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A Change is Gonna Come: The Diverse Voices Symposium at Seven Stories

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The brilliant and optimistic collection from Stripes includes writing from Diverse Voices? participants Darren Chetty, Patrice Lawrence and Catherine Johnson.

In the foreword to the recently-published anthology of fiction and poetry for young adults, A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes, 2017), philosopher Darren Chetty writes, “We can think of change as the space between who we are and who we want to be—between being and becoming—as individuals and as communities” (7-8).  This sentiment entirely encapsulates the motivation behind the Diverse Voices? symposium I helped to organize with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and Newcastle University, a symposium where Chetty was a participant.  During my year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-16), I formed a relationship with the people at Seven Stories Archives—archivists, curators, and librarians—that was both personal and professional.  They were supportive of (and occasionally amused by my revolutionary passion for) my project to make Black British literature a more “normalized” part of British children’s literature.  As I put it in the book that resulted from that year at Seven Stories, “The face of Britain might have changed after World War II, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of white British people.  This is partly because the Blackness of Black Britons was made manifestly obvious and continually depicted as Other; but the whiteness of white British society has remained largely invisible” (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 5).  Friday’s Diverse Voices? symposium, held at Seven Stories, allowed some of the brightest thinkers in writing, publishing, librarianship and academia to come together and think about ways to ensure that real change would finally come to the UK’s children’s literature.  Today’s blog highlights some of the thoughts (both from Friday and from their more public commentary) of the main speakers of the day.

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Verna Wilkins discusses her life in publishing for a multiracial Britain at the Diverse Voices? symposium.

Catherine Johnson encapsulates the idea of Britishness/whiteness in her short story from A Change is Gonna Come, “Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!”  In this story, the young protagonist is told to, “Fight the world . . . You are a black man in a white world.  A foreigner” (69). When the main character protests that he was born in Norwich, the man responds, “I doubt if anyone else sees it that way” (70).  Although I was familiar with this attitude, that if you are Black, Britishness is out of reach, I knew that Seven Stories did not want to mirror this sentiment in their museum or archives.  Collections director Sarah Lawrance pointed out on Friday that, “We have a longstanding commitment to collecting diverse authors and materials” at Seven Stories, but it has not always been an easy task for them.  Part of my remit during my Leverhulme year was to provide some recommendations for expanding the collection, but I was very conscious of the fact that I—like most of the Seven Stories staff—was white and middle-class, and an American to boot: the very picture of privilege.  What is the point of a person who has always been privileged enough to raise her voice (in revolution or otherwise) speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been historically sidelined?  I did not want to replicate old histories.  I suggested we bring some intellectuals—writers, editors, librarians, publishers, academics, book people—from historically-marginalized groups to Seven Stories to hear from them directly.  Sarah agreed—as did so many of the great names that we invited.

Discussing Crongton, war, poverty and racism with Alex Wheatle.

We called the symposium “Diverse Voices?” because it left open the question of whose voices were heard and where those voices were welcome. It became part of Newcastle’s Freedom City project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Newcastle University’s granting an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr.  The themes of Freedom City were those that King mentioned in his speech at the ceremony: the effects of war, poverty and racism on society.  King had come to Newcastle from my current hometown of Buffalo, where he argued that these problems affected young people the most because “the best in these minds cannot come out” when they have to worry about their education, their housing, their ability to make their voices count.  I was lucky enough to discuss these ideas with author Alex Wheatle, who said that the characters in his Crongton series were affected by all of these issues—from World War II, which brought so many of their parents and grandparents to Britain, to the day-to-day poverty that prevents them from reaching their goals, to the institutional racism that keeps them “in their place”.  All of Wheatle’s young adult characters in his Crongton series have creative and artistic dreams, but there remains a question over whether they will be able to achieve them.  As he said at the symposium when talking about how whiteness influences prize-giving, “Otherness wasn’t quite adjudicated for.”

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Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story is about being “other” for a lot of reasons–not about being white.

