Tag Archives: Black Power

Panther Cubs? The Black Panthers and Children’s Literature

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This week, Artlyst announced that Tate Modern will be holding a summer exhibition on the art of American Black Power (http://www.artlyst.com/previews/american-black-power-explored-new-tate-summer-exhibition/). Tate Britain’s display of photographs, Stan Firm Inna Inglan, has already begun (http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/display/walk-through-and-spotlight/stan-firm-inna-inglan-black-diaspora-london), and the photograph used on the website about the exhibition by Colin Jones has the phrase Black Power prominently displayed. It is a pity that these two exhibitions are not more obviously linked, but the artistic and cultural adult world in general has been thinking back to the Black Power/Black Panthers era with increasing frequency (including a recent programme on Sky on the British Black Panthers). Children’s literature on the other hand, as I’ve pointed out in other blogposts, tends to avoid images of violence or aggression, especially if either is directed toward the dominant white power structure. So while photos of white people shouting at young African-Americans going to school or police officers threatening Black citizens are common in children’s books about this era, pictures of Black people taking control of a situation aggressively are not. In fact, most recent children’s books that include the Black Panthers go out of their way to take the claws out of the cat, as it were.

Colin Jones The Black House, 571 Holloway Road, London 1976, printed 2012 Tate. Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2016 © Colin Jones Digital Image courtesy of Autograph ABP  Photo by Colin Jones.

As with books about more radical individuals in the Civil Rights and Black Power era, such as Malcolm X and Claudia Jones, there aren’t many that exclusively address the Black Panthers. In fact, try this fun game: type “Black Panthers” into Amazon’s children’s book search (US or UK) and see what comes up. Yes, there are more books about the animal than there are about the movement—a lot more. I went to the library to see if perhaps I could find older books. Most books in the section about African-Americans started with slavery and ended with civil rights (minus the Black Panthers/Black Power) with nothing much inbetween, as if African Americans ceased to exist in the hundred years between the two periods. Civil Rights book covers were telling; the most common cover image for these books was of African-Americans singing, often as part of a multiracial and harmonious group. To be acceptable, Black people must generally appear to be non-threatening to white people.

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Civil rights is often portrayed as harmonious–literally–in children’s lit.

Some of the books on Civil Rights do mention Black Power or the Black Panthers, but carefully. Casey King’s and Linda Barrett-Osborne’s Oh, Freedom! Kids talk about the Civil Rights Movement with the people who made it happen (Scholastic 1998), which also has a cover illustration of singing African-American children, nonetheless includes a remarkably frank exchange between Menelik Coates and his former Black Panther father Paul. Menelik begins by asking his dad if he was “in charge of all the guns”; his father is quick to respond that Black Panthers “rarely carried guns openly” although they did have them in their homes, and that the main focus was uplifting Black communities. Paul Coates may admire Huey Newton for calling police “pigs,” but he concludes his interview with his son by saying, “It’s not about blacks wanting to be superior or treat anyone badly. It’s simply a way for us to be equal in this world”. It is unclear whether this interview is a transcription of an actual event, or if the book’s authors edited or organized the questions and responses, but the interview seems to be designed to both acknowledge and deny the connection between Black Panthers and violence.

This way of beginning with the potential for violence and ending with a peaceful message is common in children’s books. Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement (Capstone 2015) has a chapter on Malcolm X (unsurprisingly titled “By Any Means Necessary”) which begins with Malcolm X quoted calling Martin Luther King Jr a “fool” but which ends with a very different quotation where X says, “Dr. King wants the same thing I want—freedom!” In order to introduce controversial figures—whether famous or not—children’s books remove any threat the individuals might pose. In the end, Mortensen’s book suggests, the radical Malcolm X came around to the viewpoint of non-violence held by Dr. King—a portrayal that at best smooths over the truth, and at worst is a gross misrepresentation of Malcolm X’s viewpoints.

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They were pals, really–and Malcolm X in children’s books has to learn that MLK jr is right. From Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.

