Tag Archives: Beryl Gilroy

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.

The Architecture of Home and Empire in Children’s Books

Last week, I did my blog on migrants, but this week I was prompted by a friend looking at “vernacular architecture” in children’s books about Africa and the Caribbean to do some thinking about the pictures of “home” that appear in children’s books, and why those pictures matter. For many beginning readers, children’s books are a first source of information about what the world looks like beyond their front doors, and so both the text and the pictures that these stories include matter; I would argue that the pictures matter more than text in creating a lasting impression in the mind of the child.

 

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I grew up with illustrations like these from Syd Hoff (from A Book About Christopher Columbus by Ruth Belov Gross) where naked natives lived in the woods.

Take this little quiz, for example: In what kind of houses did the indigenous people Christopher Columbus encountered live? When I asked myself this question, I came up with a blank—not poor houses or huts, but no houses at all. I have a collection of Columbus books for children, and started to look through them, and realized how this lack may have been created in my mind. Many children’s books about Columbus show the “natives” on the beach or in the jungle, but never show them where they lived, slept, or ate. Robinson Crusoe, as the Ladybird Read-it-Yourself version from 1978 depicts him, built a house in a matter of days. The man Crusoe rescues has no home and no name—Crusoe gives “Friday” both, and with them come the benefits of civilization.

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Crusoe rebuilds civilization in the Caribbean, complete with English flag, in this depiction from the Ladybird version with pictures by Robert Ayton.

This can lead to a leap of logic that the “natives” didn’t have homes, allowing for the racist narrative of indigenous people as being animal-like, living off the earth in trees or caves, to be easier to accept. In children’s picture books written and illustrated by white Europeans, this image of indigenous people living “nowhere” can extend to any black or brown people in the global south. Jimmy Buffett’s Jolly Mon (Harcourt Brace 1988) is one example of an author whose book depicts the “simplicity” (“Storyteller’s Note”) of the Caribbean and never shows its people near anything other than cabanas. Gillian Oxford’s Anansi the Spider-Man for Heinemann (1999) gives the main character a straw hut with no door or windows to live in.

 

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In this version of Anansi the Spider-Man, the lovely Miss Selina lives in a straw hut without any door. Pictures by Gilly Marklew.

But the modern Caribbean is not at all a collection of grass huts or beach cabanas. And authors/illustrators can get it right; the “My Home” series from the late 1950s depicts Trinidadians living in modern, if rural, settings with houses that have windows and doors. It is true that the architecture in the Caribbean is different than it is in Europe, reflecting not the poverty or lack of civilization of the people, but the climate. Caribbean homes have to be built to withstand flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters, so they are often built of cement blocks and placed up on stilts. The verandas that surround many Caribbean houses give a place for people to gather and enjoy the cool breezes at the end of the day. Authors with Caribbean connections depict these “vernacular” architectural features as a matter of course, but non-Caribbean viewers may not see or understand them, just as someone not from Buffalo might misunderstand the need for the three entry doors to my house (every single one is for insulation against the freezing winters, not as some sort of Fort Knox protection).

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Isabel Crombie’s My Home in Trinidad has houses with windows and doors.  You can just see the cement blocks on which the house is resting.

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Houses in Verna Wilkins’ Hurricane (Tamarind 2004) show the verandas common to Caribbean houses.

An understanding of the purposes behind vernacular architecture features also needs to be applied to early Black British literature for children in order to understand it today. Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headmistress in the UK and mother to Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy, deliberately tried to counter some of the racist images of how Caribbean migrants lived when she wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers series in the early 1970s. In Knock at Mrs Herbs’ (1973), Gilroy depicts the communal homes shared by Caribbean migrants when they arrived in Britain; these homes, usually crumbling Victorian mansions, were bought communally and shared amongst several families when they found themselves turned away from white-owned lodging houses. The house where Roy lives shows the ways that community is valued in the notes that neighbors leave each other to tell their whereabouts; it also shows solidarity through the Black Power messages on the wall. In Bubu’s Street (1975), the outside of such homes are shown, and it is the Black residents who are living in fixed-up and newly-painted homes of bright colors. That they did the fixing up is implied by the boarded up and broken-windowed homes in dull brick right next door. Gilroy counters the narrative that Black migrants did not care about their homes and were happy to live in slums by the images she creates in her books.

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Gilroy’s Knock at Mrs Herbs’ creates a sense of community through text and pictures (illustrations by Shyam Varma).

 

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Gilroy’s Bubu’s Street counters stereotypes about Black migrants to Britain and their homes. Pictures by George Him.

Home is a basic concept in children’s books, particularly in picture books for the very young. The architecture of home has traditionally been connected, in books about Black people, with the racist assumptions of empire. We need to ensure that we are sharing books with children that depict “vernacular architecture” accurately, but also with understanding of why and how the architecture came about. Because how we think about ourselves and others, especially for children, is intimately tied up with ideas about home.

