Tag Archives: Afro-British

Key Word Scheme: Judging Books about Black Britons and Caribbeans by their Covers

I was with my older brother a couple of years ago in a secondhand bookstore. He watched me go to the children’s section and, after scanning the shelves briefly, pick out a book. “This one will be about Black Britain,” I said—and it was. I don’t get to amaze my older brother too often, so it was quite tempting to leave him guessing at my powers of prognostication.

But in truth it was not a magic trick that allowed me to pick out the right book. Nor had I seen it before, or caused the owner of the bookshop to plant a book in an agreed-upon place. The book was of a certain age (type font and binding suggested the 1960s or 1970s), the author was British, and the book’s title had a key word in it, one I’d seen before in books about Black Britons. The book was Christine Pullein-Thompson’s 1967 Robbers in the Night, and the key word that had caused me to believe it was about a Black British character was the word “robber.” I already had Nina Bawden’s 1979 The Robbers, and other books which didn’t include robbery in the title but which had it as a plot point. These books were all written by white Britons after 1960 and before 1990, a period of time when some members of the white British community feared their traditions and values (and jobs and everything else) were under threat from what were then called the “New Commonwealth” (code words for not white) immigrants. I am not suggesting that either Bawden or Pullein-Thompson (or any of the other writers including Black British “robbers” in their children’s books) were part of this fearful group; in fact, in many of the books, it turns out in the end that the Black British character is either not a robber but is assumed to be because of racial prejudice, or is a robber but makes restitution for his (it’s always a boy who is the robber) theft and brings the community together. These books tell a particular story about particular characters, but they also tell a cultural story of how one group of people in a particular time was feeling about another group of people entering (and potentially “robbing”) the island they thought of as exclusively theirs.

Robbery is not the only key word for titles about Black Britain. Historical fiction (particularly those books set in 18th century England) often includes the word “midnight” in the title—witness Morna Stuart’s 1969 Marassa and Midnight, Marjorie Darke’s 1977 The First of Midnight, and Michele Torrey’s 2007 Voyage to Midnight: Chronicles of Courage. The word “midnight” in these books is often used as a character’s name (because he—again, always a “he”—is supposedly “black as midnight”) but also suggests the long dark night of Britain’s soul that was the slave trade, and the dawn of the new era that began with the end of it. There is always a hint of skepticism about this “new era” however; as Darke’s title suggests, the slave trade was only the first midnight that Britain would face; racial prejudice would continue to be a problem for characters in her historical series that took readers to the descendants of Midnight in the 20th century.

The first of midnight–but perhaps not the last.

Of course, Black British writers are not immune to the publishing imperatives surrounding books with Black British characters, and they can work these key words to their advantage. Nalo Hopkinson, the Jamaican-born science fiction writer includes both words in her award-winning 2000 novel, Midnight Robber, which includes reference to carnival and the trickster tradition—both of which turn the status quo upside-down. In general, though, Black British writers tend to use the word “thief” rather than “robber”; examples can be found from Therese Mills’ 1981 Charlie and Joey Catch a Thief to James Berry’s 1987 A Thief in the Village to Malorie Blackman’s 2004 Thief. Midnight Robber is a book for adults (it includes the rape of the main character by her father), but all these books indicate the ways in which key ideas about people from the Caribbean can permeate the culture and affect writers and publishing, consciously or not.

However, Black British writers can also reject the choice of words used to describe them. When looking for more modern books about Black Britons, the word “cool” is often a key word for titles—but usually in books written by white authors. Examples are the 1994 Gregory Cool by Caroline Binch, and Michaela Morgan’s 2000 Cool Clive and the Bubble Trouble. Interestingly, neither of these books indicates exactly what makes these characters “cool”; Gregory Cool is about a Black British boy who goes to meet his grandparents in Tobago, and Morgan’s book (which is part of a series that she has written about Cool Clive, so perhaps there are other books that explain his coolness?) is about Clive’s annoying little sister losing a hamster. “Cool” is not a word that functions in the plot, but rather serves to indicate something nebulous about the character, something that the reader is supposed to understand about Black British boys. Black British writers tend not to use the word cool, at least not in their titles. In fact, most Black British writers who include a character name in their title do not modify that name with an adjective at all; they are just Danny Jones (Andrew Salkey, 1980), Nini at Carnival (Errol Lloyd, 1978), Shawn goes to School (Petronella Breinburg, 1973), We Brits (John Agard, 2006).

Illustrator Errol Lloyd's pictures of Breinburg's Shawn need no modifiers.

Illustrator Errol Lloyd’s pictures of Breinburg’s Shawn need no modifiers.

The only exception to this rule that immediately comes to mind is Malorie Blackman’s series about Betsey Biggalow; although the initial book is titled simply Betsey Biggalow is Here!, two of the later books modify Betsey, and I initially found these books through one of these modifiers.   The single most popular key word for titles of books about Black Britons or Afro-Caribbeans is a word used throughout history, and by authors of all backgrounds: if you see “hurricane” in the title of a children’s book, it will often be (like the 1993 Hurricane Betsey) set in the Caribbean.

The winds of change blow rather slowly sometimes.

So next time you are scanning the shelves of used or new bookstores, looking for a book about a certain group of people (racial, religious, ethnic, gender, or other), take a minute and think what key words you look for to indicate that group based on title alone. Because unfortunately, it is still possible to judge a book by its cover.