Even when a children’s text mentions the aggression associated with the Black Panthers and Black Power, it is often euphemized, countered or contradicted by other elements of the text. Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement (Core 2014) uses both softening techniques and textual design to deflect any inference that violence or direct opposition to government and institutional policies had a positive effect on power gained by African-Americans. Like other texts, the Rissman description begins with the “strong actions” taken to achieve change, but concludes that “the majority of black power movement activities were nonviolent” (27), again both acknowledging and denying Black Panther militancy. The chapter title, however, refutes the idea that strong action was successful; and the photographic illustration shows African-Americans looting and rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (which can only indirectly be connected to either Black Power or the Black Panthers). The people in the photograph do not appear powerful; rather, the opposite. The book’s design has the overall effect of raising doubt about the efficacy of Black Power and Black Panthers as positive forces within and for the African-American community on the very page it discusses their “strong” actions.

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Were the Black Panthers “strong” if they caused people to act like this? Textual design guides the reader to think not. From Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement.

The embrace of non-violence by authors of books about Black Power may seem just the result of the intended audience for these books; children are not “supposed” to read about violence, ostensibly because it might frighten them. Children’s nonfiction, however, often includes violence, aggression and damage to government property; just look at any text about the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party is not portrayed as colonists looting private property, and the minutemen (who never, by the way, feed any children breakfast) are not brought round to peacefully protesting the monarchy. In England, Guy Fawkes Day is a holiday, but there aren’t any kids’ books (that I know of) about the Bradford Twelve. The fact that children’s books portray Black Panthers/Black Power organizations as either violent but ineffectual or initially violent but later allied with/embracing non-violence suggests that the author’s/publisher’s motive has more to do with their own fears than that of the child reader’s, and their need to ensure that readers dismiss the potential attraction of power for oppressed people found in movements like the Black Panthers.

In Color: Photographic Images and BAME Children in Literature

This week, Kendall Jenner and Pepsi became embroiled in a controversy over an ad that depicted Ms. Jenner joining a protest march (after ditching her blonde wig—an interesting detail for thinking about issues of how race is presented). Jenner and Pepsi were mocked by multiple individuals and organizations for co-opting protest movements such as Black Lives Matter for commercial reasons (not that they are the first to ever do such things—would you Like to Buy the World a Coke?) and for suggesting that good relations between police and protestors could be achieved with a can of pop (you can see the ad here and judge for yourself: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Kendall+Jenner+Pepsi+ad&&view=detail&mid=6648928C17BBA4A303386648928C17BBA4A30338&FORM=VRDGAR). Even Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., commented on the ad on Twitter, saying, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/06/martin-luther-kings-daughter-gives-perfect-response-kendall/).

 Perhaps Pepsi we thinking of the success of another pop advertisement that co-opted teenage movements–image from the 1971 commercial wanting to bring peace and love through buying the world a Coke.

One of the frequent commentaries on the advert was the suggestion that perhaps if Pepsi had involved the Black community (or the Muslim community, or the Asian community, or any community) not just in the making of the commercial but in its conception that someone, somewhere would have said, hey, maybe this isn’t a good idea. People in a position of privilege (often from the dominant, which is to say white, group) should be aware that diversity is not something (blond-wigged Kendall) that can be put on or taken off; it requires a deep and regular commitment in listening to people from BAME communities, even if what they are saying is not always comfortable or familiar.

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Roxy Harris’s Being Black showed Black Panthers, but no guns . . .

Following several incidents in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the UK, to which BAME communities responded by protesting (both peacefully and, in the case of the Brixton Riot of 1981, not so peacefully) against the unjust oppression of the state, there was a rise in photographic picture books depicting BAME people. Some, primarily for older readers, tried to document the struggles of Black people, both in and out of the UK. For example, Roxy Harris’s Being Black (1981), which excerpted Black Panthers George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and combined the extracts with questions and commentary for young people. Harris, in the introduction, writes, “In Britain, blacks have been generally absent from the mainstream newspapers, as well as from TV and radio programmes. As a consequence, they have grown accustomed to being swamped by white commentators’ interpretations and definitions of the black political, economic, social and cultural experience” (4). The book is illustrated with photographs, and the choice of those photographs is telling. Not one picture of armed Black Panthers—the common image in the media. Although several protests are shown in the book, the only one depicting the Black Power salute includes both white and Black people. Harris’s book is a deliberate attempt to change the image of Black Power and Black Panthers through photographs, without diminishing the power of the Black community as an irritant to white power structures.

