In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African American Children and Childhood

  • Introduction
  • Broad Historical Works and Overviews

Childhood Studies African American Children and Childhood
Robin Bernstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0158


The historical study of African American childhood faces significant challenges. Very young children—babies and toddlers—do not write, so they do not record their experiences in diaries or letters. Even as children get older and learn to write, their writing is often supervised and mediated by adults. Children’s writing cannot simply index historical children’s experiences. African American children’s history delivers additional obstacles, particularly with regard to the antebellum period, during which enslaved people of all ages were legally barred from learning to read and write. Despite these challenges, massive evidence of African American children’s history exists. African American children, from the 18th-century poet Phillis Wheatley to early-21st-century schoolchildren, describe their experiences, and African American adults, in memoirs and interviews, recall their childhoods. Parents and other adults record their thoughts about African American children, based on observation. Schools, political organizations, and other institutions produce rich archives. Prescriptive literature and fiction written by black adults for black children provide information about what African American children have read and also what adults have thought the children should read. All these resources inform the historiography of African American childhood. This article focuses on prepubescent children (approximately aged twelve and under) but includes works that document the lives of adolescents. The books annotated here address important questions: What were the diverse lives of African American children like over the past few centuries? How did gender, class, sexuality, geographical region, and other axes of difference affect African American children? How did African American children experience family, education, play, political activism, violence, and work? What did these individuals think about their experiences, both as children and later, as adults? How did African American children enact agency and resistance? And how did the experiences of African American children change over time?

Broad Historical Works and Overviews

The works in this section consider the history of African American childhood in exceptional breadth and therefore provide ideal starting points for research. Wilma King is, without question, the scholar who has researched African American childhood most extensively, and African American Childhoods (King 2005), stupendous in its range and depth of research, is her field-defining magnum opus. Bolden 2001, like King’s work, gives an expansive overview of African American childhood. This book has numerous illustrations and primary texts that make it suitable for young readers (the intended audience) and also contains rich resources for advanced researchers. Illick 2002 is as concise as the King and Bolden works are magisterial. Mintz 2004 usefully locates African American childhood within a multiracial history of American childhood. And, finally, Bernstein 2011 and Levander 2006 argue for the central role of childhood, including African American childhood, in the broad history of US racial formation.

  • Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

    Bernstein argues that the concept of childhood innocence was crucial to US racial formation in the 19th and 20th centuries. She shows how white children became increasingly associated with innocence, whereas black children were excluded from this quality. Topics include Topsy, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; black dolls; the racist figure of the pickaninny; and the Clark “doll test,” which influenced Brown v. Board of Education.

  • Bolden, Tonya. Tell All the Children Our Story: Memories and Mementos of Being Young and Black in America. New York: Abrams, 2001.

    This book, which simultaneously addresses children, parents, and educators, gives a top-notch overview of the history of African American children and childhood from the colonial era to the early 21st century. Bolden incorporates dozens of photographs and excerpts from primary texts, which make the book exceedingly rich, even as it remains accessible to a range of readers.

  • Illick, Joseph. “African American Childhood.” In American Childhoods. By Joseph Illick, 36–51. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812202328

    A well-researched, concise introduction to African American childhood from the antebellum period to the civil rights era.

  • King, Wilma. African American Childhoods: Historical Perspectives from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    King documents the lives of African American children in the Middle Passage; antebellum slavery; antebellum freedom; post-emancipation freedom; the Hampton Institute, in the beginning of the 20th century; the Great Depression; and the civil rights movement. The volume also includes a chapter on the representation of African American children in popular culture and another on violence and fear in the lives of African American children. An unparalleled resource.

  • Levander, Caroline. Cradle of Liberty: Race, the Child, and National Belonging from Thomas Jefferson to W. E. B. Du Bois. Durham, NH: Duke University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822388357

    Levander argues persuasively that the racialized nation-state coemerged with modern conceptions of childhood. African American children figure throughout the book, especially in chapters on slavery and on W. E. B. Du Bois and Cuba.

  • Mintz, Steven. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2004.

    This book, considered by many the best general history of childhood in the United States, intermittently attends to African American childhood. The subject of black children arises particularly in the context of Mintz’s discussion of slavery, civil rights, and urbanization.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.