Tag Archives: archives

What is the City but the People? Manchester, Children’s Literature, and the World

Last week I took my MA students to Manchester.  Officially, they are on a course I designed called Race, Literature and the Archive—but students don’t come on Summer Abroad Courses just for extra library time (shock horror).  Many of them were particularly interested in Manchester because of the recent terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena during the Ariana Grande concert in which 22 (mostly young) people were killed.  We had discussed the diversity in Manchester prior to coming to England, and they wanted to know how the city was handling the attack.  I have, of course, been to Manchester several times, and knew exactly how Manchester would be handling it—but I was pleased to see signs all over the city advertising the Manchester International Festival (currently in progress).  They said, simply, What is the City but the People?

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This sign was everywhere in the city–and sometimes it even mentioned the International Festival that it was advertising . . . 

This sign was a perfect introduction for my students before we went to the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre.  I’ve mentioned the centre in previous blogs; it was set up to honor the school boy, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, who was murdered by a classmate in 1986 on the school playground.  The classmate then went on to brag that he had killed “a Paki”.  Ullah was not Pakistani, but Bangladeshi; however, he had been known in the school for defending Pakistani classmates when they were being bullied for their ethnic origins.  Jackie Ould, the director of the education arm of the AIU Centre, talked with my students about the tragedy of Ullah’s death, but also about the positive ways that the community (local and global) came together after the murder.  The legacy of Ullah if he had lived we will never know, but the legacy of his death is described in a booklet which anyone can download: http://www.racearchive.org.uk/legacy-ahmed-iqbal-ullah-2/.  For me, the most important part of the legacy has been the Race Relations Centre, as it not only provided research support for my forthcoming book (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015, appearing from Palgrave Macmillan in a few weeks) but also introduced me to the projects that Ould initiates with school children of Manchester.

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This booklet is downloadable from the AIU Centre website.

These book projects have ranged from biographies of Black and Asian Britons to folktales of the places where Manchester’s immigrants have come.  While early folktales came from Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Roma or Travellers, the most recent two came from communities who represent newer waves of immigration to Manchester, the Somalis and the Sudanese.  Both countries suffered under civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s, and the UK opened its doors to migrants and refugees fleeing from violence.  England has the largest Somali immigrant population in Europe.  Refugees from South Sudan are the third largest asylum-seeking group in the world.  Nonetheless, they represent a tiny proportion of the population of Britain.  According to the Red Cross, “There are an estimated 118,995 refugees living in the UK. That’s just 0.18 per cent of the total population (65.1 million people)” (http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Refugee-support/Refugee-facts-and-figures) – hardly the “swarm” of people that the anti-immigration groups (and tabloids) like to suggest.  Like other immigrants to Britain, they suffer discrimination and racism, even when they don’t struggle to find work that suits their qualifications or decent housing.

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Folktales may seem distant from the present, but interacting with the past the way these schoolchildren did can also make sense of the current moment.

It may seem that folktales, set in the distant past, have little to do with the struggles of refugee groups in Britain today.  But Ould’s folktale projects do important work.  First, the two recent folktales immediately align these immigrant groups with positive attributes just by virtue of their titles: the Somali story is entitled The Clever Princess and the Sudanese story is The Kindly Ghost.  The main characters in these stories not only help others, they also are active in achieving their own destiny.  Both protagonists are beset by problems that they overcome through their strength and quick thinking.  They learn that kindness toward bullies is not worth it, and that persistence is needed to win out over despair.  These are all useful lessons for immigrants—but importantly, they are also useful lessons for everyone.  The book projects that Ould and the school children produce are not done exclusively (or sometimes even at all) by members of those immigrant communities.  In fact, part of the point for Ould is that school children learn about each other.  This includes learning about their similarities as well as their differences: by retelling folktales, school children learn how folktales have universal ideas, common characters, settings and plots.  Characters journey seeking wisdom and happiness all over the world.

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Jackie Ould, education director at the AIU Centre, helps students interact with Manchester’s history through the Archives+ project in the Central Library.

After her presentation on the origins of the centre, Ould took us upstairs in the central library to show us the Archives+ project (http://www.archivesplus.org/), where through digitization of documents and central displays, ordinary library users can unlock the secrets of the archives to learn about the history of Manchester.  My students immediately started looking through the artifacts that told about the various waves of immigration to the city.  They learned about the Sikh struggles to be allowed to legally wear turbans at their jobs or on motorcycles; they found out more about Ahmed Iqbal Ullah’s Bangladeshi community; they looked at pictures of the Afro-Caribbean community at Moss Side.  Being able to interact with the material—just like the Manchester school children who retold and illustrated the folktales—encouraged them to dig deeper, find out more, be aware of the different people that made up this city.  The Archives+ project, like the folktale project, promotes the idea that everyone’s story matters, and that stories of the city are for everyone.  Manchester is not alone in this; it may take more digging, but most cities have histories worth uncovering, and it would be worth examining the treasures of your local archives.  Because, at the end of the day, what is the city but the people?

 

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.

