Yesterday the London free paper, the Metro, carried the story of how “Washington slaves book withdrawn after protest”. This follows considerable uproar in the United States (Ebony Thomas does a fine job of discussing the controversy here: https://storify.com/Ebonyteach/children-s-literature-about-slavery-the-storm-cont) about A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram (Scholastic: 2016) and another, similar book with “happy slaves,” A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins (Random House: 2015). Both these books have as characters slaves who enjoy cooking; one of the messages that can be implied is that slavery wasn’t so bad, as long as you took pride in your work. This is hardly a new message to be found in children’s books; the idea that people of African descent were better off under slavery goes way back to the debate about slavery itself, when many people argued that not only the economy but emancipated slaves themselves would be ruined by abolition. Even today, as I’ve written about here before (“Is the Sun Rising Again?”), slavery is a tricky topic of discussion for children’s books. As one children’s book I read recently put it, “Although the slaves weren’t paid for their work, they had their clothes and housing provided for them” (Walter Tull, Footballer, Soldier Hero 5). Well, two out of three ain’t bad, I guess.None of these “happy slave” narratives would have half the impact that they do (in children’s literature circles, in the media, in real children’s lives) if there was a strong counternarrative to place alongside them. If children had more and sustained access to books that told a true (or even truer) picture of the struggles and triumphs of Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and African-Americans, books like Ganeshram’s and Jenkins’ would be easier to dismiss as aberrations. The good news is that the counternarrative exists already.
I’ve been spending the week in some of London’s archives, and, more specifically, in Black archives, reading through the story of the Black British communities that formed and united with each other and against the institutional racism of postwar Britain. There are thousands of stories to be found in the George Padmore Institute archives and the Black Cultural Archives; I’ll highlight the ones that I am pursuing in the hopes of sparking some other researchers (looking to write history, criticism, or fiction) to find their own.
The George Padmore Institute is housed above one of the last remaining Black British cxbookshops (http://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/archive/about). In fact, the bookshop, New Beacon, and the archives are closely linked, as they are based around the papers of the man who started the bookshop, John La Rose. The archives, according to their website, “cover independent cultural, educational and political activity during periods of social tension and change, particularly during the 1960s-1990s”. I was particularly interested in finding out information about the Supplementary Schools movement, in which Black activists (often parents)—frustrated at the British school system’s indifference to or even hostility to their children—formed Saturday and after-school classes to teach both “traditional” class subjects such as reading and mathematics, but also the history of their own people. What I found in the archives was that they often had to produce their own materials—there are, for example, short biographies (with vocabulary words underlined!) of people like Alexander Bustamante, Frank Worrall, and the Mighty Sparrow, to name a few. But they also borrowed material; one surprise I found was the reproduction of several short biographies of African-Americans (Wilt Chamberlain, Elizabeth Eckford, Paul Laurence Dunbar) from an American company called the Scientific Research Associates—these “SRAs” were used in my own childhood school classroom. (I always thought that SRA stood for Short Reading Assignment!) The GPI Archive shows the determination of parents to provide their children with reading that had meaning.
Today I headed down to another archive, the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. These archives include the papers of a number of different anti-racist and multicultural organizations, including the Black and Asian Studies Association and the Runnymede Trust. The connection with children’s literature (and my current research) is the vast resources on various parents’ groups and movements, from supplementary schools, to activist movements against the labeling of Black children (mostly the children of West Indian immigrants) as ESN (Educationally Sub-Normal—and yes, that was the official term used by the government) in the 1960s and 1970s, to protests against the bullying and even murder of Black and Asian children in British schools. For example, there is an article from June 1984’s Childright entitled “Black Parents organise against racism” which states that “We formed the Black Parents’ Group at Highbury Quadrant School, a primary school in North London, in January 1984” in part “to remove and dispose of racist books and materials from the school” and “to further the introduction of anti-racist books and materials” (11). As part of this, “We also clarified that we were not talking about just ‘black books for black children’ (a popular misconception) but wanted books showing a positive image of black people which would benefit all children. We believe that an anti-racist education will benefit all children and will go some way towards breaking down the racist conditioning that we are all subjected to” (11). These parents had, by the 1980s, moved beyond thinking only about one group of children, and had tried to educate all British children through books.
The world those parents envisioned is one we still haven’t achieved yet. But we can all work at it in small ways. After I finished up my work today, I stopped in at the Archives’ gallery, which had a small exhibition on Blacks in Georgian London. A father had his two children in the exhibit, and they were working on the “treasure hunt” sheet that the museum hands out to keep kids looking longer. The boy took his paper up to his dad for help in finding a picture. The dad said, “You’ve got to stop, look, and remember. This is your history.” Black Archives are indeed a critical depository of this history, but places like the Black Cultural Archives and the George Padmore Institute Archives help remind us that this history belongs to us and should matter to us all. And that’s worth remembering.