Category Archives: children’s literature

Playing Statues: Monuments, Racism, and Children’s Geography Texts

Do you remember playing a game, maybe at a birthday party, called Statues?  You took a statue pose and had to be the last one remaining still.  You often got a prize for not moving.  I had this image in mind over the last few days, as the events in Charlottesville had people all over the world focused on the way that statues can take us back in history and hold us in a place of racism, division, and oppression.

I’m not the only one who has been thinking about this.  London’s Black History Walks group (http://www.blackhistorywalks.co.uk/) has a list of eight statues and buildings with racist histories in the UK (you can sign up for their email newsletter even if you are outside the UK to get this and other stories, but if you can get to one of their history walks, I can personally recommend that you do so).  And of course there is the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which began in South Africa in 2015 and expanded to Oxford in 2016; this week the global editor of the Huffington Post, Lydia Polgreen, commented on Rhodes Must Fall as a model for Americans who want to remove confederate statues, although she added, “changes to monuments will only be enough once economic justice is included in the redress of South Africa’s socio-economic crisis” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2017/08/14/rhodes-must-fall-campaign-could-help-charlottesville_a_23076674/). There have been many critics of the idea of statue removal as well. I doubt I need to tell you who was “sad” this week “to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” but he is not alone in this sentiment.  Many have suggested that statues of racist and imperialist figures in statues and monuments remind us of humanity’s troubled past, and help keep us from repeating mistakes (although the logic of this when examined in light of this week’s events is somewhat questionable).

But surely, even if you believe that statues can tell a sobering history of human inhumanity, that story must be put into context; otherwise, viewers draw their own conclusions.  Many towns, for example, have statues of generals in full battle gear in triumphant poses, but only simple pillars or crosses to the many ordinary soldiers that died in the battle or war.  To me as a child, that always suggested that generals were heroic and important, but you should definitely try not to be an ordinary soldier, since their lives clearly did not matter as much.  There was no context to tell me anything different, especially before I could read.  Image was everything.

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CW Airne’s Our Empire’s Story shows a triumphant statue of Rhodes. Note that even in the depiction of the Last Stand of [white British] Captain Wilson, it appears the Matabili are losing.

Because of my own childhood experience of statues, I wanted to examine how children’s literature, particularly geography texts, considered statues.  The books I discuss here are from my own collection, which largely contains British empire and post-empire examples (it would be very interesting to look at similar geography books about the US).  Early examples often mentioned statues and memorials.  George Dickson’s A Nursery Geography (Thomas Nelson, ca. 1920) has two children traveling the world on a magic carpet; coming into London, “The first thing we saw was a tall column, the Nelson Monument.  We had heard of Nelson, the greatest admiral that ever lived, who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar” (131).  There is nothing here (or on the statue itself) to suggest that less than six months before his death, Nelson was vowing to fight “that damnable and cursed doctrine” of abolitionist William Wilberforce (http://blog.soton.ac.uk/slaveryandrevolution/tag/horatio-nelson/); in fact, most adults today are not even aware of Nelson’s pro-slavery stance.  C. W. Airne’s Our Empire’s Story told in pictures (Thomas Hope, ca. 1944) has drawings of several statues around the British empire; perhaps the most pertinent page to current events is the page on Rhodesia, which begins with a statue of Cecil Rhodes—contrasted with an “Ancient conical Tower in the mysterious ruins of Zimbabwe” (41)—and several pictures that show Rhodes’s influence (positive, of course).

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Taking a stand against imperialism and slavery; Morrison’s Guyana celebrates Cuffy rather than Victoria.

I was therefore quite surprised to examine more modern examples of geography texts and see how other histories often take pride of place.  My collection only includes a small sampling of geography texts about the West Indies (my particular area of interest) but the books I do have either ignore statues and monuments altogether, or highlight anti-colonial histories through their statues.  Marion Morrison’s Guyana (Children’s Press, 2003), part of the Enchantment of the World series, does not mention the famous statue of Queen Victoria, erected in 1887, dynamited in anti-colonial protests in 1954, and finally permanently removed in 1970 upon declaration of the Guyanese republic (http://interactive.britishart.yale.edu/victoria-monuments/210/statue-of-queen-victoria-), but has a photograph of a statue of the Berbice Rebellion leader, Cuffy (48).

Martin Hintz’s Haiti (Children’s Press, 1998) in the same series, not only has a picture of the statue of King Henri Christophe (22), but also includes an undated historical drawing of “A temple honoring the end of slavery at Le Cap” (85).

