Ghosts of No Nation: Forgotten Histories Revealed in Children’s Literature

Author Zetta Elliott recently sent me a copy of The Ghosts in the Castle (Rosetta, 2017), her most recent children’s book, because it is about an American searching for Black History in England (can’t think why she thought I might be interested, ha ha). The main character, Zaria, is Afro-Caribbean; she lives in New York City but like many people with Caribbean ancestry, she has relations in many countries, including England. Zaria is making her first trip to London to visit her grandfather, who is ill; but despite never having been to Britain before, she comes with pre-conceived notions about what it will be like.

She gets these notions about Britain and the British people from books. Zaria says, “The England I’ve read about in books and seen in so many movies is full of wizards, and unicorns, and magic wands. It rains every day, and kids live in castles or mansions that have secret rooms or ghosts in the attic” (5). Zaria’s reading reflects something that is true not only of Americans reading about Britain, but about Brits reading about their own country: whiteness. Danuta Kean, writing in the Guardian this week, says, “British readers may recognise the value of literature to encourage social cohesion – but the perspective they gain from novels remains overwhelmingly white, male and middle class, according to a survey of public attitudes to literature released on Wednesday” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/01/literature-report-shows-british-readers-stuck-in-very-white-past). Because whiteness seems “normal” for Britain, Zaria (and British readers) accepts the idea that the “real” England is about white people. But fortunately Zaria has a radical aunt, who points out her assumptions. “You love books about castles and wizards and magical creatures, but you are not in those books. The hero is always White” (31). Zaria’s aunt would like her own son—and Zaria as well—to read books that reflect the Black British contribution to the nation, but Zaria feels conflicted about this. Although she is interested in what she is learning about Black British history, she likes fantasy, and wants to read about castles and magic and ghosts.

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In most “classic” British fantasy, this is as close as you get to a Black character.

Fortunately for Zaria, her aunt takes her to Windsor Castle, where she learns about the history of Africans connected with Queen Victoria. As I’ve written about before, Queen Victoria had a habit of adopting young Africans and educating them in Britain, and Zaria comes across the ghosts of two of them, the Abyssinian Prince Alemayehu and Sarah Bonetta Forbes. The two Africans are a contrast; Alemayehu is angry and homesick, while Sarah (or Sally, as Zaria calls her) is happy to please those who have taken her away from Africa. This is an important difference between the two for readers, who might have mixed feelings about living in a white-dominated society (no matter what their race). Zaria and her cousin Winston must help both ghosts, but particularly Alemayehu. They do this through reminding Alemayehu of his home with souvenirs they purchase in Brixton Market. In the end, Alemayehu learns that love, and remembering that love, allows you to roam freely, and learn fully. Zaria does not “lay the ghosts to rest” but rather sets them free, and gives them the world as their playground.

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There throughout history: Olusoga makes the point that Black Britons did not just arrive beginning with Windrush.

The Ghosts in the Castle is the third in Zetta Elliott’s City Kids series. The series format, and the fact that the first two are set in Zaria’s home of Brooklyn, makes it perhaps inevitable that when offered a chance to go to boarding school in England, Zaria decides to return home. But I admit to a feeling of disappointment that she did, in part because I have been reading David Olusoga’s very heavy history, Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016; I also watched the accompanying television series from the BBC). Olusoga, who lived during his childhood in my own recent home of Newcastle, grew up much like Elliott’s Zaria—unaware of the role that Black Britons played in their own nation. His history makes an excellent case, not just for the recent past but for the long past, of the pivotal part that people of African descent had in shaping the very things that we think of as “British,” and, too often, also as “white.” Like Elliott, Olusoga works to reveal the Black British presence that is often in front of our eyes if we know where to look. Elliott, for example, points out both the brass memorial plaque to Alewayehu in the nave of St George’s chapel and the additional plaque beneath it commemorating the visit of Haile Selassie I to Alewayehu’s memorial in 1924 (61-62). Olusoga describes the Black British sailor depicted on the brass relief at the base of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square—and then, to indicate the significance of the inclusion of the Black sailor, Olusoga goes on to describe all the Black sailors known to have sailed with Nelson (19-21). And this is just one such incident of Black Britons appearing in very public places that people walk by every day without ever noticing, in a book that is over 500 pages.

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England Expects Every Man to Do his Duty: might Zaria come back to London to meet the Black soldier defending Nelson at the base of the column in Trafalgar Square next time?

Britain often seems through its literature and other cultural production to be a place where whiteness is not only dominant, but sometimes exclusive, both to its own citizens and to the global tourists and consumers of children’s books. Elliott’s book takes a step toward changing the image of Britain—but based on David Olusoga’s history, Zaria is going to have to return and find more ghosts to set free from invisibility. Only then will they move from being ghosts of no nation, to belonging to us all.

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