Ad-Libbing: Expanding Diversity through Teen Imprints, 1970-1990

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In 1966, Stokely Carmichael and a group of African-American civil rights marchers and activists demanded Black Power. Through the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s, Black Power and Black Panthers became part of a worldwide movement to further civil rights for people of African descent—by any means necessary, as Malcolm X would suggest. The movement was largely youth-generated and youth-led, as teens who had been long-denied the rights, access, and material wealth of middle-class white society tired of waiting and began demanding equality.

In Britain, Black Power had two distinct phases. The first, which occurred at roughly the same time as the American Black Power movement, focused on the global African community. Most Blacks in Britain during the late 1960s had come to the country as part of a post-World War II migration from the Caribbean, and these “New Commonwealth immigrants” were keen to remember (and teach their children about) a past that began in Africa and continued through slavery and emancipation in the Caribbean. Independent Black British publishers, such as New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture, were prominent during this time.

 

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?Horace Ove’s 1975 film “Pressure” showed the way that Black communities in Britain were divided by generations.

In the 1970s, however, the sense of community that the earlier migrants had tried so hard to engender began to fall apart. Many young people, born in Britain of immigrant parents, felt they belonged to neither the country of their parents’ origin nor their own. Failed by the education system, many dropped out of mainstream society and turned to Rastafarianism or other youth associations. For white British people, this raised suspicion that, as Paul Gilroy points out in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, “Black Power and Black Alliance movements . . . were thought to be recruiting among the young unemployed,” Gilroy writes (112). Conflicts between Black youth and white police became more common, and were widely covered in the press.

It was at this time that mainstream publishers, through various teen imprints, began publishing stories for and about Black British youth. There were two varieties of these stories; one that dealt with Black Britons in contemporary times, and one that connected them with their historical past. The first tended to be controversial, as well as time-bound. For example, Aidan Chambers’ series Topliners published Petronella Breinburg’s Us Boys of Westcroft (1975), which focuses on identity and power in a British comprehensive school; as Lucy Pearson comments, “rather than condemning racism as the preserve of the ignorant and the malevolent, it presents it as embedded in the social structures of society” (The Making of Modern Children’s Literature 141).

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Dhondy’s Siege of Babylon was based on this 1975 event, widely covered (and condemned) by the media.

Farrukh Dhondy’s most challenging book for young people, The Siege of Babylon, was also a Topliner, published in 1978. Dhondy’s story echoed, according to Maggie Hewitt, the Spaghetti House Siege of 1975. The 1975 event involved, as did Dhondy’s fictional version, three Black men taking several white people hostage, but Dhondy made his protagonists somewhat younger than the mid- to late-20s hostage-takers of the Spaghetti House Siege. Similar to them, however, Dhondy had them demand a plane and safe passage to Jamaica; unlike the real event, not all of the hostage-takers in The Siege of Babylon survived. (The events of the Siege were also later filmed by an Italian director in 1982.) Dhondy always felt that Siege was unfairly ignored, but its depiction of violence (and sexism), as well as its connection to real-life recent events, made it uncomfortable reading for many of the (white) teachers and librarians who bought the books.

 

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Puffin Plus published Darke’s novel about a Black youth arrested for following his conscience.

Dhondy’s and Breinburg’s stories appeared in Topliners before the Brixton Riots of 1981; after this, mainstream publishers were both more cautious and more eager to include Black Britons in books for teens. (There is a lovely sort of innocence in book publishers of this period, wherein they believed that it was possible to stop riots by giving kids books to read instead.) The books produced and/or published after the Brixton riots tended to look further back in history; this on the one hand had the effect of removing some of the “relevance” found in books about teen gangs, but on the other hand also positioned Blacks as part of British history much further back than Windrush immigration. It was at this time, for example, that Marjorie Darke’s A Long Way to Go (1982) was published in Puffin Plus, the imprint that had replaced the short-lived Peacock series for teens from Penguin. A Long Way to Go, originally published by Kestrel in 1978, was part of a series about Blacks in Britain going back to the early 19th century, but the Puffin Plus edition does not list other books in the series—perhaps because earlier books concerned slavery. A Long Way to Go is about a World War I conscientious objector. Although the cover clearly shows the young man as Black, the cover blurb never mentions this, instead saying “Your Country Needs You”, placing the protagonist firmly in the British frame. (It does, however, suggest that the book is an “unusual story” and this may be Puffin’s way of alerting the reader to the racial dimension of the tale.) The book deals with the young Black Briton’s arrest and conviction, not for gang-related violence, but for his convictions, providing a different vision of the criminality of Black Britons than the one portrayed in the media of the time.

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By the late 1980s, publishers were more comfortable with stories about Britain’s slave past as written for teens. André Deutsch’s teen imprint, Adlib, published Geraldine Kaye’s A Breath of Fresh Air in 1987 and its sequel A Piece of Cake in 1991. These stories concerned Bristol teen Amy Smith, who in a series of “blackouts” is dragged back in time to Bristol’s slave trade. Amy uses the things she “dream-sees” in various history and drama productions for school; there is also a romantic angle in these stories where Amy’s boyfriend Bonny exists in both times as well. Black British history as romance for teens was a far cry from the gritty urban dramas of the mid-1970s, but all these books are connected by the idea that teens need books wherein they can see themselves. Many publishers, however, weren’t sure of the best way to provide this—they were, and are still, just ad-libbing.

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2 thoughts on “Ad-Libbing: Expanding Diversity through Teen Imprints, 1970-1990

  1. Heather

    The Geraldine Kaye books remind me of my favourite science fiction novel Kindred by Octavia Butler where Dana, an African American living in the 1970s keeps being transported back in time to a pre civil war plantation in Maryland.
    Another book that might link to this topic (i have not read so cannot say for certain) is One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Three sisters visit their estranged mother in California in 1968. They are sent to a summer camp of sorts run by the Black Panthers and receive a radical sort of education. It won the Corretta Scott King award.

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    1. sandsk2014 Post author

      That trope of going back (in time, in a dream state, whatever) to slavery is a common one in literature–I think it’s a way of trying to understand slavery, especially for young people.

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