On the Margins: Blackness and Black Culture as an aside in children’s books

There was a period between 1970 and 1980 where Blackness as a cultural attribute was deliberately and purposefully included in British children’s books; characters brought culturally-connected foods to “international food days,” for example, because they ate them at home. Often during the production of the food, the child character (or their parent) would tell the history of the food or of the culture in general, thus ensuring that Blackness was given specific cultural capital. Characters spoke in patois; they discussed life in Britain as Black people. This was true in books aimed at white readers as well as non-white readers. In fact, sometimes, white readers were targeted for these cultural lessons. Gillian Klein’s series of readers, designed to promote multiculturalism, showed a school event (food day, fancy dress party) from the eyes of multiple cultures, to ensure that everyone had a better understanding of cultures that were not their own.

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Yvette talks about Trinidad with her mum in The Fancy Dress Party.

However, for a variety of reasons, these culturally-specific texts became less and less popular with publishers after about 1980. One argument frequently used was the idea of “reader appeal” (often code for appeal to the majority white readers). Another was the push, which in the UK was particularly prominent after race riots erupted in Brixton (1981) and Handsworth (1985), to highlight similarities rather than differences between and among all British schoolchildren. This often forced cultural reference into the margins of a text, sometimes in a way that almost entirely obscures the cultural connection.

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This Donovan Croft cover shows him as an outsider in the school playground.

Bernard Ashley’s books for children show the beginnings of this change. Ashley won the Other Award for The Trouble with Donovan Croft in 1974, which was predicated on the fact that the title character was the child of Jamaican parents who had been temporarily forced to abandon him. The Jamaican-ness of the Croft family was necessary to the plot, and the focus of the story was on how Keith, the white boy protagonist, dealt with the “problem” of his foster brother. By the 1980s, however, multiculturalism was the dominant ideology in education. As a philosophy, multiculturalism celebrated difference (as long as it was based in something that everyone experienced, like food or holidays), and people were encouraged to get along.

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But these children all look delighted to be together.

Thus, there is a distinct contrast between the cover of Donovan Croft and a book like I’m Trying to Tell You (1981; first published by Puffin in 1982). I’m Trying to Tell You is the story of four children, two white, an Asian boy and an Afro-Caribbean girl telling their stories about their school. The cultural stories of Nerissa, the Afro-Caribbean girl, and Prakash, the Asian boy, are obscured from the main story. Nerissa is asked to write a story by her teacher, and she thinks about her sister’s wedding which had recently taken place. The reader is privy to the tale of her sister’s wedding, but Nerissa’s teacher is not, because Nerissa does not see it as a story that her teacher would like. At the end of the chapter, all Nerissa has written on her paper is, “Once upon a time” (24) and her teacher tells her, “This just isn’t good enough” (24). Nerissa might find herself in the position of many Afro-Caribbean students in British schools, whose teachers found them lazy and uninterested in their schoolwork; she might even have ended up in the Educationally Sub Normal (ESN) class. Prakash, the Asian boy, suffers from racist attacks when the class plays another football team—Bren, the white girl, reports to her sister that the other team “made jungle noises” (51) when Prakash came on the pitch. However, she does not tell her parents about it. Both stories suggest that child characters, at least, understood that culture was not really something to be celebrated but rather hidden.

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A political carnival–but not anything to do with Notting Hill . . .

In fact, the emphasis on multiculturalism led to new definitions of both British and non-British cultures. In Hannah Cole’s On the Night Watch (1984; first published in Puffin 1987), a class with a similar multiracial classroom to Ashley’s is depicted, but these children are shown, not hiding their heritage, but unaware of it. So when Zafar, who is Indian, offers to bring breakfast to the class, Janet asks if it will be “an Indian breakfast” (27). “Yes,” said Zafar. “Cornflakes and bread and butter, but maybe some English eggs.” (27). Who is this “joke” aimed at? Later in the story, a carnival is organized as a protest against the closing of the school. Janet, who is Afro-Caribbean asks her dad what the carnival is for. This could have been an opportunity to discuss the protest element of West Indian carnivals, including British West Indian carnivals such as the one in Notting Hill. But her dad tells her that it is for “everyone in the town to notice us” (53). Culture in Cole’s story is treated as a joke or ignored.

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A holiday in Jamaica can be so boring . . . but it is what your teacher wants to hear about. Illustrations by Petr Horacek.

Culture did return to children’s books, after a fashion, particularly following the publication of Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman in 1991. In Amazing Grace, Grace’s Afro-Caribbean background needs to be explained away as not really an obstacle to her being British. But there remains a tension between British and non-British culture in books for young readers, and generally speaking, Britishness has more capital. Culture remains marginal, even—as in the case of Leon Spreads his Wings (2008) by Wendy Lee—boring. This early chapter book has as its theme Leon’s fear of flying, but this is not his excuse for not wanting to go on holiday to Jamaica. This first story shows a contrast between the imaginary Caribbean and the reality; the illustration of Leon’s father and grandmother happily sitting on the beach is above Leon’s bored misery, and eventually Leon’s father admits that Jamaica is not always idyllic. However, Leon does understand what the Caribbean is for: instead of writing the story of his rainy seaside holiday for his teacher, he tells her he went to Jamaica. As a place at the center of culture, Jamaica is something to obscure, but as a holiday destination marginal to Britain it is something to celebrate.

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