Tag Archives: anti-racist movement

May Day: Intersections between BAME Children’s Lit and Workers’ Parties

Today is International Workers’ Day in many countries across the world. It’s a holiday based on an American incident (the Haymarket Riot in 1886), although American celebrate their workers in September, and it’s always been promoted most by the political left: communists, socialists, and even anarchists have frequently staged marches (particularly across Europe) to promote workers’ rights. In the UK, May Day has been given a bank holiday (“early May Bank Holiday” on the first Monday of the month) since 1978. The timing was not accidental; whereas traditionally, May Day had been a festival of spring in the UK, the link with workers’ movements increased after WWII, and became particularly pronounced in Britain with the rise in strikes—especially miners’ strikes—in the early 1970s.

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In Leila Berg’s Fish and Chips for supper, the working class Dad has to worry about putting dinner on the table–but he doesn’t go on strike. Pictures by Richard Rose.

Mainstream children’s literature in the 1970s was still fairly middle class, although the occasional critic—Bob Dixon, Robert Leeson, Aidan Chambers for example—pointed out the missing working-class child in children’s literature. Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series for Macmillan and Aidan Chambers Topliners (also for Macmillan) are two of the series connected with mainstream publishers that tried to address this lack. But although the kids in Berg’s Nippers might have had Fish and Chips for Supper and some of the parents in Chambers’ Topliners were on the dole, these books generally did not depict a radical working class. More often, and in most cases deliberately, the working class families in these books saw Britain’s inequalities as the way things were. Racism (in both Nippers and Topliners) was confronted, but poverty, not so much.

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Brief mentions of Claudia Jones can be found in works for children, such as on Tayo Fatunla’s poster, Our Roots: Celebrating Black History, but full-length discussions of her feminism, anti-racism and community organization are rare.

It was left to independent publishers to not only talk about economic inequality, but highlight the links between race and class. By this I do not mean “if you are Black, then you are automatically poor,” but “people should fight all inequalities in society, because any inequality hurts us all.” This focus on multiple inequalities was something that BAME community leaders had always embraced. Trinidadian-born Claudia Jones, for example, edited the West Indian Gazette, a Black British newspaper, in Brixton; she once said that the Gazette’s “editorial stand is for a united, independent West Indies, full economic, social and political equality and respect for human dignity for West Indians and Afro-Asians in Britain, and for peace and friendship between all Commonwealth and world peoples” (interestingly, she wrote about this for Freedomways, an African-American journal, in 1964). Jones would later go on to found the Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of West Indian culture in Britain. Despite Jones’s history of activism and community organization, her life is rarely celebrated in children’s history or biography texts.

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The photograph on the cover of Chris Searle’s All Our Words underscores the notion that ALL British kids matter.

But independent publishers did produce literature that celebrated a tradition of organizing for both workers’ and BAME people’s rights. Most notably, Young World Books (the children’s book division of the communist Liberation Press) highlighted the ways that workers and BAME people could—and did—work together in Britain and elsewhere. Chris Searle’s All Our Words (1986) begins with the line, “It is the ordinary people of this country that make our language” (1). Searle goes on to write essays about ordinary people, including miners, skinheads, Bengalis, Afro-Caribbeans, and East End Jews, using the writing of London schoolchildren who embrace “all our words” and all of London/England. The book includes poetry, short stories and plays written by British schoolchildren from many different backgrounds, as shown through the front cover. Searle emphasizes the ways that communities in Britain can unite and help each other; during the miners’ strike in 1984, “the harassed black communities in Britain reach[ed] out to the striking miners” (104) with money and support. British people should not allow those in power to divide and rule, but should band together in common cause.

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In Maggie Chetty’s Ring Around the Carnival, white and Pakistani Scottish people work together to fight racism

This message of communities helping each other was further reinforced by another Young World publication the following year, Ring Around the Carnival (1987) by Maggie Chetty and with illustrations by David Lockett. Ring Around the Carnival is the story of a Scottish mining community of both white and Pakistani British people who work together to foil a plot by the British White Power movement. The story is more than occasionally didactic; accepting a white miner’s lamp as a reward for her hard work at the end of the book, the main character comments, “I’m very pleased that we stopped the fascists . . . Raj has told me many times that we can do great things if we unite and work together” (72). But the message is not much different than that found in other children’s books—cooperation is a good thing—even if it has a decidedly political point of view.

Further evidence of attempts to unite different groups of people in protest can be found in the fact that Chris Searle dedicated his book to Blair Peach, the white British teacher and anti-racist protestor who was killed during a rally, probably by police (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/apr/27/blair-peach-killed-police-met-report). Peach was part of the many multi-racial anti-fascist organizations that proliferated in the 1970s in response to the National Front and police oppression. Organizations such as Rock Against Racism brought together white skinheads and punks with dreadlocked Black British Rastafarians. Today these kind of alliances are once again visible throughout the world, as people of all communities react to a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, a lack of concern for BAME people’s rights, and fears about restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom and a disregard for truth and science. These concerns need to be represented in today’s children’s literature—and child readers today need to read about the history of community organization. I would love to see Cathhistorical novelist par extraordinaire, write about a character who—as she herself did—participated in Rock Against Racism. Or see Verna Wilkins write a biography of Claudia Jones that includes her feminism as well as her anti-racism and community organization. Injustice to some people is an injustice to all, and on May Day we should think about how to teach our children this.

