On October 10, Chronicle Books will release married collaborators Karida Brown and Charly Palmer’s The New Brownies’ Book, a contemporary take on W.E.B. Du Bois’s influential monthly children’s magazine, The Brownies’ Book.
The New Brownies’ Book is an anthology showcasing the power of community and the foundations of the Black family via drawings, poetry, short stories, and other artistic formats. Its namesake, The Brownies, made its debut in 1920 under the leadership of civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, and was the first children’s magazine to prominently feature and center Black children. Du Bois printed the works of several notable artists of the Harlem Renaissance, and was the first to publish Langston Hughes. The magazine was discontinued in 1921.
For sociologist and Du Bois scholar Karida Brown and illustrator Charly Palmer, Du Bois and his work acted as both a source of connection early in their relationship and the foundation for what was soon to come.
Brown said that the first time the pair had discussed Du Bois was during their courtship, in 2017. “Charly had asked me if I were to do a children’s book, what would it be? And I wrote back that it would actually be a revival of The Brownies’ Book. This marked the exact moment where it became a thing for both of us,” she said. “I explained what it was, and I sent a link from the Library of Congress. At the end of the email, I said, ‘We should do this.’ ”
Three years later, during the height of the pandemic in May 2020, the soon-to-be married couple began revisited The Brownies’ concept with a renewed determination to offer Black children hope. “It wasn’t a response out of trauma or doom, but more so like, now more than ever is the time,” Brown said. “And that’s why the subtitle is A Love Letter to Black Families. It’s to put out that bat signal to Black children: we are thinking about you and you are not forgotten,” Brown said.
Community and Collaboration
In spring 2021, Chronicle acquired The New Brownies’ Book at auction, and the pair worked to bring their concept into reality with the assistance of editor Natalie Butterfield.
“I was so taken with the premise of the original Brownies’ Book periodical and was excited by this contemporary take on it,” Butterfield said. “And I loved that it was such an ambitious project! The book brings together a whole community—40 writers, artists, educators, historians, parents, students, and more—to celebrate Black families.”
To create the Brownies’ Book, Du Bois had reached out to both celebrated and relatively unknown artists. In an effort to keep the essence of Du Bois’s original process, Brown and Palmer began gathering a list of Black creators who could speak to the experiences of Black children.
“It was a thrill for me,” Palmer said. “There are so many people when it comes to mentors and people I’ve looked up to or respected as an artist who said yes. Paul Goodnight is in it. James Denmark. And one of the very last projects that Ntozake Shange ever did, we worked on together [for the book].”
To invite contributors, Brown and Palmer wrote letters to Black-identified creators, discussing the importance of Du Bois’s original Brownies’ Book and their hope to continue his work with a modernized version. As creators signed on for the project and began sending in their submissions, Brown, Palmer, and their two assistants spent weeks sorting through submissions, noting the themes that were arising.
The letters gave no parameters for the subject matter of the projects. “Because of that, we got a lot of wonderful surprises,” Palmer said of the organic process of how the New Brownies’ Book began taking shape.
The anthology also features debut work from creators as young as five years old to college students. Allowing young artists to share their own perspectives and stories was an important facet in portraying their experiences authentically.
“It’s from the mouths of babes,” Palmer said. “It’s this whole idea that young people teach us. I found myself so many times trying to teach young people and they’ll say something, and I’m like, I never saw it that way before. And I want more of that. I want more of their insight. I want more understanding,” he added.
Working on a project inspired by a renowned historical figure, The pair hopes that the New Brownies’ Book can help keep Du Bois’s vision for instilling confidence in Black children alive.
“I would hope that he’s very proud of what we’re doing here,” Palmer said. “We’re saying to him, we still acknowledge you, see you, feel you. And we want to do our best to represent what your mission clearly had been [during] the time you were on this earth.”
With so many more artists to showcase and subjects to touch on, the pair hopes to continue sharing Du Bois’s legacy with another installment. “I really feel like there will be another Brownies’ Book,” Brown said. “There is so much Black genius out there. We could go on for the rest of our lives and beyond, producing and creating these. It is a testament of how deep the reservoir of talent is.”
The New Brownies’ Book: A Love Letter to Black Families by Karida L. Brown and Charly Palmer. Chronicle, $40 Oct. 10 ISBN 978-179-721682-9.