Sarah De Capua’s Dominican Republic (Marshall Cavendish, 2004) is perhaps the most disappointing of the books I found with statues.  Part of the “Discovering Cultures” series, the book not only elides Columbus’s connection with the slave trade on the page that shows his statue (11), it fails to discuss the front cover statue, the Monument of the Heroes.  Originally a statue to the dictator Trujillo, the statue was repurposed to depict heroes of the war of independence from Spain in 1961.  But nothing about the statue is mentioned in the text, while Columbus is depicted as the founder of the first permanent colony in the island.

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Malcolm Frederick’s Kamal Goes to Trinidad (Frances Lincoln, 2008), with its pictures by Prodeepta Das, could also have included a photo of the statue of Columbus that stands in Port of Spain, but instead, he chose a statue that acts as a reminder of both the British Empire and a time more than a thousand years’ previous (when Britain itself was a tiny outpost of the Roman Empire).  The inclusion of the statue of Hanuman, the Hindu deity, points out Trinidad’s multiculturalism that resulted from British imperialism—but the religion itself came before and outlasted that empire.

Statues depict a moment in time to remind people of historical events.  They can act as a way to glorify a less-than-glorious history, especially when viewed without a context (or with a one-sided context).  But as some of these examples from children’s geography show, statues can, paradoxically, show us a way to move away from histories of racism and imperialism, and toward one of ordinary people’s struggle against that oppression.

Stop and Go Traffic: African-Americans, children’s lit, and driving

I have been thinking about driving a lot lately.  My beautiful, well-behaved, respectful, eager-to-be-a-grownup 16-year-old is learning to drive with me.  She’s a great driver, actually, which is something of a relief.  Not just because of the cost of accidents and speeding tickets, but because despite her pleasant and respectful demeanor (around adults, anyway), she is the wrong color for driving in America.

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Nice work if you can get it, Nancy Drew; but driving cars in children’s books is almost exclusively for white people.

On our first lesson, I was doing some role-playing with her and I said, “Okay, you hear sirens behind you, what do you do?”  She said, without hesitation, “I pull over and put my hands high up on the wheel so the cop knows I don’t have a gun.”  This answer nearly made me cry.  But unlike me, my daughter has grown up hearing stories of cops shooting unarmed brown or black drivers on “routine traffic stops”.  She asked how she could get her license and registration if her hands were on the wheel.  “Don’t do anything until the cop tells you,” I found myself saying, “and tell him or her exactly what you plan to do before you move.” She trusts me, so I know she’ll follow this advice.  But I also know it may not be enough.

Last week, the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP warned African-American drivers to exercise “extreme caution” when driving in Missouri.  “Race, gender and color based crimes have a long history in Missouri,” the original advisory stated. “Warn your families, co-workers and anyone visiting Missouri to beware of the safety concerns” (http://www.npr.org/2017/08/03/541382961/naacp-warns-black-travelers-to-use-extreme-caution-when-visiting-missouri).  I initially thought the report was one of those “on this day in history” reports and that I’d just missed the beginning of it.  It was horrifying to think that it wasn’t.  But for most African-Americans, the automobile has long represented both freedom and threat.

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Most children’s books depicting African-American travelers have them walking or using public transportation, both in history . . .

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. . . and in more modern depictions.

The connection between cars and African-Americans has, until recently, been more or less ignored in children’s books, especially picture books.  When African-Americans are connected with transportation in books, it is everything but the car: slave ships on the Middle Passage, the Underground Railroad, maybe the occasional Pullman Porter or—even more rarely—the Tuskegee Airmen.  Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  These stories of African-American movement are generally not about freedom of movement (or at least not about legal freedom of movement) that you find in American children’s stories of the automobile—the freedom of the open roads was only for the (white) Motor Boys and Motor Maids, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew, the Man with the Yellow Hat from Curious George.  Picture books, when they depict African-Americans at all, generally have them walking or using public transportation; a young white reader could not be faulted for getting the impression that only white people drove cars based on what they were given to read.

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While there are many Dustbowl Migration stories for kids, Jerry Pinkney’s God Bless the Child is one of the few depicting the Great Migration.

But as early as the 1910s and 1920s, automobiles were vital to African-American life.  For many families, a car was vital to the escape from poverty that occasioned the Great Migration from the rural south to the industrial north.  Many extended families packed everything they owned and themselves into cars in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and other southern states to find jobs in manufacturing cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York.  Although it is estimated that one and a half million people participated in the Great Migration between 1910 and 1940 (http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration), the image of this period in children’s books is usually of white sharecroppers, not African-American ones, piling up their cars to drive to better economic conditions.  Jerry Pinkney is one of the few illustrators to depict an African-American family piling up a car to drive north during the Great Migration; in fact, he has two different cars in his version of Billie Holiday’s and Arthur Herzog, Jr’s song, “God Bless the Child” (Harper Collins 2004).  There’s the broken-down car that a family of seven hope will take them north, reminiscent of the dustbowl families that went west to California. And then there’s the flashy car of a neighbor or relative who has already made it in the big city, indicating the rewards waiting in the industrial north.

