Why the New Reprint of James Baldwin’s Children’s Book Still Matters

By Sameer Rao Aug 24, 2018

James Baldwin confused his critics and supporters alike when he published an illustrated children’s book, "Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood," in 1976. Its tale of four-year-old TJ, a Black child experiencing alternating joy (playing and dancing with friends) and pain (police violence, watching neighborhood boys take narcotics) in Harlem, left many readers wondering if it was actually meant for children.

Now, a new generation of readers can decide for themselves. Members of the late writer’s family joined forces with scholars to produce a reprint of "Little Man, Little Man." This edition, which Duke University Press released today (August 24), also features words from the people who resurrected it: a foreword by Baldwin’s nephew Tejan Karefa-Smart (the inspiration for TJ), an afterword by niece Aisha Karefa-Smart and a joint introduction by scholars Jennifer DeVere Brody and Nicholas T. Boggs.

Aisha Karefa-Smart, an author and educator who first read her uncle’s book as a child, affirms that it is still relevant to children, especially now. "I think we underestimate the ability of children to comprehend and digest multigenerational narratives," she tells Colorlines.

Boggs came across it much later in life, as an undergrad at Yale University. "I was already a huge Baldwin fan, but I’d never heard of it before," he says. "I quickly became convinced it needed to be back out in the world and I’ve been working towards that end, in one way or another, ever since."

Karefa-Smart, who inspired a character named Blinky in the book, met Boggs through a mutual friend over a decade ago. She soon connected him with her mother Gloria, the executor of Baldwin’s estate. Boggs made sure that both of the Karefa-Smart siblings were involved from early on. 

"Given the history of White misunderstanding, misrepresentation and misappropriation of Black cultural forms, I have tried to be particularly open, attentive, rigorous, and most importantly, collaborative with this project," Boggs, who is White, says. "The message of the book around the joys and the challenges of Black childhood is so important, especially today, and it’s crucial for me that it’s part of a broader conversation that the collaborative nature of the edition helps makes possible."

"[He] understood that this story was about Black children—our image, language and experiences," Karefa-Smart added. "Nicholas respected this fact and understood that he could act as a midwife so to speak, in terms of getting the book back into print."