The resurgence of James Baldwin’s work and fame doesn’t seem to know a ceiling, which is how it should be for prophetic voices. The reissue of Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood, the prolific writer’s sole children’s book, after 40 years of being out of print offers audiences who love his adult work an opportunity to experience a different Baldwin: one who experimented with voice while creating a book that was evidence of his intimate reverence for black children.
Little Man, Little Man exists because Baldwin’s nephew Tejan Karefa-Smart (known as TJ), asked him to write it—and that was all that was required. It might seem like a tiny request, but Baldwin’s niece Aisha Karefa-Smart notes that it was actually “an incredible act of love, that kind of reverence for a black boy’s life that he said, ‘Yes, you’re important enough for me to write a book about you’ when he was living all over the world, busy, speaking truth to power,” she says. “It’s a testament to the intrinsic value that we had to him, that children had to him. Being the person he was, he was committed to the young people in the family and the self-esteem of black children. He was committed to preserving the self-esteem of children because he witnessed what it was like to feel horrible about his circumstances. This book was like him reaching back to the generation after him to let them know how important they are.”
The result is a mature yet whimsical book with TJ at the center illustrated by the French artist Yoran Cazac, featuring savvy playing in New York’s streets in the 1970s. It was received with reticence when it was originally published by Dial Press in 1976, centered as it was in telling a narrative about how TJ experienced the city and its music in a carefree way. It quickly went out of print.
But now, as Baldwin has a new moment—especially on social media, which swells with video clips and quotes from him daily—Karefa-Smart anticipates Little Man, Little Man will have a very different second life.
“I think it was ahead of its time,” she says. “Like a lot of what my uncle wrote, people had to catch up. Generations had to be born who had to be ready for his style and his unique way of seeing the world. His accolades and popularity were high—it wasn’t matched by now, because of social media and because of terms like intersectionality with the language to talk about what it’s like to be many things at once.”
When Aisha and her brother were growing up, they had the benefit of having the people in their lives read to them from contemporary African literature; from Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters and Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day. Now, black celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o are writing children’s books on topics ranging from colorism to black hair. There’s a broader range of possibilities for black children now. “When [Baldwin] stepped into that arena,” she adds, “it didn’t have the same kind of weight that it will have now. Now a whole new generation is able to appreciate his work in a new way, and I think it will be the same for the children’s book. The children are ready for that and are dealing with mature themes, dealing with sexuality, and identity and gender—I think Little Man, Little Man will be much more well-received now because people are ready for it.”
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and educator in New York City. The photo above of James Baldwin with his nephew TJ Karefa was taken in 1978 and comes courtesy of the Baldwin family.