Tag Archives: biography for children

Frozen Smiles: Matthew Henson and the Elusive North Pole

I live in Buffalo, where we regularly get foot after foot of snow that has to be driven through, trudged through, and shoveled for months of the year.  Therefore, the thought of going to the North Pole has never been something that ever appealed to me in the least, unless Santa Claus took me in his reindeer sled.  But there are those who not only were interested in being one of the first people who found the North Pole, they were willing to risk months of loneliness and boredom, a monotonous and unappealing diet, and loss of fingers, toes, or even their lives to try to get there.  One of these people was the African-American Matthew Henson.

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Henson, who went on several Arctic expeditions with Robert Peary, was finally honored with a (joint) stamp in 1986.

Henson, born in Maryland a year after the end of the Civil War, left home after his parents died and went to seek work in Washington DC.  He did any work he could find, including sailing with a merchant ship and clerking in a store; although his white employers were kind, he faced considerable racism in Washington in reconstruction-era America, and found that he was treated more equally on board ships.  It was perhaps for this reason that when Robert Peary came into the shop where Henson was clerking, he accepted Peary’s officer to serve as his valet on an expedition to Nicaragua.  When Peary announced four years later, in 1891, that he wanted to be the first to reach the North Pole, Henson—who had previously been to Russian ports in winter on the merchant ship—agreed to go with him.  In 1909, after several attempts, Henson, Peary, and four Inuit members of the Arctic team, reached the North Pole and planted the American flag.  Henson’s sled was some distance ahead of Peary’s, and it was Henson who placed the flag at the pole.  I will note that there was controversy at the time over whether Peary’s team was first, and controversy later over whether they actually reached the pole or just came close, but whether they did or not is not really germane to what happened to Henson after they returned to the states.

Peary became an admiral and received various medals.  Henson became a messenger “boy”.  Henson was not invited to join the prestigious Explorers Club, not even when Peary was president; and when Peary received medals from various geographic societies around the world, Henson was neither invited to ceremonies nor similarly recognized.  Like Britain’s Walter Tull, whose achievements were similarly ignored in official circles a few years later, Henson failed to receive similar treatment to white people because of the color of his skin.

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The book cover illustration by Paul Johnson seems to indicate racial equality (more or less) in the world of Arctic exploration.

Material written for children about arctic exploration and the North Pole also downplays or ignores Henson’s contributions.  White author Mike Salisbury, who worked in the arctic and researched for the BBC, published a book on Arctic Expedition (Victoria House 1989).  The book’s cover is promising because it includes one brown-skinned and one white-skinned child “explorer” driving dog sleds while walruses look on.

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But Mike Salisbury’s text for Arctic Expedition does not even mention that Henson was African-American, and there are no accompanying pictures of him. All the historical explorers that are pictured are white.

The double-page spread on “Early Explorers” does mention Peary and Henson, but while there are illustrations of several other expeditions headed by white explorers, there is no illustration of either Peary or Henson, and the text does not indicate that Henson was African-American.  (In fact, the only person of color on the page at all is “an Inuit” who apparently does not have a name.)  Given the way that the book’s illustrations otherwise encourage Black and white children to be explorers, the failure to portray Henson is disappointing.  Children need role models, and historical heroes, and Henson is undisputedly both.  He learned the Inuit language (Peary did not, at least not to the extent that Henson did) and could drive a dog sled, which Peary also could not do.  Peary’s leadership and knowledge was necessary to the success of the trip, but so was Henson’s.

At least Salisbury mentions Henson.  The DK “Find Out” website (https://www.dkfindout.com/us/history/explorers/who-was-first-to-north-pole/), designed for children, says that “Robert Peary announced that he had reached the Pole in 1909, but because his men were not trained navigators, none of them could be sure”.  The picture accompanying the text shows an arctic sled, but no photographs of any of the explorers.  Again, this is an opportunity missed to highlight the bravery of people like Peary and Henson, whether they reached the pole first or not.

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Part of a Golden Legacy: Matthew Henson is one of the heroes of Bertram Fitzgerald’s series.

Black writers, on the other hand, just like Black organizations and clubs in Henson’s time, have always celebrated Henson’s contribution to arctic exploration.  In 1969, the Golden Legacy comics (which I wrote about in a previous blog) did an entire issue dedicated to Henson.  And just this summer, Catherine Johnson, already known for her historical fiction (including Nest of Vipers and Sawbones) and ripped-from-the-historical-headlines narratives (The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo) published Race to the Frozen North: The Matthew Henson Story with Barrington Stoke.  Both these stories, written 50 years apart, emphasize Henson’s bravery as well as the racial prejudice that allowed his achievements to be doubted by his contemporaries and buried by history for many years.

