Tag Archives: Africa

Yes, actually, they DO know it’s Christmas: Imperialism and the holidays

My least favorite Christmas songs involve people feeling sorry for other people.  There’s no better way to encourage smug self-satisfaction about your superior life than listening to songs where people buy shoes for little boys who have mothers with cancer.  At least the shoe song is about local, face-to-face charity.  The all-time most annoying Christmas song, in my opinion, is Bob Geldof’s 1984 “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, a world-wide smash hit and Christmas Number One in the UK.  I know that I am not supposed to hate this song, because all the profits went to help sick and starving children in Africa—not once, but three times (it was re-recorded in 2004 and 2014, both times as charity singles).  But this song embodies for me all that is wrong with formerly (?) imperial countries and the way that they understand the world.


An image from Iceland’s banned Christmas advert–perhaps the orangutan isn’t starving enough?

First, there is the idea that white westerners must save the Africans.  This is problematic on two separate accounts.  One, it ignores the fact that white, western countries stripped African countries of people and resources for hundreds of years through colonialism, and continue to do so—just ask the UK supermarket chain Iceland, whose Christmas advert heralding their ban on palm oil, the harvesting of which destroys orangutan habitats, was banned for being “too political” (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/09/iceland-christmas-tv-ad-banned-political-greenpeace-orangutan).  Nowhere in Geldof’s song does it suggest that Britain might help Africa because Britain helped cause the problem in the first place.  Two, even if you quibble with the notion that European colonialism continues to affect African countries, the idea that Africans need pity (rather than, say, economic development, fair trading practices, or reparations) perpetuates a racial hierarchy that is often felt much closer to home in the UK or US.  Several children’s books written by people of colour detail the humiliation of being compared with “pitiable” Africans; Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s semi-autobiographical Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995), for example, includes a school lesson about the famine in Biafra (1967-1970).  After hearing from Sister Agnes tell the class that “We in the West are fortunate to have fertile land, enough food, water and wealth . . . We must help those who are less fortunate” (29), Hope watches the pictures of the Biafran famine with horror and shame.  “How could Grandpa be proud to be descended from Africans?” (29) she asks.  Then she realizes that the rest of her class associates the starving children with her, even though she is from Jamaica: “I was the only black girl in the class and everyone looked at me” (29).  Hope’s classmates learn the lesson that it is acceptable to be racist, as long as you are charitable while doing so.  As Bono famously sings in the Geldof song, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”

The linking of race and poverty (consciously or not) is the most egregious of problems with “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” but it is not the only one.  Simplistic attitudes toward “the world outside your window” range from the idea that “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” (it actually does snow in Ethiopia, although not in the plains); to the idea that all Africans would care if they knew it was Christmas (about a quarter of the population is Muslim, to say nothing of other non-Christian religions); to the idea that if people don’t have the consumer trappings of a Western-style Christmas, then they will not recognize the day as Christmas.  Rachel Isadora’s The Night Before Christmas (Putnam 2009) tries to counter some of the stereotypical attitudes toward Africa by resetting Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in Africa.  Her dreadlocked Santa visits a family in Africa, bringing snow in his wake and providing presents from his sack.  Isadora, who is white American, lived in Africa for ten years, and has redone a number of traditional European and American tales by placing them in African settings; and although I think they are designed more to counter those naïve stereotypes about people in Africa for white people than I think they are for Africans themselves, it is still nice to see a book with a Black Santa on the cover.


There will be snow in Africa–and Santa Claus too.

I thought about imperialism and its continuing effects too when I saw the cover of Esmeralda Santiago’s A Doll for Navidades (Scholastic 2005), which shows two brown girls cuddling a white doll.  Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, and illustrator Enrique O. Sanchez, who is Dominican, did not accidentally depict a white, blonde, blue-eyed baby doll.  The story is based on an incident from Santiago’s own childhood, when she longed for a doll like her cousin had and specifically requested the blonde blue-eyed baby as a present.  This recalls Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s infamous 1950 “doll test” in which all children of any colour who were offered white dolls or black dolls chose the white dolls.  The experiment was used as evidence in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to demonstrate the effects of systemic racism on children’s self-image.  Two of my former students—one Puerto Rican and one Dominican, as it happens—are currently looking in to what it means to have “national” children’s literatures in places where the shadow of imperialism (economic, political and cultural) still affects people on a daily basis.  What is interesting to me about Santiago’s book is that, while she allowed the white baby doll to remain, and titled the book A Doll for Navidades (Christmas), the book itself focuses on the difference between an American concept of Christmas and the Puerto Rican traditions.


Giving the readers what they expect? Santiago doesn’t get the doll, and she doesn’t get anything for Christmas, because gift-giving in her Puerto Rican childhood happened in January.

