Tag Archives: Black British history

Ghosts of No Nation: Forgotten Histories Revealed in Children’s Literature

Author Zetta Elliott recently sent me a copy of The Ghosts in the Castle (Rosetta, 2017), her most recent children’s book, because it is about an American searching for Black History in England (can’t think why she thought I might be interested, ha ha). The main character, Zaria, is Afro-Caribbean; she lives in New York City but like many people with Caribbean ancestry, she has relations in many countries, including England. Zaria is making her first trip to London to visit her grandfather, who is ill; but despite never having been to Britain before, she comes with pre-conceived notions about what it will be like.

She gets these notions about Britain and the British people from books. Zaria says, “The England I’ve read about in books and seen in so many movies is full of wizards, and unicorns, and magic wands. It rains every day, and kids live in castles or mansions that have secret rooms or ghosts in the attic” (5). Zaria’s reading reflects something that is true not only of Americans reading about Britain, but about Brits reading about their own country: whiteness. Danuta Kean, writing in the Guardian this week, says, “British readers may recognise the value of literature to encourage social cohesion – but the perspective they gain from novels remains overwhelmingly white, male and middle class, according to a survey of public attitudes to literature released on Wednesday” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/01/literature-report-shows-british-readers-stuck-in-very-white-past). Because whiteness seems “normal” for Britain, Zaria (and British readers) accepts the idea that the “real” England is about white people. But fortunately Zaria has a radical aunt, who points out her assumptions. “You love books about castles and wizards and magical creatures, but you are not in those books. The hero is always White” (31). Zaria’s aunt would like her own son—and Zaria as well—to read books that reflect the Black British contribution to the nation, but Zaria feels conflicted about this. Although she is interested in what she is learning about Black British history, she likes fantasy, and wants to read about castles and magic and ghosts.


In most “classic” British fantasy, this is as close as you get to a Black character.

Fortunately for Zaria, her aunt takes her to Windsor Castle, where she learns about the history of Africans connected with Queen Victoria. As I’ve written about before, Queen Victoria had a habit of adopting young Africans and educating them in Britain, and Zaria comes across the ghosts of two of them, the Abyssinian Prince Alemayehu and Sarah Bonetta Forbes. The two Africans are a contrast; Alemayehu is angry and homesick, while Sarah (or Sally, as Zaria calls her) is happy to please those who have taken her away from Africa. This is an important difference between the two for readers, who might have mixed feelings about living in a white-dominated society (no matter what their race). Zaria and her cousin Winston must help both ghosts, but particularly Alemayehu. They do this through reminding Alemayehu of his home with souvenirs they purchase in Brixton Market. In the end, Alemayehu learns that love, and remembering that love, allows you to roam freely, and learn fully. Zaria does not “lay the ghosts to rest” but rather sets them free, and gives them the world as their playground.


There throughout history: Olusoga makes the point that Black Britons did not just arrive beginning with Windrush.

The Ghosts in the Castle is the third in Zetta Elliott’s City Kids series. The series format, and the fact that the first two are set in Zaria’s home of Brooklyn, makes it perhaps inevitable that when offered a chance to go to boarding school in England, Zaria decides to return home. But I admit to a feeling of disappointment that she did, in part because I have been reading David Olusoga’s very heavy history, Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016; I also watched the accompanying television series from the BBC). Olusoga, who lived during his childhood in my own recent home of Newcastle, grew up much like Elliott’s Zaria—unaware of the role that Black Britons played in their own nation. His history makes an excellent case, not just for the recent past but for the long past, of the pivotal part that people of African descent had in shaping the very things that we think of as “British,” and, too often, also as “white.” Like Elliott, Olusoga works to reveal the Black British presence that is often in front of our eyes if we know where to look. Elliott, for example, points out both the brass memorial plaque to Alewayehu in the nave of St George’s chapel and the additional plaque beneath it commemorating the visit of Haile Selassie I to Alewayehu’s memorial in 1924 (61-62). Olusoga describes the Black British sailor depicted on the brass relief at the base of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square—and then, to indicate the significance of the inclusion of the Black sailor, Olusoga goes on to describe all the Black sailors known to have sailed with Nelson (19-21). And this is just one such incident of Black Britons appearing in very public places that people walk by every day without ever noticing, in a book that is over 500 pages.


England Expects Every Man to Do his Duty: might Zaria come back to London to meet the Black soldier defending Nelson at the base of the column in Trafalgar Square next time?

Britain often seems through its literature and other cultural production to be a place where whiteness is not only dominant, but sometimes exclusive, both to its own citizens and to the global tourists and consumers of children’s books. Elliott’s book takes a step toward changing the image of Britain—but based on David Olusoga’s history, Zaria is going to have to return and find more ghosts to set free from invisibility. Only then will they move from being ghosts of no nation, to belonging to us all.

