Alice in Harlem-land

By Lucas Dvorscak

“The Black Knight asked Alice, ‘What’s black and beautiful?’ Alice was very tempted to say, ‘Me.’ But didn’t think it would be right for a queen.”[1] In 1972, white author, Maia Wojciechowska, wrote the book where this quote comes from, Through the Broken Mirror with Alice. Wojciechowska revisits Lewis Carroll’s famous book, Through the Looking Glass and makes it, “about a modern African American chess-playing Alice” who carries around Through the Looking Glass and finds solace in the story and uses it to escape her hardships.[2] Throughout the novel, Wojciechowska shows that Black girls deserve to be the protagonists of classic novels, that they matter, and that they can find their identity anywhere. Instead of only focusing on questioning stereotypes or on culture and heritage, which are common concepts in Black children’s literature, Wojciechowska accomplishes both of these ideas by portraying the famously white, blonde Alice, as Black. This is successful because Wojciechowska makes Alice a relatable character to black girls growing up that do not see themselves represented in children’s literature.

The purpose of Black children’s literature began with a need “for Black children to recognize themselves as normal, to learn about Black history, and to recognize their own potential.”[3] Black children first appeared in books meant for White children and were the stereotypical plantation pickaninnies, such as Topsy, the famous Black girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.[4] The genre catalyzed with W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Brownies’ Book, which was published in the early twentieth century. The genre then progressed to Black Aesthetics, “which centered around a growing conversation among Black people about heritage and culture in the 1960s and 1970s.”[5] Wojciechowska’s novel rejects the stereotypical pickaninny trope and makes Alice strong and confident, which fits into the Black Aesthetics movement.

In the beginning of Through the Broken Mirror with Alice, Alice has a hard time seeing her own potential because of the insults and stereotypes thrown at her. The chorus yells at her, “taxes go…for their retarded…unteachables…muggers…rapists…addicts…buy Cadillacs…with welfare checks.”[6] These are all Black stereotypes that highlight the trope of the lazy Black person that was heavily present in the 1970s rhetoric around welfare and taxes. The quote also shows that Wojciechowska not only makes her heroine Black, but also updates Wonderland (in this case, Harlem) to include politics of the 1970s in the United States. Alice does not quit her quest to become Queen, which demonstrates her strength and shows that she starts to realize her own potential, an original purpose of this genre.

Later in Wojciechowska’s novel, Alice has the choice of playing either on the White Queen’s or the Black Queen’s chess team. Here, the Black Queen is an African American who tries to help Alice identify with her own heritage and race and the White Queen wants Alice to have an easier life. When the two Queens are fighting over Alice the Black Queen says to Alice, “Do you want to feel proud of being black?” and later the two queens yell at Alice and the White Queen says “’Do you want responsibility?’ But this time the Black Queen did not pull at Alice. Instead she asked: ‘Or identity?’”[7]

By using the word responsibility, the White Queen asks Alice if she is ready to gain the responsibility of being a catalyst for social change. Alice chooses to play for the White Queen and hence ignores her Black identity to have what she thinks is the privilege to make a change, but quickly realizes that her Blackness is central to her identity and regrets playing for the White Queen. Later in the novel, the White Queen goes up to Alice and tries to hire her as a maid, which was an incident in Caroll’s orginal Through the Looking Glass but here it shows Alice that the White Queen lied to her. Alice declines the offer and realizes that the White Queen tried to make her believe that she can only change the world with the help of a White woman. Other characters in the novel do not lie to Alice like the White Queen.

Tweedledee and Tweedledum recognize the difficulty that Alice will have growing up as Black but do not hurt her with stereotypes. Instead Tweedledee says, “”And who is Alice by herself? You belong to your race.’ ‘And as such,’ Tweedledum added, ‘you must run twice as hard.’”[8] These characters help Alice realize the power in being Black and that she does not need a White woman to help her. Soon after Alice sings, “I am the color / of new gold, / the color of tomorrow, / color of my sorrow, / and the color is black. / And the color is black.”[9] Alice learned to choose her own identity with the initial help of characters throughout the novel but comes to her final choice by herself, which relates to a key theme of Wojciechowska’s.

Alice’s realization is significant not only because she accepts her Blackness but also because Wojciechowska’s “philosophy of self-respect or self-realization or searching for identity is a favorite theme and is the focal point of most of her books.”[10] Alice’s self-realization helps her by being more confident and helps her to finally become a Queen. In this novel, Alice finds her solace in her copy of Through the Looking Glass and shows how powerful literature is to children because it helps her find her identity. Wojciechowska said in her Newbery Award acceptance speech for her novel Shadow of a Bull, that she hopes that “in books you’ll find your light, and by this light you may cross from one shore of love to another, from your childhood into adulthood.”[11] Wojciechowska puts this idea directly into this novel and proves that Black girls are incredibly strong and capable of anything, even through incredible hardships and with the help of literature.

[1] Maia Wojciechowska, Through the Broken Mirror with Alice, including parts of Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1972), 118.

[2]Anita Silvey, ed., Children’s Books and Their Creators (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 688.

[3] Rudine Sims Bishop, Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007), 23.

[4] Ibid., 69.

[5] Geta LeSeur, Ten is the Age of Darkness: The Black Bildungsroman (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995), 2.

[6] Wojciechowska, Through the Broken Mirror with Alice, 50.

[7] Ibid., 40.

[8] Ibid., 67.

[9] Ibid., 103.

[10] Maia Wojciechowska, “Maia (Teresa) Wojciechowska” Contemporary Authors Online (Gale, 2003), Literature Resource Center.

[11] Maia Wojciechowska, “Acceptance speech at the Newbery and Caldecott Awards Ceremony (1965).