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. . . Harris did depict the Black Power salute, but rather than using it to isolate or “other” Black people, Black Power is shown as something that white people, particularly young people, agreed that Black people should have.

For younger readers, photographic picture books often provided a similar antidote to media images of BAME communities—not with regard to protests, but in terms of everyday living. The Peckham Publishing Project, a community-based publisher, produced several photographic books that challenged media images of BAME people as foreigners or outsiders who did not want to accept “British values” or a British way of life. One of these was the wordless Our Kids (1984), which depicted ordinary activities of British BAME families. Although there are no protests, as in Being Black, Our Kids nonetheless counters stereotypes about BAME families and about education in BAME communities. The book depicts involved fathers, parents reading to their children, and BAME professionals (such as doctors) working in their communities.

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Peckham Publishing Project’s Our Kids shows BAME professionals working in their communities.

Being Black and Our Kids come from projects initiated by BAME communities themselves, but that is not to say that white people cannot participate in redefining the dominant media images of minority communities if they are committed to spending time in and with those communities. Joan Solomon, a photographer and creative writer, grew up in South Africa under apartheid; while she lived there, she taught creative writing to Black students in Soweto. She left South Africa and came to London, where in 1978 she began teaching English as a foreign language to immigrant communities. She also began producing children’s books, first for Hamish Hamilton and then for Evans, about life in Britain for BAME children. In these books, Solomon challenges stereotypes about BAME communities primarily through her images. The cover of the 1978 A Day by the Sea (Hamish Hamilton), for example, puts a Black child on a very obviously British (rather than Caribbean) beach, digging with a spade. The opening image of Sweet-Tooth Sunil (Evans 1984) has the title character standing in front of a British fireplace-converted-to-an-electric heater, with Indian sweets and Hindu images on the table in front of him. Both photographs are powerful images, placing BAME people as an everyday part of British society, not as exotic and/or temporary interlopers. By taking the time to go into the homes of BAME British families and talking with them—the book’s publication page thanks the family portrayed in the book “for their hospitality and generous help”—Solomon avoids one of the common problems of multicultural texts of this era, that of deciding between presenting only the “foreignness” of people or erasing all cultural markers to allow BAME people to “belong” in British society.

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A very British home: Joan Solomon’s books show BAME families as a part of Britain’s everyday life, without eliding their cultural uniqueness. From Sweet-Tooth Sunil.

Images are powerful, and images that portray people through film or photographs have a way of suggesting truth—especially when they are repeated in the media over and over. Pepsi has apologized for its “misstep” with its Kendall Jenner advertisement. The company said it was “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” which is of course not a bad thing. But you can’t impose global understanding without trying to understand the people you want to reach.

Proper Attire as a Racial Issue in Children’s Literature

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What is proper attire? And who decides?

This week, photos emerged of French police in Nice surrounding a woman wearing a burkini, the full-body bathing suit designed for Muslim women to allow them to enjoy the summer and protect their modesty at the same time. The police made her remove part of her clothing due to a ban on the garment in certain municipalities (including Nice). While the French courts mull over the legality of the various bans, Twitter was a-tweet with criticism. One particular photo kept recurring, that of some nuns on the beach, fully habited, generally with a tag line of “Will the police make these women undress as well?”

 

The picture of the nuns was used to show the absurdity of the laws, but it also highlights something else: proper attire is and has been consistently an issue for BAME people for a long time. It is an issue of power—and white people generally have the power to make the rules about attire for everyone else. So, no, of course the French police will not make nuns remove their habits; they are only concerned with women who might be “liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach,” according to the tribunal. Even well-intentioned bodies reveal the power hierarchy. It is great news that this week the Scottish and Canadian police “allowed” Muslim women to wear the hijab while in police uniform, but why should they have to “allow” it in the first place?

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It’s not a class issue–poor white women may feel bad about their clothes, but in the end they still get the one dress that matters.