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Everyone should be able to enjoy a good singalong in the car, as in this illustration by Floyd Cooper from Ruth and the Green Book

One of the aspects that separates the Great Migration family from the Dustbowl migration family is that, while both are poor and both are looking for a better life, the discrimination against the dustbowl families was based solely on class factors—something understood by picture book audiences, who know that the poor characters in fairy tales often face rejection.  Great Migration families often could not find anywhere to eat or sleep or go to the bathroom, even if they had the money to do so.  Restaurants, hotels and service stations in the south—and in many parts of the north as well—refused to serve African-Americans, or offered them far inferior services.  Travel was not only difficult but frequently dangerous if an African-American family was caught out after sundown.  In 1936, an African-American postman by the name of Victor Green decided to do something about it, and made the first guide for African-American travelers, called The Green Book.  Initially only serving New York City, the guide expanded to the entire US, Canada, Mexico and Bermuda by its final edition in 1964, the year that Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill into law.  Calvin Alexander Ramsey (with the help of Gwen Strauss) wrote a picture book about Green’s guide, with illustrations by Floyd Cooper, called Ruth and the Green Book (Carolrhoda 2010).  The guide helps the family to travel safely, and more than that allows them to enjoy the experience without fear.  The author’s text gives the child character the power (Ruth is assigned the task of finding safe places in the guide).  Teen drivers rarely have such positive experience in books—Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give being a recent poignant example.

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Driving is a rite of passage for American teenagers like my daughter, but for too many of them it does not offer the freedom to go wherever they want—even if they are following the rules.  Children’s books, including picture books, can play a role in changing the way that readers view African-American drivers by depicting the history of the unequal power relations that restrict(ed) the freedom of those drivers, and offering a space for readers to question why everyone does not have the same “rules of the road”.

Echoes of Innocence: War, Black Power and Racial Innocence

This week I finally got to the Black Power exhibition at the Schomburg Center in New York, which recognizes the impact of Black Power and the Black Panther party during the 1960s and 1970s, both in the US and globally.  I was particularly interested in the discussion in the exhibit about children, and have been thinking about this ever since—especially because my week also included a reading of Robin Bernstein’s piece in the New York Times, “Let Black Kids Just be Kids” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/opinion/black-kids-discrimination.html), and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Newbery Honor Book, Echo (Scholastic, 2015).

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Blake was aware in the 1790s that Black children were not allowed innocence in white society.

Bernstein’s op-ed piece talks about the construction of innocence (presumably in the US, since all her examples are American, but her arguments can be stretched to other countries as well) as having racial connotations, beginning especially in the 19th century.  During this period, the romantic notion of the child was as an innocent, blank slate—but only, Bernstein argues, the white child.  “The more that popular writers, playwrights, actors and visual artists created images of innocent white children, the more they depicted children of color, especially black children, as unconstrained imps. Over time, this resulted in them being defined as nonchildren,” she writes.  While she mentions an exception to this (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s representation of Topsy, which was then destroyed by the popular theatre versions of Stowe’s book), and I would argue that there are other counter-examples (William Blake’s version of innocence, for example, was not confined to white children—although as his poetry makes clear, Black children’s innocence was confounded by white society), her main point is sound.  Children who are not white are often seen in white-dominated societies as threatening.

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Kenlock’s Black Panther girls are innocent of wrong-doing, but not innocent of injustice.

I looked back at the photos I had taken in the Black Power exhibit, most of which were either pictures of children or pictures of Black Arts poetry.  None of the children in the photos were smiling, and many of them could be seen as provocative, with the children looking defiantly at the camera adorned with Black Power symbols.  These photographs were not taken by white photographers who saw a threat, but Black and white photographers who saw a possibility.  White photographer Stephen Shames’ image of a Black boy in a white Angela Davis t-shirt was designed, along with his other Black Panthers photographs, to show that “‘black pride’ was not based on denigrating whites, but on showing the black community that they were in control of their own destiny” (http://www.stephenshames.com/projects/black-panther-party). Black photographer Neil Kenlock’s photograph of Black Power girls in Brixton, which was part of the “Stan Firm Inna Inglan” exhibition I saw at the Tate in London, was also reproduced here to showcase global Black Pride.  But whether you looked at these photos and saw strength or threat, it is difficult to see the children in these photos as innocent, in the sense of innocent as someone who is unknowing, a blank slate in John Locke’s definition.  You can’t be innocent if you are aware of injustice.

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Even music is not innocent of understanding injustice in Ryan’s novel that connects children across time and place.

