Tag Archives: Benjamin Zephaniah

Insistence on Existence: Ontology as Mental Health in Children’s Books

“when we are worn out by our lives . . . we will turn to you as we do to our children—to the innocent, the ingenuous, the spontaneous.  We will turn to you as to the childhood of the world.  You are so real in your life—so funny, that is.  Let us run away for a little while from our ritualized, polite civilization and let us relax, bend to those heads, those adorably expressive faces.  In a way, you reconcile us with ourselves” (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks 132).

“Lay aside your history, your investigation of the past, and try to feel yourself into our rhythm.  In a society such as ours, industrialized to the highest degree, dominated by scientists, there is no longer any room for your sensitivity.  One must be tough if one is to be allowed to live” (Fanon 132).

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Fanon, from Martinique, concerned himself with the effect of racism on the colonized subject’s identity.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and it is interesting to consider this in conjunction with recent and current events.  News headlines over the past year have often concerned the #MeToo movement; over the past few weeks, at least in Britain, they have focused on the Windrush Generation speaking up over deportations.  Both movements showcase how easy it is for people in power to deny the existence of people without that power.  Powerful people use the strategies of objectification and isolation, as exemplified in the quotations from Fanon above, to enhance and reconcile their own existence at the expense of others, who are not allowed to escape the role assigned to them—or to express their feelings about that role.  In both #MeToo and the Windrush protests, it has been the ability of groups (women or Windrush citizens and their children) to speak out collectively that has won support for individuals.  Mental health is an insistence on existence—both a refusal to be silenced and an ability to access your connections with communities of the past and present.  I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that many people have criticized #MeToo for its focus on white women, emphasizing the what Hazel Carby argues when she writes that “white women stand in a power relation as oppressors of black women” (“White Woman Listen!” 112).  So while #MeToo has resonance with the Windrush protests in terms of their effects on people’s mental health, it is also important to recognize that they are not the same.

It is also important to be alert to how people are often distracted from the silencing and isolating of individuals through society’s acceptable narratives.  The headlines on today’s BBC news demonstrated this nicely; the UK page on their website mentions “Sixty-three Windrush migrants ‘removed’” by the British government, but you must click on the headline to find out more.  Right next to this headline, in larger font and with a picture, is the story that “Markle’s sister hopes dad will go to wedding” (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk; accessed 13:09 EST 5/15/18).  There is a caption under the headline and picture.  The story of Meghan Markle, the new “black princess” is one that is being touted as proof that Britain has moved on from its racist past (https://www.buzzfeed.com/sandirankaduwa/itsamodernmarkle?utm_term=.wcm5P0XGO6#.lkobvK3AXw), but as with any royal wedding, it is also a way to distract the public from serious news—news which includes Windrush deportations and former Grenfell Tower residents, mostly poor and many of color, who are still struggling months after fire caused by unsafe appliances and construction materials destroyed their building.  (But hey, Prince William helped paint their community centre: https://www.aol.com/article/entertainment/2018/05/15/prince-william-helps-paint-community-center-for-grenfell-tower-fire-victims-ahead-of-royal-wedding/23435180/).

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One of the Windrush Generation threatened with deportation, Glenda Caesar points at a picture of her parents’ wedding that took place in 1968 in the UK. Credit: ITV News (http://www.itv.com/news/2018-04-11/windrush-generation-nhs-worker-lost-job-and-faces-deportation-despite-living-in-the-uk-for-more-than-50-years/). 

Even if you accept the royal distraction, the wedding might not have the post-racial effects hoped for by some.  Becoming a “princess” might not protect Markle from being silenced and isolated by British society.  She could look to British children’s literature to find out what it means to be Black British “royalty”.   Two books which highlight the mental health and identity formation of young black girls labelled as royalty are Nina Bawden’s Princess Alice (André Deutsch, 1985) and Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival (Bodley Head, 1978), and they offer radically alternative visions as to how to survive as a Black British princess.

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Being a Black British princess is not all it’s cracked up to be in Bawden’s Princess Alice.

White British Bawden (best known for her novel about WWII evacuees, Carrie’s War) tells the story of a Black girl named Alice, adopted into the white Maclusky family along with several other children (none of the others are Black, though two are Asian).  The cover illustration by Phillida Gili makes Alice’s place in the family clear; she is looking after the baby while all the other children are playing with toys or pets.  Cinderella-like, she also cleans the house.  Her family are grateful, but not to the extent that they help her.  Despite this, when her biological father turns out to be an African prince, Alice fears “He might kidnap her and lock her up in his palace in Africa” (n.p.).  She prefers to stay and clean house for her adopted family.  Her adopted father tells her, “All my daughters are Princesses to me” (n.p.); by equating his “real” and adopted daughters, Mr. Maclusky erases Alice’s history and need for community; he affirms her place in the family, but at the expense of Alice’s identity formation as a Black person.  She cannot belong to a British family and accept her Africanness.