Worth Remembering: The importance of Black Archives

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Worth the effort? Emily Jenkins’ A Fine Dessert.

Yesterday the London free paper, the Metro, carried the story of how “Washington slaves book withdrawn after protest”. This follows considerable uproar in the United States (Ebony Thomas does a fine job of discussing the controversy here: https://storify.com/Ebonyteach/children-s-literature-about-slavery-the-storm-cont) about A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram (Scholastic: 2016) and another, similar book with “happy slaves,” A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins (Random House: 2015). Both these books have as characters slaves who enjoy cooking; one of the messages that can be implied is that slavery wasn’t so bad, as long as you took pride in your work. This is hardly a new message to be found in children’s books; the idea that people of African descent were better off under slavery goes way back to the debate about slavery itself, when many people argued that not only the economy but emancipated slaves themselves would be ruined by abolition. Even today, as I’ve written about here before (“Is the Sun Rising Again?”), slavery is a tricky topic of discussion for children’s books. As one children’s book I read recently put it, “Although the slaves weren’t paid for their work, they had their clothes and housing provided for them” (Walter Tull, Footballer, Soldier Hero 5). Well, two out of three ain’t bad, I guess.

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The news has reached London about Washington’s “happy” slaves.

None of these “happy slave” narratives would have half the impact that they do (in children’s literature circles, in the media, in real children’s lives) if there was a strong counternarrative to place alongside them. If children had more and sustained access to books that told a true (or even truer) picture of the struggles and triumphs of Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and African-Americans, books like Ganeshram’s and Jenkins’ would be easier to dismiss as aberrations. The good news is that the counternarrative exists already.

I’ve been spending the week in some of London’s archives, and, more specifically, in Black archives, reading through the story of the Black British communities that formed and united with each other and against the institutional racism of postwar Britain. There are thousands of stories to be found in the George Padmore Institute archives and the Black Cultural Archives; I’ll highlight the ones that I am pursuing in the hopes of sparking some other researchers (looking to write history, criticism, or fiction) to find their own.

 

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One of the oldest–and few remaining–Black British bookshops, started by John La Rose; the George Padmore archive is above the shop.

The George Padmore Institute is housed above one of the last remaining Black British cxbookshops (http://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/archive/about). In fact, the bookshop, New Beacon, and the archives are closely linked, as they are based around the papers of the man who started the bookshop, John La Rose. The archives, according to their website, “cover independent cultural, educational and political activity during periods of social tension and change, particularly during the 1960s-1990s”. I was particularly interested in finding out information about the Supplementary Schools movement, in which Black activists (often parents)—frustrated at the British school system’s indifference to or even hostility to their children—formed Saturday and after-school classes to teach both “traditional” class subjects such as reading and mathematics, but also the history of their own people. What I found in the archives was that they often had to produce their own materials—there are, for example, short biographies (with vocabulary words underlined!) of people like Alexander Bustamante, Frank Worrall, and the Mighty Sparrow, to name a few. But they also borrowed material; one surprise I found was the reproduction of several short biographies of African-Americans (Wilt Chamberlain, Elizabeth Eckford, Paul Laurence Dunbar) from an American company called the Scientific Research Associates—these “SRAs” were used in my own childhood school classroom. (I always thought that SRA stood for Short Reading Assignment!) The GPI Archive shows the determination of parents to provide their children with reading that had meaning.

 

Today I headed down to another archive, the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. These archives include the papers of a number of different anti-racist and multicultural organizations, including the Black and Asian Studies Association and the Runnymede Trust. The connection with children’s literature (and my current research) is the vast resources on various parents’ groups and movements, from supplementary schools, to activist movements against the labeling of Black children (mostly the children of West Indian immigrants) as ESN (Educationally Sub-Normal—and yes, that was the official term used by the government) in the 1960s and 1970s, to protests against the bullying and even murder of Black and Asian children in British schools. For example, there is an article from June 1984’s Childright entitled “Black Parents organise against racism” which states that “We formed the Black Parents’ Group at Highbury Quadrant School, a primary school in North London, in January 1984” in part “to remove and dispose of racist books and materials from the school” and “to further the introduction of anti-racist books and materials” (11). As part of this, “We also clarified that we were not talking about just ‘black books for black children’ (a popular misconception) but wanted books showing a positive image of black people which would benefit all children. We believe that an anti-racist education will benefit all children and will go some way towards breaking down the racist conditioning that we are all subjected to” (11). These parents had, by the 1980s, moved beyond thinking only about one group of children, and had tried to educate all British children through books.

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The Georgian world, suggests the exhibit, was a familiar one–to all of us.

 

The world those parents envisioned is one we still haven’t achieved yet. But we can all work at it in small ways. After I finished up my work today, I stopped in at the Archives’ gallery, which had a small exhibition on Blacks in Georgian London. A father had his two children in the exhibit, and they were working on the “treasure hunt” sheet that the museum hands out to keep kids looking longer. The boy took his paper up to his dad for help in finding a picture. The dad said, “You’ve got to stop, look, and remember. This is your history.” Black Archives are indeed a critical depository of this history, but places like the Black Cultural Archives and the George Padmore Institute Archives help remind us that this history belongs to us and should matter to us all. And that’s worth remembering.