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Frozen Smiles: Matthew Henson and the Elusive North Pole

I live in Buffalo, where we regularly get foot after foot of snow that has to be driven through, trudged through, and shoveled for months of the year.  Therefore, the thought of going to the North Pole has never been something that ever appealed to me in the least, unless Santa Claus took me in his reindeer sled.  But there are those who not only were interested in being one of the first people who found the North Pole, they were willing to risk months of loneliness and boredom, a monotonous and unappealing diet, and loss of fingers, toes, or even their lives to try to get there.  One of these people was the African-American Matthew Henson.

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Henson, who went on several Arctic expeditions with Robert Peary, was finally honored with a (joint) stamp in 1986.

Henson, born in Maryland a year after the end of the Civil War, left home after his parents died and went to seek work in Washington DC.  He did any work he could find, including sailing with a merchant ship and clerking in a store; although his white employers were kind, he faced considerable racism in Washington in reconstruction-era America, and found that he was treated more equally on board ships.  It was perhaps for this reason that when Robert Peary came into the shop where Henson was clerking, he accepted Peary’s officer to serve as his valet on an expedition to Nicaragua.  When Peary announced four years later, in 1891, that he wanted to be the first to reach the North Pole, Henson—who had previously been to Russian ports in winter on the merchant ship—agreed to go with him.  In 1909, after several attempts, Henson, Peary, and four Inuit members of the Arctic team, reached the North Pole and planted the American flag.  Henson’s sled was some distance ahead of Peary’s, and it was Henson who placed the flag at the pole.  I will note that there was controversy at the time over whether Peary’s team was first, and controversy later over whether they actually reached the pole or just came close, but whether they did or not is not really germane to what happened to Henson after they returned to the states.

Peary became an admiral and received various medals.  Henson became a messenger “boy”.  Henson was not invited to join the prestigious Explorers Club, not even when Peary was president; and when Peary received medals from various geographic societies around the world, Henson was neither invited to ceremonies nor similarly recognized.  Like Britain’s Walter Tull, whose achievements were similarly ignored in official circles a few years later, Henson failed to receive similar treatment to white people because of the color of his skin.

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The book cover illustration by Paul Johnson seems to indicate racial equality (more or less) in the world of Arctic exploration.

Material written for children about arctic exploration and the North Pole also downplays or ignores Henson’s contributions.  White author Mike Salisbury, who worked in the arctic and researched for the BBC, published a book on Arctic Expedition (Victoria House 1989).  The book’s cover is promising because it includes one brown-skinned and one white-skinned child “explorer” driving dog sleds while walruses look on.

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But Mike Salisbury’s text for Arctic Expedition does not even mention that Henson was African-American, and there are no accompanying pictures of him. All the historical explorers that are pictured are white.

The double-page spread on “Early Explorers” does mention Peary and Henson, but while there are illustrations of several other expeditions headed by white explorers, there is no illustration of either Peary or Henson, and the text does not indicate that Henson was African-American.  (In fact, the only person of color on the page at all is “an Inuit” who apparently does not have a name.)  Given the way that the book’s illustrations otherwise encourage Black and white children to be explorers, the failure to portray Henson is disappointing.  Children need role models, and historical heroes, and Henson is undisputedly both.  He learned the Inuit language (Peary did not, at least not to the extent that Henson did) and could drive a dog sled, which Peary also could not do.  Peary’s leadership and knowledge was necessary to the success of the trip, but so was Henson’s.

At least Salisbury mentions Henson.  The DK “Find Out” website (https://www.dkfindout.com/us/history/explorers/who-was-first-to-north-pole/), designed for children, says that “Robert Peary announced that he had reached the Pole in 1909, but because his men were not trained navigators, none of them could be sure”.  The picture accompanying the text shows an arctic sled, but no photographs of any of the explorers.  Again, this is an opportunity missed to highlight the bravery of people like Peary and Henson, whether they reached the pole first or not.

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Part of a Golden Legacy: Matthew Henson is one of the heroes of Bertram Fitzgerald’s series.

Black writers, on the other hand, just like Black organizations and clubs in Henson’s time, have always celebrated Henson’s contribution to arctic exploration.  In 1969, the Golden Legacy comics (which I wrote about in a previous blog) did an entire issue dedicated to Henson.  And just this summer, Catherine Johnson, already known for her historical fiction (including Nest of Vipers and Sawbones) and ripped-from-the-historical-headlines narratives (The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo) published Race to the Frozen North: The Matthew Henson Story with Barrington Stoke.  Both these stories, written 50 years apart, emphasize Henson’s bravery as well as the racial prejudice that allowed his achievements to be doubted by his contemporaries and buried by history for many years.

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Ha, ha, ha, microaggression is so funny! Now hand over that $100.

Both stories repeat an anecdote about a bet between Henson and a white colleague that he would not return from the North Pole with all his fingers and toes intact, and link the anecdote directly to the casual racism of the time.  It was common for explorers to lose fingers or toes to frostbite on such journeys, but in both accounts, the white colleague argues that it is impossible for a Black person to survive in cold temperatures.  This is the legacy of a racist version of human evolution that suggested people of African descent were acclimatized to hot countries, and therefore were best equipped to work (and be enslaved) on plantations, while white people were more adapted to colder countries, and had therefore learned to use their minds rather than their physical strength.  This legacy lives on in children’s biographies even now, where people of African descent are more likely to be found in sports biographies than in scientist biographies, so it is crucial to recognize this prejudice and change the paradigm, particularly in children’s books.

