[(essay date January 2001) In the following essay, Thompson utilizes picture books about Harriet Tubman as the basis for a study about the artistic depictions of African-Americans in literature for children.]
Picture books constitute a flourishing area in "culturally conscious" African-American children's literature. Yet, for all the considerable research that has been devoted to analyzing culturally conscious literature, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the art work in picture books created with black children in mind.1 While "several important studies of visual representations of Black people in children's literature do exist," as Dianne Johnson observes, most of these "are studies of Black images in mainstream literature. Thus, their applicability to African-American children's literature is limited." Studies that focus on white children's responses to black characters usually ask whether the images that readers encounter are racist; studies of culturally conscious imagery, however, are concerned not only with the negative question as to whether the illustrations in books are racist but with the positive question about how such images speak to "the social, psychological, and spiritual needs of African-American children" (11). Ironically, very little of the scholarly work regarding culturally conscious imagery has looked at the pictures in children's books.
According to Rudine Sims's influential definition, "culturally conscious" literature for black children adopts a distinctively black cultural perspective, includes details specific to that culture, and emphasizes the values characteristic of black communities. Whereas "melting pot" books tell generic (meaning white, middle-class) stories in which only the illustrations indicate race or ethnicity, "the label culturally conscious suggests that elements in the text, not just the pictures, make it clear that the book consciously seeks to depict ... major characters [who] are Afro-Americans." Such stories are told from the perspective of the black characters and take place in a black setting such as "an Afro-American community or home." They also include details that identify the characters as black, including "physical descriptions, language, cultural traditions, and so forth" (Sims 49).2 In addition to questions of character and plot, Sims is concerned with cultural specifics, such as the role of the Black Church in the African-American community, particular cultural traditions, characters' use of black dialect, children's relationships with their grandparents and extended family, and the recognition of racism as a fact of life for black children.
For Sims, these cultural details are found primarily in the written text and so are most salient in books for older children. Picture books require less concern for the authenticating details, emphasis, and tone that set culturally conscious black children's literature apart from literature assuming a white perspective. As long as the author of a picture book tells a good story and uses an appropriate setting and ambience, Sims says, he or she can "create a culturally conscious book" (64).3 At best, illustrations might confirm a book's attention to cultural details; at worst, the illustrations might omit such details or render them in stereotypic terms. "Not surprisingly," Sims says, cultural "differences are least apparent and...