And this is why I found Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Echo so compelling.  The story is really multiple stories, across time and distance and even genre, woven together through the medium of wars (both WWI and WWII) and a harmonica that is owned by multiple child characters.  The harmonica, as an instrument, is not a random choice.  Ryan takes pains to indicate how music connects us all; one of her characters comments, “Music does not have a race or a disposition . . . Every instrument has a voice that contributes.  Music is a universal language” (86) and this sentiment is echoed throughout the novel by different characters.  But the speech made here is in response to another character denigrating the harmonica as an instrument.  Music is not all innocent and even an instrument can be culpable.  Elisabeth is in the Hitler Youth, and the Hitler Youth thinks that the harmonica is “offensive” (85) because it is used to play “Unacceptable music . . . Negro music. Jazz. It’s considered degenerate” (86).  Her brother Friedrich, who is Ryan’s main character in this particular story, knows this is nonsense; music is innocent in the sense that it has not done anything wrong.  But the harmonica and Friedrich are only innocent in this one sense of the term.  They are not the unknowing kind of innocent.  Friedrich may not be Jewish, but he is under threat, both for speaking against injustice and for having a physical “deformity”—a birthmark—that may get him confined to an insane asylum or worse in Nazi Germany.  The harmonica, which is a somewhat magical version of a regular harmonica, “knows” about sadness, and can play it.

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This famous photo from WWII, which appeared in Life magazine, has often been used as a symbol of an innocent boy caught up in fascism. But just because he’s done nothing to deserve a gun being pointed at him, doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand justice.

The knowingness of the harmonica is explained in the next of Ryan’s interconnected stories, in which the Irish-American Mike is taught to play the harmonica by the African-American Mr. Potter.  When Mr. Potter first plays, Mike is fascinated and asks him about the sound he gets the harmonica to make.  Mr. Potter explains, “blues music is about all the trials and tribulations people got in their hearts from living. . . . Blues is a song begging for its life” (293).  Mike has not done anything wrong by becoming an orphan, but he is aware of the injustice that keeps food out of his and other children’s mouths in the orphanage—so he too can play the innocent/not-innocent blues on the harmonica.  Similarly, the next owner of the harmonica, Ivy Lopez, is innocent of wrongdoing but is still sent to a crumbling and understocked school because of her Mexican heritage.  This not only allows her to play the blues, but to understand the injustice done to another: she exposes the wrong treatment and suspicion of Japanese-Americans who have been interned.

Bernstein’s article ends with a slightly mixed message, arguing that all children should be seen as innocent but also that innocence should not be the focus—rather we should look at whether children are being treated justly.  I think most children should be seen as innocent of wrong-doing, because most children are; however, I don’t think any children—Black, white, Latina, Asian, any children—should be the unknowing kind of innocent.  We should not only ensure that children are being treated justly, we should teach them how to fight for justice for themselves and others.  Because only when everyone is working for justice will we ever achieve it.

Empire, Dreams, Dashed: Iran, the UK, and children’s books

Two news stories caught my eye this week: first, the YouGov poll that proclaimed love and nostalgia for the British Empire is alive and well; and second, the news that the publisher Tiny Owl (tinyowl.co.uk) had their Iranian illustrator, Ehsan Abdollahi, rejected for a visa to come to the Edinburgh Festival.  On the face of it, these stories seem totally unrelated.  After all, Iran was never a part of the vast British Empire, although many of its neighbors, including Iraq, were.

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Abdollahi’s response to his visa’s rejection (tinyowl.co.uk).

But Iran’s escape from domination by the British Empire was not for want of trying on the part of the British, who saw control over Iran as a way “to defend her imperialist interests in India and the Persian Gulf” according to Younes Parsa Benab (http://www.iranchamber.com/history/articles/origin_development_imperialist_contention_iran1.php)particularly against the threat of the other regional superpower, Russia.  By the late Victorian period, the British had established control over the construction of infrastructure (including the railroads), mining, and banking; and by 1901, Britain had been granted the right throughout most of Iran to search for stocks of petroleum.  In many ways, then, the British did in Iran what they did in countries officially within the empire; the description of Iraq from The Adventures of Peter and Tess Through the British Commonwealth (Amex, 1944), written by Stella Mead and illustrated by Eulalie, could just as easily have been written about Iran, with a few of the dates and place-names changed.  Peter and Tess’s father note that, “the British were in charge until 1932 . . . A friend of mine was here, helping to build the famous Rowanduz Road that pierces the mountain barrier of Kurdistan, a simply marvellous bit of engineering” (n.p.).  When Tess asks what the country produces “besides all the dates” they have been eating, her father tells her, “I see you’ve marked Mosul up there in the North.  That’s the oilfields district” (n.p.).

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Stella Mead’s text from Peter and Tess contrast British efficiency and modernization of the Middle East favorably with Eulalie’s illustration of traditional society.