I found Johnson’s biography particularly engaging because it is written in the first person.  This allows the reader to get a hint of Henson’s personality: determined, curious, and practical.  Johnson’s Henson recognizes and abhors the prejudice he experiences—“I didn’t like it when people called me ‘boy’.  I was twenty-one—wasn’t I a man?” (61)—but he does not object out loud (“There was no point”; 61) and is quick to see past casual racism when he feels that a person is otherwise “open and honest” (61).  Henson takes jobs even when they don’t seem ideal: “I did not want to be a valet. A valet’s job was to iron and clean clothes.  But perhaps if it gave me the chance to travel again it might be worth it” (62).  His eagerness for adventure and his willingness to take on lesser roles and accept some prejudice to participate in exploration in uncharted territory makes the end of Henson’s story particularly poignant in Johnson’s account.  While the Golden Legacy comic quickly skims over Henson’s omission from the fame that came to Peary, Johnson shows Henson’s pain at being ignored, not just by medal-giving societies, but by Peary himself after their final expedition.  “Admiral Peary had never contacted me after our last trip. That made me very sad but I had to live in the present.  I always knew life would be different for me.  I was coloured.  But I knew that I had done great things” (117).  In this short passage, Johnson manages to highlight historical racism and suggest to readers that belief in oneself and a curious, open mind are the best antidote to the frozen smiles of a prejudiced society.

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Leaving a Golden Legacy: Black History in Comic Book Form

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The first volume in the Golden Legacy series dealt with the Haitian hero, Toussaint L’Ouverture.

I spent this past week working in Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library System, trying to find out what young Black Panthers read.  This proved more difficult than I expected; while British supplementary schools kept neatly organized lists of books in their libraries, the liberation, Afro-centered, and Black independent schools of Harlem mostly seem to have kept copies of angry letters to council members, businesses, boards of education and politicians.  However, I did find catalogs from two booksellers who catered particularly to Black schools, the Bopi Book Center (a division of the Our School Cooperative, according to the letter at the beginning of the catalog, located in Harlem, and Afram Associates, located about ten blocks away and also in Harlem.  Both these booksellers focused on positive self-images for Black children; the Bopi catalog was a bit broader in scope, offering mainstream as well as independent publishers’ books (William Armstrong’s Sounder and Leo Lionni’s Swimmy are on their list, for example).  But the Bopi Book center also included a set of comic books called The Golden Legacy series, Black biographies for 8-14 year olds, from the Black comic book publisher and writer Bertram Fitzgerald.  Fitzgerald, also a Harlem native, began publishing The Golden Legacy series in 1966; he later said that, “Golden Legacy was designed to create greater pride and self-esteem in African-American families and to dispel myths. (It) replaces feelings of hopelessness and unworthiness in black Americans …with a sense of pride and self-esteem” (http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?pid=183577562).

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Tony Tallorico’s fictional cowboy, Lobo, was the first African-American comic hero in a mainstream comic; first published in 1965.

Fitzgerald gathered quite a staff around him to help him with his comics.  The artists and writers included many Brooklyn- and Harlem-born people who had made or went on to make history of their own.  These included Tony Tallarico, who in 1965 had done artwork for the first issue of Lobo, the first mainstream comic (it was published by Dell) to feature an African-American main character. Joan Bacchus, who both wrote and illustrated for Golden Legacy, led preservation efforts for Weeksville, a 19th century community of free Blacks that included the first African-American female doctor.  Leo Carty went on to be a full-time artist who painted Caribbean landscapes and illustrated children’s book covers.  Perhaps the most subsequently famous person to work for Golden Legacy was the children’s book illustrator Tom Feelings, twice winner of the Caldecott and three-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award.

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Tom Feelings illustrated this life of Harriet Tubman while Joan Bauer wrote the story. Bauer would go on to save Weeksville, an early African-American settlement, from demolition the next year.

Feelings drew for the only Golden Legacy to feature a woman.  Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her People, written by Joan Bacchus and published in 1967, does not shy away from the brutality of slavery.  In the opening spread, two different white men are shown with whips, beating African-Americans.  Young Harriet Tubman is defiant against their cruelty, and puts herself, even as a child, between other enslaved people and the brutality of the overseer.

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Tom Feelings would go on to focus on Black History, through his brilliantly rendered Middle Passage (1995) as well as with books for younger readers, like Tommy Traveler in the World of Black History (1991)

The Tubman story as written does not differ greatly from children’s books produced since, except perhaps in its willingness to show violence.  However, other of the Golden Legacy series are more groundbreaking.  Volume 5, The Life of Matthew Henson (1969) shows the microaggressions of white people.  When Henson is asked by Peary to go to Greenland, a white lieutenant jokes, “Ha, ha, ha! Say, Henson, I hear you’re going to Greenland . . . you’re a Negro, that cold climate will kill you!”  He bets Henson $100 that he won’t come back with “all your fingers and toes”—a bet that Henson, of course, wins.

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Ha, ha, ha, microaggression is so funny! Now hand over that $100.

“Fred” Douglass is shown as an action-packed hero who dispatches overseers with his fists.  And volume 9, The Life of Robert Smalls (1970), even dares to show Abraham Lincoln as a president conflicted over whether or not to free the slaves.  This contrasts with many depictions of Lincoln as unquestionably abolitionist in children’s books, including the Caldecott-winning Abraham Lincoln (1940) by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire.

