The First Interracial Children’s Book, 45 Years Later

A chat with the author of the groundbreaking work.

In late 1971, a young poet named Arnold Adoff submitted the manuscript of a children’s book to Harper & Row Publishers in New York. The book, which Adoff titled “black is brown is tan,” was a story in verse, and it told the tale of an American family not unlike Adoff’s own: A “brown-skinned momma”, a “white-skinned daddy” and two small children “who are all colors of the race.” Here is another snippet:

this is the way it is for us

this is the way we are

Adoff, who also worked as an anthologist and music manager, had submitted the manuscript of black is brown is tan to Harper & Row Publishers in New York in 1971. “For months, there was absolute silence from Harper & Row,” Adoff told me some 35 years later. What he didn’t know at the time was that his manuscript had been wending its way through the Harper & Row offices as editors and executives weighed in on the literary merit, commercial potential and political implications of what he’d created: The first picture book for children about an interracial family.

“I didn’t set out to go out and try and fill a gap in publishing,” he explained. “I’m very much intuitive and try to put emotion in front of intellect. I was just fictionalizing our family story, because I realized that many young kids were not seeing themselves in pictures in books.” After a protracted period of silence, Adoff told me, he went to editor Ellen Rudin and asked her what was going on. “Ellen was quiet for a second and then reached down and opened her desk drawer and pulled out a big folder of blue sheets, the sheets that the editors used to write up critiques and she said, ‘We want to publish it. Don’t change anything.’”

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the publication of black is brown is tan, and we don’t think it’s any coincidence that the book was so integral to the childhoods of many of the participants in The Loving Generation. “I remember that my parents bought [the book] for me in the 1970s, that I still have,” says Nicholas Jones, a member of the Loving generation and the director and senior advisor of race and ethnic research and outreach in the United States Census Bureau's Population Division. “It showed that there were many different ways in which you could think about your family and this was a book that multi-racial families often used to show that, hey, here’s a story about us. It’s not just a story about a white family.”

“It’s funny because the parents in [the book] look like my mother and father,” adds Adam Serwer (1982), an editor at the Atlantic. “Or at least, in this printing they did: The mother has an Afro, the dad has a Jewfro and a beard. It sort of looks like, an older brother, like my brother is darker skinned than me, and my younger brother is lighter skinned. It’s about them discussing who they are, and their skin tone, and giving kids a frame of reference for race in the United States.”

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