Otherness, or rather being othered, was something that had affected many of the speakers at the symposium.  Filipino writer Candy Gourlay mentioned that her work had been translated to television with her main characters depicted as white because there was always “the assumption that if I had a hero, my hero would be white”.  SF Said wondered if by only listing his initials on his books, he had created the same assumption: “The minute I took away the obvious ‘difference’ of my name, doors opened for me.”

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Does a diverse book have to be “about” diversity? Does a diverse author have to appear as “other”?

Some of the participants mentioned historical moments when those doors were opened because of cultural change; author Beverley Naidoo talked about how “There were really close connections between anti-apartheid movements and what was going on in the UK” in the 1970s and 1980s.  And librarian Jake Hope reminded the audience of the “radical roots” that led librarians (Black and white) to demand changes in publishing during that same time period.  This sense of history was underscored by author Patrice Lawrence, who highlighted the importance of the historical record: “The joy of looking at archives,” she said, is that “you come to understand how we got to where we are.”  And archivist and author S. I. Martin pointed out that archives could teach more than just adults: “Archives are a world that kids can write themselves into.”

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S. I. Martin (pictured), Patrice Lawrence and Sarah Lawrance all discussed the importance of archives to the promotion of diversity in society at the symposium.

There was at times a rumbling undercurrent of concern that the symposium was a good start whose promise might never be fulfilled.  Author Ifeoma Onyefulu spoke those concerns out loud when she said, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”

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Onyefulu’s A is for Africa is one way that she makes a difference–a difference she expects everyone to try to enact.

Many of the symposium participants found the pace of historical change too slow, and did not wait for a space to be made for them.  Verna Wilkins, the founder of Tamarind and then of Firetree Books, talked about how her life’s work was “an attempt to redress the balance” in the world of publishing.  The illustrator Yu Rong spoke about seeing a hole in the publishing world: “There is very little about China and Chinese people in UK children’s books” and so Rong has done her best to fill up that hole, at least a little bit. But for almost everyone at the symposium, action by one group of people was not enough to bring real change for everyone.  Instead, it will take hard work and difficult discussions to change children’s literature in the UK if we are going to make every child feel a sense of belonging in the world of books.  We must read differently—think differently—speak differently.  We must cross the barriers that keep us apart by any means necessary.

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We have to talk, and continue to talk, to each other–even when those conversations are difficult.

In Sita Brahmachari’s recent book for the publisher Barrington Stoke, Worry Angels (2017), she writes about the difficulty and necessity of communication:

“If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you . . . when you want them to understand not just the words that you say, but what you feel, then you try to speak in any way that you can . . . with your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand . . . You act things out . . . you let the feeling show in your whole body . . . whatever way you can to show them you want to be your friend” (71).

It is this kind of communication we need to keep up between us all, even when it is hard.  When it goes wrong—as it will—we must keep on trying.  This is the only way to ensure that the change we want will come in British children’s books—for all kids.

Start with What You Know and Take it From There: The role of the archive

I recently ate up Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut (Hodder 2017).  I loved it; it was hard to put down, and I could easily write a blog about the novel by itself (maybe I will sometime!).  But I want to highlight just one piece of the novel (or donut?) for now, and it isn’t probably the section that avid readers of this blog might expect.  It’s the section where Bailey, the main boy character, goes to the archives at his local library.

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Lawrence’s second book, a tale of finding out about yourself and those you love . . . partly by visiting the archive.

This section (pages 271-274) interests me for a couple of reasons.  First, because Bailey knows that you can get information from an archive, which makes him an unusual 16-year-old (I wish I had more college students who knew what an archive was, let alone how to use it).  But second, and more importantly, because Lawrence’s depiction of a first archive experience is a very accurate one.  Bailey comes in knowing what he’s looking for, but not how to find it.  The “information lady” tells him “to start with what you know, and take it from there” (272); but although he follows her advice, it takes him down rabbit holes and he must bring himself constantly back into focus.  When he finally runs out of time—without finding the information he needs—the librarian/archivist offers him a clue for a next step, pointing out that “It’s surprising what you find in the small print” (274).

