Tag Archives: Black British

Criminal Minds? Alex Wheatle’s Kerb Stain Boys and Crime in British Children’s Books

I was once in a second-hand bookstore with my older brother, looking for books for my collection of Black British children’s literature.  One title and spine stuck out to me, and I said to my brother, “This book has a Black British child in it.”  He looked at me, confused.  “Do you know the book?  Or the author?”  “No,” I said, “I’ve never seen it before, and I don’t recognize the author.  But I guarantee you it is a British book and has a Black British child in it, probably on the cover.”  He looked at me doubtfully, so I pulled the book off the shelf.  There, on the cover of John Escott’s Burglar Bells (1983), were two boys looking at a third person breaking into a house.  One of the two boys was black.

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John Escott’s Burglar Bells could have had all white British children–but it didn’t. Illustration by Maureen Bradley.

It wasn’t really a magic trick that I performed.  Two things told me all I needed to know.  First, the spine, and the fact that it was hardbacked but paperback-sized, let me know it was from Hamish Hamilton—their books are easy to recognize.  But second, the title had something about robbery in it.  In preparation for writing this blog, I went to my middle grade shelves of books from the 1960s to the 1980s, and easily pulled off half a dozen books with robbery, thieving, burglary, or rioting in the title—all of them with Black British characters.  Because of the time in which they were written, most of these books have a white focalizing character who somehow befriends a black child or family. John Escott’s Burglar Bells is one of the few that have the relationship between the white and black children already established; Bernie (white) and Lee (black) go to the same school and are already friends when the book starts.  They are joined in their quest to foil a robbery by another classmate, Rosemary (also white).  There really isn’t anything in the story to suggest that Lee had any kind of different background from Bernie or Rosemary in terms of language (no patois or slang), culture or homelife (in fact we never see Lee at home throughout the story), so the story could reasonably be reillustrated with all white (or all black) children.  But I don’t think it was an accident that this book included a Black British character, as this plot was common during the post-Windrush era.

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An early example is Christine Pullein-Thompson’s Robbers in the Night (Hamish Hamilton, 1967).  In this book, the main character, Paul, has come to Britain from Jamaica, and he remembers “the blazing sun, the dust, the hot sea” (7) with fondness.  But although his family is hardworking and kind, Paul gets caught up with a white boy gang who want him to help them rob houses.  At first, Paul is attracted by the boys and their easy money; when his sister tells him to stay away from them because “we have to be better than other people because we are immigrants” (47), Paul retorts that, “We can’t be immigrants for ever.  One day we will be like everyone else . . . I don’t want to be different” (47).  Paul ends up aiding and abetting the white gang to rob a country house, crawling through a window and opening a door for them when the gang leader threatens him with a knife.  When he at last confesses to the police, they do not arrest him as he had feared, but tell him, “You’re a law-abiding citizen.  Those miserable youths were trying to corrupt you.  Hurry home and get some sleep.  You need it” (115).

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Nina Bawden’s The Robbers does not have any Black Britons on the cover, but nonetheless, Black British Addie plays a pivotal role in the novel.

This idea of being Black British, hardworking and kind, but mixed up in crime nonetheless is repeated in Nina Bawden’s The Robbers (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard 1979).  The book focuses on two white boys, the wealthy Philip Holbein and the poor Darcy Green.  Philip becomes interested in Darcy and his family when he moves to London to live with his father.  He meets Darcy when he sees him on Philip’s family’s estate and thinks he is a robber.  In the course of the book, Darcy’s brother is actually convicted of robbery, although he doesn’t knowingly do anything wrong.  Darcy and Philip try to earn money for Darcy’s brother’s wife, Addie, who is pregnant and has been sacked by her employer because of her husband’s conviction.  Addie is “a tall, handsome black woman” (36), “like a queen” (36).  She suffers most from the alleged robbery, but she has done nothing.  Like Lee in Burglar Bells, we learn nothing about Addie’s background, and there’s no clear reason for Bawden to have made her character black rather than white. And like all the characters in these stories, the Black British character is not the guilty one, but is led into an association with crime by white British people.

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Stuart Hall et al argue that the mugging “epidemic” of the 1970s was a “moral panic” stirred up by the police and media.