 

Now, you might say that proper attire, especially in children’s literature, is about class more than race. Didn’t Meg March in Little Women feel embarrassed because she didn’t have the right clothes when visiting rich friend Sally Gardiner? And didn’t Anne Shirley come to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert with only an ugly yellow wincey dress that was too short for her in Anne of Green Gables? Yes, of course. But Meg was lent appropriate dress to the occasion (and learned to disdain frippery at the same time, being a good girl), and Anne had clothes made for her. The clothing was a sign to the reader that people should not be judged by their outfits, but by their characters. As soon as the lesson is learned, clothing ceases to be an issue (neither Meg nor Anne ever have to defend any ragged children from people making fun of them); not that they don’t continue to want pretty things, but they end up getting all the pretty things that they truly need because they are loved and cherished as people.

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No white dress for Lorraine in Dhondy’s “Free Dinners” Cover image by Alun Hood.

 

Life doesn’t come up quite so rosy for some non-white characters in children’s books. Farrukh Dhondy, in 1978, wrote about Lorraine, a Black girl, and Pete, a white boy, both of whom receive “Free Dinners” because they are poor (you can find the story in Dhondy’s Come to Mecca). When the Bishop comes to school to give prizes, the deputy head tells the pupils how to dress. Girls have to wear “flesh-coloured tights” (67). It is at this point that dress becomes an issue, because Lorraine answers back, “Whose flesh, miss?” (67). The deputy head sends her out of the room; when Lorraine shows up in “black velvet hot-pants and a black silk shirt” (67-68), the deputy head tells her she can’t win a prize looking like that. Pete thinks she looks “tarty” but Lorraine’s response is revealing: “Lorraine said she’d wear what she liked out of school time because it was her culture” (68; emphasis mine). Pete admires her for this, and even tries to take her out once or twice, but reveals his casual racism to Lorraine and she blocks any further attempts to connect with Pete. But Lorraine has not learned the “proper” lesson about attire, and because she refuses to dress like white people, she ends up losing all her clothes—getting work as a topless dancer after school finishes, and later as a prostitute. Dhondy, as author, is not showing the error of Lorraine’s ways, but rather the way that society, in a Foucaultian sense, punishes those who refuse to conform. Lorraine was not allowed to dress as she felt appropriate to her culture; her clothing might have been deliberately provocative but it was also a statement about a political kind of Blackness that her teachers rejected. Dhondy’s story is important, because it came after years of comics and stories where Black characters (or caricatures) longed to (or sometimes actually did) wash themselves white. In the time that Dhondy was writing, some schools banned the Rastafarian colours of red, green and gold, and, as Sally Tomlinson points out, “schools worried over allowing pupils to wear dreadlocks” (Race and Education 49) in case it would lead to anti-authoritarian behavior.

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More recently, the issue of Muslim girls wearing the hijab has also been raised in children’s books. Randa Abdel-Fatteh’s Does My Head Look Big in This? is probably the most famous hijab story, possibly because of its humorous look at being female and Muslim. In some ways, though, Abdel-Fatteh’s story tries almost too hard to make wearing the hijab a positive experience (at least in the end); in her own life, as Geraldine Brooks of the New York Times points out, Abdel-Fatteh stopped wearing a hijab at 17, “anxious about prejudicing her job prospects” (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=980CE4DA103AF935A2575AC0A9619C8B63&ref=bookreviews). Tariq Mehmood also wrote about the hijab in his Diverse Voices-award winning novel, You’re Not Proper. Mehmood, who was a member of the Bradford 12 in 1981, a group of Asian Britons who made petrol bombs to defend against racists and who were arrested for it, depicts in his novel what it means to choose to wear the hijab—as well as what it means to have it stripped from you.

 

I don’t know of any books written by Sikh authors about the wearing of the turban that are set in modern times (if you do, please comment). But Sikhs are frequently singled out, just as Muslims are, for wardrobe infringement, and in fact are often mistaken for Islamic “terrorists” because they are not white and wear “different” clothing. Children’s books are a major source of education for young people, and thus people involved with children’s books need to share those that educate (about cultures and religions) but also those that support young people and the choices they make about their dress. To do that, we need more books that describe what constitutes “proper” attire.

