Tag Archives: Hazel

The first African-American heroine in children’s literature

For Black History Month this year, I decided—knowing how few novels by or about African-Americans existed a hundred years ago—to look into whether there were any stories about black children.*

There was one, it turns out: Hazel, by Mary White Ovington, a white social activist. It was published in 1913 by the Crisis Publishing Company, which was associated with The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. (The first children’s book by an African-American writer was Mrs. A.E. Johnson’s 1890 Clarence and Corinne: Or God’s Way, but the characters aren’t identified as African-American.)

Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910

Ovington, who was born in 1865, was a socialist and a co-founder of the NAACP. Over her long career, she started a settlement in Brooklyn, studied employment and housing issues among African-Americans in Manhattan, campaigned for women’s suffrage, held several senior positions in the NAACP, and wrote numerous books on race and gender. Reading about Ovington convinced me that she was an admirable person, but it didn’t give me high hopes for Hazel. I figured the story would be worthy and right-minded but preachy and boring. The sole Goodreads review (2 stars) reinforced this preconception.

Advertisement in The Crisis, November 1913

I was pleasantly surprised. Hazel has plenty to say about racism, but it’s also full of adventure and friendship and adversity and humor and all the things a children’s book should have.

Hazel isn’t your typical early-20th-century African-American girl. For the first decade of her life she lives in middle-class comfort in Jamaica Plain in Boston, the beloved only child of a lawyer and his wife. She goes to the Congregational church and attends an integrated school, where, Ovington tells us, she and the other black students are “staunch little New Englanders, with the same speech, the same dress, the same ambitions as their white classmates.” And check out Hazel’s picture in the ad, which also appears as the frontispiece in the book—she looks like a black person drawn by a white person who has never seen a black person.**

Then Hazel’s father dies and she and her mother move to an apartment in a poor neighborhood in the South End, where her mother works a hairdresser and laundress. When the story starts, Hazel has been experiencing health problems and her mother decides to send her to spend the winter with her husband’s mother in Alabama.***

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

The trip is an eye-opener for Hazel, who has never experienced racism. To travel in the same train car as her white escort, eleven-year-old Hazel has to pretend to be her maid. Once she arrives in Alabama, a pair of white sisters her grandmother, Ellen, does laundry for don’t know what to make of her, with her well-spoken ways and fancy wardrobe. They pepper her with questions:

“Is your pa living?”
“What does your ma do?”
“How is she buying you such clothes?”
“How long have you been to school?”
“Are you reckoning to stay here this winter?”
“Are you working for Aunt Ellen?”

After they leave, Hazel complains that, if her mother went to visit these ladies, she “wouldn’t ask about every teenty thing they did.”**** Her grandmother tells her not to worry about it:

“These people here are just naturally curious, sugar. Don’t you get put out at ’em…Nothing much happens except the hoeing of the corn and the picking of the cotton; and when a little girl with soft eyes and a pretty dress and sweet ways comes among us, we’s just naturally curious. We wants to see her and learn all about it.”

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

Later in the story, Hazel gets lost and, with night falling, stops at a house to ask directions. The occupants turn out to be the same two ladies. “Sister,” one of them calls to the other, “here’s Aunt Ellen’s child come to ask her way, and if the little [n-word] didn’t knock at the front door!” But they invite Hazel in, marveling at her elegant little blue coat with a red lining. They ask her how much it cost, and Hazel says it was a gift from a friend of her father’s. The women tut with sympathy over her father’s death, saying that he was a “right nice boy.” When Hazel mentions that he was a lawyer, they say, “A [n-word] lawyer! That beats all.” They feed her coffee and biscuits and Hazel talks about life back in Boston. She’s planning to go to college, she says.

“What will you do with all your learning?” Miss Jane asked.

“I’ll teach.”

“[N-words]?”

Hazel did not want to answer, but sitting very erect, with a precision that would have done any teacher credit, she replied: “Everybody goes to school in Boston, every single child. And the teachers don’t ask whether they are black or white, or rich or poor. There are Turks, and Arabians, and (switching to the map of Europe as safer ground) Hungarians and Bulgarians, and Norwegians, and Swedians, (doubtfully) and Greeks, and Spaniards, and Romans, and Germans and Irish.”*****

“You don’t say!” exclaimed Miss Laura, “all those heathen!”  

Then Hazel, responding to another in the volley of questions, replies, “No, Miss Fairmount,” and is told,

“My name is Jane. You should call me Miss Jane.”

“Not Miss Fairmount?”

“Certainly not. It is impertinent in a [n-word].”

Hazel, who has had enough by now, says she has to go, and the ladies stroke her coat, tell her to come again, and escort her out the back door, where their servant is waiting to walk her home.

