Chapel Hill News

New exhibit to showcase groundbreaking children’s book

A photo from the 1939 book, “Tobe”
A photo from the 1939 book, “Tobe” courtesy of Wilson Library

Once upon a time blacks in children’s books were portrayed as silly, lazy and sometimes violent.

Their faces were drawn dark, and their lips were big and red.

“Tobe,” one of the first children’s books to show realistic portrayals of blacks in the pre-civil rights era, helped reshape that image of the African-American community.

The book shows real photos of black families living a typical, quiet, middle class-like life. One of the photos in the book shows a father reading and listening to the radio, while the mother sitting in front of him is sewing.

To mark the fiction book’s 75th anniversary, UNC’s Wilson library will host an exhibit featuring the book in their N.C. Collections gallery. The exhibit, “Where is Tobe? Unfolding Stories of Childhood, Race, and Rural life in North Carolina,” combines text and image panels from the book, and photographs of the community. It also displays two original copies of the book and letters between the photographer and press on the making of the book.

Linda Jacobson, keeper of the N.C. Collection Gallery in the Wilson Library and installer of the exhibit, said during the 1930s there were very few accurate depictions of blacks in books.

“(The other books) were sometimes not flattering,” Jacobson said. “We would look at it today and say the books were racist depictions or stereotypical.”

Benjamin Filene, a public history professor at UNC Greensboro, who has interviewed the families represented in the book, will host a panel discussion with the families.

Stella Sharpe, the author, wrote the book after she was asked by a 6-year-old black neighbor why none of his books showed any black boys like him. The fiction book follows the life of Clay McCauley Jr., a 6-year old boy growing up on a farm in rural Orange County.

The photos were taken a few years later of the family of a different community in Goshen, N.C. .

“The point of the book was to consciously try to offer a different kind of depiction of African-Americans from the kind of stereotyped characters that appeared in children’s books before,” Filene said. The book also helped raise awareness for the inequalities in society.

He said the book received positive reviews and sold 21,000 copies from when it was published by the UNC Press in 1939 to 1945, Filene said.

Filene said although the book helped, it did not solve the problem of racial representation. Lack of black representation in children’s books continues today.

The New York Times reported in March that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin .

“I think kids do know who is in their books,” Filene said. “If you never see yourself in books, I think that does begin to take its toll in where you see yourself in society and where you see yourself going.”

“It limits your sense of where you might go.”

Filene said he expects to expand the project in collaboration with the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte.

The federal Institute of Museum and Library Services in September awarded a planning grant to the Levine Museum of the New South to create an expanded exhibit based on “Tobe.” The $93,000 grant will begin a one-year planning process that will enable a team to develop the concept plan and schematic design of the exhibit, illustrating the stories of the individuals pictured in the book, with a focus on race and social change.

The public can view the exhibit in Wilson Library at 5 p.m. The panel discussion will begin at 5:30. It is free to the public.