Black Mozart and Black Mahler: Children’s Literature and Black Classical Composers

This past Sunday, I was fortunate enough to attend a concert by the Camerata di Sant’ Antonio here in Buffalo. They are a string ensemble who performs a regular Mozart series (among other things), and this year their Mozart series has featured “other” Mozarts—that is, people identified by the contemporary press as “The Italian Mozart” or “The Finnish Mozart” or—in the case of the Sunday concert—“Mozart Noir,” the Chevalier de Saint-George.

The Chevalier de Saint-George, or Joseph Boulogne (sometimes spelled Bologne) was the son of a white West Indian planter and his slave. The planter was married, but nonetheless Joseph was his first son and he treated him as such, educating him and taking him to Paris when he left Guadeloupe in the late 1740s. Joseph was educated in Paris as a gentleman, and became known as one of the best fencers and best violinists of his day. He eventually became Marie Antoinette’s music instructor, and composed a number of concertos, symphonies, string quartets and operas. He also was later imprisoned by the Revolutionary government, though he was eventually pardoned.

How famous was he if the book title uses Mozart’s name?

In many ways, it is incorrect to call Boulogne the “Mozart Noir” because in fact, he was already playing and composing before Mozart even began. It is said that Mozart, who attended one of Boulogne’s concerts in Paris, was inspired by him in writing his Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat Major. How do I know all this? There are two fine children’s books about the Chevalier de Saint-George, Before there was Mozart (2011) by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome, and The Other Mozart (2007) by Hugh Brewster, with pictures by Eric Velasquez. Both books focus mainly on Boulogne’s time at the royal court, with lots of illustrations of women in 18th century gowns and men in knee breeches. Guadeloupe, where Boulogne was born, is quickly traded for Paris; racism and anti-slavery movements are peripheral to these stories because they want to focus on the triumph of his music. However, that these are stories of success “despite” race is evident at the conclusion of both narratives. Brewster writes that “In a world where black people could hope to be little more than servants, Joseph Bologne, Monsieur de Saint-George, had become one of the most dazzling and celebrated men of his time” (Other Mozart 44). And the Ransomes suggest that Boulogne “spent his later years fighting to abolish slavery in the colonies” (Before there was Mozart n.p.), which may refer to a trip that he MIGHT have taken to Haiti on behalf of the French government to assess the situation of the island under Toussaint L’Ouverture. There is no clear evidence that Boulogne took such a trip, or joined abolitionist groups, but it certainly makes for a better story to tell to children.

All other “Mozarts” came after Wolfgang, except this one.

However, I didn’t go to the concert to hear the music of Boulogne; I went for the other major composer on the program, the man labelled by New York musicians as “the Black Mahler,” Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an Afro-British composer of the late Victorian/Edwardian era. I’d encountered Coleridge-Taylor’s name in Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s edited collection Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, in an article by Jeffrey Green. What I know about Coleridge-Taylor comes from academic sources, not children’s books. As far as I can determine, there is only one biography of Coleridge-Taylor for children, and that is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: The Music Man (2008), written by a primary school class in Manchester, England, and published by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (the front cover illustration of the book is shown below; go to http://www.racearchive.org.uk/publications/#black-british-heroes to see the Trust’s other publications). Unlike Joseph Boulogne, Coleridge-Taylor is not widely performed or recorded (in fact, the Sunday concert I attended included the US premier of his Haytian Dances, composed more than a hundred years ago). Only his work based on Longfellow’s Hiawatha is performed with any regularity. The conductor on Sunday gave a long introduction to the Chevalier de Saint-George’s life before performing his work, but when it came to Coleridge-Taylor, he said that “little is known” about the composer. Why is there such a difference between the presentations of the two composers?


One reason may be that Coleridge-Taylor does not fit in the box we assign to people of African descent. Publishers for children tend to favor stories about slaves (or their offspring) who make good, or about leaders or participants in civil rights movements. These are the eras when black people are allowed to exist in children’s literature. Coleridge-Taylor eventually met the US president, but he was born to a working-class white mother (whose own mother had been a domestic servant) and a Nigerian-born doctor, who abandoned her before Coleridge-Taylor was born. He grew up near a slaughterhouse, and had no formal musical training until he was made a scholarship student at the newly opened Royal College of Music. He endured racial slurs as a regular feature of his life in London, and is not known to have fought back (unlike the fencing champion Joseph Boulogne). He died at 37, most sources say of overwork. His music also does not always fit into the public conception of “African” composers’ music. Music, especially as promoted in children’s literature, has both national and racial qualities; Jamaican music is reggae only, Trinidadian music is all calypso, and Haitian music, from evidence in both 19th and 20th century children’s books, is composed at least in part of “voodoo drums”. But Coleridge-Taylor’s Haytian Dances were very different from this image; the dances are elegant and refined, suggesting country weddings and Port-au-Prince ballrooms. Neither in his life nor his music, therefore, does Coleridge-Taylor provide confirmation for readers of previously-existing stereotypes about the lives and achievements of people of African descent. But his story and his achievements are no less important because of this. In fact, because they provide evidence of how ordinary Afro-British people lived in the post-slavery and pre-Windrush period, and because they challenge stereotypes of how we think about all people of African descent, Coleridge-Taylor’s story and achievement may be more important.