I had expected that Hazel would encounter 1910s Alabama racism at its most vile. After all, she had been warned by her friend Charity in Boston that “there’s two kinds of white folks down there: those that hates you and those that calls you ‘a cute little [n-word].'” This is as bad as the white people around her get, though. Her experiences with her black neighbors are more traumatic. The little Boston Congregationalist freaks out the first time she attends the local church, where the preacher, after a cursory description of heaven, depicts his parishioners

standing in the lake of fire and brimstone, burning, burning, not for a day but forever and ever. The flames seemed to leap up as the minister shouted: “And the devil will reach out for you, ye generation of vipers, he’ll reach for you across the flames, and he’ll catch you and draw you into the burning lake.”

“Lord save us!” “Please have mercy, Jesus,” came from the moaning crowd.

Hazel was aghast.

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

With her grandmother caught up in the service, Hazel tells her friend Scipio that she wants to leave. He takes her hand and leads her out, as the preacher shouts, “The heathen are burning, and every day the devil pours on fresh oil and the flames mount higher and higher to the sky.” (WARNING: THE UPCOMING EXCERPT INCLUDES DISTURBING MATERIAL.)

“Scip,” said Hazel with a quick breath, “do you believe in hell?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Scipio.

“You don’t believe what he is saying? You don’t believe God will put us in fire to burn forever and ever?”

“I seen a lynching once,” Scipio replied. “It were just like that, they poured on oil.”

“Oh, don’t,” Hazel gasped. She seized his arm with her two hands; “don’t” she cried.

After a moment she whispered, “But it didn’t last forever. He died?”

“Yes, ma’am. He died.”

“And wicked men burned him, and it was only for a few minutes. God wouldn’t make him burn forever and ever.”******

Scipio is the antithesis of Hazel, the illiterate son of a drunken sharecropper. Hazel, who doesn’t go to school in Alabama, takes him up as her project, meeting him in a pine grove every evening for reading lessons. Often, he is often battered and bleeding from his father’s beatings. One day, Hazel sees him beating his younger brother and breaks off their friendship, but eventually all is forgiven.

In the end, Hazel returns to Boston, promising to return. As she and her mother head up to spend the summer in Maine, where there is money to be made shampooing white people’s hair, she receives a letter from Scip:

Dear Sister:
Aunt Ellen has took me in.
I am going to help her pick cotton when it ripes.
The cat is playing by the fire.
Scipio Lee

Handbill for “Zeke,” 1931

In 1931, Mary White Ovington published another children’s book, called Zeke. It’s about a boy—Scipio’s younger brother, apparently, but not the one he beat up—who, with the encouragement of the adult Hazel, becomes the first African-American in his area to attend college. I guess I’ll have to wait another twelve years to see what happens.

Hazel might be considered more historically significant today if its author had been black, or if its heroine had been less privileged. Still, it deserves to be better known. I’m glad I read it. Much more than that, I’m glad it was there for African-American children to read in 1913.

*There’s the notorious Story of Little Black Sambo, of course, but that book’s history turns out to be complicated. Author Helen Bannerman, a Scottish woman who lived in India, intended Sambo to be Indian (hence the tigers). Here’s how he appeared on the cover of the original 1899 edition, which Bannerman illustrated.

Cover illustration, “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” Helen Bannerman, 1899

It was only much later, notably in a 1927 American edition with illustrations by Frank Dobias (also used decades later in a wildly popular Japanese edition), that Sambo was depicted as African. The illustrations remain under copyright, but if you’re curious you can see some of them here.

**Which, to be fair, wasn’t the case at all. Illustrator Harry Roseland was a well-known artist who specialized in paintings of poor African-Americans.

***Going on a long, arduous journey being the universal solution to serious health problems in the 1910s.

****“Teenty” is my new favorite 1910s word. Here it is in a poem called “When Baby Slept,” by Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley, best known for “Little Orphant Annie.” (Date unknown, but he died in 1916.)

WHEN weenty-teenty Baby slept,
With voices stilled we lightly stepped
And knelt beside the rug where she
Had fallen in sleep all wearily;
And when a dimpled hand would stir,
We breathlessly bent over her
And kissed the truant strands that swept
The tranc’d lids and the dreams that kept
When Baby blinked her Court and slept.

 *****This might be a teenty bit idealized. I went to college in the Boston area in the 1980s, and the educational system there wasn’t exactly a post-racial utopia.

******UPDATE 3/2/2019: Reading the post over, I realize that I didn’t address this aspect of the book sufficiently. While historically accurate, the lynching reference is too intense for a child of Hazel’s age, and for that reason I wouldn’t recommend Hazel (or this part of the book, at least) for a middle-school child of today. I’ve added the warning in the text of the blog to alert readers to the sensitive content.