Start with What You Know and Take it From There: The role of the archive

I recently ate up Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut (Hodder 2017).  I loved it; it was hard to put down, and I could easily write a blog about the novel by itself (maybe I will sometime!).  But I want to highlight just one piece of the novel (or donut?) for now, and it isn’t probably the section that avid readers of this blog might expect.  It’s the section where Bailey, the main boy character, goes to the archives at his local library.

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Lawrence’s second book, a tale of finding out about yourself and those you love . . . partly by visiting the archive.

This section (pages 271-274) interests me for a couple of reasons.  First, because Bailey knows that you can get information from an archive, which makes him an unusual 16-year-old (I wish I had more college students who knew what an archive was, let alone how to use it).  But second, and more importantly, because Lawrence’s depiction of a first archive experience is a very accurate one.  Bailey comes in knowing what he’s looking for, but not how to find it.  The “information lady” tells him “to start with what you know, and take it from there” (272); but although he follows her advice, it takes him down rabbit holes and he must bring himself constantly back into focus.  When he finally runs out of time—without finding the information he needs—the librarian/archivist offers him a clue for a next step, pointing out that “It’s surprising what you find in the small print” (274).

A still from the video that has stirred the controversy.

The BBC cartoon that included a Black Roman caused controversy–but visit Hadrian’s Wall, and many other sites in Britain, and you’ll learn about several Black Romans in Britain.

 

On the surface, the description of this scene does not have anything to do with race and diversity in British children’s/YA literature.  And while I am sure that Patrice Lawrence had Bailey go to the archive deliberately, I’m not sure whether she thought about it as a political statement within her novel.  However, having spent a lot of time in archives over the past few years, I’m going to take this scene that way: as a political statement about race and diversity.  Archives in Britain, as well as major research libraries such as the British Library, have traditionally been places where white Britons felt welcome, but BAME people less so.  This (perceived?) lack of welcome may come from the archive’s connection with the idea of Heritage Britain; recent controversies such as the trolling of Mary Beard over her defense of a BBC cartoon depicting Black Romans in early Britain (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/roman-britain-black-white/) suggest that many people still see British history as an all-white subject. Museums, libraries and archives all play a role in defining what (and who) counts as British, and their definitions have consequences for their patrons.  If people don’t see history as belonging to them, they often will not be interested in learning about it. However, research (Hirschi and Screven 1989; Lynch and Alberti 2010; Golding 2016) has indicated that involving traditionally marginalized communities in history-related projects can help open up heritage to new users and change the dialogue around national identity. By having Bailey, a mixed-race British teenager, go to the archive expecting answers about the past, Patrice Lawrence indicates something important: that Bailey has a right to be there, belongs there, and that he can and should access historical information when he needs it.

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Archives should be a place where everyone feels welcome to learn about history, as they are at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book in Newcastle.

The other “political” message I found in Lawrence’s depiction is the librarian’s final comment to Bailey, that what you find in the small print can surprise you.  I can relate this directly to my own efforts to find Black British people in various archives while writing my book on British children’s publishing.  Archives that seemed at first glance to be entirely about white Britons often revealed a more diverse picture with a closer look or more research.  Take the case of Leila Berg, a white British author and publisher from the 1950s-1990s whose archive can be found at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book.  I had never heard of her before I went to Seven Stories, and even when the archivists and librarians at Seven Stories pointed me in her direction, I wasn’t sure if she would be all that relevant to my research on Black British authors and publishers.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that Berg, who experienced the anti-Semitism of her “friends” during World War II, committed herself to standing against both class and racial prejudice in all of her work.  But her archive tells more than just her own history, and it is this that takes me back to Lawrence’s librarian’s comment.  Berg kept records of various meetings, conferences, and events that she attended throughout her life, and looking through these with careful eyes can reveal otherwise-untold histories of Black Britain.

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Gilroy’s Nippers, like her work with teachers, suggest that white Britons need to learn to see Black people as British.

The first time I examined her archive, I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but going back this summer, I found something I hadn’t noticed before.  One document, handwritten by Berg, talks of visiting “Beryl’s classroom” (the document is dated Nov 3 73; Seven Stories archives LB/05/03/20).  This didn’t signify anything particular to me at the time, but when I saw it this past summer, I cursed myself for missing it before.  Given the date, and the fact that Berg was talking about a headteacher, “Beryl” could only have been Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headteacher in Britain (and Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy’s mother as well, though he was still at school when his mother met Berg).  Berg records what Gilroy told her about a “failure conference” she held at her school for the mostly white teachers she worked with: that it is the (white) teachers who must change their attitudes about their (BAME) students, not the other way around.  Gilroy, who would write several titles for Berg’s reading series, Nippers, made the case that BAME students are British, and their cultures, traditions, languages and families were part of Britain too.  More than 40 years after Berg recorded this, the case is still being argued by some.  Maybe people who don’t see BAME people as a part of British history could use a trip to their local archives.  Or they might just want to curl up with Indigo Donut.

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