Tag Archives: Abolition

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.

IMG_3671

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).

IMG_3673

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.

IMG_3678

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.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_3544

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.

IMG_3421

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.

33816615244_48d9905790_n

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.

IMG_3546

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.

IMG_3545

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.

Never Too Early to Begin: Resistance and Literature for Youth

This week, several people working for various US government agencies, including the EPA, the department of the interior, and the department of agriculture, have reacted to the Trump order barring external communication (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-epa-contract-freeze-media-blackout-20170124-story.html) by creating alternative, or rogue, twitter accounts. Even those agencies who haven’t done so have found interesting ways to speak out. My favorite was Death Valley National Park, whose official Twitter site, @DeathValleyNPS, took time yesterday to tweet, not about the climate change science that is so annoying the Trump administration, but about the history of Death Valley and Japanese internees. “During WWII Death Valley hosted 65 endangered internees after the Manzanar Riot,” one tweet read. This came on the same day that Trump signed an order to (temporarily, he says) prevent refugees from entering the country and banning visas for people from certain Middle Eastern and African countries (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-immigration-exclusive-idUSKBN1582XQ). The timing of the Death Valley tweet did not, to some readers, seem coincidental; one asked if they’d ever tweeted about this “during the last 8 years”—i.e. during Obama’s presidency. As it turned out, they had; the park feels that history, as well as nature, matters. In this case, the history is complicated; the word “hosted” is interesting, because of course the Japanese-Americans moved to Death Valley were still in an internment camp, and they were moved because other Japanese-Americans at Manzanar thought they were collaborating with the government. But the @DeathValleyNPS tweets serve as a reminder that resistance to official, authoritarian, or institutional policy can come in many forms.

img_2909

Abolitionists sow the seeds of justice in 1847.

With that in mind, I thought I’d look at several different kinds of children’s literature from a variety of locations that promote resistance to such policy, both recent and historical. The oldest book I’ll mention here is also for the youngest audience: The Anti-Slavery Alphabet from 1847, published for the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Fair that year (although the book is without pictures, sales were apparently “brisk” according to the society). I’ve written about alphabet books before; seemingly innocuous, they have frequently been used to further activist agendas suggesting that, as the epigraph on the Anti-Slavery Alphabet reads, it is necessary to “In the morning sow thy seed” (n.p.). This sentiment is made even more explicit in the rhyme that accompanies the alphabet’s letter “Y”: “Y is for Youth—the time for all/ Bravely to war with sin;/ And think not it can ever be/ Too early to begin” (n.p.). Youth, according to the book, can begin to war with the sins of adults as early as they begin to learn their letters.

img_2908

Year 3 students at St James Primary School in Manchester created this leopard, looking shocked at Anansi’s ability to trick him.

And youth’s own creative powers are what will counter society’s wrongs. A picture book from the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Trust may not be as openly didactic as the abolitionists, but Anansi Makes it Happen (2011) has equally activist goals. The AIU trust was set up in response to the racially-motivated murder of a 13-year-old boy by one of his classmates in Manchester in 1986, when (as now) migrants to the UK were being told to “go home” even when they were there legally and/or from birth. The education arm of the trust, run by Jacqui Ould, “aim[s] to celebrate the creativity of children and teachers in our multicultural city” (inside front cover blurb from Anansi Makes it Happen). Ould helps multiracial schools create versions of stories from a variety of the places from which migrants to the UK have come. The Anansi stories retold and illustrated by two primary schools honor the Caribbean and African migrants to Manchester. Knowing all this background makes the first story in the collection, “Why Spider Lives in Ceilings” that much more poignant. In the story, powerful, carnivorous Leopard not only steals Anansi’s home, he plans to eat the spider when he tries to return. Anansi is not defeated by Leopard’s size or power; he uses creative methods to stay alive and keep his home, just as the schoolchildren telling the story are using their creative powers to become authors and the AIU Trust supports projects to make the UK a more welcoming place for those who might be seen as weak or powerless.

9781484781517_p0_v3_s192x300

In our imaginations, we all fly free. Cover design by Maria Elias.