Mindfulness of a Different Sort: Radical Coloring Books of the 1970s

We’ve all seen the coloring books—in bookstores, in grocery stores, in gift shops—that purport to make you “mindful” through coloring. These books are everywhere, and come in all sorts of themes (Alice in Wonderland, butterflies, the “original mindfulness” of mandalas). Coloring, these books argue, is not just for children anymore (as usual, the best way to insult something is to argue that it’s “just for children” and to say otherwise is to “reinvent” it better than before). One advertising blurb I read said claimed that Colour Yourself Calm was “The original mindful colouring book for adults, from the author of the bestselling Little Book of Mindfulness” and could be used to “Relax, meditate and banish stress. Release unconscious knowledge and calm thought through painting and colouring.” Unconscious knowledge. Amazing.

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Coloring as a way to stop worrying and learn to love the bomb.

Now, I’ve nothing against coloring as an activity; thanks to an artistic aunt, my brothers and sister and I colored (and painted and drew and made papier-mâché) long after the age we were supposed to find it fun. And even today, I take my sketchbook and pencils when I go to an art museum and make dreadful copies of paintings or wonky sketches of sculpture, all the while cursing the fact that I wasn’t born a rich Victorian girl (or at least Amy March) with a drawing master and a Grand Tour of Europe. But the kind of “mindfulness” that the rash of adult coloring books now out advocate is a very different kind of coloring for mindfulness in coloring books of the 1970s.

In the late 1960s, Black Power movements consolidated and the Black Panther organization was growing, not just in America, but all over the world. Radicalism in Black community movements increased following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Many police forces, local as well as national, feared the rise of violence and became more oppressive in their enforcement tactics. This included the American FBI, who in 1968 posted The Black Panther Coloring Book to white-led households to discredit the organization. The coloring book had “beautiful black men” being urged to “kill the pigs” in fairly brutal fashion. It’s unclear what effect the coloring book had, although some have argued that it helped widen the gap between Black and white in America.

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Sure, I believe that Black Panthers would give this to their kids, Mr. FBI man.

Most of the commentary I have found online is about white reaction to The Black Panther Coloring Book, but this is not to say that non-white communities were unaware or indifferent to the book. In fact, radical Black Power-influenced groups rejected the FBI’s attempts to infantilize the Black Panthers, not by making an adult coloring book of their own, but by using the coloring book as a teaching tool for children. Two examples, one from Britain and one from Guyana, show how Black Power ideals were being taught to children through the medium of the coloring book.

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Jessica Huntley, at Bogle L’Ouverture, didn’t sit around coloring–she commissioned books for kids that would teach them self-love and activism.

The first of these was not necessarily intended as a coloring book, but it was designed as a book for children to use. Made with paperboard covers and stapled together, with black and white line drawings, Getting to Know Ourselves was produced by Bogle L’Ouverture Press, an independent Black British Press, as their first children’s book, in 1972. Jessica Huntley, the publisher, had commissioned the book from Bernard and Phyllis Coard specifically to teach Black children about their heritage. Bernard Coard had a PhD in African history from the SOAS in London; Phyllis Coard was a child psychologist. Both were concerned with the damage to self-image that the British education system was having on young Black children, who were routinely excluded from classrooms and/or placed in classes for the “Educationally Sub-Normal.” The book they produced taught Garveyite/Black Power principles of self-love and Pan-Africanism. The first mention I saw of it as a “colouring book” was in Margaret Andrews Doing Nothing is not an Option, a biography of Jessica Huntley and her husband Eric. I was not sure about the designation—there’s no mention of it as a coloring book in the Huntleys’ archive—but I saw it in action at last summer’s Dream to Change the World exhibition at the Islington Public Library, about radical Black publishing in London. At the end of the exhibit, coloring pages were put out for children to complete—photocopied pages from Getting to Know Ourselves.

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Child visitors to the 2015 exhibit were supplied with coloring pages from Getting to Know Ourselves.

Seven Stories, where I’ve been working over the last year, has recently acquired material from Rosemary Stones, the writer, editor and publisher of children’s books such as Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street and the anti-racist Children’s Book Bulletin. In amongst her books was another coloring book from the same period as Getting to Know Ourselves, this time from Guyana. We are One: They Came from Asia is “A Co-operative Republic of Guyana Coloring Book” produced in 1973. The text was written by Allan A. Fenty and the illustrations done by Victor Dawson. Like the British publication, We are One focuses on history and self-image, but extends these Black Power principles out to Asian Caribbeans. I suspect the coloring book may have been part of a series (I can envision a companion, We are One: They Came from Africa), but I’ve no evidence of this (if anyone reading this can help, please do comment).