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Ha, ha, ha, microaggression is so funny! Now hand over that $100.

Both stories repeat an anecdote about a bet between Henson and a white colleague that he would not return from the North Pole with all his fingers and toes intact, and link the anecdote directly to the casual racism of the time.  It was common for explorers to lose fingers or toes to frostbite on such journeys, but in both accounts, the white colleague argues that it is impossible for a Black person to survive in cold temperatures.  This is the legacy of a racist version of human evolution that suggested people of African descent were acclimatized to hot countries, and therefore were best equipped to work (and be enslaved) on plantations, while white people were more adapted to colder countries, and had therefore learned to use their minds rather than their physical strength.  This legacy lives on in children’s biographies even now, where people of African descent are more likely to be found in sports biographies than in scientist biographies, so it is crucial to recognize this prejudice and change the paradigm, particularly in children’s books.

I found Johnson’s biography particularly engaging because it is written in the first person.  This allows the reader to get a hint of Henson’s personality: determined, curious, and practical.  Johnson’s Henson recognizes and abhors the prejudice he experiences—“I didn’t like it when people called me ‘boy’.  I was twenty-one—wasn’t I a man?” (61)—but he does not object out loud (“There was no point”; 61) and is quick to see past casual racism when he feels that a person is otherwise “open and honest” (61).  Henson takes jobs even when they don’t seem ideal: “I did not want to be a valet. A valet’s job was to iron and clean clothes.  But perhaps if it gave me the chance to travel again it might be worth it” (62).  His eagerness for adventure and his willingness to take on lesser roles and accept some prejudice to participate in exploration in uncharted territory makes the end of Henson’s story particularly poignant in Johnson’s account.  While the Golden Legacy comic quickly skims over Henson’s omission from the fame that came to Peary, Johnson shows Henson’s pain at being ignored, not just by medal-giving societies, but by Peary himself after their final expedition.  “Admiral Peary had never contacted me after our last trip. That made me very sad but I had to live in the present.  I always knew life would be different for me.  I was coloured.  But I knew that I had done great things” (117).  In this short passage, Johnson manages to highlight historical racism and suggest to readers that belief in oneself and a curious, open mind are the best antidote to the frozen smiles of a prejudiced society.

Bodies, Power, Women, Race: How Children’s Books Depict Black Female Athletes, Pt. 2

Last week I looked at biographies of Black female athletes for older readers—and was largely disappointed at the way they depicted all females as defined by their looks, and Black females particularly as perennially unable to reach a male-set standard of beauty or female athleticism.  This week I am looking at picture books to see how they present Black female athletes.  Spoiler alert: books for older readers ought to look to picture book biographies as a model, as they are much less likely to concentrate on the female body in negative ways.

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Mark Stewart’s biography comments on Griffith-Joyner’s fingernails, fashion–oh, and she runs too.

Interestingly, I found that books with photographs rather than illustrations to be more likely to focus on ideas of femininity and what a female athlete should be.  Mark Stewart’s biography of Florence Griffith-Joyner (1996), part of the Grolier All-Pro Biographies series, is for a much younger audience than the Venus and Serena Williams biographies that I looked at last week (though perhaps not as young as a typical picture book audience—somewhere in between the two).  However, like them, Stewart’s story opens with a focus on his subject’s urban environment: Griffith-Joyner was born “in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California . . . a poor but proud community comprised mostly of African-American families.  During the 1960s, its residents protested against racial prejudice, and they often clashed with police” (8).  And even more than the Williams sisters’ biographies, Stewart spends considerable time on Griffith-Joyner’s sense of “style,” describing the “explosive colors” of her outfits and “super-long fingernails” (31).  There is even a two-page spread entitled “Designing Woman” (32-33), and a quotation from earlier Olympic medal-winner Wilma Rudolph in which she says that Griffith-Joyner “brings in the glamour” (37) to running.  Stewart, according to the blurb about him at the end of the book, “is the author of every Grolier All-Pro Biography”—most of which are about men.  That the white male author focuses so much of his time on Griffith-Joyner’s fashion sense, rather than her athleticism, is disappointing.

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Not enough to be a girl: Stauffacher and Couch’s biography of Althea Gibson requires men to support Gibson’s dreams.

