Ebony Jr.! and the Black Child’s Literary Sporting Imagination

By Samantha White

“In Washington D.C., Chicago, Detroit, and several other cities former Black hockey players have started youth hockey clinics and teams for youngsters who want to play. If you check around there may be someone with a team right in your area.”

–Ebony Jr.!, March 1982

The intersection of sport history and sport literature helps to establish an understanding of the social and historical influences that craft literary interpretations of various athletics and their participants. However, these intersections can leave out racialized, gendered, and classed populations whose historical and literary contributions are often overlooked. When these identity markers are coupled with the category of childhood, the lives and experiences of children are especially made invisible. While magazines such as Sports Illustrated for Kids work to interpret the contemporary sporting world for young people, I look to Ebony Jr.! a now-defunct African-American children’s magazine, to understand the ways in which black children were given access to literary sporting landscapes.

Early African-American children’s magazines, such as Joy (1887-1922) and The Brownies Book (1920-1921), founded by W.E.B. Dubois, were originally concerned with instilling both a literary imagination and a sense of a strong moral self. However, the introduction of Ebony Jr!, which was published in 1973 and remained in publication until 1985, was focused on providing both a historical and contemporary look at the lives of African-Americans, which often incorporated biography, songs, stories, and games. Distinguishing between the adult magazine Ebony, the founder of the Ebony Jr.! wrote of its younger counterpart:

Ebony Jr. ! is not a younger version of Ebony, but a completely different magazine …. It is intended to motivate reading mastery and strengthen the preparedness of Black children for a highly literate future. Among the contents of the maiden issue of Ebony Jr.! are biographies of famous people, stories, games, science stories and child-centered Black history.[1]

The pedagogical aim of Ebony Jr.! was to establish a medium in which black children could access various parts of their historical and contemporary selves. However, through reading several past issues, Ebony Jr.! also works to establish sport as pedagogy through a critical sports media and history lens. Through referencing historical and contemporary sports figures, as well as incorporating readers’ own sporting experience, Ebony Jr.! opens the sport literary landscape for the black child’s imagination during the 1970s and 1980s. Ebony Jr.! worked to incorporate current biographical sports figures, discuss the historical effects of black people in sport, and create space for young people to engage with sport in playful and reflective ways.

An analysis of several issues of Ebony Jr.! finds an expansive view of sport as a pedagogical tool. Within the magazine, sport functions as a way for young readers to access narratives around historical and contemporary athletic figures. The November 1975 issue of Ebony Jr.! incorporates a biographical feature on Pele, who had recently arrived in the United States to play for the New York Cosmos.[2] By establishing Pele’s position as a black soccer player from Brazil, the feature works to craft a social, political, and geographical understanding of his identity for readers. However, through the declaration that “Pele is as good at soccer as Hank Aaron is at baseball or Kareem Jabbar is on a basketball court”, the article creates space for the cultural figure of Pele to move beyond notions of athletic individualism and works to collectively situate him alongside other black athletic icons.

While Ebony Jr. incorporated the stories of athletes who were well known across the American sporting landscape, the magazine also sought to engage with black historical sports figures. A March 1982 issue featured an article that mapped the history of  of the Negro Baseball League, which was described as the “Invisible Half of American Baseball.” Tracing the exclusion of African-American players from the National Association of Baseball to the formation of the Negro Leagues, the article invites young readers to understand how discrimination was institutionalized in sport, as well as how sporting clubs could form in resistance to oppressive forces. The historical work of Ebony Jr.! aimed to extend the possibilities for children to access and process past events in varied ways.

While Ebony Jr.! included articles on historical and contemporary athletic figures, the magazine also highlighted sports racially marked as white within the sporting landscape, such as ice hockey and roller derby. An article in the March 1982 issue titled “You Too Can Warm Up to Hockey” cites the history of American and Canadian black hockey players, as well as encourages readers to join local leagues. In the same issue, “Roller Derby: Excitement on Wheels” informed readers about the rules of the game, as well as took particular attention to highlight the roles of girls and women who participate. Through offering alternative sporting cultures, Ebony Jr.! uses media literacy to extend the imagination of young readers through literary interpretations of sports in which African-Americans are traditionally underrepresented.[3]

Readers are often encouraged to engage with the content in the magazines, whether by participating in the games in the magazine or writing to the editor. The 1978 Summer issue, which was particularly devoted to sports, featured a section where readers must convert distances from track and field, swimming, and ice skating from the American standard system to the metric system.[4] Readers were also asked  to respond to various questions including one in the column Ebony Jr.! Speaks in the March 1982 issue which asked Did You Ever Participate in an Unusual Sport?

“Yes, I played soccer. My father signed me, and my twin brother, Myron, to play soccer at Number 11 Boys Club in Washington DC. The easiest thing about playing soccer is kicking the ball, but the hardest thing is controlling the ball!”-Darold Whitmore, 13

Ebony Jr.! can give sport history and sport literature scholars insight into how black children interacted with historical and literary interpretations of sport in media. Whether highlighting events that were often erased from the American historical understanding or creating space for black youth to talk about sports, Ebony Jr.! served as a vehicle in which sports media could be grounded politically, socially, and historically. As we analyze children’s literature and media today, Ebony Jr.!. can serve as a way in which we can look for other forms of children’s sport media that may not necessarily reflect normative sport literary histories.

Samantha White is a doctoral student in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey-Camden. She can be reached at Samantha.white@rutgers.edu


Notes:

[1] Henderson, Laretta. “Ebony Jr.!: The Rise and Demise of an African American Children’s Magazine”.The Journal of Negro Education 75.4 (2006): 649–660.

[2] Ebony Jr! November 1975: 1-60. Print.

[3] Ebony Jr.! March 1982: 1-44. Print.

[4] Ebony Jr! June 1978: 1-44. Print.

One thought on “Ebony Jr.! and the Black Child’s Literary Sporting Imagination

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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