I was with my older brother a couple of years ago in a secondhand bookstore. He watched me go to the children’s section and, after scanning the shelves briefly, pick out a book. “This one will be about Black Britain,” I said—and it was. I don’t get to amaze my older brother too often, so it was quite tempting to leave him guessing at my powers of prognostication.
But in truth it was not a magic trick that allowed me to pick out the right book. Nor had I seen it before, or caused the owner of the bookshop to plant a book in an agreed-upon place. The book was of a certain age (type font and binding suggested the 1960s or 1970s), the author was British, and the book’s title had a key word in it, one I’d seen before in books about Black Britons. The book was Christine Pullein-Thompson’s 1967 Robbers in the Night, and the key word that had caused me to believe it was about a Black British character was the word “robber.” I already had Nina Bawden’s 1979 The Robbers, and other books which didn’t include robbery in the title but which had it as a plot point. These books were all written by white Britons after 1960 and before 1990, a period of time when some members of the white British community feared their traditions and values (and jobs and everything else) were under threat from what were then called the “New Commonwealth” (code words for not white) immigrants. I am not suggesting that either Bawden or Pullein-Thompson (or any of the other writers including Black British “robbers” in their children’s books) were part of this fearful group; in fact, in many of the books, it turns out in the end that the Black British character is either not a robber but is assumed to be because of racial prejudice, or is a robber but makes restitution for his (it’s always a boy who is the robber) theft and brings the community together. These books tell a particular story about particular characters, but they also tell a cultural story of how one group of people in a particular time was feeling about another group of people entering (and potentially “robbing”) the island they thought of as exclusively theirs.
Robbery is not the only key word for titles about Black Britain. Historical fiction (particularly those books set in 18th century England) often includes the word “midnight” in the title—witness Morna Stuart’s 1969 Marassa and Midnight, Marjorie Darke’s 1977 The First of Midnight, and Michele Torrey’s 2007 Voyage to Midnight: Chronicles of Courage. The word “midnight” in these books is often used as a character’s name (because he—again, always a “he”—is supposedly “black as midnight”) but also suggests the long dark night of Britain’s soul that was the slave trade, and the dawn of the new era that began with the end of it. There is always a hint of skepticism about this “new era” however; as Darke’s title suggests, the slave trade was only the first midnight that Britain would face; racial prejudice would continue to be a problem for characters in her historical series that took readers to the descendants of Midnight in the 20th century.
The first of midnight–but perhaps not the last.
Of course, Black British writers are not immune to the publishing imperatives surrounding books with Black British characters, and they can work these key words to their advantage. Nalo Hopkinson, the Jamaican-born science fiction writer includes both words in her award-winning 2000 novel, Midnight Robber, which includes reference to carnival and the trickster tradition—both of which turn the status quo upside-down. In general, though, Black British writers tend to use the word “thief” rather than “robber”; examples can be found from Therese Mills’ 1981 Charlie and Joey Catch a Thief to James Berry’s 1987 A Thief in the Village to Malorie Blackman’s 2004 Thief. Midnight Robber is a book for adults (it includes the rape of the main character by her father), but all these books indicate the ways in which key ideas about people from the Caribbean can permeate the culture and affect writers and publishing, consciously or not.
However, Black British writers can also reject the choice of words used to describe them. When looking for more modern books about Black Britons, the word “cool” is often a key word for titles—but usually in books written by white authors. Examples are the 1994 Gregory Cool by Caroline Binch, and Michaela Morgan’s 2000 Cool Clive and the Bubble Trouble. Interestingly, neither of these books indicates exactly what makes these characters “cool”; Gregory Cool is about a Black British boy who goes to meet his grandparents in Tobago, and Morgan’s book (which is part of a series that she has written about Cool Clive, so perhaps there are other books that explain his coolness?) is about Clive’s annoying little sister losing a hamster. “Cool” is not a word that functions in the plot, but rather serves to indicate something nebulous about the character, something that the reader is supposed to understand about Black British boys. Black British writers tend not to use the word cool, at least not in their titles. In fact, most Black British writers who include a character name in their title do not modify that name with an adjective at all; they are just Danny Jones (Andrew Salkey, 1980), Nini at Carnival (Errol Lloyd, 1978), Shawn goes to School (Petronella Breinburg, 1973), We Brits (John Agard, 2006).
The only exception to this rule that immediately comes to mind is Malorie Blackman’s series about Betsey Biggalow; although the initial book is titled simply Betsey Biggalow is Here!, two of the later books modify Betsey, and I initially found these books through one of these modifiers. The single most popular key word for titles of books about Black Britons or Afro-Caribbeans is a word used throughout history, and by authors of all backgrounds: if you see “hurricane” in the title of a children’s book, it will often be (like the 1993 Hurricane Betsey) set in the Caribbean.
The winds of change blow rather slowly sometimes.
So next time you are scanning the shelves of used or new bookstores, looking for a book about a certain group of people (racial, religious, ethnic, gender, or other), take a minute and think what key words you look for to indicate that group based on title alone. Because unfortunately, it is still possible to judge a book by its cover.