The publication of “The Snowy Day” in 1962 was a seminal moment in publishing history. Never before had a mainstream publisher put out a children’s book that focused on an African-American character, and never before had anyone thought that such a book could win a Caldecott Medal, one of the industry’s most prestigious prizes.
When the book’s author and illustrator, Ezra Jack Keats, accepted the award, he said his decision to feature a black child was simple: “My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along,” he said. But there was something else about the book that received little public attention at the time, and that some found troubling: its author was white (and he happened to be Jewish).
“Many, many people thought I was black,” Keats said many years ago. “As a matter of fact, many were disappointed that I wasn’t.”
Keats, who died in 1983, is now the subject of a major retrospective at The Jewish Museum, which not only reassesses “The Snowy Day’s complicated place in America’s racial history,” but also argues that Keats’ Jewish identity had a significant influence on his work. This, in spite of the fact that his personal life was something he rarely addressed publicly, and only then at the end of his life, and vaguely.
“He really describes a world that was seeped in Jewish culture,” said Claudia Nahson, the curator of the new exhibit, referring to Keats’ unpublished memoir. As is explained in the exhibit and the show’s catalogue, Keats grew up in the poor, racially diverse Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York, though the area had significant Jewish community.
Both his parents emigrated from Eastern Europe, and his father, who worked in a diner, would often read aloud the Forward’s Yiddish-language “Bintel Brief” column. When the young Keats, born Jacob Ezra Katz in 1916, would doodle on the kitchen table, his mother would cover up the marks with a Sabbath tablecloth.
But it is telling that the exhibit’s section that addresses his Jewish background focuses on the last children’s books he ever made. One of the few published works that even obliquely suggests his Jewish upbringing is his “Louie” series, from the 1970s. The exhibit suggests that Louie, who is white, is a doppelganger for Keats, and that Keats used Louie as a foil to address his own childhood feelings of isolation and invisibility.
“He started to tackle more directly his Jewish identity only late in life,” Nahson said. That was in large part because of his parents’ loveless relationship and the emotional distance his parents kept from him, she argues. But he found an adult ballast in an Orthodox Jew from his neighborhood, a man everyone called Tzadik, Hebrew for a righteous man.
“Ezra described [Tzadik] as being a larger-than-life figure,” Nahson said, and the one who taught Keats that “You have to have a life full of purpose, and be held accountable for it.”
The exhibit posits that one character Keats created, Barney, a red-bearded junk collector who befriends Louie, was a fictional stand-in for Tzadik. “He was both an inspiration [for Barney] and a bit of a father figure to [Keats] in real life,” said Nahson.
But not everyone agrees that Keats’ Jewish identity is significant to his work. Brian Alderson, a biographer of Keats and a former adjunct professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, said that Keats drew characters that were black and Latino not because he was a social radical, nor because he was attracted to marginalized people like he himself was. He drew them because they were simply part of the world that he knew.
When asked if he felt Keats’ Jewishness played a role in his artwork, Alderson said: “There’s no evidence of that at all.” He did not deny that Keats always identified as Jewish, and even befriended many people because of that shared identity, but his work fundamentally stems from him seeing himself as an artist. “That picture book comes to him as a work of art,” Alderson said, “not as making some kind of radical statement.”
The question of how radical Keats’ children’s books, “The Snowy Day” in particular, were is also raised in the exhibit. When Keats’ published “The Snowy Day” — the first children’s book he ever wrote, when he was 46 — many within the black community embraced it. African-American librarians, parents, and children sent Keats adoring letters, as did prominent African-American writers, like Langston Hughes.
But within a few years, a small but significant cadre of critics threw cold water on that early praise. Some argued that Keats’ black character, Peter, did little to instill racial pride in black children, and, even worse, cowed them into accepting an inferior status in a cold white world.
They highlighted the fact that the story focused exclusively on Peter’s first experience with snow — a symbol for whiteness and a harsh, bitter world — and made no reference at all to Peter’s race, other than simply coloring him in as brown.
But as Maurice Berger, a scholar at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a contributor to the exhibit’s catalogue, said in an interview, the historical context is crucial. Keats sent his book to a major children’s book publisher, Viking, at a time when no major house had ever put out a book focusing on black children.
“What Keats was addressing at the time was the virtual absence of black characters in mainstream children’s literature,” Berger said.
To be sure, black children’s books had been published by small African-American publishers and even major children’s books authors had included black characters — but mainly as stereotypes: as mammies, dupes and derisively drawn caricatures. (Some of those earlier books are on view in the exhibit.)
When the criticism of “The Snowy Day” came out, Berger said, civil rights activists had become more confrontational. They wrote from a perspective in which race wasn’t something to be overcome by universal appeals to man’s shared humanity — the implicit message of most of Keats’ books — but something that was to be embraced.
Berger admits that the criticism is legitimate, even if he disagrees with it. But he makes another point about Keats’ importance: “I think that one of the myths that Keats shattered was that the white liberal elite that dominated publishing was in no way more progressive than the rest of society,” he said. “The bottom line was money, and if a book wouldn’t sell, they wouldn’t publish it.”
When Viking took a risk and agreed to publish “The Snowy Day,” that changed — but only so much. Jerry Pinkney, an accomplished children’s book author who is African American, said that it took at least 20 years after “The Snowy Day” came out before mainstream publishers fully embraced black-centered books. Moreover, black authors of black children’s books faced obstacles that white authors did not.
Still, Pinkney, who will speak at The Jewish Museum on Oct. 17, had nothing but praise for Keats’ own efforts. “I would certainly come to Ezra’s defense,” he said. “At the time, it was very courageous what he did.”
The issue of why Keats wittingly tackled issues of race, but not anti-Semitism, or even why he never created a Jewish-themed book — like his rival, Maurice Sendak, did — is left vague in the show. But it is clear that anti-Semitism was a persistent part of his world, particularly as a struggling artist in the 1940s. At the time, anti-Semitism was at its peak in America, and following his older brother’s lead, he changed his name — from Katz to Keats; Jacob to Jack — to avoid any discrimination.
But he was not always successful. In her catalogue essay, Nahson describes a scene where Keats, studying art in Paris in 1949, begins to date a young woman. Upon seeing an interracial couple, she says to him: “Do you know that one Jew is as bad as 10 blacks?” He did not respond just then, but he sent her a message shortly after he left her.
“I won’t be meeting you tonight,” he wrote to her in a note. “I’ll spare you further contamination. You see, I’m a member of one of those people your parents want to save you from — one of those Jews.”
In private letters, journals and the unpublished memoir, it becomes clear that Keats was always aware of his Jewishness, even if he downplayed it publicly.
There are published letters between Keats and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and even the back-story of an aborted children’s book collaboration between them.
There is the journal he kept from his visit to Israel in 1982, the year before he died.
And there is his spiritual side. If his spirituality was not confined to Judaism — he was equally fascinated by Japanese philosophy, as well as many other cultural expressions of wisdom — it was deeply rooted in it. On view is one of his adult books, titled “God is in the Mountain,” from 1966.
Keats selected aphorisms from many religions, painting images beside each one, and chose two from Judaism: “The heavens declare the glory of God,” from the Book of Psalms, was one. And from Rabbi Hillel, he chose this: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?”
“‘The Snowy Day’ and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats” will be on view at The Jewish Museum through Jan. 29, 2012. Special programs for adults and children are scheduled throughout the show’s run, including a lecture by Jerry Pinkney on Oct. 17. The Jewish Museum is located at 1109 Fifth Ave., at 92nd St. Call (212) 423-3200 for more information.