Published on October 27th, 2023 | by DW McKinney0
‘The New Brownies’ Book’ is a Joyous Celebration of Black Life￼
For decades my grandmother left a set of magazines and books on her living room coffee table. When I was a kid, copies of Ebony and Essence kept me up to date on the latest fashions and celebrity profiles. The thicker books, the ones that took several visits to read, were illustrated readers on important Black women throughout history and historical overviews of quilt making in Alabama, where we had familial roots. I loved reading these publications because they taught me about myself and my ancestry from dynamic angles. Now, as a mother, I’ve begun my own collection of coffee table books to share with my children. They include ones on artist Kehinde Wiley, the history of Black American cookbooks, and photo archives of Black women and their hair. The newest addition is The New Brownies’ Book: A Love Letter to Black Families (Chronicle Books, 2023) by Karida L. Brown and Charly Palmer.
The New Brownies’ Book is a veritable treasure trove of Black history and tradition. Brown, a sociologist, and Palmer, her husband and a fine artist, assemble a collection of evocative illustrations and beautiful prose that pays homage to its literary forbear while never forgetting where it (and the Black community) came from.
In 1920, W.E.B. Du Bois, in collaboration with educator and writer Jessie Redmon Fauset and sociologist Augustus Granville Dill, strove to create a literary source that was “designed for all children but especially for ours.” They founded The Brownies’ Book: A Monthly Magazine for Children of the Sun, a periodical that featured plays, essays, and poetry to embolden and inform Black children about social issues of the time. Despite the pride it engendered as the first publication for Black children, Brownies’ ceased publication after two years, but it left a lasting impression in the Black American consciousness.
As much as Brown and Palmer seek to amplify the legacy of Du Bois and the original Brownies’ book, “we produced The New Brownies’ Book as a labor of love,” they declare in their opening letter. This undeniable love resounds throughout the collection and imbues it with parental care. If “the talk,” a dreaded conversation about navigating life as a Black person, is one way to guide children then the latest Brownies’ is another way that also provides a heartening sense of direction as well as wonderment.
Early stories like “Nobody Loves the Debbil” and “The Lactose Intolerant Club For Picky Eaters” portray childlike innocence in approaching life’s ups and downs, showing young readers how obstacles don’t have to deter them. There’s a softness to many of the included works. The tone is comparable to parents reaching down to the level of a child and connecting with them in an instructive but personal manner. The book spans past and present with essays that address the early origins of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (“A House for a King”) and other prominent cultural figures who have slipped to the edges of the spotlight due to time. Each chapter highlights work curated around a specific theme. Some focus on family issues, selfhood, and finding community. The “School Daze” chapter honors historically Black colleges and universities, while paying specific attention to Fisk University. “She’roes” is a striking catalogue of notable Black women in fields such as sports, education, activism, music, and literature.
The art is a gold vein running through The New Brownies’ Book. Palmer’s acrylic paintings saturate the pages with a vibrancy that brings Black experiences to life and uplifts Black ancestry. Mixed media collages, photography, and paintings portray Black children donning landscapes, flowers, and nascent cities in their hair; engulfing the foreground, appearing larger than life; embraced in the arms of their relatives and gathered with others. Vintage photographs and pages from the original Brownies’ add a unique intimacy that honors instead of archives the past.
Just as the original highlighted works from emerging and established creators, The New Brownies’ Book does the same. The writings of college students and young writers appear alongside poet laureates and award-winning artists. The original periodical published the first publications of Langston Hughes and here, Brown and Palmer reprint those early works in the chapter “Young Langston.”
However, The New Brownies’ Book is more than a historical reader. A common refrain on social media among the Black community is, “We’re losing recipes!” This statement is at times a rebuke, a mournful declaration, or a biting critique. In all cases, the intent is to convey disappointment with Black traditions and knowledge being lost by newer generations. If that’s the case, then Brown and Palmer’s iteration of Brownies’ is the figurative cookbook on a grandmother’s countertop holding all the best recipes for families to pass down for generations to come. A list of games (“Playtime: Six Games”) revives old schoolyard pastimes lost to the prevalence of tablets and smartphones, and a short list of folk sayings is a nod to oratory traditions. The featured work also highlights unvarnished truths and perspectives—presented with an inherent sincerity—about selfhood, fatherhood (“The Island of Lost Fathers”), and being Black in the wake of George Floyd’s murder (“I Don’t Wanna Be Black”).
So many Black children grow up with Black leaders and heroes of the past referenced as examples they should look to. While The New Brownies’ Book supplies such a reference list, it also disrupts it by demonstrating that there are many ways of being and living; there are many ways of leading and effecting change. As such, it speaks with a gentle, implicit urgency to “Do you, be you, love you.” Sometimes the arrangement brims with an earnestness that originates from a bygone era, but it’s one that joyously responds to the lament of lost recipes and works in consort with the stories and advice that have been passed down from grandparent to parent to child.
feature image is detail from “Her World” by Charly Palmer / The New Brownies’ Book: A Love Letter to Black Families by Karida L. Brown and Charly Palmer, published by Chronicle Books 2023.