Like the biographies for older readers, the picture books I found in my university and local public libraries (I visited two branches) about Black female athletes mostly concerned tennis players and track and field stars.  I’m sure a whole paper could be written on why this is; why Wilma Rudolph or Althea Gibson make better picture book subjects than the French skater Surya Bonaly or the American gymnast Dominique Dawes.  However, for now I will focus on what I could find, rather than speculate on what I couldn’t.  I want to start with a 2011 biography of Althea Gibson, written by Sue Stauffacher and illustrated by Greg Couch, both of whom are white Americans.  The book’s title suggests an attitude toward Gibson that highlights attitudes toward Black female athletes trying to succeed in white society; the book is titled Nothing But Trouble.  To be fair to Stauffacher and Couch, the book is exuberant (Couch’s illustrations which place a rainbow of color surrounding Gibson are quite striking) and make a concerted effort to highlight African-American success.  But Gibson is portrayed, as were athletes in other biographies I’ve covered, as wanting to be like a man; she wants to be “Somebody big, like Charlie Parker or Sugar Ray” (n.p.).  She is too wild to succeed in tennis until she meets jazz saxophonist Buddy Walker, who teaches her to conform to white society’s expectations: “With Buddy’s help, Althea realized she could dress up in white and act like a lady, and still beat the liver and lights out of the ball” (n.p.).

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Despite the book’s title, Heather Lang and Floyd Cooper’s Queen of the Track focuses on Alice Coachman’s athleticism rather than her queenliness.

Many of the picture book sports biographies mention the difficulty of being a female athlete, as Stauffacher and Couch do. White author Heather Lang’s 2012 Queen of the Track, about Olympic high jump champion Alice Coachman does at least put gender inequality in historical context; Lang writes, “In the 1930s, running and jumping weren’t considered ladylike” (n.p.).  And the rest of the text is relatively gender neutral—as in, if a reader imagines the book is about Albert rather than Alice, the text reads the same.  There are no comments about fashion, no diminutive adjectives, no negative comparison of Coachman to either male athletes or “proper” ladies.  The illustrations, by African-American artist Floyd Cooper, depict an athlete who knows how to use her body to purpose, whether she is in training clothes running, playing basketball in a dress, or dancing to jazz.

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Eric Velazquez’s illustrations for Anna Malaspina’s book about Coachman also highlight her strength and power.

Another biography of Coachman for picture book readers, also by a white author, Ann Malaspina’s Touch the Sky (2011), is similarly structured, with an admonition from Coachman’s father to “Sit on the porch and be a lady” (n.p.) early on, but with no further suggestion that Coachman’s gender got in the way of her dreams.  The text mentions Coachman’s long legs, but certainly not her outfits.  The illustrations by African-Puerto Rican illustrator Eric Velazquez, depict Coachman as strong and powerful, including in a text-free double-page spread of Coachman at the Olympics.  Both authors of these biographies write exclusively stories of strong women and social justice themes, according to their websites (http://www.heatherlangbooks.com/about/ and http://www.annmalaspina.com/bio.html); both illustrators are well-known for their depiction of African-American subjects.  Compared with books written for older readers, exclusively by white male sports writers, or picture books written and illustrated by white people only, these books focus on the achievements of female athletes rather than their “too masculine” or “unladylike” bodies or their need for male role models.

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Manchester primary school students attribute Holmes’s success to hard work, full stop.

I’d like to end my discussion of Black female athlete biographies with a book that is different from those I’ve discussed so far because it is written and illustrated by children—more specifically, multiracial schoolchildren in Manchester, UK. Britain’s Black Olympians (2012), published by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Centre, contains biographies of male and female athletes, but there is no material difference in the text based on the athletes’ gender.  The biography of middle distance runner Kelly Holmes, for example, argues that “Kelly was a very good runner because she trained all the time” (13).  The child authors in this book tend to highlight hard work, persistence and training—not gender or fashion or even anything to do with the bodies of the athletes.  Kelly Holmes is a good runner not because of her determination to be like a boy, her fashion sense, or even her legs, but because she trained all the time.  And that is the best way to teach young readers how to be a good athlete.

Passive Voice, Active Prejudice: Mary Seacole in Children’s Literature and Media

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Harewood’s ITV programme celebrates the new statue of Mary Seacole in London–but not everyone is pleased.

This week, Britain’s ITV showed a programme on Mary Seacole entitled “In the Shadow of Mary Seacole.” In some ways, the programme could have been titled, “Mary Seacole in the Shadow of British Racism.” Many people who initially celebrated the fact that ITV was telling the story of the woman labeled “The Greatest Black Briton” in 2004 were dismayed to find that the programme was put on the schedule at 10:40 pm. Others complained that the programme focused on the opinions of white historians. Indeed, it seemed that most, though not all, of Seacole’s defenders in the programme were non-historians: actors, comedians, nurses. Unfortunately, none of this is new when it comes to Mary Seacole—and children’s books about the Jamaican Crimean War nurse are no exception.

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You have two minutes for questions on . . . Mary Seacole: the biography with Mastermind presenter Magnus Magnusson listed as author.

