The Snowy Day

February 20, 2012

African American History, in my opinion, should be celebrated.  No doubt.  There should be a time where this rich history is highlighted.  February?  Fine with me, as long as it is done.  Too many unsung heroes.  Let’s focus on them. Lets clarify the contributions so there are no mistakes about them.

However, the reality is that African American history cannot be divorced from American history.  Just the idea sounds a little insane.  In America there has been a sharing of ideas and experiences among and between groups whether some groups liked it or not.

This brings me to The Snowy Day.   Since my childhood, I assumed Ezra Jack Keats was African American.  After all, he wrote children’s books with Black children as the prinicpal protagonists. Who else  but a Black person would write Whistle for Willie?

Okay, we do suffer in the shadow of the ugly reinterpretations of Little Black Sambo (it wasn’t originally as offensive as it became over time). However, Keats’ books, by contrast were so inoffensive.  In fact, they were beautiful, simple stories about a child’s experience.

I recently took in an exhibit of Keats’ work at The Jewish Museum in New York City.  I went because my son now has an appreciation for Keats’ books, but also for myself because I thought the books were so beautifully drawn and I wanted to see more of this man’s art.

Up until a few days before the visit to the museum I was still thinking that Keats was Black.  However. a visit to the museum’s website to get a little more background history clarified all of this.  Keats was in fact a Jewish man who was born in 1916 and lived in East New York, Brooklyn.

Many of his books were autobiographical in the sense that they were reminiscent of experiences he had as a child, even if the character himself was not Jewish.

I thought this was quite profound;  that Keats was able to focus enough on the universal experiences of children such that race was not an issue.  The Snowy Day was written in 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement in this country.  It was brave and forward thinking.  The book was a hit among all groups, but Keats did get slack through the few decades following for his main character not confronting his Blackness in the story.

Keats was so much smarter than this.  Children are children.  They don’t go around confronting their ethnicity all the time.  They just want to be children. The experience of children in their curiostiy and exploration of their world is universal.  I later discovered that his book was endorsed by people like Langston Hughes.  Wow.

So, The Snowy Day is well-known for being the first full-color children’s book to feature an African American protagonist. So, the book was not written by an African American, and it wasn’t even necessarily written for African Americans. Nonetheless, it’s publishing was an powerful moment in American history.

Now when I read the book to my son, I think of the power behind it, and I have more hope for humankind.

Some people can live outside their societal boxes and celebrate the fact that at the end of the day we are all just people.


2 Responses to “The Snowy Day”

  1. Rachel A. said

    I love your post. As a child I loved Ezra Jack Keats’ stories. I happen to be Jewish and white. To me, they were never stories about a boy who was black. They were stories about Peter (the protagonist’s name). I really identified with Peter in his reluctant role as a big brother since I am an older sister (Peter’s Chair).
    When I became a mom, I bought several of Ezra Jack Keats’ stories to read to my daughter who also loves to hear stories about Peter. When I went to see the Ezra Jack Keats show at The Jewish Museum, is when I learned the author wasn’t African American. It kept surprising me to see a picture of his face at the exhibit–for a moment I would think that it wasn’t him. It saddened me to see that it wasn’t until the early 1960’s that a children’s book with an African American protagonist was published on such a large scale. Of course we know about the hideous racism that was still going on at the time.
    I enjoyed seeing his illustrations in person as well, they really are beautiful art.

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