“It Seems I Test People”: Voices from Earlier Immigrants to Britain

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Centreprise’s Talking Blues brought many young writers together, sharing poems about the realities of Britain’s attitudes toward immigrants.

The past week has seen a depressing rise in racially- and ethnically-based incidents of hatred in Britain. Perhaps emboldened by the Brexit vote, perhaps fueled by fear, many British people have found it acceptable to shout at those who appear different in the streets, telling them to “go back where you came from”. The Polish embassy has reported leaflets, shoved through their letterbox of Polish people in the UK, which say “No more Polish vermin”. The Guardian reports on attacks on Muslims (“Racist incidents feared to be linked to Brexit result” 26 June 2016), and the former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, was told she was “not a true Brit” on Twitter. Social media and the immediacy of news reporting has made such events more visible, but it is useful to remember that they are not new, and that previous immigrant groups to Britain have withstood such attacks, and endured to become a part of the fabric of Britain. The writer and editor Leila Berg recorded such experiences in an article published on December 30 1963 in The Guardian entitled “We don’t mean you.” In the article, Berg compared her own experiences of anti-Semitism in WWII London to that of new West Indian immigrants experiencing racism. Berg would later go on to share stories of endurance, humor and racism surmounted with children in her early reader series, Nippers.

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Leila Berg sought out Black writers to tell stories about experiences with racism for children. Illustrated by Shyam Varma.

Another place to find a record of this endurance is in poetry. Seven Stories’ archival collections include the poetry of both children and adults from post-WWII migrants to Britain. People from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia all journeyed to Britain in the period between 1945 and 1970 (by which time new legislation was in place to restrict mass immigration from these groups). They were, in many cases, asked to come to fill post-war labour shortages, but they were met with fear and suspicion from members of the resident British population. The Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka, who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature, recorded some of this suspicion in a poem entitled “Telephone Conversation,” found in the collection How Strong the Roots: Poems of Exile collected by Howard Sergeant. Searching for housing upon his arrival to Britain, Soyinka’s speaker telephones a potential landlady. When he tells her he is African, she asks “Are you light/ Or very dark?” (32), something Soyinka labels as “public-hide-and-speak” (32). The poem ends without telling whether he was offered the flat, but the experience of thousands of non-white migrants during the time period suggests that he would have eventually been told that the flat was “already let”.

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Scene from British Pathe film that depicts the immigrants’ plight that Wole Soyinka discusses in “Telephone Conversation”.

 

The day-to-day racism experienced by new migrants extended to their children, born in Britain or not. The collection Talking Blues, published by the community organization Centreprise in 1976, included poems from young writers who formed part of a writers’ group at the centre. One of these poets, Donald Peters, wrote an eight-line poem called “Explain” in which he asks “someone” to explain to him “Why the world we live in today/ Has no hope for us to stay” (5). Sandra Agard—who as an adult continued to write poetry and perform as a storyteller throughout Britain—demanded that the white Briton see the Black Briton as “your brother” (13) while at the same time knowing that “You took my identity/ . . . [but] You don’t even know what I’m talking about!” (13). Talking Blues appeared in the very year that increases in racist incidents, including those that led to the Notting Hill Carnival riots and Eric Clapton’s rant about “stop[ping] Britain from becoming a black colony… the black wogs and coons and fucking Jamaicans don’t belong here” (“Reggae: The sound that revolutionized Britain” Neil Spencer 30 January 2011 Observer), were causing the Black British population to fear that they would never be “allowed” by white Britons to belong in British society. While (as today) there were many who agreed with Clapton’s racist sentiments (and the racist actions of others, including the police), his words galvanized many British people—Black and white—to action. Membership in the Anti-Nazi League rose, and Rock Against Racism (which united punk and reggae bands at concerts focused on anti-racist messages and campaigns) was formed.

 

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Testing times for Berry–and for all of us.

For me, the point of all this is that the voices of newcomers (or those perceived as “Others”) in Britain matter, not simply as a record of their experience in Britain but as a call to action for everyone. James Berry wrote a poem, “It Seems I Test People,” which can be found in his 1988 collection When I Dance. Berry, who came to Britain from Jamaica in the Windrush year of 1948, described his “skin sun-mixed like basic earth” (84) being the cause of discomfort for others. Despite “my eyes packed with hellos behind them/ my arrival bringing departures/ it seems I test people” (84). Otherness does test people, because it reminds us all that we have only one world and its resources must be shared. For many of my British colleagues, the post-Brexit world seems rather frightening, not because of the (perceived) “others” but because of what those others might think of the British in the face of the racist incidents that are getting so much coverage. The poets of post-WWII immigration show us that the answer to racism is not to worry, and fear, but to act positively. Speak out against racism. Listen to the voices of those experiencing it. And think about how you can help to make those the loudest voices. As humans, we are being tested all the time; in this case, it’s important not to be found wanting.

I’d like to dedicate my blog this week to my friend Lisa Pershing Ballinger, who despite being tested by lung cancer for over three years, always faced everything with courage and a sense of humor.  I’ll miss you, Lisa.