Both The Anti-Slavery Alphabet and the efforts of the AIU Trust address people who are already present in a country, whether through forced enslavement or through voluntary or involuntary migration. Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow (2016), on the other hand, is a powerful reminder of what it is like for people who exist in the no-man’s land of refugee camps. The main character, Subhi, is Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority from Myanmar/Burma. But Subhi himself is not from Myanmar, or from Australia where he is living in a detention center guarded by armed soldiers. He was born in the camp, and knows no other life until the story begins. The camp is a miserable place, with not enough food, medicine, clothing or suitable housing, let alone education for the children. As Subhi’s sister comments, “‘Here, we are the dead rats they leave out to stop other rats from coming’” (109-110). But as Fraillon points out in her afterword, “desperate people continue to seek safety in countries lucky enough to boast peace” (230). She comments about the Australian government’s law making it “a criminal offense to disclose the mistreatment of refugees in detention” (231) before suggesting places where information on this mistreatment can be found. Fraillon’s fictional imagining of the camp in The Bone Sparrow encourages readers’ empathy, and hopefully will result in their activism.

img_2907

Anthologies can encourage resistance too; this one includes the poems of Mikey Smith. Cover illustration by Tony Hudson.

Since I’ve written about alphabet books from America, folktale retellings from British children, and a middle-grade novel from Australia, I’ll end with another literary form for a different audience that comes from a different country. Jamaican poet Mikey Smith is anthologized in Facing the Sea: A New Anthology from the Caribbean Region for Secondary Schools (eds. Anne Walmsley and Nick Castor; Heinemann, 1986). His inclusion is important because he is a good poet, but also because he is a poet of resistance who was (allegedly, but only because no one has ever been charged) murdered after heckling government officials. Smith’s poem, “Me feel it, yuh see” tells what happens when young people are oppressed for too long by the institutions that surround them who “devalue dem dignity” (Facing 105). Smith’s poem concludes poignantly but powerfully: “anytime yuh see/ de yout-man-dem stumble/ doan tink dem fall./ Watch out!/ Dem a plan fi meck yuh bawl!” (106). With enough resistance, even walls fall down—and that’s a lesson that all kids should learn.

Slavery in Black and White (Puffins, that is)

While I was researching at Seven Stories this past year, I started doing an inventory for them of books in their collection that had non-white authors and characters. They have a generous amount, so I didn’t finish the list, but I did get through a collection of Puffins while I was there. Puffins, the juvenile imprint of Penguin, had their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, when books were cheap and middle class aspirations were high. Puffin even ran a club, with magazines (including games, book excerpts, and advertisements for new Puffin titles) and outings to places like the Whipsnade Zoo. The magazine is revealing, because it includes photographs of young Puffin Club members at author events and outings. Despite paging through a couple of decades of the Puffin Post, I did not find a single non-white face in the club member pages.

IMG_1430

The Puffin Post contained stories, games advertisements for new Puffins and puzzles–and photos of its members.

This does not necessarily suggest there were no Black or Asian Puffin Club members, but it does indicate that the audience for the Puffin Club and Puffin books was largely white (and, in order to be able to afford outings and yet also find them novel and exciting, probably middle-class white in the main). But the books that Puffin published were not exclusively about white Britons during this time period. Most famously, perhaps, Puffin did the paperback edition of Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft in 1977 (and then in several reprints with different covers). This is a book focalized through the white character about his mute Black foster brother, Donovan Croft. Puffin also published other contemporary stories with Black British characters, including Geoffrey Kilner’s Jet: A Gift to the Family (1979), also (like Donovan Croft) by a white author; and reprints of books by West Indian authors Andrew Salkey and James Berry—although these were set in Jamaica.

IMG_2682[1]

The 1977 Puffin cover of Andrew Salkey’s Hurricane, from artist Julek Heller, contains nothing to indicate its Jamaican setting.

Historically, however, Black people only existed during one period of time in Puffins during the 1960s and 1970s: slavery, and curiously, most of their depictions of slavery were set in America rather than the British colonies. Or perhaps it is not so curious. British history books, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, tended (indeed, until very recently) to gloss over the British participation in slavery and the slave trade, blaming the Spanish for the plantation slavery system before quickly moving on to extol the work of British campaigners in abolishing the slave trade in 1807 without ever mentioning the British embrace of slavery in between. After abolition in the British colonies, many writers and campaigners moved on to protesting American slavery, and as this campaign coincided with the rise in both Empire and children’s literature during the Victorian period, the idea became cemented, sometimes unintentionally, in textbooks that the British had always been against slavery everywhere.