The main character does not ask Santa for the doll, nor does she get gifts at Christmas.  The family go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and eat traditional dishes on Christmas Day, but the gift-givers are the Three Kings, and the gift-receiving day is January 6th (their feast day).  Again, these are, I believe, deliberate choices.  Santiago, writing for an American audience, allows readers to think they are getting a story that mimics American stories of writing to Santa with demands—but then, without fuss, gives a story that introduces other customs.  Further, the main character does not get the doll because her family cannot afford it; but this is not a story of wretched poverty and reluctant self-sacrifice.  Her sister gets the doll, and—seeing the protagonist’s disappointment—asks her to be godmother to the doll.  The children had learned to desire the consumer object made in a white western mode, but tradition and familial love made Christmas (and Three Kings’ Day) a memorable feast.

Becoming (and Unbecoming) Humans: Slavery and dehumanization in children’s books

It’s nonfiction November, a good excuse to think about the idea of nonfiction as it relates to Black British children’s literature. Many literary scholars (myself included) will go on for days about the “real truths” of fiction vs. the “truth claims” of nonfiction, but I think a lot more about nonfiction now than I ever did before I had my daughter—because in the ultimate act of rebellion against her literature professor mother, my daughter doesn’t really like to read fiction. However, when she was little, I could always give her a DK Eyewitness book or a Horrible Histories and she would gobble them up like . . . well, like I used to consume Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books. Which, now that I think of it, were shelved in the nonfiction section of the library.

But DK Eyewitness books and Horrible Histories and Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books all come from a particular point of view, and this shows when you read them through. Most of these books center on European versions of history, science, myth and so on (Lang did include African, American Indian, Asian and South American fairy tales, but as I’ve written about elsewhere, he revised them for English reading audiences). Nonfiction (like fiction) is usually a version of the truth, but it is not always the truth that a book sets out to tell.



This may be a pictured geography, but Wiese avoids picturing slavery, and Henry moves quickly to naps in the sun.

Take nonfiction on slavery for example. There isn’t much available for a young reading audience; slavery is one of those topics that is meant to be too unhappy for children to read about. General histories for young children typically give slavery very little space (if any at all), and then hurry on to something happier or less controversial. A 1943 Picture Geography: West Indies in Story and Pictures by Marguerite Henry and Kurt Wiese gives only the following paragraph:

“Then the Spaniards brought shiploads of slaves from Africa. That’s why there are so many Negroes on the islands. But today they are not slaves. They work in the fields, they fish and they laugh, and they doze in the sun.” (n.p.)

Note the slippages and elisions in the paragraph. Only the Spanish are blamed, and not the British, French, or Dutch colonizers in the region. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because first of all, “they” are all happy-go-lucky and have time to lie around napping in the sunshine. Second of all, “they” are never called people in the paragraph.

This may seem a petty point—you might say, this is a book from 1943; or, the author refers to Negroes which is the same thing (is it? Ask people in the Jim Crow south). But calling people, people or human beings means that readers, no matter what their racial background, have something in common with slaves. And most children’s books work very hard to ensure that there is distance between the child reader and the person who is a slave.


They were people . . . in Africa.

This doesn’t always have to be through avoiding the word “people” either. Usborne is a company that produces history for all ages, and to be fair to them, they often try much harder than other nonfiction publishers to include slavery and the role that white British/Europeans played in enslaving African people. And they do use the word “people”. But they are still careful in their phraseology to distance the story of slavery from modern day readers. A lift-the-flap See Inside the History of Britain (2014) puts slavery underneath a flap, and gives it two sentences: “Some British merchants grew rich from the slave trade—capturing people from villages in West Africa and forcing them onto ships. The slaves were treated dreadfully during long voyages to the West Indies, where they were sold like animals to work on sugar plantations” (9). British merchants are blamed for slavery, but the Africans go from being people to being slaves to being (like) animals. And, because there is no further mention of the African people brought to the West Indies, nor of their descendants coming to Britain in the post-emancipation period, the reader could quickly close up the flap and make them disappear entirely.

Usborne did produce an Usborne Young Reading The Story of Slavery in 2007 (written by Sarah Courtauld). 2007 was the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, but the anniversary tended to be marked by an increase in biographies of post-emancipation West Indians (such as Mary Seacole) rather than histories of slavery, so Usborne is to be commended for that. However, in this book too the presentation is interesting. Compare the first page of Chapter 1, discussing ancient Egyptian slavery:


The first slaves in Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery were people–three times on this page alone.

. . . with the first page of the chapter about people arriving to enslavement in the West Indies.


Enslaved Africans are slaves, then animals, and apparently-mysterious forces strip, clean, and cover them with palm oil.

The Ancient Egyptians are people, even after being compared to cattle being sold in a market; the African people brought to the West Indies are slaves, and then animals. Slave masters in ancient Egypt beat the slaves, but the use of the passive voice in the second passage allows no one to have to take responsibility: “As soon as they left the ship, they were stripped, cleaned, and covered in palm oil” (but by whom?). There are good passages in the Courtauld text, but the way that the book dehumanizes people involved in the plantation slavery system allows the reader to deny their own connection to these people (slaves or slave owners).

I’ll end, for comparison, with an older book that puts the humanity of enslaved people front and center, Anne Terry White’s Human Cargo: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade (1972). Below is the first page of that text:


The first page in Anne Terry White’s 1972 Human Cargo.