A Valentine to Black Britain: British Children’s Poets Namecheck their History

My blogs lately have been very serious, so in honor of the holiday, I thought I’d do something just a little lighter—though still with a serious purpose. Because (as my daughter can tell you), there are no days off for learning. This habit of tireless education comes from my dad, who Knows Everything. If there is a quiz on a walking tour, or Final Jeopardy comes on, or you were wondering what the lyrics were to a 19th Century folk song, just ask my dad. This broad-based, encyclopedic knowledge in the person of my father is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, growing up in the days before the internet, I didn’t need to worry about the library being open to finish my homework. On the other hand, after I reached the mature age of, say, eight or so, I began to suspect that if I didn’t know everything too, there might be something wrong with me. “How do you get to know so much?” I would ask. His answer was usually, “Good liberal arts education.” I had no idea what that meant.


My dad and Diego Rivera taught me that art IS history.

What he meant, he practiced. My dad supplemented my education by taking us to jazz concerts, black and white movies, the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Kellogg Cereal Factory (okay, any factory he could get us into), and through countless houses old (describing their architectural features) and new (describing their shoddy construction and shortcuts). I learned to suck up this knowledge. In school, and with my dad, you never knew: there may be a quiz.

But through this eclectic mix of educational field trips, I also learned that subject matter was not isolated, and that you could contain more knowledge if you lived it, sang it, saw it, ate it. So part of my Civil Rights history came from listening to Motown; my knowledge about Cesar Chavez from school was reinforced when we stopped buying grapes at home. The art museum and the cereal factory did not have to be worlds apart. Paul Robeson was not just a singer.

One of the cheapest and easiest ways to get these multiple levels of learning in small packages is through what Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news”: literature. Black British poets, particularly, have long been interested in conveying more than just the music and rhythm of words. Many of them have tried, through their children’s poetry, to teach a specific history, a history not taught in most history books: Black British history. They do this in many ways, but John Agard, Valerie Bloom, Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephaniah all have poems that reference a specific history: they all write about other Black British and Caribbean literary characters and authors, and they do it in a way that integrates with other cultural and literary histories.


Bloom’s poetry starts with the familiar, and gives readers some history to wonder about.

Many Caribbean and Black British authors write about Anansi, for example. The trickster spider whose tales originally came from West African mythologies and have been changed and modified to fit first Caribbean and then Black British situations is a popular way of introducing young children to their cultural roots. But both Zephaniah and Bloom use the familiar figure of Anansi to link with other figures connected to Caribbean history. Bloom, in “Tell Me a Story” (Let me Touch the Sky Macmillan 2001) has her poem’s speaker ask for stories from her grandmother. “Tell me a story please, Granny,/ ‘Bout Anancy and Tacoma” (64) the poem begins. But it ends with another, lesser known trickster—a real-life escaped slave who went on to lead the Maroons in raids against the British, Jack Manson. “Tell me a story, please, Granny/ Tell me ‘bout t’ree finger Jack” (64). Bloom’s poem does not explain Three-Fingered Jack’s story, but instead encourages the reader to find it out.


Zephaniah’s world links history and music, Anansi and Marley.

Zephaniah’s poem, “Everyone’s Friend” (Wicked World Puffin 2000) connects Anansi with Jamaica’s most famous singer ever, Bob Marley. The poem, a commentary on the cult of celebrity, argues that everyone now claims to have been a close personal friend of Marley, even “A smart spider known as Anansi” (32) and “Freedom fighters called Maroons” (32). Even though Zephaniah’s name-checking is ironic, since both Anansi and the Maroons existed long before Bob Marley’s rise to fame, his use of these two groups is not accidental. In using these figures in his poem, Zephaniah is linking Marley’s music to the history of resistance to oppression that both Anansi (as a trickster figure) and the Maroons represent.


John Agard wants the name Mary Seacole to be as familiar to children as nursery rhymes.

Both John Agard and Grace Nichols introduce specific Caribbean authors to their readers through their poetry. Agard, in his popular poem, “Checking Out Me History” (Half-Caste and Other Poems Hodder 2004), highlights the deficits of a British education that teaches “bout ole King Cole” (61) but “never tell me bout Mary Seacole” (61), the Jamaican nurse who wrote her autobiography about her experiences nursing in the same war as Florence Nightingale. Like Zephaniah’s and Bloom’s poems, Agard’s encourages readers to use poetry as a starting point for learning, and reading, more.


Grace Nichols’ valentine to Sam Selvon–and her child readers.  Illustration by Kim Harley.

The Grace Nichols poem that I want to end with is the most indirect “name-checking” of all these poems, and the child reader might take years to make the connection. “‘Summer is Hearts,’ says Sammy Selvon” (Give Yourself a Hug Puffin 1996) is a direct reference to the novelist Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners and its most famous passage, the ten-page stream of consciousness about the brief joys of an English summer for West Indian immigrants. Selvon’s “summer is hearts” passage could not be read to children; it is full of sexual exploits. Nichols’ poem distills the emotions from Selvon’s novel into two-word lines, including (perhaps referencing the sexuality) “folks bolder” (23). In Nichols’ poem, Sammy Selvon is a boy, not a man, not a writer—but a boy who will one day become both. The poem plants seeds of knowledge about history (Sammy Selvon may ring a faraway bell when a child grows up and sees a book in a bookstore) and about literature (made up of words that describe the beauty of being alive). For Nichols, as for the other poets I mention here, poetry is a way to tell the history that they love and they want readers to embrace.