 

I’ve written in various places about Mary Seacole before (see my article in Bookbird, for example, “My (Black) Britain”) so rather than rehash what I’ve previously written, I want to focus on a particular children’s biography that caught my eye. Its title is fairly unremarkable, Famous People: Mary Seacole 1805-1881, but what led me to order it last year was one of the listed authors. Christine Moorcroft—who I presume is the main author of the book—shares author credit with Magnus Magnusson. British readers of this blog will know Magnusson’s name as the original presenter of the long-running quiz show Mastermind; I was curious about his involvement in a book about Mary Seacole (as an Icelandic citizen all his life, I doubted Mary Seacole was his “specialist subject”). When the book came, I understood. Prominently on the front of the book, in between the authors’ names, is a multicoloured number “4”. The book was written as part of a Channel Four Schools project that combined short videos (still available here: https://shop.channel4learning.com/?page=shop&cid=8&pid=1603 although this is not an endorsement since I haven’t seen them yet—just in case you are interested) with books and related classroom materials. Other people profiled in the series include Cleopatra, Boudica and Gandhi, so the series clearly had a commitment to a broad range of historical figures from within and without Britain.

 

But although the series is committed to “historical evidence” “to show that the story is true” (both these quotations come from the promotional blurb on the website listed above), the book version of the biography is hampered by its use as an educational tool and its desire not to alienate a white British audience into some rather strange versions of historical accuracy. Factually, it often allows untruths for the sake of its audience; Mary Seacole’s mother “married a Scottish officer” (6), something for which there is no evidence and which overall historical patterns would suggest was unlikely. In children’s books, however, parents are still supposed to be legally married, and the complicated relations between Black and white people in the Caribbean were perhaps a bridge too far for this book. Later, when Seacole goes to London, “She was called names by other children because she was black. Nonetheless, she went back to London many times” (8). Racism can’t be that bad if she keeps going back—can it?

 

Children in London might call racist names, but the text exonerates specific British adults from any racism against Seacole. It mostly does this through the use of passive voice. Seacole goes to London to join Florence Nightingale’s nurses and is rejected—but not by anyone in particular, and not necessarily because she was Black: “Mary was told that no more nurses were needed” (11). When she eventually gets to the Crimea, and to Nightingale’s unit, “Mary went to see her and was given a bed for the night” (13). Nothing is said in the rest of the text that even hints of racism, and the book ends quite happily: “Mary was famous when she arrived in London. People had read about her in the newspapers. She was the guest of honour at a dinner with the army. The soldiers cheered her” (19). The book never calls out British officials or Florence Nightingale for racist attitudes, and lessens the impact of Seacole’s heroism by avoiding the real struggles she went through to be accepted.

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Right to be skeptical? A still from the deleted CBBC episode of Horrible Histories.

 

Moorcroft and Magnusson’s reluctance to talk about British racism is a justifiable attitude—if you look at what happened when other accounts of Seacole’s life tried to depict this racism. Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories book series generally avoids discussions of racism (there’s no Horrible Histories: Rude Racists, for example), but when the television sketch show based on his books did a segment on Nightingale and Seacole where both women were jostling each other over who would get the attention of a PR agent, the show received official complaints for appearing to criticize Florence Nightingale’s attitude toward Seacole. The complaint was upheld, and the segment is no longer available to watch (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2775315/BBC-criticised-implying-Florence-Nightingale-racist-children-s-Horrible-Histories.html). One of the people who complained was Professor Lynn McDonald, a member of the Florence Nightingale Society. McDonald, and the Florence Nightingale Society, regularly write letters and newspaper articles criticizing various forms of media for their portrayal of Seacole.

 

Which brings me back to presenter David Harewood and ITV’s programme, “In the Shadow of Mary Seacole”. One of the people interviewed by Harewood was Mark Bostridge, who wrote a biography of Nightingale—and who is also a member of the Florence Nightingale Society. He calls the “myth” of Mary Seacole “faking history at its worst” (“In the Shadow” 1.24). This claim is left alone, being countered with a response about the caring concern of Seacole. I’m not arguing that Seacole was not caring, but by not putting Bostridge’s claims next to one of the other people in the programme who talk about the kind of medicine that Seacole practiced, the show appears to accept that Seacole was, as Harewood says directly after Bostridge’s comments, “medically unqualified” (1.36). Imagine if Nightingale was portrayed as learning her nursing skills from a group of religious zealots in only four months (she did her training with Lutheran “deaconesses” and only spent a short time with them): would we still look at her as the heroine she has become? How we describe people matters, and it matters especially in books and media for children. We should never teach children to passively accept a power hierarchy—like Mary Seacole, we should constantly challenge it.