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Golden Legacy’s Lincoln is conflicted about freeing the slaves, conflicted about letting them fight in the Union Army.

 

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Golden Legacy’s Lincoln contrasts with the more popular version of the president in children’s books, that he is the willing “savior” of African-Americans; one such depiction can be found in the D’Aulaire’s 1940 Caldecott-winning Abraham Lincoln.

One thing that the Golden Legacy series shies away from depicting is mixed-race sexual unions.  This is common in children’s literature when depicting children of an enslaved woman and her white slave-owner, but Golden Legacy also does not depict the marriages, common in the 18th and 19th centuries, of working-class white women and Black men.  Alexander Dumas is shown several times with his child, Alexander Dumas fils (the writer), but the boy’s mother is never shown.  This could have been because Dumas’ wife was not the boy’s mother—but both Ida Ferrier, an actress who married Dumas, and Marie-Laure-Catherine Labay, a dressmaker who had an affair with him, were white (as were most of the more than 40 mistresses that Dumas had over the course of his lifetime . . .).  Intriguingly, the Golden Legacy series even depicts the family of Walter F. White, who “could have lived an easier life as a white man, but instead, he chose to live proudly as a Black man” as appearing all white (which in real life they did, though they identified with their African-American heritage), but the story does not mention White’s second marriage to a white South African woman and how his children from his first marriage subsequently disowned him because of it.  Instead, it focuses on how White used his ability to pass as white to report on lynchings and other crimes against Black people in the south.

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Walter F. White is depicted as a proud Black man who used his ability to “pass” to report on crimes against Blacks. Illustrator Ezra Jackson.

The series’ oddest volume in terms of its mission to dispel myths and increase pride and self-esteem in Black child readers is perhaps volume 12, Black Cowboys.  This volume seems to revel in the cowboy villain—Cherokee Bill, for example, is shown, gun drawn, cigarette in his mouth and with the words “Reward, Dead or Alive, Wanted” in the background.  His story ends in a noose.  This comic also, disappointingly, includes stereotypical “savage” Indians and scheming Mexicans.  More peaceful Black cowboys, such as the mustanger Bob Lemmons, get only a page compared to the violent cowboys’ (such as Cherokee Bill) several page spreads.

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Cherokee Bill is not quite the hero found in other volumes . . .

 

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. . . and the volume also includes attacking, avenging Indians and scheming Mexicans.

The Golden Legacy series continued to be published into the 1980s, when a court dispute with Bob Baylor, a rival publisher who tried to steal the original plates of the comics, nearly bankrupted Bertram Fitzgerald.  However, the series is still available (to my surprise) in a single volume from the publishing company (http://golden-legacy.com/shop/), and there’s even a teacher’s guide.  So your young readers too can be inspired by a Golden Legacy—if not by Fred Douglass’s fashion sense.

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“Fred” Douglass, where DID you get those wide colors and groovy trousers? You are definitely a man ahead of your fashion moment.T

African Spiritual: Religion and Children’s Books

The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child does not specifically say that a child has the right to choose his or her religion.  However, it mentions both religion and morality several times.  In Principle 1, it says that “Every child, without any exception whatsoever, shall be entitled to these rights without distinction or discrimination on account of . . . religion”.  Principle 2 argues that “The child shall enjoy special protection . . . to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially”.  Principle 6 says that the child should grow up “in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security”.  Principle 7 says that children’s education should develop a “sense of moral and social responsibility”.  And Principle 10 argues that “The child shall be protected from practices which may foster racial, religious and any other form of discrimination.”  But today I am taking as my starting point for a discussion on religion and the UN declaration Principle 9, which states that children “shall not be the subject of traffic, in any form.”

At first glance, this principle does not seem to have anything to do with religion.  But in fact, the historical period when African children were most likely to be trafficked, that is, the period of European enslavement of African people, was the period when Africans were most likely to lose their traditional forms of religion.  During enslavement, some African people were prevented from practicing their religion in a community.  Some were too young to remember or have learned the traditional religious practices of their community.  Some were given incentives to convert (or at least appear to convert) to Christianity.  All of these had an effect on the way that people of African descent in the Americas, the Caribbean and in Europe practiced religion—and these effects can be seen in children’s books right up to today.

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Morna Stuart’s story of two boys enslaved in Haiti and in France during the revolution includes reference to Yoruba religious tradition.

Many of the enslaved African people came or were descended from West African tribal groups, including the Yoruba people.  The main religion of the Yoruba was based on multiple deities and spirit guides, or orisha.  When Yoruba people were enslaved and brought to the Americas and the Caribbean, their religion changed.  In West Africa at the time, one of the gods, Ogun, was the deity associated primarily with iron—used for weapons but also agricultural implements and hunting tools, and thus a destroyer and creator god.  John Parker points out that in Haiti, “It was the aggressive, warlike attributes . . . which came to the fore on the Caribbean island, where hunting and smithing were less important than in West Africa” (Journal of Religion in Africa 28.4: 495).  Many of the French-speaking islands had enslaved people who practiced a modified version of the Yoruba religion, one which often mixed in elements of Catholic religious practices and saints; the modified religion is referred to as Vaudou, Voudou, or Voodoo.  This change can be seen in Morna Stuart’s Marassa and Midnight (New Windmills 1969) when one of the main characters calls on “Ogoun . . . the African God of fire and war” (4).  Stuart is unusual in portraying African-based religion as ordinary and acceptable; most writers whether Black or white (Stuart was white Scottish) depict alternative religions as at best anomalies practiced only by outsiders and at worst superstition.