It is horrible to look back. But all our children have a right to know their history.

Colonizing the Imagination

Taylor Swift’s latest video has (shockingly!) faced criticism in the press; after the premiere of “Wildest Dreams” at the MTV video music awards on Sunday night, some complained that Taylor’s version of Africa lacked diversity and represented “colonial fantasy” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/music/2015/09/03/taylor-swifts-wildest-dreams-video-draws-backlash-racism/71629452/). The video tells the story of a 1940s-era film being shot in Africa; Swift is the starlet who falls for the leading man who as they kiss in front of giraffes, lions, and other safari staple animals. Alas for Taylor, the leading man is married, and she runs out at the movie premiere (held, not in Africa of course, but in a Big City) to go off in her limousine and replay her days with Leading Man in her “wildest dreams.” The variety of African animals is the only representation of diversity in the video; the film crew and cast as well as the movie-going audience are all white, and for the most part quite well-to-do. Even Swift’s makeup crew wears gold watches.

Swift’s video brings back the glamour of colonial fantasies? Image from glamour.com

The people in Swift’s video are also older; Swift’s fan-base of tween girls is remarkably absent from the video. Indeed, the way that the video is shot, focusing (especially near the end) on Swift’s wide, childlike eyes and her pouty mouth, make her appear to be the youngest person in the video. This might seem a digression from the point of diversity, but it isn’t at all. Colonial fantasies, presented to children and young people, are about young people gaining the power and capital of the adult world. The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff illustrates this point nicely; the book starts out with a happy elephant society that is interrupted by a white man with power and capital in the form of a gun. Babar, an elephant small enough to ride on his mother’s back, watches the hunter kill her for no obvious reason—perhaps just because he can. After this, Babar runs away to a Big City where he becomes almost instantly a grown-up elephant, gaining power and capital (though no guns—you can give the “good” natives education and sell them your cars and railroads, but weapons of mass or even minor destruction are out of the question) so he can go back and be King of the Elephants. In Paris, there are no children, only old ladies with full purses and old gentlemen with education, clothes, and military advice. Child Babar is happy with a shell, but adult Babar wants to rule the nation. It might comfort Taylor Swift to know that Babar does not contain any non-white people either, despite being set (in part) in Africa.

Like Taylor Swift, Babar puts on the clothes of the colonizer.

But Babar is only part of a long line of colonial fantasies. Most of those set in the “real world” (by which I mean only that the elephants don’t talk; like Swift’s video, they are not about realities) are aimed, not at the picture book crowd, but at tweens and teens who might soon grow up to rule and possess colonial lands. G. A. Henty, in the 19th century, was a master of writing books of this sort: strapping white (usually English) lads of about fifteen go out to the colonies, meet a special guest star (George Washington, for example, or General Kitchener, or Major-General Robert Clive), and have a part in saving the empire from either other colonial incursions or “native” unrest. In Henty’s books, there are almost never any children, and the teen hero is treated like a grownup and welcomed into a grownup world. In fact, the books usually end with the suggestion of an engagement for the young hero, perhaps put off for a few years in favor of more colony-hopping or wealth-gaining. Even in the books that concern uprisings of “native” people against the colonizers, the “natives” are often off-screen, as it were, seen from a distance, and talked about rather than talked with. The exception to this rule is the occasional native who helps the white colonizers escape from trouble, as the “loyal slave” Dinah does in A Roving Commission; or Through the Black Insurrection of Hayti (originally published 1900; my copy, New York: Robinson, 2002).

Our hero (in the funny hat) stands by and stays clean and neat while some "natives" (barely visible) are shot.

Our hero (in the funny hat) stands by and stays clean and neat while some “natives” (barely visible) are shot.

In the 20th century, these colonial fantasies continued, and they were not just restricted to strapping young lads. Young women were also venturing out into the colonies, although they were much more likely to be after financial gain than military success. Ruth Fielding Treasure Hunting by Alice B. Emerson (New York: Cupples and Leon, 1923) has a young female film producer traveling to the West Indies to shoot a motion picture—and find the treasure to finance it along the way. Like Nat Turner in A Roving Commission, Ruth comes into contact with “natives,” but only in a casual way (many are servants in the posh hotels where Ruth stays, for example). The book, like Henty’s, has almost no reference to children. These books suggest to their tween/teen audience that as long as they learn the rules of the colonizer (and are white, of course), they too can have the power and capital of the adult world.

How lucky! A treasure to finance my latest motion picture!  I'm sure no one here needs it . . .

How lucky! A treasure to finance my latest motion picture! I’m sure no one here needs it . . .

The point of these colonizer fantasies is that it is the colonizer that matters. The identity of the colonizer, both individual and nation, is strengthened by the exploitation of the colonies, and the colonizer is enriched. The people who live, year in and year out, in the colonies, do not benefit in anywhere near the same way (if they benefit at all) from the colonizer’s temporary visit to their home. Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” is no different. Perhaps, though, it is a positive sign that—whereas colonizer fiction was embraced in its time as thrilling adventure for the young (white) consumer—critics are beginning to question the suitability of these fantasies for young people.