Writing Freedom and Citizenship: American Children's Print Culture and Politics from Slavery to the Cold War

AHA Session 32
Society for the History of Children and Youth 1
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom A (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Renee M. Sentilles, Case Western Reserve University
Corinne Field, University of Virginia

Session Abstract

Popular notions and historical biases about youth agency often cause scholars to dismiss or question the authenticity of children and teenagers’ testimonies and writings in the context of political participation and social activism.  Historically, however, children and youth have often acted independently of adults, making political and agentive decisions that shaped society. By interrogating assumptions about children’s political engagement, this panel addresses the critical use of print sources, especially children’s letters, in understanding intersections among concepts of youth, gender, race, and class; children’s voices and their impact in shaping political ideas, social movements, and cultural debates; and the dynamic relationship between youth and adult authority. Panelists’ presentations engage with scholarly and pedagogical trends that connect youth print culture and critical childhood studies.  In his paper, Ben Davidson illustrates the distinctions between what adults wished children to learn and the expressions of children themselves. Using American Missionary Association records and other materials relating to schools for freedpeople, Davidson shows how black adults, black children, and white activists all saw freedchildren’s reading and writing as especially vital to the elimination of slavery’s after-effects and to the establishment of black citizenship.  Susan Eckelmann addresses how political debates, publicized unrest in the South, Cold War conflicts, and diplomatic relations politicized American teenagers’ daily life beyond the electorate.  Linking children’s print culture and presidential leadership, her paper asserts that these youthful authors used their correspondence to voice their concerns, practice citizenship as they understood it, and push for presidential action, while the letter writers’ penmanship, vocabulary, and personal pleas exhibited the business of every day childhood.  In her paper on children’s writings and letters to public figures from the mid-1940s to the early 1990s, Cara Elliott presents strategies American children used to shape racial conflicts that occurred in the United States during this era. The letters children wrote about racial issues were political tools of expression, acting as the medium through which children defined their own understandings of citizenship and political action. Children’s letters and other writings also contributed to the development of twentieth-century American racial ideologies. Together these papers reconsider the use and interpretation of evidence generated by children and teenagers to advance a critical understanding of childhood studies and of the historical intersections among youth, print culture, and political change.
See more of: AHA Sessions