IMG_2681[1]

Puffin’s cover for Sophia Scrooby Preserved, illustrated by David Omar White.

Certainly one of the Puffins that I first encountered at Seven Stories embraces this line of reasoning. Martha Bacon’s Sophia Scrooby Preserved was first published by Puffin in 1973, but like most Puffins it had been published previously in hardback. In Bacon’s case, her book had not only been published by the left-leaning Victor Gollancz in Britain in 1971, but also by Little, Brown and Company in 1968—because Martha Bacon was American. Bacon was the daughter of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and the wife of an historian, so her credentials as an author of historical fiction are validated by association. Sophia Scrooby Preserved, however, did not make a particular splash in America and I, who read prodigiously as a child in the 1970s, had never seen the book before. There were multiple copies of Scrooby at Seven Stories, however, all of them in Puffins. The Puffin Club sent books and book advertisements out to its members, so the books they chose to publish often had a longer life than they did in other editions.

And there were reasons for Puffin to choose Scrooby. First, it has an element of adventure, since the book starts with the main character—who would eventually be renamed Sophia Scrooby—in her African village, which is burned to the ground by another African tribe. The girl escapes and lives with impala for a while before “accidentally” becoming enslaved when looking for food. She is taken to colonial America, just before the Revolution, and lives with a family of royalists who treat her like family and teach her Latin and to sing operatic arias. Unfortunately, they “accidentally” forget to free her, so that when they are driven out of their home by creditors, Sophia has to be left behind with the goods to be sold. After a number of adventures, during which she preserves her French lace dress and the necklace she wears, and is never once beaten or struck, she ends up escaping once again (this time from a “West Indian voodoo queen” in New Orleans) and goes to Britain. Upon setting foot on English soil, she is treated like royalty and goes to live with a rich old lady as her companion. In London she meets no less than Ignatius Sancho, the composer and anti-slavery companion. Sancho discovers she is from London and complains, “I cannot countenance rebellion. Better to make peace and pay her taxes and free her slaves” (206). This is some forty years before Britain “frees her slaves”, but as with the bad Victorian history textbooks, Bacon’s text assumes that because Britain has passed the Somerset Ruling, all of Britain’s slaves are now free.

Bacon’s book was one that worked for Puffin, because it contained all the elements of an exciting adventure story, as well as being on “the side of the angels” politically at a time when a growing population of Black British students were being told that West Indian students couldn’t learn in the British school system or integrate into British society. Sophia Scrooby Preserved presents a picture of a well-dressed, well-spoken, independent African girl in London who can earn her own living and move in society’s circles. Sadly, what Sophia Scrooby preserves is the idea that the white British were innocent of the brutality of slavery.

 

Her Contraband: Diversity and Louisa May Alcott

louisa_may_alcott-with-pen-in-hand

Yesterday (November 29th) was Louisa May Alcott’s birthday (happy 183rd!). Some years ago, I wrote an article about why slavery was absent from Alcott’s most famous book, Little Women (1868). Although the first half of the novel is set during the Civil War, and the March girls’ father is a chaplain with the army, the issue that engulfed the United States in war and threatened its union does not form a focus for the story. The Alcotts, were well-known abolitionists, and even admitted an African-American child to Bronson Alcott’s school at one point; Louisa counted abolition as one of her causes, along with feminism—although she tended to embrace feminist causes more openly in her work, both because slavery was abolished by the time she found success as a children’s writer, and because she could relate more directly to women’s causes. She did include reference to slavery in Little Women, but cautiously. She had learned from past experience what it meant to be a public supporter of abolition.

 

john_brown

Abolitionists were feared after John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry–but Alcott admired Brown and wrote about him positively.