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Errol Lloyd’s Nini finds being queen a joyful thing, because she is a part of the community.

Black British Errol Lloyd’s Nini, on the other hand, is denied neither history nor community.  She wants to join a multiracial carnival parade, but she doesn’t have a costume and sits alone, crying.  Her friend, dressed as a fairy godmother, does not tell her she has to toughen up or remain outside the carnival community; rather, her friend gives her a costume.  “It was only a piece of cloth, but it fitted Nini perfectly” (n.p.) the text states.  The cloth is not any random piece of cloth, but one resembling Kente cloth, the royal cloth of the Akan people; in it, Nini is able not only to join the community, but because of her costume, becomes Queen of the Carnival.  The last line of the book is telling: “Nini talked about it all the way home” (n.p.).  Her connection to community and history, unlike Bawden’s Alice, gives her a voice; she is not silenced or made to accept her place as less-worthy outsider.

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Benjamin Zephaniah’s Britain includes variety and equality. Illustration by Sarah Symonds.

This emphasis on the Blackness and Britishness of Black Britons is the only way to ensure a unified Britain. Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem, “The British” (Wicked World, Puffin 2000), not only highlights the mixture of people in Britain, but values all their contributions to Britain.  “As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish/ Binding them together with English./ Allow time to be cool” (39).  The poem does not, however, suggest that just mixing people will necessarily result in a nation.  Zephaniah’s poem ends with a warning: “An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all” (39)—from the Empire Windrush to the tower block to the palace.

Christmas in Another Color: Children’s Books for the Holiday Season

I have, in previous years, complained about the whiteness of Christmas books, so it is pleasant to be able to report *some* progress recently in British books that represent a wider variety of people.  Some of the best multiracial holiday books are coming out of smaller presses, who in many ways have led the charge toward changing the culture of British children’s books; hopefully the leadership of publishers such as Stripes and Nosy Crow will spill over into the mainstream presses—many of whom continue to reproduce a nostalgia for white Christmases in the UK.

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Jannie Ho’s Christmas alphabet includes all kinds of kids.

Since my last blog was about books for babies, I’ll start this one with a Christmas board book, Jannie Ho’s Christmas ABC (Nosy Crow 2016).  Ho is a Boston-based illustrator who once worked for Nickelodeon, but Nosy Crow is a London-based publisher who won the British Bookseller’s children’s publisher of the year for 2017. The idea of an early concept book related to Christmas is hardly a new one; the children’s publisher Frederick Warne (who would later publish A Tale of Peter Rabbit and other Beatrix Potter stories) published The Father Christmas ABC in 1894 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2251033/The-ABC-Victorian-Christmas-revealed-Beautifully-illustrated-edition-childrens-book-discovered-University-library-P-plum-pudding-PlayStation.html), for example; and Little Golden Books (the “supermarket” bookseller of my childhood, known for The Poky Little Puppy and other books strategically priced and placed near the supermarket checkouts to entice weary parents with whinging children—not that my mother EVER had this problem of course) published The Christmas ABC by Florence Johnson, with pictures by Eloise Wilkin in 1962.  These books often repeat ideas—B is for Bell in all three, for example—but the images change.  The letter I is for ice in all three, and more specifically ice skating, but I’ll just leave the images to tell a story of a changing idea of who skates on the Christmas ice.

The letter G stands for games and shows children playing Blind Man's Buff, a popular parlour game at the time Father Christmas ABC from 1894; this book was found in Cambridge University’s rare book room in 2012.

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Eloise Wilkins’ 1962 illustrations from Golden Book’s Christmas ABC.

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Jannie Ho’s ice skater is different–and not just because of her Christmas sweater.

Jane Ray’s version of The Nutcracker (Hachette 2016) follows the general storyline of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, albeit in a modernized setting; Clara wears pajamas rather than the white lace-edged nightgown found in most ballet versions and she has multiracial friends who come to her party.  These friends unfortunately disappear at bedtime (though the text implies they stay at the house).  While it is true that in the ballet, Clara travels to the land of sweets with only the Nutcracker Prince to accompany her (not even her brother comes along), the final illustration in Ray’s book restores the unity of the white family only.  Nonetheless, Ray’s Sugar Plum Fairy is Black, and has not only a prominent place on the cover, but an illustration all to herself in Ray’s book, making it a lovely change in the traditional Christmas story.

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Tradition and change in Jane Ray’s version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet.

