It is February, which means that it is one of two Black History Months “celebrated” in the two countries in which I have some stake (the US and the UK). While many critics of the US celebration, held this month, suggest ironically that February was chosen because it was the shortest month of the year, African-American History Month grew out of Black History Week (so it is at least three weeks longer than it was originally—still paltry, but better). It was designed to acknowledge the contributions that two Americans—Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln—made to further the freedoms and rights of African-Americans; both Douglass and Lincoln were born in the same week in February. There are arguments on both sides as to whether Black/African-American History Month should be continued (“Black History should be celebrated every day” v. “Until people recognize the way that people of African descent contributed to the nation [whichever nation] throughout history, we will continue to need Black/African-American history month”); but as long as it is part of the calendar of these nations, Black/African-American History Month provides a good excuse to pause and look at what we are actually saying—and how we are “celebrating”.
And while there have been good efforts to publish more “famous figures” biographies for children, some of which are quite good, to honor Black British, Caribbean, African, and African-American contributions, these often seem to suggest that these books are especially for people of African descent, to boost their self-esteem and make them feel part of history. I applaud the idea that history books (of any kind) can make child readers feel a part of history, whether by giving them people to admire or by spurring them on to change their own world. But too often, when regarding these books as part of the overall historical offerings presented to children, the field of children’s history texts gives the impression that “real” history belongs to white people.
This can best be seen by books which look, not at African-American/Black history, but at “regular” history books. Regular history, by which I mean the history that everyone learns in school, is too often white history; and this then normalizes whiteness. White people are the ones in the history books, so they must be the makers of history. This is a cycle which self-perpetuates. Conscientious writers of history for children may include a figure or two from a non-white group, but by their very rareness, they highlight and reinforce the idea that white people act, and non-whites are acted upon.
This is especially true because history books are often connected with education—and not just in history class. One example of this is the Oxford Reading Tree series of texts, colorful and attractive books that look like trade books but are designed for schools (there are notes for teachers or other adults on the inside front cover). Reading Tree books, like many reading series, center on regular child characters doing various things together (not all are history stories). The three main characters in Reading Tree are Biff, Chip and Kipper, whose names are on the front cover of all the books. All of them are white. There are other characters who appear regularly, including Wilf and Wilma, who are Black, but they start out in a peripheral position: these are Biff’s, Chip’s and Kipper’s stories, and Wilf and Wilma are never central enough to be listed on the cover. Cover illustrations reinforce this; Wilf is often depicted as looking on while a white character takes a more active role. Although Wilf plays an active role within the texts, it is often a helping role; in The Jewel in the Hub (2010) he is the only modern character interacting with history, but he spends the whole time in 15th century Italy following Leonardo Da Vinci around, usually with his mouth open in surprise or concern.
Furthermore, the background of the historical parts of the stories in Reading Tree contrast sharply with the modern-day classroom. While the latter is diverse in terms of both gender and skin color, the former is exclusively white. This is true even in the theatrical world of Elizabethan London or among early 19th century seamen, places where people from all over the world often met.
In many ways, the Oxford Reading Tree history series inherits the tradition of historical fiction writers like the Victorian G. A. Henty. Although Henty’s books were for older readers, they had a similar plot device of “ordinary” youths figuring in major events in history. One of the differences in Henty’s texts, aside from the reading level, is that his stories often focused on imperial conflict, and the boys (they were almost all boys because men, like white people, have traditionally been seen as the history makers) figured in some major battle or skirmish with the “natives”. Modern day history for children tends to focus less on battles and wars; but in doing this, modern history for children often further sidelines the non-white character. Whereas Henty (and history textbook writers) in the 19th century could give a nod to those who threw off the yoke of colonialism, such as the Zulu warriors or Toussaint L’Ouverture—even if white violence crushed them or white indifference marginalized them in the end—modern texts shy away from history that might make people feel bad. Even Chip and Wilf’s journey to Nelson’s ship in 1805 suggest that the enemy is not the French (Trafalgar is never mentioned either), but “Virans”, who are described as “dark energy in human form. Their aim is to destroy history and so bring chaos to the future” (Mission Victory 3). Given the fact that these books consistently restore history to a status quo that is dominated by white people, maybe it is a history that ought to be destroyed.