In 1863, Alcott published two works that directly dealt (at least in part) with slavery: her autobiographical sketch of her own wartime nursing experiences, Hospital Sketches, and a story, “My Contraband,” published in The Atlantic (which supported abolitionist causes). In both these stories, the white woman who is the main focus of the narrative is an abolitionist, but is aware of how that makes her appear in the eyes of most people in the nation (north and south). Nurse Faith Dane, in “My Contraband,” is asked to take on a rebel patient and an African-American “contraband” (a slave captured by the Union forces and used by them, like other goods and property). She agrees, saying, “some of these people think that because I’m an abolitionist I am also a heathen, and I should rather like to show them, that, though I cannot quite love my enemies, I am willing to take care of them.” In her account of her own nursing, Hospital Sketches, Alcott recalls being seen by a fellow nurse cuddling an African-American baby: “my comrade henceforth regarded me as a dangerous fanatic”. Fanatics, and heathens, and those publicly perceived as such, did not write literature for children. Despite the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation, promoted and supported by abolitionists, was signed by Lincoln in 1863, war-weariness and fear of violence began to affect the public view of the anti-slavery campaigners. Race riots broke out in New York following the proclamation, when some white soldiers found out they might have to serve with African-Americans. Freedom was one thing; race-mixing (of any kind) something completely different.

Harris figure 29Image from the Race Riots of 1863 (New York Historical Society archives).

The end of the war only intensified this feeling. Former slaves were now free to run from the Ku Klux Klan, which had been formed in 1866; race riots broke out across the South that same year. Alcott revised Hospital Sketches for a new publisher to make the book more nationally-acceptable; Roberts Brothers asked her to remove many of the harsher references to Confederate soldiers. The national mood was nervous; those who had embraced abolition were silenced by the racial violence that regularly cropped up around the country, and by the loud calls to “heal the nation” and forget the South’s past wrongs.

 

hospital20sketches20illustration-c

From the Roberts’ Brothers edition of Hospital Sketches–note the sympathetic portrayal of the rebel soldier, and the caring nurse watched over by Lincoln.

The Boston publishing firm who republished Hospital Sketches would later ask Alcott to write another story, this time a girls’ story. Alcott famously didn’t want to, but wrote it for the money; her mother was sick and Alcott longed for the independence that money could bring. She was writing a book to order, and Roberts Brothers had already made it clear that they did not want anything that would enflame racial tensions. For most of its history, the novel has been viewed as semi-autobiographical, but even her young childhood was far more radical than any of the incidents in Little Women. The African-American that the Alcotts admitted to their school almost ruined the family: when Alcott’s father really admitted African-American Susan Robinson to his Temple School in the 1830s, the other pupils left. The Alcotts were forced to close the school and leave Boston, and Alcott’s mother predicted “they were likely to starve”. Alcott inverts this in Little Women, however. When Jo admits a “merry quadroon” into her school at the very end of the novel, she can finally reap the rewards of virtue. Her mother predicts that her “harvest will be a good crop.” Coming as it does after the end of the war and just a couple of years after Walt Whitman had, in “Leaves of Grass,” embraced the reunion of America through a description of the autumn harvest, Alcott’s image is poignant. The nation, as represented by Jo’s school of boys from all walks of life, has hope that reconstruction may be a success.

 

b200

A happy harvest is predicted for Jo’s multi-racial school.

Alcott herself never had much contact with African-Americans, and her real-life experience of abolition had shown her that abolitionists were shunned by society, regarded as potentially dangerous. She would work for the benefit of slaves before and during the war, and for freed blacks after the Civil War ended, but only when her work did not result in the impoverishment of her own family; she would not repeat her father’s “mistakes”. But she did provide a vision in Little Women of a different kind of society, one in which those who supported causes like abolition would succeed, financially and morally, and the nation would prosper because of it. It was not the vision of reform that she had experienced, but it was a brighter prospect to offer the child reading public. And unlike the work of today’s birthday boy (happy 180th, Mark Twain), it was packaged in a way that was more acceptable to the children’s book-buying parents.

 

huckleberry-finn-2012

Is Huck advising Jim to light out for the territories?

If you’re interested in reading my article (which discusses Alcott’s novel and abolition in more detail), here is the citation: “Anything to Suit Customers: Antislavery and Little Women.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26.1 (2001): 33-38.