Christmas is a time for thinking about others, and for older readers in Britain, Stripes Publishing produced I’ll Be Home for Christmas in 2016 in part to help raise funds for Crisis, a charity providing services for the homeless across the UK.  Prominent, award-winning writers contributed poems and short stories to the collection, including Benjamin Zephaniah and Sita Brahmachari.  Zephaniah’s poem, “Home and Away,” opens the collection with a very different version of Christmas than that produced by nostalgia merchants, but one that forms a familiar experience for many readers.  “I’d like to be home for Christmas/That’s where the rhythm wise hip-hop is,/ That’s where the rock and the jazz is/ The place where I dream happy/ Where I dance to sweet homemade reggae” (19).  Zepahniah’s Christmas carols of a different color remind readers that different doesn’t mean unhappy or unChristmassy.

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A time for giving–Benjamin Zephaniah and Sita Brahmachari are among the authors helping Crisis at Christmas.

These recent Christmas books make all the more disappointing a recently reissued edition of Terry Deary and Martin Brown’s Horrible Christmas (Scholastic 2016).  The concept of horrible history is a fabulous one, and really draws the interest of many children (including, when she was younger, my own daughter) who are otherwise reluctant readers.  BAME history has always proved a tricky subject for the Horrible History franchise, as I’ve detailed in other blogs, books and articles.  While I’m aware that it might not be easy to make light of some BAME historical topics (probably a book on “Slimy Slavery” or “Egregious Empire” would raise eyebrows, to say the least), Deary and Brown often fail to include BAME people in British history even in noncontroversial ways.  This is true of Horrible Christmas as well.  The cover image provides a hint of what is between the covers, showing five white people (four of them men).  The only image throughout the 96 pages of horrible Christmas trivia that includes people who aren’t white is a tiny one of a group of carol singers on page seven.  They are about to have the door slammed on them.

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Does tradition have to mean a White Christmas? Deary and Brown’s horrible holiday.

In fact, Deary and Brown’s book ends with a vision of Christmas future that is both a very white Christmas and a plea for helping others less fortunate—a page which recalls for me charity Christmas songs of the 1980s (yes, people around the world DO know it’s Christmas, even when they don’t or can’t celebrate it after all, you patronising so-and-so).  I prefer the final image in Jannie Ho’s Christmas ABC, and leave it with you along with Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 wish for a “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

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To Be Young Adult, Gifted and Black: BAME YA Literature Milestones, Part Two

This week’s blog continues the history of Black and BAME British YA literature.  1981, the year that starts the second half of the timeline, is significant for YA literature.  The end of what scholar Anthony DiGesare calls “the long 1970s”, a period when race was the focus for both Black and white Britons from Enoch Powell to future Guardian prize-winner Alex Wheatle, 1981 saw the Brixton Riots bring institutional racism into the spotlight for the first—but by no means the last—time.

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YA novelist Alex Wheatle was among the people who experienced the Brixton Riot of 1981.

1981: The Brixton riots erupt as a response to the perceived racist attitudes of police against the Black British community.  West Indian Children in our Schools, a government report authored by Anthony Rampton, calls for mainstream literature to better represent the increasingly diverse cultures of Britain.  The Rampton report was written in response to increasing tension between the Black and Asian British communities and law enforcement.

1982: The first of the International Book Fairs of Radical Black and Third World Books is held in Islington Town Hall, London, partly due to lack of outlets for BAME books for children.  New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture are major sponsors.

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The cover of one of the IRR’s histories of racism. The fourth book, The Fight Against Racism, shows pictures of the Brixton Riots.

1982: The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) publishes a series of informational books for older readers on racism, starting with The Roots of Racism.  The four books touch on issues of colonialism, slavery, white privilege, police brutality, protests and riots.

1983: Valerie Bloom’s first UK collection of poems, Touch Mi! Tell Mi! is published by Bogle L’Ouverture, aimed at a young adult audience.  Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea (Heinemann), about an Indian village, wins the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

1984: Geraldine Kaye’s Comfort Herself, about a young Black Briton who goes to live with her father in Ghana, wins the Other Award.  Grace Hallworth’s collection of ghost stories from the Caribbean, Mouth Open, Story Jump Out (Methuen) is published.

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Dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah was recommended by the Youth Library Group for older readers in the year of the Handsworth riots.

1985: Brixton and Handsworth (in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city) again face clashes between police and Black British youth.  The Youth Libraries Group, in their newly revised list of Multiracial Books for the Classroom, recommend Pen Rhythm, “a lively collection by this well known poet” (100), Benjamin Zephaniah.

1986: 13-year-old Bangladeshi Briton Ahmed Iqbal Ullah is murdered by a classmate on the school playground in Manchester.  Ullah’s murder was racially motivated.