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We Are One: a coloring book from Guyana

 

 

 

 

The key message from both these coloring books is one that counters The Black Panther Coloring Book: not vengeful hatred of others, but love of self. And not, like today’s mindfulness coloring books, a love of self that gazes inward to calm passivity, but a love of self that calls for activism. To be mindful in these books is to be aware of your connections, past and present, to other people, and to do something positive to enhance these connections—and we could all do with a little more of that kind of mindfulness.  Skip the unconscious knowledge–let’s release a little more conscious knowledge, crayons at the ready.

Ad-Libbing: Expanding Diversity through Teen Imprints, 1970-1990

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In 1966, Stokely Carmichael and a group of African-American civil rights marchers and activists demanded Black Power. Through the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s, Black Power and Black Panthers became part of a worldwide movement to further civil rights for people of African descent—by any means necessary, as Malcolm X would suggest. The movement was largely youth-generated and youth-led, as teens who had been long-denied the rights, access, and material wealth of middle-class white society tired of waiting and began demanding equality.

In Britain, Black Power had two distinct phases. The first, which occurred at roughly the same time as the American Black Power movement, focused on the global African community. Most Blacks in Britain during the late 1960s had come to the country as part of a post-World War II migration from the Caribbean, and these “New Commonwealth immigrants” were keen to remember (and teach their children about) a past that began in Africa and continued through slavery and emancipation in the Caribbean. Independent Black British publishers, such as New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture, were prominent during this time.

 

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?Horace Ove’s 1975 film “Pressure” showed the way that Black communities in Britain were divided by generations.

In the 1970s, however, the sense of community that the earlier migrants had tried so hard to engender began to fall apart. Many young people, born in Britain of immigrant parents, felt they belonged to neither the country of their parents’ origin nor their own. Failed by the education system, many dropped out of mainstream society and turned to Rastafarianism or other youth associations. For white British people, this raised suspicion that, as Paul Gilroy points out in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, “Black Power and Black Alliance movements . . . were thought to be recruiting among the young unemployed,” Gilroy writes (112). Conflicts between Black youth and white police became more common, and were widely covered in the press.

It was at this time that mainstream publishers, through various teen imprints, began publishing stories for and about Black British youth. There were two varieties of these stories; one that dealt with Black Britons in contemporary times, and one that connected them with their historical past. The first tended to be controversial, as well as time-bound. For example, Aidan Chambers’ series Topliners published Petronella Breinburg’s Us Boys of Westcroft (1975), which focuses on identity and power in a British comprehensive school; as Lucy Pearson comments, “rather than condemning racism as the preserve of the ignorant and the malevolent, it presents it as embedded in the social structures of society” (The Making of Modern Children’s Literature 141).

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Dhondy’s Siege of Babylon was based on this 1975 event, widely covered (and condemned) by the media.

Farrukh Dhondy’s most challenging book for young people, The Siege of Babylon, was also a Topliner, published in 1978. Dhondy’s story echoed, according to Maggie Hewitt, the Spaghetti House Siege of 1975. The 1975 event involved, as did Dhondy’s fictional version, three Black men taking several white people hostage, but Dhondy made his protagonists somewhat younger than the mid- to late-20s hostage-takers of the Spaghetti House Siege. Similar to them, however, Dhondy had them demand a plane and safe passage to Jamaica; unlike the real event, not all of the hostage-takers in The Siege of Babylon survived. (The events of the Siege were also later filmed by an Italian director in 1982.) Dhondy always felt that Siege was unfairly ignored, but its depiction of violence (and sexism), as well as its connection to real-life recent events, made it uncomfortable reading for many of the (white) teachers and librarians who bought the books.

 

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Puffin Plus published Darke’s novel about a Black youth arrested for following his conscience.

