Revisiting W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1920s magazine for Black children today

Kieron Lewis designed the New Brownies’ Book, by Karida L Brown and Charly Palmer, mixing century-old content with new writing and art to inspire a new generation of Black families.

Among the many achievements of civil rights activist and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois is a now-little-known publication, The Brownies’ Book, the first ever magazine aimed at African American children and youth, filled with empowering stories of Black role models, information and advice.

Published for just two years between January 1920 and December 1921, coinciding with the start of the Harlem Renaissance (a blossoming of African American culture, politics and scholarship centred in the New York neighbourhood), the groundbreaking monthly magazine has largely faded from public memory 100 years later. But a new publication from US-based Chronicle books aims to commemorate its mission and revisit it for Black children and families today.

The two authors of The New Brownies’ Book are wife and husband team Dr Karida L. Brown and Charly Palmer, a scholar and artist respectively.

Freelance graphic designer Kieron Lewis explains that he was brought in to design the book off the back of another publication he worked on, Still Breathing: 100 Black Voices on Racism, 100 Ways to Change the Narrative, published by Harper Collins in 2021.

Like the original Brownies’ Book, which looked to inspire and empower young children in a largely racist world, Lewis has designed the new book to “inspire this generation of young Black families”.

Cover of The Brownies’ Book, published by DuBois and Dill, 1920-1921. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Featuring more than 50 new Black writers and artists “you’ve got a mixture of poems, essays and some awesome artwork”, all looking at “sharing Black history and celebrating identity”, Lewis says.

Rather than a magazine, the new publication takes the form of a 208-page hardback. Reflecting the importance of the content within, the briefing clearly set out that “the book’s going to carry weight. It’s going to stand the test of time”, Lewis says.

He continues: “It’s going to be something that my four-month-old, when she is in her 40s, could read to children of her own. It’s one of those books that carries on.”

Lewis decided to work with a clean design using a white background and text in a two-column grid, to best combine with visual content ranging from a collaged image of wartime letters and photographs of college students to new artworks from screen prints to calligraphy. Body copy uses Baskerville, while titles and inset quotes use Brandon Grotesque, in a colour to match the visuals.

Chapter double-page spreads are full colour, with a slight texture and gradient in reference to the “grainy” feel of the scanned-in 1920s material, with type kept small and in the right-hand lower corner.

“My job is to visually articulate what the authors are trying to get across”, he says. “I get given the text and the imagery and I do my best to make it look as digestible and as beautiful as possible.”

While there was “lots of beautiful imagery” to work with, Lewis explains that the chosen cover image of a young black girl in a ballet dress not only echoes an archive Brownies’ Book cover, but also shows “confidence and elegance, which is the takeaway you would get when you read the book”, he says. Lewis chose to flip the image “so she’s looking inwards into the book, in the direction of how your hand would open the book” – which is both inviting and what he describes as an “Easter egg” detail.

Along the spine and left-hand side is a strip of gold foiling, with lightly embossed type featuring the book’s title, subtitle and a tribute to W.E.B Dubois and the original publication, using Recia Serif Display in bold, Brandon Grotesque in bold and Amarante in regular respectively.

Lewis adds that while working remotely in the UK with the authors in the US, as Black scholars and creatives there was a shared determination to create a book that’s “not just a publication, it’s something that is more for the community.”

The New Brownies Book: A love letter to black families is now out in the US and will be published in the UK on 21 December 2023 by Chronicle Books.

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