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Nichols’ poetry collection includes British Asian as well as Black British poets.

1988: Britain introduces a National Curriculum; many complain it does not address the needs of diverse Britain, but instead urges assimilation.  Blackie publishes Guyanese-born poet Grace Nichols’ collection from Black and Asian poets around the world, Black Poetry (the title was changed to Poetry Jump-Up in the paperback edition).

1993: 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence is killed by a gang of white British youths while he is waiting for a bus.  Lawrence did not know his attackers.  The murder was racially motivated. The official inquiry into Lawrence’s death, the Macpherson Report (1999), would call for many changes, including revisions to the National Curriculum to include anti-racist and diverse teaching and reading materials.  Meiling Jin, a London-based writer of Guyanese Chinese descent, publishes Thieving Summer (Hamish Hamilton)

1997: Poet Benjamin Zephaniah publishes his collection for older readers, School’s Out: Poems Not for School (AK).

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Bali Rai has produced several titles for Barrington Stoke on high interest topics such as football for reluctant readers.

1998: Barrington Stoke, a publisher focused on reluctant and dyslexic children and YA readers, is founded.  They publish books for YA readers by many high-impact BAME authors, including Bali Rai, Malorie Blackman, and Sita Brahmachari.

1999: The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (http://www.racearchive.org.uk/) is set up in Manchester to honor the 13-year-old killed by his classmate; the trust would publish stories of young refugees and immigrants to Manchester, as well as illustrated biographies of BAME Britons created by young people.  Benjamin Zephaniah’s first novel, Face (Bloomsbury), “a story of facial discrimination,” as he calls it, is published.

2000: Black British publisher Tamarind Press publishes the first in its Black Profiles (later renamed Black Stars) series by Verna Wilkins, biographies of living Black Britons of achievement, including author Malorie Blackman.  The Carnegie Medal goes to South African-born white British author Beverley Naidoo for her book about Nigerian refugees, The Other Side of Truth (Puffin).

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Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses led to a series of successful novels–and to her becoming the first Black British Children’s Laureate.

2001: Black British author Malorie Blackman’s novel, Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday), detailing an imagined England where Black Britons have all the power positions, is published.  The book would go on to win a number of book awards.

2003: Black British poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah refuses an OBE because of the British Empire’s involvement in slavery.

2004: Guyanese-born poet John Agard publishes Half-Caste (Hodder), a book of poems which encourages readers to “check out” their Black British history.

2009: Publisher Frances Lincoln teams up with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, to offer the Diverse Voices Award.  Poet John Agard’s revision of Dante, The Young Inferno (Frances Lincoln), with illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura, appears and is nominated (not shortlisted) for the Carnegie Medal.

2013: Malorie Blackman is appointed the first Black British Children’s Laureate. Pakistani-born Tariq Mehmood becomes the only non-white author to win the Diverse Voices Award, for his novel You’re Not Proper (Hope Road).  White British author Nick Lake’s In Darkness (Bloomsbury), about the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, is shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

2014: Seven Stories and Frances Lincoln publish a list of “Diverse Voices: 50 of the Best” books for children and young adults (https://www.sevenstories.org.uk/news/latestnews/diverse-voice-top-50).  The BBC and BookTrust collaborate to offer the first BBC Young Writers Award, for short stories by 14-18 year olds.

2015: The Carnegie Medal is awarded to white British author Tanya Landman for her book about post-Civil War African Americans, Buffalo Soldier.  Catherine Johnson’s novel of a poor, Black British woman masquerading as a princess in the early 19th century in order to survive, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, appears from Corgi; it would be shortlisted for the YA Book Prize in 2016.  A graphic novel version of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, adapted by Ian Edginton and illustrated by John Aggs, appears.

2016: White American author Robin Talley wins the first Amnesty CILIP Honour medal for her book about Civil Rights-era America, The Lies We Tell Ourselves.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom) becomes the first story about Black Britons written by a Black British author to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy (Hodder) is shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award; it would win the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and the YA Bookseller’s prize in 2017.

2017: The UK’s Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories in Newcastle, hosts “Diverse Voices?” (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/diversevoices/),  a symposium designed to think about ways to better represent BAME voices in children’s books, archives, museums, prizes and publishing on November 24th.  If you are reading this at first publication, you’ll know that this event has not yet happened, but it’s something I’ve been involved with planning over the last year.  YA authors Alex Wheatle, Catherine Johnson, and Patrice Lawrence are among the invited guests (several other authors, including picture book and middle grade authors, are also participating), and author and publisher Verna Wilkins will also be discussing publishing for a BAME audience.  I’ll be getting ready for the symposium next week, but hope to have a blog or two following the event discussing some of the salient points.  Watch this space!