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This cover of Benjamin’s Coming to England declares that “Belonging is the most important thing”–but white Christians did not make Benjamin and her family feel welcome in the church, even though the Benjamin family had always been Christian too.

Indeed, by the 20th century, many people of African descent in the Caribbean (and the Americas) were members of a Christian (usually Protestant) religion.  However, their method of worship was often very different from European (and European-descent) Christians, so even when they were practicing the colonizer’s religion, they weren’t always accepted.  Floella Benjamin, in Coming to England (Puffin 1997), discusses her visits to traditional Church of England services when she and her family first arrived in England from Trinidad.  “Inside, the light from the stained glass windows shone on the handful of people taking part in the mild, controlled, unemotional service—not at all like the ones I was used to” (113).  Trying to make herself feel at home, Floella sings the hymns in the manner to which she was accustomed—i.e., loudly and joyfully—only to overhear the white congregation criticize her on the church steps.  Her family eventually switches to a church started by other people from the West Indies, “always full to the brim with people rejoicing out loud” (114).

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The cover of Tony Medina’s I and I, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson. The phrase “I and I” was not meant to signify rugged individualism, but rather a connection to God and to the community.

Other people of African descent created their own forms of worship.  Probably the most well-known (though not necessarily understood) of these on a global scale is Rastafari.  Rastafari began in the 1930s in Jamaica, and mixed Protestant religious ideas with Pan-African ideals and a mysticism attained through a simple diet and the use of cannabis.  Bob Marley, perhaps the most famous Rastafarian to date, is one of the few who are portrayed entirely positively.  Most Rastafarians are presented as loners, sometimes spiritual but always outsiders.  Tony Medina explains the title of his biography of Marley, I and I (Lee and Low 2009) by saying, “The ‘I and I’ of the title is, like Bob himself, multifaceted.  It is a way of referring to oneself, yet it means more than simply ‘I’.  ‘I and I’ can refer to the unity of God . . . and every human—meaning God is within all of us and we are all one people. . . . It discourages thinking of oneself solely as an individual but instead as part of a community” (n.p.).  But Rastafarians in Britain often faced not only isolation from their community, but trouble from the white police force.  Farrukh Dhondy, in “Go Play Butterfly” (Come to Mecca, Collins 1978) shows his character Jojo “wearing a red, green and gold tam” (119), a symbol of Rastafari, right before he is beaten by the police at carnival.

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Colin Williams’ illustration of Dhondy’s “Go Play Butterfly,” on the cover of a later edition, does not include the Rastafarian character being beaten up by the police.

It’s enough to make a person of African descent want to give up on any religion connected to European traditions in any way, and return to the religion of their ancestors.  This is, after a fashion, what Tomi Adeyemi does in her debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone (Macmillan 2018).  The novel is a fantasy, but it uses Yoruba-based gods and goddesses (including Ogun) and their traditionally-allocated spheres of influence.  Adeyemi, who is Nigerian-American, uses Nigerian understandings of these spheres; thus, Ògún is the deity with influence over iron and earth; fire belongs to Sangó and war to humans.  The novel itself depicts what happens when a child is ripped away first from her mother and then from her religion (although it is called “magic” in the novel, it functions as a religion).  When Zélie realizes she has lost her magic, “The realization reopens a gaping hole inside of me” (456) and notes that “It’s like losing Mama all over again” (456).  Adeyemi’s novel serves as a powerful (and possibly unconscious) metaphor for what happened to Africans who were taken from their mother country and then had their religion taken from them as well, often by brutal force.  Children have a right not to be trafficked—in no small part because doing so can take away or alter their ability to believe in, or reject, the faith into which they were born.

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The cover illustration by Rich Deas for Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, which blends a fantasy world with traditional Nigerian religion.Mo

 

The Unexamined Life: What the Reflecting Realities Project from CLPE Tells Us

Plato, in a collection of Socrates speeches, wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living.  Of course, he (or they, I suppose) meant that not examining your OWN life gives you an empty, meaningless existence.  But what happens when you fail to examine the world around you, fail in fact to see the other people who make up your world?

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Does David White’s book help kids wonder about the unexamined lives in children’s book publishing?

There has long been a suggestion (to put it mildly) that British children’s publishing produces, in the main, books for and about white, mostly middle-class children, leaving those from other racial and socioeconomic groups largely unexamined—but because publishers in Britain have never put out industry statistics that would allow them and the public to examine their record, no one could ever say so with authority.  And to be fair to the publishing industry, even had an individual publisher wanted to produce these statistics (and some publishers, like Chicken House, Alanna Books, Firetree Books, Knights of, and Frances Lincoln have been very proud of their record on publishing for diverse child audiences), it still would not have given an industry-wide picture.  When I wrote my book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015, I struggled to find statistics to back up what I innately felt—that BAME readers were not represented very well or sometimes at all by the many children’s publishers in Britain, particularly the mainstream publishers.

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Are BAME children like the one on my book’s front cover doomed to only see white children as book characters?

Last year, however, I was asked to help create a framework for determining the number and quality of BAME representation in children’s books by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE).  CLPE then took the framework suggested by me and several other experts and asked publishers to submit all the books that they felt qualified as including BAME representation.  I was not involved with the evaluation of the books by CLPE, but once they had completed the evaluation and statistical analysis, they invited us back to hear the overall results.

