Background on why I picked up this book: apparently, it was one of the three selections available to my 10 year-old for an autobiography reading assignment he had for school. I’m not sure how he wound up with this book instead of the other two, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he had a really tough time answering the questions about it, typing in bizarre tautologies instead of thoughtful responses when he could even come up with anything, and I was at my wit’s end as to why… until I despairingly picked up Childtimes to skim through for answers/page numbers and found that a large portion of the assignment questions were completely irrelevant to the book!
My best friend, on hearing me rant about generic questions that don’t seem to understand the material they’re examining, wryly noted that it seemed pretty early for class material to be teaching my kid how to bullshit his way through assignments: save that for college, no? But after I’d gotten poor Jms sorted with his homework — we left the tautologies as is: if teacher is going to ask irrelevant questions, teacher should expect ludicrous answers — I figured that since I’d already scanned through the book twice, I might as well sit down and read it through properly, my own crushing reading schedule be damned. And I’m so glad I got to read this, because it is a truly wonderful look at the lives of three generations of Black women growing up in late 19th to mid 20th century America.
Beautifully illustrated with black and white line drawings by Jerry Pinkney, as well as with old photographs of several of the people from its pages, the book describes scenes from the childhoods, or “childtimes” as they call it, of Pattie Ridley Jones, her eldest daughter Lessie Jones Little, and her granddaughter Eloise Greenfield. Ms Jones’ section, while told in the first person, was lovingly put together by Ms Little and Ms Greenfield from manuscripts, their own memories of her stories as well as interviews with other people who knew her. Born in 1884, Ms Jones’ narrative describes growing up in North Carolina and all the good and bad of her childhood, including tales of her own mother. Ms Little’s section continues the story of their family from her childhood perspective, covering World War I and the Spanish influenza pandemic as well as the ups and downs of her parents’ marriage. Ms Greenfield’s third of the book describes her family’s move to Washington DC while she was still a kid, and how hunger and World War II affected them and their neighbors.
Overall, it’s a moving yet understated portrait of three generations of strong Black women who loved their communities and loved to read. It’s telling how the incidents of racism the women went through are described in such a way as to make clear the harm that was perpetrated on them and their communities, without descending into the pain porn that’s becoming grotesquely prevalent in recent media on the topic. While this lack of luridness may be explained away as choosing to present things in a way suitable for young readers, somehow thus blunting their harshness, I’d argue that only a real asshole could come away from reading this book without feeling affected and outraged by the injustices, no matter the reader’s age.
On a more personal note, I loved reading about DC back in the day, especially since I adored living in Rosedale and Kingman Park as a young woman, bride and new mother. It was quite exciting to show Jms on Google Maps where we’d lived in relation to some of the events in the book, even if I had to send in a correction to the website afterwards as to where Langston Terrace actually is. I still miss living in my small Kingman Park townhome, two blocks from the library and a short walk or even shorter ride to a multitude of dining and entertainment experiences, but we were outgrowing our house and couldn’t afford the space we needed in the area.
Going back to Childtimes, I highly recommend this book for readers of all ages looking for an accessible, relatively quick read that effectively communicates what life was like for young African-American women and their families from the 1880s to the 1950s. Yes, there is racism and poverty and hunger, but there is also joy and community and love. Childtimes is a book about real people, written honestly by the people themselves. For novice readers, it’s also a delightful introduction to shifting narrative structures without excess complexity.
Childtimes by Eloise Greenfield and Lessie Jones Little was published January 1 1979 by Crowell and is available from all good booksellers, including
Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.