Dhondy’s and Breinburg’s stories appeared in Topliners before the Brixton Riots of 1981; after this, mainstream publishers were both more cautious and more eager to include Black Britons in books for teens. (There is a lovely sort of innocence in book publishers of this period, wherein they believed that it was possible to stop riots by giving kids books to read instead.) The books produced and/or published after the Brixton riots tended to look further back in history; this on the one hand had the effect of removing some of the “relevance” found in books about teen gangs, but on the other hand also positioned Blacks as part of British history much further back than Windrush immigration. It was at this time, for example, that Marjorie Darke’s A Long Way to Go (1982) was published in Puffin Plus, the imprint that had replaced the short-lived Peacock series for teens from Penguin. A Long Way to Go, originally published by Kestrel in 1978, was part of a series about Blacks in Britain going back to the early 19th century, but the Puffin Plus edition does not list other books in the series—perhaps because earlier books concerned slavery. A Long Way to Go is about a World War I conscientious objector. Although the cover clearly shows the young man as Black, the cover blurb never mentions this, instead saying “Your Country Needs You”, placing the protagonist firmly in the British frame. (It does, however, suggest that the book is an “unusual story” and this may be Puffin’s way of alerting the reader to the racial dimension of the tale.) The book deals with the young Black Briton’s arrest and conviction, not for gang-related violence, but for his convictions, providing a different vision of the criminality of Black Britons than the one portrayed in the media of the time.

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By the late 1980s, publishers were more comfortable with stories about Britain’s slave past as written for teens. André Deutsch’s teen imprint, Adlib, published Geraldine Kaye’s A Breath of Fresh Air in 1987 and its sequel A Piece of Cake in 1991. These stories concerned Bristol teen Amy Smith, who in a series of “blackouts” is dragged back in time to Bristol’s slave trade. Amy uses the things she “dream-sees” in various history and drama productions for school; there is also a romantic angle in these stories where Amy’s boyfriend Bonny exists in both times as well. Black British history as romance for teens was a far cry from the gritty urban dramas of the mid-1970s, but all these books are connected by the idea that teens need books wherein they can see themselves. Many publishers, however, weren’t sure of the best way to provide this—they were, and are still, just ad-libbing.

No one remember Old Marcus Garvey? Biographies of Garvey for Children

Last weekend, I spoke at the Blackness in Britain conference on biographies of Marcus Garvey for children. I examined three biographies from different perspectives: the American Jules Archer’s biography in Famous Young Rebels (1973), Trinidadian Therese Mills biography in Great West Indians (1973), and Eric Huntley’s Marcus Garvey: A Biography (1987). Each biography took a uniquely national perspective on the Jamaican-born leader; helping kids understand the impact of Garvey on Black Power, African politics, and pan-Africanism might be best served by looking at multiple biographies.

Archer's Rebels are mostly Americans.

Archer’s Rebels are mostly Americans.

Jules Archer’s biography is in a book of young rebels that includes mostly Americans (one somewhat odd exception of a Famous Young Rebel is Mussolini). Archer’s story of Marcus Garvey likewise starts and ends with Americans. “The parade began in Harlem” (43), is Archer’s opening line. Although “in August, 1914 . . . [Garvey] founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association” (48) in Jamaica, he soon decided that Jamaicans were “apathetic” (48) due to “malnutrition and illiteracy” (48) and “he needed a larger base of operations to make his dreams flourish” (48). This he could only find in the US. Archer filters Garvey’s success and failures through the eyes of two other famous black leaders, Garvey’s contemporary WEB DuBois, who attacked Garvey’s Back-to-Africa scheme as “a stale revival of old African colonization schemes, all of which had died of ‘spiritual bankruptcy and futility’” (49); and 1960s radical Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote that “‘The practical prospect of Garvey’s actually physically transporting blacks back to Africa turned most black people off’” (55). Archer wants to redeem Garvey as a “famous young rebel,” but by his choice of lenses through which to view Garvey, i.e. American blacks both in Garvey’s own time and during the Civil Rights movement who are critical of Garvey, Archer’s biography suggests his inability to succeed in America as other than symbolic figure.

Mills' politics are in her choices of greatness.

Mills’ politics are in her choices of greatness.