I have always felt vaguely uncomfortable about these books, because the titles and the Black British characters seemed to connect Black Britons with crime and criminality at a time when the British media was filled with stories of West Indian youths mugging white British people, something that Stuart Hall, in Policing the Crisis (1978) called a “moral panic”: “On the margins of the mugging epidemic, then, there arises its pre-history: the longer and more complex story of the striking deterioration in police-black relations, especially between the police in certain areas of the big cities and sections of black youth. It is only in this context that the innovatory role of the police, in the generation of a moral panic, can be properly assessed and understood” (52).  Although the Black British characters in these books are only marginally connected to crime, the white characters and the reading public feels that they belong in books about burglary.  Institutional racism makes the link between race and crime seem natural.

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Therefore, when Alex Wheatle’s latest book, Kerb Stain Boys: The Crongton Broadway Robbery (Barrington Stoke 2018) arrived in my mailbox, I admit to feeling a little nervous about what to expect.  In many ways, the story has similarities to the earlier books about robbery; a white boy (Terry, or Terror as he is known to his friends) leads his Black friend Briggy, into a plot to rob the Crongton Broadway Post Office.  Wheatle himself has written that the book, “is influenced in tone, language and narrative by film noir” (https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2018/october/alex-wheatle-what-happens-when-diverse-readers-see-themselves-reflected-in-fiction/), a genre which suggest the likelihood of a grim ending for our anti-heroes.  But unlike Bawden’s The Robbers or Pullein-Thompson’s Robbers in the Night, Wheatle’s book does not focus on the goodness or badness of its characters.  If anything, Briggy and Terror are amoral; they decide it is acceptable to rob the post office because they think that life is not going to offer them anything better.  “I’ll tell you what’s stupidocious,” Terror tells Briggy when he objects to the plan, “Trying to get a job that pays you sweet when we’re done with school.  Stupidocious is putting on a tie and going to interview after pissing interview when you know they’re not gonna give you shit” (38).  Briggy, reflecting on Terror’s words, agrees: “I couldn’t argue.  That’s how it was.” Much of the novel is as much comic heist as film noir—the boys and their femme fatale, Caldonia Lake, plan to rob the post office with repainted toy Star Wars guns—but Wheatle’s message is serious: kids living in a society that continually reminds them they are worthless do not feel any reason to abide by that society’s rules.  Wheatle’s book is revolutionary because it exposes the system that creates criminals, and does not damn the boys for trying to break out of that system.  Although they are punished with time in youth detention, they find an alternative, non-standard route out of poverty while there, and both end the book with success.  Wheatle’s novella is a strong and much-needed reminder that the “criminal” is created by society’s refusal to acknowledge the possibility in all members of society, and not by any in-born “criminal minds.”

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.

Without Windrush: British children’s literature and Windrush children

Although I have been following the story for a couple of weeks now, the news finally caught up with the BBC (http://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-43746746/windrush-migrants-facing-deportation-threat) and other news organizations that some Windrush-generation British Caribbean people were being faced with deportation thanks to stricter immigration rules.  These rules require Britons to prove their status as citizens in order to be able to work, use the NHS, and access other services.  However, even though people arriving legally from the Caribbean to fill labour shortages after 1948 and before 1973 were given permanent right to reside, the Home Office kept no records, and the burden of proof is therefore on the migrant.  Many of these migrants came as children, on their parents’ passports, however, and therefore find it difficult to produce the needed proof.  Although the deportations are under review as of this writing, and Theresa May has apologized to Caribbean nations for any distress caused to them or their citizens (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-43792411), many people find the lack of judgment regarding the deportation of people who helped build up the UK after World War II more than deplorable.

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“I was told I was part of the motherland”: but Floella Benjamin is now speaking out about the UK government’s threat to Windrush generation migrants.