Iran, like Iraq, received “marvellous engineering” in return for control over industry, banking, and precious resources.  I had an Indian friend once who told me that the British were great because “they built the railways” throughout India and, indeed, the world; he seemed untroubled by the cultural, economic and political chaos that the British left in their wake when retreating from their colonial responsibilities.  In a very similar fashion, the YouGov poll that appeared this week argued that although “Economically, the British Empire invested in infrastructure, established trading routes and installed institutions . . . it also extracted resources, oversaw famines and in some cases left behind instability. Though many (36%) are unsure, British people do tend to think that, overall, former British colonies are now better off for having been part of the empire, by 49-15%” (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/07/26/britain-proud-its-empire/)

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Move to the back . . . this British war poster cements the idea of preferred nations.

The YouGov poll is also significant for what it says about British ideas of the empire.  “The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this year are the latest reminder of the British Empire, and of a determination to present its legacy as constructive. YouGov also asked which countries British people would especially like to do well at the events, with Australia, New Zealand and Canada being most favoured” (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/07/26/britain-proud-its-empire/).  Even Kipling, in his School History of England written with CRL Fletcher in 1911, agreed that it was best to stick with these whiter colonies.  “In Canada, we had really little difficulty in making good friends with our new French subjects . . . In Australia we had nothing but a few miserable blacks, who could hardly use even bows and arrows in fight.  In New Zealand we had a more warlike race, the Maoris . . . to deal with” (238-239) but once these minor problems were accomplished, Canada, Australia and New Zealand became England’s most “important” colonies.

Which brings me back to Tiny Owl and Iran.  In 2008, the UK government abolished the Artist, Writer and Composer visa in favor of an Australian-style points system in which writers—whose income is typically irregular—have to prove they have a regular income and strong ties to their home nation.  This year is the third year that Tiny Owl author/illustrators have been denied visas; in addition to Abdollahi, Marjan Vafaian (in 2016) and Ali Seidabadi (in 2015).  Other publishers and organizers of book festivals have had similar problems when their authors or illustrators come from places such as the Middle East or Africa, according to Heloise Wood’s article in the Bookseller, “Outrage after children’s author denied visa” (19 July 2017).  Individual Home Office decisions may be perfectly legitimate, but the pattern of denials does suggest that certain areas of the world are deemed less desirable.

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This book, illustrated by banned illustrator Abdollahi, posits that “colouring in the world” can make it a kinder place.

And this is a real shame, because the Iranian illustrators from Tiny Owl offer British children art that is totally different from artistic styles found in British picture books.  The swoopy arms and big dresses (yes, these ARE the technical terms used by artists) of the characters connect them with children’s own drawings, but are at the same time highly stylized and graphically distinct in their patterned backgrounds and color pallet.

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Illustrator Ali Seidabadi was denied a visa in 2015.

Iranian illustrators, if they were able to talk about their work in the UK, could have useful dialogue with British illustrators, people such as the current Children’s Laureate Lauren Child (whose drawings also have a childlike quality), and the cross-cultural interaction could only improve the overall picture of British illustration.

Illustrator Marjan Vafaian was denied a visa in 2016.

I think back to how Eastern European influence after World War I, through artists like Miska Petersham and Willy Pogany, influenced picture book trends in America.  Had American officials been suspicious of artists coming from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, picture books in the period might not have enjoyed the golden age that they did.  Pogany and Petersham settled in the US, while the Iranian illustrators are only asking for a chance to visit and discuss their works.  For Britain to only allow authors and illustrators from certain countries access to visas, they impoverish their own authors and illustrators—not to mention the children who need to read beyond their own borders, and see the world through others’ eyes.

The Mathematics of Slavery and the Classroom; or, an Open Letter to Rochester Grammar School

It’s 2017.  That’s 210 years since England abolished the slave trade, and 152 years since the abolition of slavery in the United States—I did the math. Other people are also doing mathematical problems involving slavery, as evidenced on Twitter this week when the following assignment surfaced from Rochester Grammar School in Kent asking students to calculate the best business deal they could get spending £100 on slaves.

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I would love for someone to tell me that this is not a real assignment . . .

The idea that trading in humans could be seen as a reasonable school assignment is part of a wider problem.  Recently, I took MA students to Speke Hall outside of Liverpool, where they were told that the money to pay for the hall came from “farming” in the West Indies—despite the fact that one of the coats of arms in the Oak Parlor of the house has three Black people’s heads on it.  This happened less than ten miles from the International Slavery Museum, where they have a painting of a slave ship named the “Watt”—which also happened to be the name of one of the Speke Hall families.

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The coat of arms of “Watt of Speke” with three African heads on the top. But their sugar plantations were maintained by “farmers”.