You can (and should!) read the full report at the CLPE website (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research) but in the short space of this blog, I just want to highlight a couple of the results.  Keeping in mind that this was not a shaming exercise, but rather one to raise awareness; and also keeping in mind that I did not examine the books sent to CLPE myself, I am going to use some older books as examples of the kinds of things CLPE found.  This works because, at the end of the day, one of the results of this survey is not much has changed in children’s publishing since Britain’s population started changing.  The anecdotal evidence I found for Children’s Publishing and Black Britain played out in the statistics produced by CLPE for last year as well.

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Leila Berg tried to Represent Reality in her reading scheme, Nippers. At first, this meant only background characters with no speaking parts.  Illustration for Julie’s Story by Richard Rose.

One striking result from the survey is that 25% of the books submitted featured BAME characters only in the background.  This statistic can be read cynically—i.e. that “diversity” is a tick-box exercise for book producers and as long as you color some of the faces brown, you’re done—or it can be seen as an honest attempt to include more of the world in a book that would otherwise center on white people only.  Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series from the late 1960s initially had only this kind of representation; she had illustrators and photographers go down to Brixton Market (where many Afro-Caribbean people lived) to make sure that the crowd scenes in her stories about a white, working-class family were accurate.

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But Berg went on to find BAME authors to write for her series. Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose’s New Beacon Bookshop. Illustration by Richard Rose.

However, Berg did not stop with background representation; as she continued to produce Nippers, she sought out BAME British writers, like Beryl Gilroy and Petronella Breinburg, to write stories that accurately reflected and represented the lives of BAME children.  This suggests to me that an honest desire to change will produce results—if publishers are sufficiently aware of the need and thoughtful about how to address it—even if that change takes time.  The results of the Reflecting Realities survey by CLPE will, we hope, raise some of that awareness for publishers.

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Breinburg also created successful picture books (this is the American version, as you can tell by the spelling of Sean) with illustrator Errol Lloyd, but middle grade books were harder to place with publishers.

Another of the statistics that mirrored what I found in my work was that both picture books and nonfiction had a better level of BAME representation than chapter books.  (Note that the CLPE survey only encompassed books for readers under the age of 11, and not YA literature.) This suggests two things to me: first, that book producers (in which I am including authors, illustrators, publishers and editors—and maybe marketing teams and booksellers as well) feel more comfortable with pictures than with descriptions of BAME people; and second, that they value BAME representation in educational texts and settings more than they do in mainstream middle grade fiction.  I might here highlight the work of Petronella Breinburg, who although she had great success with her picture book series about a little boy named Sean, and wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers reading scheme to be used in schools, she struggled to get her middle grade fiction published and marketed.  There are many conclusions to draw from these results, but the one that I would focus on is the loss of the BAME reader.  If a BAME reader ready for longer, more complex texts only sees her- or himself in books connected with school and not with pleasure reading, they are not going to read for pleasure.  And once readers are lost, it is hard to convince them to come back to reading for pleasure—particularly when many of the YA books they will encounter see racial issues or even racial identity as “problems” to be solved.  I once read a memo from a publisher in the 1980s (I won’t name the publisher) who said that the bottom line was that publishing was a money-making business and “certain groups” didn’t read, so they needn’t be catered for.  I do believe that is the very-small-minority opinion (then and now), but even if true, perhaps the Reflecting Realities statistics will help publishers think about ways they might increase their market share and readership by producing quality chapter books for and about BAME British children.

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Rats, yes. BAME figures, not so much. Terry Deary’s and Martin Brown’s amusing version of British history does not include the West Indian troops who participated, nor the Black Britons like Walter Tull.

One place publishers might start producing middle grade literature is with funny books, which many children of all ages, classes, genders and ethnic groups enjoy.  The Reflecting Realities report demonstrated that BAME characters almost never appeared in books classed as comedies.  Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series rarely includes BAME people in the long stretch of British history, though they laugh with and at just about every group of white Britons (and pre-Britons for that matter).  I think it’s safe to say that most kids are goofier than most adults, and the goofier the kid, the more they want to read about other goofy kids.

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Is Mary Seacole a great Briton, or a great Black Briton? Biographies of Seacole always mention her white contemporary, Florence Nightingale, but biographies of Nightingale rarely mention Seacole.

And that highlights another idea that all of us on the Reflecting Realities team believe: books about BAME characters are for all readers.  I recently had someone—meaning to compliment me—tell me that my work on BAME children’s books was “niche” (he was saying we needed more interesting “niche” projects like mine).  The more that children’s books reflect the reality of the British population, the less “niche” books with BAME characters will appear—and the more readers will feel that other people think their lives are worth reading about too.

Lost by the System: The Orphanmakers of Children’s Literature

This week marked Independence Day in the US, but I want to focus this blog on the idea of unwanted independence.  Children’s literature—particularly children’s literature for white, middle-class Americans and Brits—has often been predicated on the (at least temporary) disappearance of parents in order that child protagonists might have an exciting adventure.  But for many real children, separation from parents is both economically and (more importantly) emotionally devastating—not the start of an exciting adventure, but the first step in a long and frightening road.  I highlight Principle 6 of the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child:

“Principle 6  The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother. Society and the public authorities shall have the duty to extend particular care to children without a family and to those without adequate means of support. Payment of State and other assistance towards the maintenance of children of large families is desirable.”

