interesting historical dialogue about what poetry matters and whose voices should be heard. Children’s poetry anthologies contribute to this dialogue in curious ways, and I will write that history some day, but at present I’m thinking about how this conservative tendency commonly replicates whiteness and anti-blackness. Addressing this problem matters to my work as a digital anthologist for the Poetry By Heart National Schools Poetry Recitation Competition, and as a researcher exploring ways of addressing racism in digital archives of historic children’s books.

I’m currently reading and thinking about a particular anthology, published in 1941, called Golden Slippers. The title alone has given me a new way of describing poems – of course they’re golden slippers! You put them on and they dance you to wherever. But my interest is expressed by the subtitle: an anthology of Negro poetry for young readers. This is an anthology that goes against the grain of mainstream children’s poetry publishing in 1941. The Golden Slippers anthologist is Arna Bontemps,  a key figure in the 1920s black cultural movement known as the Arna BontempsHarlem Renaissance, and a great friend and collaborator of the much better known poet, Langston Hughes. All the poems are written by black poets and its intended readers are black children. However, in one exchange of letters with the art critic and photographer Carl van Vechten, Langston Hughes remarked that he thought the illustrator was white as “she draws hands and feet as if she were”. The illustrations are sympathetic but the whiteness shows. This is a not uncommon problem in the ‘recovery’ of texts written for black children.

William Stanley Braithwaite

Bontemps collected the work of 28 poets and some traditional oral poems. Some of the poets are well known, others deserve a fresh look having been lost, neglected or forgotten, and others make up the numbers. Some of the poems were written for children, others anthologised as being of interest to them, though van Vechten also questioned why children would want to read Countee Cullen’s poem, ‘Incident: Baltimore’, which shares the permanent scarring of a black child by a racist encounter with a white child. Other poems figure black lives that we are now uncomfortable with because of their stereotypical associations: the banjo player, the washerwoman and a rather queasy Miss Lucy poem. And the poem from which the delightful title is drawn is ghastly: a song, ‘Oh, Dem Golden Slippers’, by James A. Bland, who successfully toured the world as “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man”, performing blackface minstrelsy as a black man for the entertainment of Queen Victoria. But there are real delights too. I am especially drawn to poems of joy and hope, like William Stanley Braithwaite’s ‘I am glad all day long’ and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s ‘I’ve Learned to Sing’, poems that observe the natural world like Langston Hughes’s ‘In Time of Silver Rain’, and comic poems like Mary Effie Lee Newsome’s ‘Bats’. With a free Internet Archive library ticket, you can read them all here: Archive.

For me, some of the most memorable performances in the Poetry By Heart competition have been of historic poems by black poets: a young man nailing W.E.B. du Bois’s poem ‘Song of the Smoke’, a year 10 girl giving her all to Paul Dunbar’s ‘Invitation to Love’ and this year a sixth former taking my breath away with his recitation of Dunbar’s ‘We Wear The Mask’. We’ll be drawing on Golden Slippers and similar anthologies to add more.

Julie Blake

Dr Julie Blake co-directs Poetry By Heart, the poetry recitation competition for schools in England and co-editor of its first print anthology, Poetry By Heart: A Treasury of Poems to Read Aloud and of its digital anthologies for children of different ages available at http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk. She is also a Research Associate in the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University, working on the AHRC funded project led by Zoe Jaques and Eugene Giddens, Decolonising Digital Childhoods: a pilot study towards enhanced participation and diversification in historical children’s literature collections. She tweets as @poetrybyheart, @litdigi and @felthamgirl.