Sunday, October 10, 2010


WHEN LANGSTON HUGHES CAME TO PROMINENCE as the premier African-American poet in the late 1920s and early 1930s, many of his poems expressed anger over the inequalities that African-Americans faced in society. Much of that anger sought resolution in socialist or communist terms, as was common in the African-American community of that time due to the Communists' emphasis on the equality of all people regardless of race. While Hughes never joined the Communist Party, it was easy to see where his sympathies lay. Consequently, when the anti-communist furor arose in the early 1950s, Hughes found himself a victim of discrimination as publishers removed his books from their lists (including his children's novel Popo and Fifina, which had remained in print for almost twenty years), speaking engagements disappeared, and offers of further work dwindled. His reputation as a left sympathizer culminated in an appearance before Senator Joseph McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where Hughes was exonerated by distancing himself from his early writings and agreeing to cooperate with the Subcommittee in all ways.

During that period, with work drying up, Hughes found himself in serious financial trouble. He turned to writing nonfiction children's books as a way to make some money quickly, starting with The First Book of Negroes for Franklin Watts's First Book series. ("When boys and girls FIRST start asking why?...what?...and how? FIRST BOOKS are the first books to read on any subject.") Other books in the series included The First Book of Bees, The First Book of Space Travel, and The First Book of Eskimos, but The First Book of Negroes was the the first title about a group of people that focused on a race rather than a nationality or geographic region. While the book was written and published before Hughes's appearance before McCarthy, Franklin Watts had already required Hughes to write a statement indicating that he was not a communist, which Watts used in his press materials. The book deliberately makes no mention of W. E. B. Du Bois or Paul Robeson, prominent African-Americans who were strongly associated with communism. And while Hughes openly discusses the injustice of Jim Crowe law in the South, he goes out of his way to say that no problem, including Jim Crowe, could not be resolved by open discourse in a democratic society. Hughes even cited The First Book of Negroes in his testimony before McCarthy as evidence of his belief in America and Democracy. "By taking an interest in our government, and by treating our neighbors as we would like to be treated, each one of us can help make our country the most wonderful country in the world."

THE FIRST BOOK OF NEGROES uses as a frame narrative the story of "Terry Lane whose skin is brown as a walnut and whose hair is black and beautifully crinkly." Terry lives in Harlem, which means that he is able to go about freely, and that he goes to school with white and Puerto Rican children. "If Terry lived in the South he could not go to school with white children, nor could they go to school with him." Hughes goes on to describe Jim Crowe, which "seemed very silly to Terry."

Terry's grandmother came from the South (although she went to Fisk University "so she does not say 'ain't'"), and she tells folktales in the African-American oral tradition and knows many funny rhymes. Once a year Terry goes to visit his relatives in the South where they have to ride in the last train car and the benches and water fountains are marked WHITE and COLORED. Terry's grandmother explains that these inequalities are a holdover from slavery, but she assures him that not all white people wished the Negroes ill. Even in slavery time there were whites who "wanted Negroes to live happily and have the same rights as other Americans."

When Terry's cousin Charlene comes to visit him in New York, they go sightseeing. Charlene has never seen a revolving door, an escalator, or eaten in the same restaurant with white people (all things that seem to amaze her in equal proportions). Of course she knows how to milk a cow, ride a horse, and clip sheep, which Terry doesn't. But "to cap the climax of the wonders of the day, Mrs. Lane took her son and his cousin to luncheon at a most amazing restaurant called the Automat where people put nickels and dimes into slots in the wall, and little glass cases fly open, and there is the food inside...anything you wish!"

The chapters about Terry comprise about a third of the book. The rest of the chapters, whose names should give a clear sense of what they are each about are:
  • A Brave Explorer (Estevanico, who discovered what are "now Arizona and New Mexico" as the advance guard on a Spanish expedition in 1539)
  • Songs of Freedom: The Spirituals
  • Negroes in America Long Ago
  • Terry's Ancestors May Have Come from Many Places
  • The King's of History
  • Negroes Around the World
  • A Negro Saint (Martin de Porres of Peru)
  • American Negroes
  • Famous American Negroes (Frederick Douglas, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Thurgood Marshall)
  • The Story of Harriet Tubman
  • Well Known American Negro Women (Dr. Ruth Temple, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker; Baker only appeared in the first printing because a New York reviewer threatened to pan the book on the belief that Baker was a communist.)
  • Golden Trumpets (on Louis Armstrong and jazz)
  • Old Satch (Satchel Paige)
  • Famous Negro Athletes (Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis)
  • Negro History Week
  • John Henry, Mighty Railroad Builder
  • More Famous American Negroes (Gwendolyn Brooks, Phillis Wheatley, Lena Horne)
The book ends with Terry's father taking him and his white friend David to skate at Rockefeller Plaza. On the way home, Terry declares, "'This is the prettiest city in the most wonderful country in the world,'" to which his father replies, "'I agree, it is good to live in America, Terry. Our country has many problems to solve, but...Here people are free to vote and work out their problems.'" The First Book of Negroes was published in 1952, two years before Brown vs. Board of Education, three years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and twelve years before the Civil Rights Act.

THE SPECTACULAR ILLUSTRATIONS throughout The First Book of Negroes are by Ursula Koering, who illustrated many books in the First Books series, and whose work I will discuss at greater length in a future post. To see all of Koering's art for The First Book of Negroes see my Flickr set here.

Background material for this post came primarily from Volume Two of Arnold Rampersad's definitive biography The Life Of Langston Hughes: 1941-1967 I Dream A World. I also consulted Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nell in which the chapter from The First Book of Negroes, "A Little Boy in a Big City," appears, and the afterward by Robert G. O'Meally to Oxford University Press's 1995 edition of The First Book of Rhythms.

Coming Soon: Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy's Slappy Hooper: The Wonderful Sign Painter, illustrated by Ursula Koering

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.


  1. Great Article on Ursula Koering. She is our first cousin, once removed. I have been collecting her books also.
    Karl & Heidi Koering

  2. Thanks for this. Someone told me that the story Snowy Day,published in,1962 was the first book published about black children.I was sure this was not true