This principle may seem obvious (or, given what is currently happening at the US-Mexico border, maybe not): young children should live with their parents when their parents are alive.  But children’s literature is littered with examples of how international institutional systems have separated children from their parents.  Many of these examples depict the separation as being for the child’s own good, but in fact it is usually the institution (or the state that sponsors it) that benefits.

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Missionaries often deemed it best to separate children from the influence of their “heathen” parents.

Take for example the 19th century missionary school.  White writers depicted the missionary school as a place where colonized subjects could escape the tyrrany of their parents’ superstitions and be given the light of knowledge.  This knowledge generally, of course, led them to embrace the white-dominated society and reject their home society, as in this example from The Juvenile Missionary Magazine of 1854.  In a story entitled, “Woman in India,” the text argues that missionaries don’t even have to recruit children to their schools, as they are eager to leave their heathen parents behind:

“In April, 1847, five girls in the Mission-school of the Free Church at Madras determined to embrace the Gospel, and knowing that they would not be allowed to do this at home, they put themselves under the protection of the Missionaries.  One of them, called Muniatthal, was only twelve years old, but she was a very intelligent child.  On hearing her intention, her relations met together, and, taking with them a crowd of heathen, armed with stones, and clubs and bars of iron, they attacked the Mission-house until they were driven away by the police.” (8)

Note how the police are on the side of the state; the parents try to get their child back by using the courts, but the judge tells the parents that “Children have certain rights of their own; and throughout the length and breadth of this land, they will be protected in those rights which God and nature have given them” (9).  The British institutions of church and state collude to remove the child from her parents.

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Eulalie’s drawing of happy lepers; Peter and Tess, the white children, appear friendly, but they keep their hands in their pockets.

While such blatant imperialism might be frowned upon in later years, the idea that the state could better care for children than their parents and that the child should be happy in such situations remains common in children’s literature in the 20th and 21st centuries.  In The Adventures of Peter and Tess Through the British Commonwealth by Stella Mead, with illustrations by Eulalie, the white British children visit a leper colony where children are sent away from their families; while there the children are taught “English” (as opposed, I suppose, to patois) and they are all delighted to be there; an illustration shows Peter, Tess and a white doctor looking at five dark-skinned children who appear to be in a pen of some sort, but who are all smiling.  The text depicts the place as “restful and happy” (n.p.) but it is not clear if or when the children will be reunited with their families.  In Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft, the state is depicted as benevolently stepping in when Donovan’s parents give up on parenting Donovan; white people are obliged to take “trouble” over Donovan’s upbringing because (like the Indian heathens) his Jamaican parents are unwilling or incapable.

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Children torn from their parents to learn the ways of the whites in When We Were Alone; they were only happy when they could escape to nature.

Authors of color depict the separation of children from their parents by the state quite differently.  David Alexander Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree nation, showed how devastating being taken from your parents to be schooled by the colonizer can be in When We Were Alone (Highwater, 2016).  In this book, illustrated by Julie Flett, a grandmother describes to her grandchild how she was taken away because white people “wanted us to be like everyone else” (n.p.).

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Julia Gukova’s illustrations for Richardo Keens-Douglas’s Freedom Child of the Sea; slavery separated children from mothers even at the moment of birth, as this illustration shows. Other enslaved people can only look on helplessly.

Richardo Keens-Douglas reminds readers of the horrors of slavery in Freedom Child of the Sea (Annick 1996): “mothers were separated from their sons, fathers from daughters, brothers from sisters.  The wind that first day blew with a roar that had never been heard before in the beautiful land.  It carried the sounds of fear, pain, tears and broken hearts out to sea” (n.p.).

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This is what separation of mothers and children looks like in Alex Godard’s Mama Across the Sea.

And Alex Godard’s beautiful illustrations for Mama, Across the Sea (Henry Holt 1998) is a reminder of the economic separation that many children face from their parents who have to leave their homes to make enough money to survive—often seeking jobs in the country that formerly colonized them.  All of these books indicate the ways that colonization and imperialism have affected people of color around the world.  Institutions tear children away from their parents, causing them lasting emotional pain and not necessarily improving their physical or economic well-being in the process.

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Families belong together.  Children should not be lost in institutional systems—nor lost by them.  The UN knew this nearly sixty years ago, and it would do us good to remember it now.

 

The Culture Supplement: Black British Supplementary Schools for Children of Windrush

This is refugee week, as well as Windrush week, in the UK, and I wanted to combine those two events by continuing my thinking about the Declaration of the Rights of the Child.  This week my focus is on Principle 7, which states that “The child is entitled to receive education which shall be free and compulsory, at least in the elementary stages. He shall be given an education which will promote his general culture and enable him, on a basis of equal opportunity, to develop his abilities, his individual judgement, and his sense of moral and social responsibility, and to become a useful member of society.”  In Britain, the first part of this is and has been done, for citizen, immigrant, and refugee alike.  But the second half of the statement, about an education that promotes the child’s culture and sense of self, has been much more difficult to achieve for newcomers to Britain.

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Bernard Coard’s book highlighted the plight of the Black child in British schools in the late 1960s and early 70s–and led to an increase in supplementary education.