As a former teacher of mathematics (yes, this was how I started my adult working life), I am sympathetic to the notion that children should be given “real” mathematics problems to solve.  I spent enough time as a child figuring out how old someone was if they were a quarter of their grandmother’s age now and twenty years from now they would be half their mother’s age (why couldn’t you just ask them how old they were?) to grow up despising mathematics.  In fact, this is why I got the job teaching third and fifth graders the subject; the experimental school valued philosophical understanding of concepts and real-world problems.  I agree, too, that an integrated curriculum is one of the best ways to accomplish this kind of deep understanding of mathematical concepts.  So I’d like to offer Rochester Grammar School some alternatives to their assignment.  My suggestions incorporate not only mathematical and historical concepts, but integrate the literature curriculum as well.

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The cost of escaping was more than a mathematics problem.

Students might, for example, look at Tanya Landman’s Passing for White (Barrington Stoke 2017).  This story is a fictionalized account of married slaves, the wife being light-skinned enough to “pass” for white.  She dressed up as a white slave-owner who “owned” her husband in order to escape north to freedom. Despite Rosa’s light skin, they could not have made the journey without money.  Landman writes,

Over the years Benjamin had been allowed to take on extra carpentry work and he got to keep a little of the money people paid for that.  As for me, well, there were times that Mr Cornwell’s conscience bothered him some.  He’d slip me a few coins, tell me to get myself ‘something pretty’.  But I had no need of ribbons or frills.  I put every last cent in a jar . . . It was against the law to sell anything to a slave without his master’s permission, but there were places that turned a blind eye to that.  They’d charge twice the price for goods that were half the quality, but they’d do it” (25).

There are multiple opportunities for mathematical story problems in this passage alone—not to mention the potential for powerful discussions about the difference between the law and justice.

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Are rich people just rich because they manage their “purchases” better? Illustration by Frank T. Merrill from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

If Rochester Grammar School preferred a “classic” literary text, they could look at Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a novel set during the American Civil War that does not in fact mention slavery at all.  Teachers might read my article, “Anything to Suit Customers: Antislavery and Little Women” in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26.1, to get some background into why slavery disappeared in the novel, and then lead a discussion about the economics of publishing in an ideologically-divided nation (a not untimely lesson to have in this era).  The absence of slavery in the novel could then be compared with the 1994 film version, in which Meg’s anti-slavery wardrobe is compared to that of her rich friends who are not bothered by such scruples as social justice.

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This page from Plant Hill Arts College students’ “To Be Free is Very Sweet”: The Life of Mary Prince shows that school-age people can understand the realities that come with the mathematics of slavery.

Alternatively, they could do what I often did as a teacher, and ask the students to come up with their own mathematics problems.  They might use as a model the book produced by students from Plant Hill Arts College in Manchester, “To be free is very sweet”: The Life of Mary Prince (Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust, 2010). The students, who wrote and illustrated the text, were keenly aware of the mathematics of slavery, in which people could be bought and sold to enrich plantation owners, and families could be torn in half—or, in Mary Prince’s case, in quarters.  And unlike the Rochester Grammar School assignment, the students at Plant Hill Arts College recognized that the mathematical facts had emotional and physical consequences for real people.

Children need to be taught about slavery, and they need to understand it in a deep, rather than surface-level, way if they are ever to grapple with the continuing racial inequalities that exist in former slave-owning nations.  But treating slavery as a mathematical problem replicates the arguments made by slave-owners in the West Indies and the southern states of the US, who claimed—rightly, as it happens—that the economies of these regions would tank if slavery was abolished.  But you would not teach children mathematics by having them calculate how to purchase drugs, or illegal guns, or children for trafficking, at an economical price.  We have to see slavery for what it is: robbery.  And one of the best ways to open children up to the true mathematics of slavery is through reading.  As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his Narrative, “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.”  The mathematics of slavery has never been more clearly expressed.

What is the City but the People? Manchester, Children’s Literature, and the World

Last week I took my MA students to Manchester.  Officially, they are on a course I designed called Race, Literature and the Archive—but students don’t come on Summer Abroad Courses just for extra library time (shock horror).  Many of them were particularly interested in Manchester because of the recent terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena during the Ariana Grande concert in which 22 (mostly young) people were killed.  We had discussed the diversity in Manchester prior to coming to England, and they wanted to know how the city was handling the attack.  I have, of course, been to Manchester several times, and knew exactly how Manchester would be handling it—but I was pleased to see signs all over the city advertising the Manchester International Festival (currently in progress).  They said, simply, What is the City but the People?

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This sign was everywhere in the city–and sometimes it even mentioned the International Festival that it was advertising . . . 