I want to highlight British children’s authors who came from the Caribbean as children in this blog, just to indicate how much richer British children’s literature is with the contributions of the Windrush generation.  These authors are only a small part of the writers who claim Afro- or Indo-Caribbean heritage; many authors came as adults (like Valerie Bloom, John Agard, Grace Nichols and Andrew Salkey); many others were born in Britain of Afro- or Indo-Caribbean parents (including Trish Cooke, Benjamin Zephaniah, Malorie Blackman and Alex Wheatle).  The authors I am highlighting here, by the way, are not in any danger of deportation—as far as I know, they have all the correct paperwork and are British citizens with passports.  But like Paulette Wilson, Anthony Bryan, and others highlighted in this Guardian article (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/15/why-the-children-of-windrush-demand-an-immigration-amnesty), they came as children and grew up thinking of Britain as their home.  Their literary contributions have changed the national understanding of British literature, and it is worth pausing a moment to imagine what the bookshelves would look like without them.

Both Kate Elizabeth Ernest and Floella Benjamin came to Britain from the Caribbean, Ernest from Jamaica and Benjamin from Trinidad.  Both had lived with their grandparents in idyllic circumstances while their parents settled in Britain; both experienced the harsh reality of racism when they at last came to Britain.  But both of them survived the experience and wrote about it.  Ernest’s fictional account, Birds in the Wilderness (1995) tells of bullies who ask the main character, “What was it like living in the bush?” (54) and spit on her (34).  Hope, Ernest’s character, clings to books and education, hoping to become a writer in the future, but the book ends with “A feeling of uneasiness” (158) that the family won’t stay together.

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Floella Benjamin, now Baroness Beckenham, started her work for children in television, on BBC’s Play School.

It is family that is crucial to Floella Benjamin as well, in her memoir, Coming to England (1995).  She came to England in 1960, and like Ernest, experienced racism and isolation because of her skin colour, her accent, and her heritage.  But “Dardie had opened our minds to the world with knowledge,” Benjamin wrote about her father, “Marmie had instilled strength, determination, conviction and confidence in us.  Now it was up to me to merge them together and absorb them into my soul.  These were the ground rules on which my new life was to be built.  I had to make something out of it without losing my true identity” (116).  And make something of it she did; not only is Benjamin the author of multiple children’s books, she was a children’s television presenter and is now a member of the House of Lords and patron of many children’s charities, the Baroness of Beckenham.

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De Souza’s Rastamouse is helpful to the police and gets criminals to reform . . .

Two authors who brought the music of the Caribbean to their literary efforts—albeit in very different ways—are Michael de Souza and Linton Kwesi Johnson.  De Souza came from Trinidad at the age of eight in the same year as Floella Benjamin—1960.  He is best known for his Rastamouse books, in which a reggae-playing mouse fights crime and does his best to “make a bad ting good”—all the criminals reform under Rastamouse’s good advice.  De Souza’s cheerful picture books are in stark contrast to the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson, who arrived in Britain in 1963 at the age of eleven.  LKJ is not a children’s poet, but he was publishing poetry as a teenager and he continued through his twenties to write about teenagers; he was a British Black Panther and a voice of protest against many of the outrages committed against Black British youth in the 1970s and 1980s.  He was the first of the British dub poets.  On his blog in 2012, LKJ wrote, “I am often asked why I started to write poetry. The answer is that my motivation sprang from a visceral need to creatively articulate the experiences of the black youth of my generation, coming of age in a racist society” (http://www.lintonkwesijohnson.com/2012/04/18/riots-rhymes-and-reason/). Johnson could not make the bad of a racist government into something good just by writing poetry about it.  But he could call attention to it, and in poems like “Dread Beat an’ Blood,” “Sonny’s Lettah” and “Five Nights of Bleeding” he exposed the struggles of young people facing a country that didn’t want them.  Those same youths that Johnson was writing about then are among those the government is targeting now.

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As a young poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson saw the brutality of the police visited on his community, writing about it in poems like “Sonny’s Lettah” and “Forces of Victory”. Photograph by Robert Golden.

Floella Benjamin spoke this week in the House of Lords, reminding the government and the British people that, “I came to this country in 1960 as a British citizen, a Windrush generation child, who was told I was part of the motherland, I would be welcomed.  Luckily I had my own passport . . . otherwise I too would be having to prove my status” (www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-parliaments-43791047).  Britain was forever changed in so many positive ways by the Windrush generation.  Children’s literature in Britain was too.  The nation’s children should not have to imagine a world without Windrush—or without the next generation of writers coming from the current migration into Britain, for that matter.