In the late 1960s, the children of the Windrush generation—some of whom had come to Britain after their parents got settled, and some of whom were born in the country—began attending British schools in large numbers, particularly in the urban centers of London, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester.  Many schools struggled to accommodate them.  Arguing language difficulties, behavioral problems, and lack of preparedness for school, teachers placed a considerable percentage of Black children (particularly boys) in what were then called ESN (Educationally SubNormal) classrooms.  This was meant to be a temporary measure for most children, but many never left the ESN classrooms, and left school without qualification or skills—sometimes not even knowing how to read—because of it.

The official line from the British government was that these children should assimilate into British society, and accept British customs and traditions.  But parents of Black British children saw the situation differently.  They felt that it was because their children were being asked to give up their culture and not taught their history that they were disinterested in school.  Many of the parents had come to Britain to give their children a better chance at education and they weren’t going to watch them lose that chance because the government felt that their children ought to be just like white Britons.  Through organizations and movements such as the Black Parents Movement, the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association, and the Anti-Banding Campaign, Black parents worked together to provide the missing piece of education for their children: the culture and history of their own people.  Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British Schools, published by Black British publisher John LaRose in 1971, gave parent groups the impetus and the statistics they needed to organize and fight for their children’s rights to maintain a sense of pride in their culture.

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John LaRose, who helped start the George Padmore school, and Jessica and Eric Huntley, who were involved with the Marcus Garvey school and later the Peter Moses school, published children’s books and supported those who did.  Photo from “I Dream to Change a World” exhibition in 2015.

Since they generally could not get the schools to teach Black history and culture (and to be fair, most white British teachers had never been prepared to do so), Black parents set up a number of Supplementary Schools: local, after school or Saturday programmes staffed by some trained teachers and many more interested but untrained parent volunteers.  Some of these schools had only a few children; others had fifty or more.  The George Padmore school, started by John LaRose in his own living room, began with only four children: his own two sons, and two of their friends.  But large or small, the critical element was improving the experience of Black children in the British schools.  Initially, the supplementary schools concentrated on what one school, the Marcus Garvey school in Shepherds Bush, called “simple MATHS and elementary ENGLISH” (note to parents, found in the London Metropolitan Archives, LMA/4463/D/01/006) because the children were so far behind their white counterparts.  But even early on the supplementary schools wanted to improve the children’s sense of self; John LaRose, writing about the founding of the George Padmore school in Finsbury Park, said that the late 1960s “was a time when anxiety about the education system in Britain and what it was doing to black children had already surfaced . . . the schools gave black children no understanding of their own background history and culture and no help in understanding their experience of the society in Britain” (George Padmore Institute Archives, BEM 3/1).  One of the important ways that supplementary schools helped Black children develop a sense of identity was through a study of their history and culture in their reading material.

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Longmans history of Equiano was used by the George Padmore school. Illustrated by Sylvia and Cyril Deakins.

We can get a look at that reading material because fortunately, some of the schools kept records of the books they used.  Many schools included biographies, from the self-produced biographies of Caribbean figures like Alexander Bustamante at the George Padmore school to standardized educational biographies (the George Padmore also used biographies of people like Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain from the American group, Science Research Associates or SRA, which produced a graded reading scheme in the 1960s and 1970s that I used in my own childhood).  Some of the material came from mainstream publishers, such as John R. Milsome’s biography of Olaudah Equiano: The slave who helped to end the slave trade (Longmans 1969) or Phyllis M. Cousins Queen of the Mountains (jointly published by Ginn and the Jamaican Ministry of Education 1967, about Nanny of the Maroons).

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The publishers Ginn and Co. worked with the Jamaican Ministry of Education to produce this biography of Nanny of the Maroons. Illustrated by Gay Galsworthy.

The fact that Queen of the Mountains was a joint publication between Ginn and the Jamaican Ministry of Education was important, because much of the history used by supplementary schools was not available in British textbooks.  Supplementary schools had to look back to the Caribbean for reading texts that reflected their own children’s history and culture as well.  Although several reading schemes, including Leila Berg’s Nippers published by Macmillan and the Breakthrough series published by Longman, did by the early 1970s include Black characters in some of their stories, very little reflected the traditions or a positive view of the contemporary Caribbean.  This may be why the George Padmore and Albertina Sylvester School (the two schools combined to share resources) used reading texts from the Caribbean, such as Inez M. Grant’s The Island Readers from Collins and the Jamaican Ministry of Education instead of British readers. In reader 2A, Stories for Work and Play (1966), children in the supplementary school could read about the modern manufacturing of condensed milk in Jamaica, as well as the traditional celebration of John Canoe—which came originally from an African source.  In this, the Black British child had his or her culture supported, and have a firmer foundation on which to build a future.

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An illustration of the John Canoe celebrations by Dennis Carabine for Inez Grant’s story, “Betty and Harold see John Canoe” in the Island Readers Stories for Work and Play.

The supplementary school was an important feature of Black British life in the 1970s and beyond (many still are running today).  It led me to wonder if refugee or other immigrant children might be having similar issues as Black children had in the 1970s—and whether book publishers might think about ways to support them in understanding their past, present and future through books that recognize and celebrate their culture.