A Thousand and Seven Stories: Working in the Seven Stories Archives in Newcastle

Thanks to the support of many colleagues, I was able to take this academic year to study in Britain on a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship. Initially, I had wanted to apply somewhere in London. I am doing archival work on publishers who publish(ed) for a Black British child audience, and many important archives are in London, including the London Metropolitan Archives, the Black Cultural Archives, and the George Padmore Archives. But sometimes things don’t work out just the way you had planned, and this was one such case; the university that offered me space and place and time to think was Newcastle University, in the far north of the country. Despite the university’s distance from London (three hours by train—making for a very long daytrip at minimum. . .), they had one asset that London didn’t have: the National Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories Museum and Archives.

I had been to Seven Stories before, but was uncertain if I would be able to fill my time there. I knew that their authors’ and artists’ collections did not include many Black British or other minority ethnic writers (and if you are one, and are reading this blog, then think about Seven Stories as a place for your archives!). I knew they had the archives of Leila Berg, the radical author and editor who created the Nippers series. She had actively recruited Black British writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s to write for the series. So I began there.

Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose's New Beacon Bookshop.  Illustration by Richard Rose.

Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose’s New Beacon Bookshop. Illustration by Richard Rose.

Considering Leila Berg’s reading series (she didn’t want it to be called a reading scheme, but Macmillan insisted on marking the books with colors to indicate levels) started me thinking about those books that teach children how to read, and when they started to be multicultural. Here was one of the first revelations at Seven Stories, because they not only have a number of early reading texts in their book collection, they also have a collection of Ladybird Books, and I was able to look through them. Many people make fun of the Ladybirds (there have been several recent parodies, both official and unofficial) but I was surprised to find that even though Peter and Jane, the Ladybird Reading Scheme protagonists, live a boring, middle-class life, multicultural Britain is never far away.

Multiculturalism is everywhere in Britain (but mostly on trains)!  Illustrations by Martin Aitchison from the Ladybirds Boys and Girls and Where We Go.

Multiculturalism is everywhere in Britain (but mostly on trains)! Illustrations by Martin Aitchison from the Ladybirds Boys and Girls and Where We Go.

Multicultural Britain is also a part of the work of many of the authors in the archive. I recently gave a talk on (white South African-born) Beverley Naidoo, who wrote books about her home country’s apartheid regime, such as Journey to Jo’Burg, and then went on to write about Nigerian and Somalian refugees in Britain in her Carnegie medal-winning The Other Side of Truth. I was curious about what led her to write about these refugees, and found many supporting documents in the Seven Stories archive that allowed me to build up a picture of her long-term interest in the subject. I am looking forward to examining the archives of Bernard Ashley, author of The Trouble with Donovan Croft, and Michael Morpurgo, author of A Medal for Leroy, to learn more about their thought processes in writing and revising their books, and their publishers comments about them as well.

Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the archives for me at the moment, though, is their book collection, which provides a wealth of resources for building a picture of Britain as it changed over the course of the twentieth century. The book collection holds a number of magazines, story papers, comics, and annuals from Boys’ Own to Empire Annual to World of Wonder and Beano. These often overlooked resources can provide a snapshot of acceptable attitudes toward race and diversity over time. Golliwog figures have disappeared when once they were prevalent in the comics, for example. And stories about savages and cannibals were exchanged around the 1970s for non-fiction “tourist” style pieces about the islands of the Caribbean.

Spot the difference: two Puffins published a year apart, in 1963 and 1964.

Spot the difference: two Puffins published a year apart, in 1963 and 1964.

The book collection also includes Kaye Webb’s collection of Puffins. Kaye Webb, who was the longtime editor of Puffin, was the first major figure that Seven Stories “archived”—her papers are all there, a massively important collection that will serve researchers like me for years to come. But in the book collection, there is a visual sense of the way that publishing changed over the time of her tenure at Penguin (she was editor from 1961 to 1979) and beyond, for the archives include copies of more recent Puffins.

Seven Stories has journals for all kinds of researchers interested in children and their books.

Seven Stories has journals for all kinds of researchers interested in children and their books.

When I can tear myself away from the book collections, I have been reading through several years of Multicultural Teaching, the journal edited in the 1980s and 1990s by Gillian Klein. These were brought to my attention by Collections Officer Paula Wride, who had heard one of my lectures and thought they might be useful. They have, indeed! I am certain that several articles will find their way into my next lecture, on Stephen Lawrence, Mary Seacole, and the National Curriculum (November 18th in 152 Robinson Library, 5:30 pm, in case you happen to be in Newcastle next week). The book collections include many complete or near-complete runs of the major children’s literature journals from literary, education, publishing and librarianship perspectives. Although I’ve been in university libraries that hold several of these, it is rare to find so many—from so many different approaches—in one place.

I came to Seven Stories in September thinking that I would not find resources enough to keep me busy all year, but now I realize the wealth of information that can be gleaned about diversity in Britain from what they already have. With a dynamic staff who love and understand books and are thoughtful and celebratory of authors and researchers, I know that my year at the archive will leave me hoping to come back for more.

If you want to learn more about Seven Stories archives and/or arrange your own visit, you can visit their website’s Collections page: http://www.sevenstories.org.uk/collection/collection-highlights.