Like Archer, Therese Mills was writing in the midst of a Black Power movement when she published Great West Indians in 1973, but hers was not an American movement. “By mid-February 1970, Black Power exploded onto the [Trinidadian] national stage, erupting in social and political convulsions such as the country had never known in its recorded history” according to Mark Fraser of the Trinidad Express. As news editor for the Trinidad Guardian, Mills had a particular interest in the Black Power movement and in honoring the leaders of the West Indies, black and white. But even though her book was produced as a supplementary reader for primary school history classrooms (“Introduction” iv), and therefore might tend toward a conservative view of history, Mills made choices about who to include that suggest she was not untouched by the influence of Black Power. She decided to “omit all the former and current Heads of State” (iv)—which included her own embattled prime minister, Eric Williams, and it is significant that many of her subjects were connected with a history of revolution and anti-imperialism. In addition to Garvey, Mills profiles Cuffy, Paul Bogle and George Gordon. Great West Indians, for Mills, are those that highlight the cultural and intellectual strengths of the West Indies, and those who increase a sense of unity. Mills’ biography is the only one that does not mention Black Power—perhaps because it was causing such ructions in Trinidad at the time. Much of the unrest was due to unemployment among youth, and even though Mills’ biography of Garvey does not mention contemporary events, her prose suggests that she believes Garvey’s message was one that would still resonate among the youth of her West Indies too: “During his years in Kingston Garvey saw much poverty. Always, it seemed, poverty and bad conditions were the lot of the black man” (28). The bulk of Mills’ biography is set in the West Indies, not in the US or in England as the other biographies are. Although it mentions Garvey’s travels, Mills’ biography suggests that everything Garvey did concerned the people of Jamaica and the broader West Indies: “Finally, he returned to Jamaica to enter politics and to form the People’s Political Party. Among its aims were self-government for Jamaica, higher wages, more employment, the establishment of a Jamaican university, and protection of the rights of the individual” (31). In many ways, Garvey’s aims for Jamaica were similar to the young Black Power protestors of the February Revolution.

Huntley's book-length biography focuses on community and pan-Africanism.

Huntley’s book-length biography focuses on community and pan-Africanism.

Archer’s biography and Mills’ biography were written during the Black Power movement, and responded directly to the effect that movement was having on the people in their respective nations. I want to look at one more biography which came out after the Black Power movement, but still within the context of contentious racial politics, and that is Eric L. Huntley’s Marcus Garvey: A Biography. The 1980s were a difficult time for black people in Britain, where Huntley had been living for over twenty years. He and his wife Jessica had founded Bogle L’Ouverture Press in the late 1960s to publish and publicize the thinking of radicals in Britain and the Caribbean, including Walter Rodney and Bernard Coard. The Huntleys’ commitment to Black Power ideals was only strengthened by their life in Britain. They had been part of the protests against the New Cross Massacre in 1981, and seen the riots in Brixton that same year. The Huntleys were interested in connecting Black British youth to their past and to the global African community, and this makes Eric Huntley’s biography of Garvey different from the others I have discussed here. In telling Garvey’s history, Huntley also tells a history of Jamaica. The stories that Garvey learns about as a young boy are not those of an enslaved past, but of those who fought the powerful: “Quaco, Chempong, Nanny, Paul Bogle and William Gordon” (2) as well as the Maroons “who had escaped from slavery and set up communities of their own” (2). These historical figures provide Garvey, and by extension the reader of the biography, with positive role models and an image of African people that is neither patronizing nor pitiable. In addition to writing a biography that will teach readers about history and improve their own self-image, the biography (unlike the others I discuss) makes an effort to put Garvey into an international context. It spends more time than other biographies on Garvey’s travels in Latin America and the Caribbean; the United Negro Improvement Association is described by Huntley as a world organization (rather than the primarily American organization described by Archer, for example): the UNIA, writes Huntley, had “the aim of uniting all the Negro people in the world” (18). Huntley’s biography concludes with the international influence that Marcus Garvey had, which “reached into every corner of the world in which African people lived” (32). Huntley devotes paragraphs to Garvey’s influence on Kwame Nkrumah, and Ghanian independence; on South Africa’s Steven Biko; and on Maurice Bishop of Granada.

Each of these biographies is different in their focus. Garvey was a complex figure, with wide influence, and should be considered from multiple angles—especially when using him as a heroic figure for children.