This week marks Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I thought I might mark the occasions on this blog, and then I thought, huh. What does Shakespeare or the monarchy have to do with Black British children’s literature?
Shakespeare is (at least at first) slightly more obvious. There is, after all, the Noble Moor. Othello, written in circa 1603, is perhaps the most famous early literary depiction of interracial marriage. And kids have learned the stories of Shakespeare from a very early age for quite a long time. The introduction of Shakespeare through Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare was a more “serious” introduction, and the toy theatres of Pollock’s and Skelt’s were more popular introductions, but both included Othello in their repertoire. The Lambs’ version, obviously shortened from the original, is clear from the outset that Othello’s skin color is an issue. The third sentence of the Lamb version points out that Desdemona is dissatisfied with her marital options: “among the suitors of her own clime and complexion, she saw none whom she could affect: for this noble lady, who regarded the mind more than the features of men, with a singularity rather to be admired than imitated, had chosen for the object of her affections, a Moor, a black”. Note that children are to admire Desdemona for wanting a clever husband, but not imitate her. And this is not Shakespeare as written; in the play, Desdemona is not ignoring Othello’s appearance; she is clear that “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/ And to his honour and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (Act I, Scene III). But the Lambs had to make Desdemona “childlike” in order to “excuse” her for marrying a Black man; their account of Othello serves as a warning that only children fail to judge books by their covers.
But the Lambs did not include pictorial representations of Othello and Desdemona’s love; this was left to the theatre. And in the theatre, Othello was generally played by a white man (in the 19th century and far beyond as well). Even though the famous African-American actor, Ira Aldridge, took over from Edmund Kean after Kean’s death in the 1830s, the toy theatre sold by Skelt’s continued to use Kean’s image as Othello.
And in the 20th and 21st century, this discomfort with Othello as a suitable subject for children continues. Usborne’s Shakespeare Sticker Book has engaging sticker pictures of both comedies and tragedies by Shakespeare, but not Othello—nor are any of the sticker figures Black. Thank heavens for Malorie Blackman, whose Chasing the Stars, a YA science fiction-y retelling of Othello, comes out this weekend. If only someone were still doing toy theatres, they might do a version of Talawa theatre’s all-black cast in King Lear.
Prince William said in a recent interview that his grandmother stays “above” politics, and this generally includes racial politics as well; while her husband is famous for his impolitic pronouncements on non-white people, Elizabeth confines herself to the occasional celebratory remark about the many cultures that make up Britain. Children’s literature about or including the queen generally reflects this; the queen is guarded by white soldiers in most children’s books, and even her appearance in Roald Dahl’s The BFG suggests an all-white Britain over which she reigns. There is some suggestion that the queen (or at least her staff) want to encourage this to change; the children’s book that commemorates the queen’s birthday (official and approved), The Birthday Crown, does show a little (very little) diversity in the background.
But the royal family has, in the past, had more deliberate and purposeful connection with a diverse world. Children’s literature (by both Black and white authors) have written about Victoria’s interaction with various people of her empire, from Mary Seacole to Sarah Forbes Bonetta to Sophia Duleep Singh (two of these three women were themselves royal in their own countries). Victoria did not have to worry about her relationship to these women; she was their queen-empress, and they were her subjects. That means she could afford to employ Mary Seacole as a masseuse in her household, adopt Sarah Forbes Bonetta (not of course in the way that normal people adopt a child), and give Sophia Duleep Singh a grace-and-favour apartment. The mighty can afford to be generous (though it does not always follow that they are).
There is evidence that other queens of Britain may have had more direct connection to the non-white world. The Guardian reported in 2009 on Queen Charlotte, known to be abolitionist in her politics, and her possible African ancestry (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/12/race-monarchy). This link, if true, would of course mean that the current royals would also have this ancestry—although much further back in time. The evidence is sketchy, but there are clearer indications about the 14th century Queen Philippa, who one of the English bishops described as having clearly African features. But neither of these queens feature very frequently in children’s literature (and when they are, as wives or mothers of kings, their race is usually unremarked). A rare example of a children’s book that acknowledges the suggestion of African ancestry in the monarchy is Joysetta Marsh Pearse’s Black Royals: Queen Charlotte (2014), which appears to be part of a series—but I can’t find any other books in the series.
The first Queen Elizabeth famously complained about too many “blackamoors” in England, and Shakespeare’s play reflects some of these fears. The Jamaican prime minister has just wished the current Queen Elizabeth happy birthday at the same time politely suggesting that Jamaica would soon end the tradition of considering the queen Jamaica’s titular Head of State. Yet some of the best Shakespearean actors in the UK today are Black (Adrian Lester, Don Warrington) and the queen’s Britain today can no longer be seen as an all-white world. Perhaps it’s time that more children’s books reflected these realities.