This sign was a perfect introduction for my students before we went to the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre.  I’ve mentioned the centre in previous blogs; it was set up to honor the school boy, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, who was murdered by a classmate in 1986 on the school playground.  The classmate then went on to brag that he had killed “a Paki”.  Ullah was not Pakistani, but Bangladeshi; however, he had been known in the school for defending Pakistani classmates when they were being bullied for their ethnic origins.  Jackie Ould, the director of the education arm of the AIU Centre, talked with my students about the tragedy of Ullah’s death, but also about the positive ways that the community (local and global) came together after the murder.  The legacy of Ullah if he had lived we will never know, but the legacy of his death is described in a booklet which anyone can download: http://www.racearchive.org.uk/legacy-ahmed-iqbal-ullah-2/.  For me, the most important part of the legacy has been the Race Relations Centre, as it not only provided research support for my forthcoming book (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015, appearing from Palgrave Macmillan in a few weeks) but also introduced me to the projects that Ould initiates with school children of Manchester.

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This booklet is downloadable from the AIU Centre website.

These book projects have ranged from biographies of Black and Asian Britons to folktales of the places where Manchester’s immigrants have come.  While early folktales came from Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Roma or Travellers, the most recent two came from communities who represent newer waves of immigration to Manchester, the Somalis and the Sudanese.  Both countries suffered under civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s, and the UK opened its doors to migrants and refugees fleeing from violence.  England has the largest Somali immigrant population in Europe.  Refugees from South Sudan are the third largest asylum-seeking group in the world.  Nonetheless, they represent a tiny proportion of the population of Britain.  According to the Red Cross, “There are an estimated 118,995 refugees living in the UK. That’s just 0.18 per cent of the total population (65.1 million people)” (http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Refugee-support/Refugee-facts-and-figures) – hardly the “swarm” of people that the anti-immigration groups (and tabloids) like to suggest.  Like other immigrants to Britain, they suffer discrimination and racism, even when they don’t struggle to find work that suits their qualifications or decent housing.

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Folktales may seem distant from the present, but interacting with the past the way these schoolchildren did can also make sense of the current moment.

It may seem that folktales, set in the distant past, have little to do with the struggles of refugee groups in Britain today.  But Ould’s folktale projects do important work.  First, the two recent folktales immediately align these immigrant groups with positive attributes just by virtue of their titles: the Somali story is entitled The Clever Princess and the Sudanese story is The Kindly Ghost.  The main characters in these stories not only help others, they also are active in achieving their own destiny.  Both protagonists are beset by problems that they overcome through their strength and quick thinking.  They learn that kindness toward bullies is not worth it, and that persistence is needed to win out over despair.  These are all useful lessons for immigrants—but importantly, they are also useful lessons for everyone.  The book projects that Ould and the school children produce are not done exclusively (or sometimes even at all) by members of those immigrant communities.  In fact, part of the point for Ould is that school children learn about each other.  This includes learning about their similarities as well as their differences: by retelling folktales, school children learn how folktales have universal ideas, common characters, settings and plots.  Characters journey seeking wisdom and happiness all over the world.

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Jackie Ould, education director at the AIU Centre, helps students interact with Manchester’s history through the Archives+ project in the Central Library.

After her presentation on the origins of the centre, Ould took us upstairs in the central library to show us the Archives+ project (http://www.archivesplus.org/), where through digitization of documents and central displays, ordinary library users can unlock the secrets of the archives to learn about the history of Manchester.  My students immediately started looking through the artifacts that told about the various waves of immigration to the city.  They learned about the Sikh struggles to be allowed to legally wear turbans at their jobs or on motorcycles; they found out more about Ahmed Iqbal Ullah’s Bangladeshi community; they looked at pictures of the Afro-Caribbean community at Moss Side.  Being able to interact with the material—just like the Manchester school children who retold and illustrated the folktales—encouraged them to dig deeper, find out more, be aware of the different people that made up this city.  The Archives+ project, like the folktale project, promotes the idea that everyone’s story matters, and that stories of the city are for everyone.  Manchester is not alone in this; it may take more digging, but most cities have histories worth uncovering, and it would be worth examining the treasures of your local archives.  Because, at the end of the day, what is the city but the people?

 

Into the Wild, Into the World: David Almond’s Island

British author David Almond has spent his career writing books for children and young adults that explore the idea of wildness.  Sometimes it is the wildness outside the main character, such as in the much-lauded 1998 novel Skellig.  Sometimes it is the wilderness and the ancient myths called forth by landscape, as in the 2014 A Song for Ella Grey which retells Orpheus and Eurydice along the Bamburgh dunes.  Sometimes it is the wildness within a character, as in the 2008 graphic novel, created with illustrator Dave McKean, The Savage.  The idea of the wild and untamed is, Almond’s novels suggest, a part of all of us as well as all that surrounds us; understanding it can give us insight into our pain and accepting it can often help us heal what is broken.

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Almond’s books connect young people with an ancient wildness, inside and outside of themselves.