A still from the video that has stirred the controversy.

The BBC cartoon that included a Black Roman caused controversy–but visit Hadrian’s Wall, and many other sites in Britain, and you’ll learn about several Black Romans in Britain.

 

On the surface, the description of this scene does not have anything to do with race and diversity in British children’s/YA literature.  And while I am sure that Patrice Lawrence had Bailey go to the archive deliberately, I’m not sure whether she thought about it as a political statement within her novel.  However, having spent a lot of time in archives over the past few years, I’m going to take this scene that way: as a political statement about race and diversity.  Archives in Britain, as well as major research libraries such as the British Library, have traditionally been places where white Britons felt welcome, but BAME people less so.  This (perceived?) lack of welcome may come from the archive’s connection with the idea of Heritage Britain; recent controversies such as the trolling of Mary Beard over her defense of a BBC cartoon depicting Black Romans in early Britain (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/roman-britain-black-white/) suggest that many people still see British history as an all-white subject. Museums, libraries and archives all play a role in defining what (and who) counts as British, and their definitions have consequences for their patrons.  If people don’t see history as belonging to them, they often will not be interested in learning about it. However, research (Hirschi and Screven 1989; Lynch and Alberti 2010; Golding 2016) has indicated that involving traditionally marginalized communities in history-related projects can help open up heritage to new users and change the dialogue around national identity. By having Bailey, a mixed-race British teenager, go to the archive expecting answers about the past, Patrice Lawrence indicates something important: that Bailey has a right to be there, belongs there, and that he can and should access historical information when he needs it.

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Archives should be a place where everyone feels welcome to learn about history, as they are at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book in Newcastle.

The other “political” message I found in Lawrence’s depiction is the librarian’s final comment to Bailey, that what you find in the small print can surprise you.  I can relate this directly to my own efforts to find Black British people in various archives while writing my book on British children’s publishing.  Archives that seemed at first glance to be entirely about white Britons often revealed a more diverse picture with a closer look or more research.  Take the case of Leila Berg, a white British author and publisher from the 1950s-1990s whose archive can be found at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book.  I had never heard of her before I went to Seven Stories, and even when the archivists and librarians at Seven Stories pointed me in her direction, I wasn’t sure if she would be all that relevant to my research on Black British authors and publishers.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that Berg, who experienced the anti-Semitism of her “friends” during World War II, committed herself to standing against both class and racial prejudice in all of her work.  But her archive tells more than just her own history, and it is this that takes me back to Lawrence’s librarian’s comment.  Berg kept records of various meetings, conferences, and events that she attended throughout her life, and looking through these with careful eyes can reveal otherwise-untold histories of Black Britain.

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Gilroy’s Nippers, like her work with teachers, suggest that white Britons need to learn to see Black people as British.

The first time I examined her archive, I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but going back this summer, I found something I hadn’t noticed before.  One document, handwritten by Berg, talks of visiting “Beryl’s classroom” (the document is dated Nov 3 73; Seven Stories archives LB/05/03/20).  This didn’t signify anything particular to me at the time, but when I saw it this past summer, I cursed myself for missing it before.  Given the date, and the fact that Berg was talking about a headteacher, “Beryl” could only have been Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headteacher in Britain (and Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy’s mother as well, though he was still at school when his mother met Berg).  Berg records what Gilroy told her about a “failure conference” she held at her school for the mostly white teachers she worked with: that it is the (white) teachers who must change their attitudes about their (BAME) students, not the other way around.  Gilroy, who would write several titles for Berg’s reading series, Nippers, made the case that BAME students are British, and their cultures, traditions, languages and families were part of Britain too.  More than 40 years after Berg recorded this, the case is still being argued by some.  Maybe people who don’t see BAME people as a part of British history could use a trip to their local archives.  Or they might just want to curl up with Indigo Donut.

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?