I’ve Got a Name: Children’s Books, naming, and diversity

I’ve been thinking about names and naming lately for a few reasons.  First, because of the difference it often makes to an issue when individuals’ names are attached to a story—the Windrush scandal got more press after individual stories were highlighted by The Guardian (beginning in November 2017 with the case of Paulette Wilson, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/28/i-cant-eat-or-sleep-the-grandmother-threatened-with-deportation-after-50-years-in-britain, and coming to a head with an article that told the stories of 18 individuals, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/20/its-inhumane-the-windrush-victims-who-have-lost-jobs-homes-and-loved-ones). The Windrush scandal resulted in part because of children being brought over to the UK by their parents at a time when children did not have their own passports, but were listed on their parents’ papers—which sometimes meant they had no proof as to when they entered the country.  The #metoo movement and the Michigan State University/ USA gymnastics scandal also gained ground when it became about people with names instead of “sexual assault”.  The US media could take a lesson from the power of naming individuals and stressing the real consequences of political actions in its own growing scandal over separating children from their parents at the Mexican border.

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Children of UN staff members examine the universal declaration of human rights (UN Photo # 123898). Children got their own specific declaration of rights in 1959.

In case you are unaware of this latter story, this week the UN let the US know in no uncertain terms that they were breaking international law by separating parents from children (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/05/world/americas/us-un-migrant-children-families.html). In the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child, principle six states that, “a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf).  Although the New York Times article points out that the US is the only country that has not ratified the Declaration, it adds, “the practice of separating and detaining children breached its obligations under other international human rights conventions it has joined”.

The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has ten points in total.  It’s nearly sixty years old now (originally proclaimed in November 1959—although not adopted by the UN General Assembly for another thirty years).  I’d like to do some thinking about some of the points in this and perhaps some future editions of this blog, and how the points relate to children’s books about diversity particularly.  Today I want to start with the shortest—and perhaps simplest—one, Point Three: “The child shall be entitled from his birth to a name and a nationality.”  The reason to insist on a nationality seems obvious, then (Jews and then Palestininans as stateless people) and now (Windrush); but the right to a name surprised me when I first read it.  A name, of course, gives human dignity, it can be an indication of uniqueness and of family ties.  But children are given names by their family, not the state, I thought.  And then I remembered: children are given names by their family, except when the state—or its legalized institutions—play a role in giving or denying people their names.

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In Marjorie Darke’s The First of Midnight, Midnight was the slave name of a man who was ultimately unknowable to his white wife.

In children’s books, the most obvious place to start thinking about names is in books about slavery and the slave trade.  In my article, “After Midnight: Naming, West Indians and British Children’s Literature” (Names: A Journal of Onomastics 56.1: 41-46), I comment that “Slave names, for example, either ironically mark the low status of a figure (Caesar is an extremely popular slave name in children’s literature) or highlight the slave’s physical features (usually through names that denote darkness, such as Inky or Midnight)” (43) and that both these types of names serve to dehumanize the enslaved person.  It also takes away any family name (either given or surname), disconnecting the enslaved person from their birth family ties.  Of course, characters in books are all given their names by authors and not by slave-owners; however, as I further discuss in the article, “The notion of certain names as ‘slave names’ may have been an historical fact, but their use in fiction continues to underline the concept of ownership by whites of blacks” (43-44).  Children’s books (fictional or not) can choose to recognize the right of a person to a name of dignity, even when they are trying to be historically accurate.  One example is in Jean-Jacques Vayssières The Amazing Adventures of Equiano (Ian Randle 2001).  This book recognizes that Olaudah Equiano was taken into slavery and given the name Gustavus Vassa (an ironic name: Vassa was a 16th century Swedish king) but adds that Equiano “never accepted this name so, to please him, we will continue to call him Equiano” (18).

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Olaudah Equiano has a slave name, but Jean-Jacques Vayssieres chooses not to use it.

The practice of giving or omitting names of dignity for people of color is rife throughout children’s literature.  One only has to look to the continuous and negative emphasis on the word “Black” in Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman (1901), not to mention the fact that Sambo’s parents’ names were literally Mumbo Jumbo.  Often, secondary characters were referred to based on their skin color rather than by their name, even if their name was known.

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A color and not a name: people in Bannerman’s book are constantly referred to as black, equated with objects–because the clothes Sambo wears are colored, but the tigers are not.

In these enlightened (ahem) days, authors would never dream of writing a book about a character and referring to her as Little Brown Jenny (or whatever).  But naming is still important, especially for people of color.  One place this is especially noticeable is in books about refugees, many of whom are traveling from the global south to countries like the US and UK.  I’ve spoken in this blog about Sarah Garland’s Azzi In Between (Frances Lincoln 2012) before, but I’d just add that the book starts out with a nameless country, and a named girl—Azzi.  Azzi is in fact the only named character throughout the refugee journey (family members are called Mother, Father, Grandma, but not given any personal names).  Azzi’s name therefore becomes the focal point, and the book never mentions the word “refugee”.  Azzi is thus made, by Garland, a human being and not a problem.  Other people are named in the book only if they are helpful and friendly to Azzi (and only after she arrives in a place of safety).

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The first page of Garland’s book: Azzi has a name, even though her wartorn country does not.

I prefer this approach to that used in Kate Milner’s My Name is not Refugee (Bucket List 2016).  Milner’s book uses the conversation of an unnamed boy and his mother talking about their upcoming refugee journey to ask the reader, in text boxes, questions that imagine what it would be like to be a refugee.  Some of the questions are open-ended (asking “What would you take?”) but others are leading (“Do you think you could live in a place where there is no water in the taps and no one to pick up the rubbish?”), positing a reader who is privileged and always distanced from the nameless boy in the book.  Milner may have hoped that by leaving her character nameless, she would encourage children to empathize by imagining themselves as refugees, but it is difficult to empathize with someone we can never really know.  And you can’t begin to know someone until you speak their name.