Knowing about Almond’s focus on the wild is important for understanding his recent novella, Island (Hodder, 2017).  Island was a £1 World Book Day selection in the UK, meaning that the book is sold for a single pound, until it is out of print, and school children in the UK can use their National Book Token to get it for free.  World Book Day is connected with UNESCO; however, the British celebration is not a government initiative but a charity, and therefore reliant on the generous support of authors and publishers who are willing to participate (you can read more about it here: http://www.worldbookday.com/about/).  The books this year, like the shortlisted books for the Carnegie Medal, were all written by white authors, something I (and others—see http://forreadingaddicts.co.uk/childrens-literature/world-book-day-2017-selections-criticism/13835 for a summary) complained about (in this particular moment, when there are so many great writers of colour in the UK, it seemed absurd that not one was asked to write for this celebration).  I doubt it had anything to do with me, but I do want to point out that since the announcement of the selections and resulting criticism, the World Book Day website has highlighted several books with diverse authors and characters.

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Almond’s Island was a 2017 World Book Day selection.

However, the lack of diversity in authors made me even keener to read Almond’s selection.  In addition to admiring Almond’s dreamlike prose, and having had my own personal pilgrimage to the book’s setting of Lindisfarne (Northumbria’s Holy Island), I was curious to see how Almond would develop the character of Hassan, a boy from Syria.  His initial appearance in the novella comes as white British Louise, through whom the novel is focalized, is traveling with her father to Lindisfarne, an island only reachable by a causeway in low tide.  Louise and her father travel to the Holy Island every year to remember Louise’s mother, now dead, and the happy times they had as a family there.  The island, therefore, is both wild and familiar to Louise, and—as with the wild in Almond’s other books—represents a place where she can connect with her past and heal her pain in the beauty of nature.  “We’ve been coming here every year, ever since Mum died.  It’s a holiday that’s also a pilgrimage, a journey into the beautiful past” (6), Louise says.

The boy they pass on the causeway seems to be an intrusion into this beautiful past; Louise’s father instantly labels the boy an outsider (“doesn’t look like he comes from here, does he?” he says on page eight) and refuses to offer him a ride or any other assistance.  Strangers, for Louise’s father, are dangerous.  He tells her, “The world’s going through some very dark days.  You’ve got to be careful” (10).  Louise has a more sympathetic view of the boy, but she nonetheless also describes him in terms of otherness; she writes in her journal that “He comes from nothing, from nowhere” and “He seems to be walking from a dream . . . I think he might be very beautiful” (16).  Beauty is not entirely redeeming for Louise, because she concludes her journal entry by saying, “I think he might be terrifying” (17).  It is no coincidence that both Louise and her father connect the boy with terror, since it turns out that the boy—Hassan—is from Syria.  Almond constantly exposes the orientalist ideas that white British people have about Syrians; Hassan even exploits these ideas by performing magic tricks for tourists’ money.  Hassan tells them that in Syria, “I perform, with the snake charmers and the acrobats and the singers and the storytellers” (73); Almond says that the tourists are “entranced by him . . . they want to be entranced by him” (73).  This is the acceptable version of the mysterious East, but more troublesome versions of the stereotype—the terrorist and the refugee—are also lurking.  Hassan asks Louise if she thinks of him as a refugee and the question “embarrasses” her because she “doesn’t know” the answer (59).  Hassan questions Louise’s father’s new girlfriend directly as well: “Do you think I am one of those people? Because of Syria and my skin.  That I was in London with my knife? That I am a terrorist come to Lindisfarne with dreams of slaughter?” (85-86).  Almond’s island is a microcosm of white British (and American—Louise’s father’s girlfriend is from Missouri) attitudes toward Syrians and Middle Easterners

But Almond also shows us—literally—a different picture.  Two different pictures, in fact.  One is Louise’s childhood drawing, still preserved, in the upside-down boat which has been turned into a shed that comes with the cottage they return to every year.  Louise looks for the drawing upon her arrival, “the pencil drawing I made when I was four, the three of us in an upside-down boat surrounded by moons and stars . . . Dad calls it my cave painting, created in a distant past, at the very birth of the world” (18).  This “cave painting,” connecting Louise with wildness, contrasts with Hassan’s very modern picture—a photograph that he shows her, evidence that Syrians too are connected with Lindisfarne.  The photographer, Hassan’s father, took the picture of Louise and her parents years ago.  Hassan’s pilgrimage is to a place that he, like Louise, belongs to, its wild and civilized parts, its modern and its ancient.  In typical poetic fashion, Almond breaks down stereotypes and connects humanity through the timelessness of nature.  At the end of the book Louise kisses Hassan, at the same time imagining, not just herself in the upside-down boat, but “all of us . . . all the living and the dead, all carried upside down through the astounding stars” (119).  Island is a hopeful small book that takes readers into the wild—and into the diverse and astounding world.