Becoming (and Unbecoming) Humans: Slavery and dehumanization in children’s books

It’s nonfiction November, a good excuse to think about the idea of nonfiction as it relates to Black British children’s literature. Many literary scholars (myself included) will go on for days about the “real truths” of fiction vs. the “truth claims” of nonfiction, but I think a lot more about nonfiction now than I ever did before I had my daughter—because in the ultimate act of rebellion against her literature professor mother, my daughter doesn’t really like to read fiction. However, when she was little, I could always give her a DK Eyewitness book or a Horrible Histories and she would gobble them up like . . . well, like I used to consume Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books. Which, now that I think of it, were shelved in the nonfiction section of the library.

But DK Eyewitness books and Horrible Histories and Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books all come from a particular point of view, and this shows when you read them through. Most of these books center on European versions of history, science, myth and so on (Lang did include African, American Indian, Asian and South American fairy tales, but as I’ve written about elsewhere, he revised them for English reading audiences). Nonfiction (like fiction) is usually a version of the truth, but it is not always the truth that a book sets out to tell.



This may be a pictured geography, but Wiese avoids picturing slavery, and Henry moves quickly to naps in the sun.

Take nonfiction on slavery for example. There isn’t much available for a young reading audience; slavery is one of those topics that is meant to be too unhappy for children to read about. General histories for young children typically give slavery very little space (if any at all), and then hurry on to something happier or less controversial. A 1943 Picture Geography: West Indies in Story and Pictures by Marguerite Henry and Kurt Wiese gives only the following paragraph:

“Then the Spaniards brought shiploads of slaves from Africa. That’s why there are so many Negroes on the islands. But today they are not slaves. They work in the fields, they fish and they laugh, and they doze in the sun.” (n.p.)

Note the slippages and elisions in the paragraph. Only the Spanish are blamed, and not the British, French, or Dutch colonizers in the region. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because first of all, “they” are all happy-go-lucky and have time to lie around napping in the sunshine. Second of all, “they” are never called people in the paragraph.

This may seem a petty point—you might say, this is a book from 1943; or, the author refers to Negroes which is the same thing (is it? Ask people in the Jim Crow south). But calling people, people or human beings means that readers, no matter what their racial background, have something in common with slaves. And most children’s books work very hard to ensure that there is distance between the child reader and the person who is a slave.


They were people . . . in Africa.

This doesn’t always have to be through avoiding the word “people” either. Usborne is a company that produces history for all ages, and to be fair to them, they often try much harder than other nonfiction publishers to include slavery and the role that white British/Europeans played in enslaving African people. And they do use the word “people”. But they are still careful in their phraseology to distance the story of slavery from modern day readers. A lift-the-flap See Inside the History of Britain (2014) puts slavery underneath a flap, and gives it two sentences: “Some British merchants grew rich from the slave trade—capturing people from villages in West Africa and forcing them onto ships. The slaves were treated dreadfully during long voyages to the West Indies, where they were sold like animals to work on sugar plantations” (9). British merchants are blamed for slavery, but the Africans go from being people to being slaves to being (like) animals. And, because there is no further mention of the African people brought to the West Indies, nor of their descendants coming to Britain in the post-emancipation period, the reader could quickly close up the flap and make them disappear entirely.

Usborne did produce an Usborne Young Reading The Story of Slavery in 2007 (written by Sarah Courtauld). 2007 was the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, but the anniversary tended to be marked by an increase in biographies of post-emancipation West Indians (such as Mary Seacole) rather than histories of slavery, so Usborne is to be commended for that. However, in this book too the presentation is interesting. Compare the first page of Chapter 1, discussing ancient Egyptian slavery:


The first slaves in Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery were people–three times on this page alone.

. . . with the first page of the chapter about people arriving to enslavement in the West Indies.


Enslaved Africans are slaves, then animals, and apparently-mysterious forces strip, clean, and cover them with palm oil.

The Ancient Egyptians are people, even after being compared to cattle being sold in a market; the African people brought to the West Indies are slaves, and then animals. Slave masters in ancient Egypt beat the slaves, but the use of the passive voice in the second passage allows no one to have to take responsibility: “As soon as they left the ship, they were stripped, cleaned, and covered in palm oil” (but by whom?). There are good passages in the Courtauld text, but the way that the book dehumanizes people involved in the plantation slavery system allows the reader to deny their own connection to these people (slaves or slave owners).

I’ll end, for comparison, with an older book that puts the humanity of enslaved people front and center, Anne Terry White’s Human Cargo: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade (1972). Below is the first page of that text:


The first page in Anne Terry White’s 1972 Human Cargo.

It is horrible to look back. But all our children have a right to know their history.