Tag Archives: British history

Start with What You Know and Take it From There: The role of the archive

I recently ate up Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut (Hodder 2017).  I loved it; it was hard to put down, and I could easily write a blog about the novel by itself (maybe I will sometime!).  But I want to highlight just one piece of the novel (or donut?) for now, and it isn’t probably the section that avid readers of this blog might expect.  It’s the section where Bailey, the main boy character, goes to the archives at his local library.

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Lawrence’s second book, a tale of finding out about yourself and those you love . . . partly by visiting the archive.

This section (pages 271-274) interests me for a couple of reasons.  First, because Bailey knows that you can get information from an archive, which makes him an unusual 16-year-old (I wish I had more college students who knew what an archive was, let alone how to use it).  But second, and more importantly, because Lawrence’s depiction of a first archive experience is a very accurate one.  Bailey comes in knowing what he’s looking for, but not how to find it.  The “information lady” tells him “to start with what you know, and take it from there” (272); but although he follows her advice, it takes him down rabbit holes and he must bring himself constantly back into focus.  When he finally runs out of time—without finding the information he needs—the librarian/archivist offers him a clue for a next step, pointing out that “It’s surprising what you find in the small print” (274).

A still from the video that has stirred the controversy.

The BBC cartoon that included a Black Roman caused controversy–but visit Hadrian’s Wall, and many other sites in Britain, and you’ll learn about several Black Romans in Britain.

 

On the surface, the description of this scene does not have anything to do with race and diversity in British children’s/YA literature.  And while I am sure that Patrice Lawrence had Bailey go to the archive deliberately, I’m not sure whether she thought about it as a political statement within her novel.  However, having spent a lot of time in archives over the past few years, I’m going to take this scene that way: as a political statement about race and diversity.  Archives in Britain, as well as major research libraries such as the British Library, have traditionally been places where white Britons felt welcome, but BAME people less so.  This (perceived?) lack of welcome may come from the archive’s connection with the idea of Heritage Britain; recent controversies such as the trolling of Mary Beard over her defense of a BBC cartoon depicting Black Romans in early Britain (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/roman-britain-black-white/) suggest that many people still see British history as an all-white subject. Museums, libraries and archives all play a role in defining what (and who) counts as British, and their definitions have consequences for their patrons.  If people don’t see history as belonging to them, they often will not be interested in learning about it. However, research (Hirschi and Screven 1989; Lynch and Alberti 2010; Golding 2016) has indicated that involving traditionally marginalized communities in history-related projects can help open up heritage to new users and change the dialogue around national identity. By having Bailey, a mixed-race British teenager, go to the archive expecting answers about the past, Patrice Lawrence indicates something important: that Bailey has a right to be there, belongs there, and that he can and should access historical information when he needs it.

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Archives should be a place where everyone feels welcome to learn about history, as they are at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book in Newcastle.

The other “political” message I found in Lawrence’s depiction is the librarian’s final comment to Bailey, that what you find in the small print can surprise you.  I can relate this directly to my own efforts to find Black British people in various archives while writing my book on British children’s publishing.  Archives that seemed at first glance to be entirely about white Britons often revealed a more diverse picture with a closer look or more research.  Take the case of Leila Berg, a white British author and publisher from the 1950s-1990s whose archive can be found at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book.  I had never heard of her before I went to Seven Stories, and even when the archivists and librarians at Seven Stories pointed me in her direction, I wasn’t sure if she would be all that relevant to my research on Black British authors and publishers.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that Berg, who experienced the anti-Semitism of her “friends” during World War II, committed herself to standing against both class and racial prejudice in all of her work.  But her archive tells more than just her own history, and it is this that takes me back to Lawrence’s librarian’s comment.  Berg kept records of various meetings, conferences, and events that she attended throughout her life, and looking through these with careful eyes can reveal otherwise-untold histories of Black Britain.

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Gilroy’s Nippers, like her work with teachers, suggest that white Britons need to learn to see Black people as British.

The first time I examined her archive, I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but going back this summer, I found something I hadn’t noticed before.  One document, handwritten by Berg, talks of visiting “Beryl’s classroom” (the document is dated Nov 3 73; Seven Stories archives LB/05/03/20).  This didn’t signify anything particular to me at the time, but when I saw it this past summer, I cursed myself for missing it before.  Given the date, and the fact that Berg was talking about a headteacher, “Beryl” could only have been Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headteacher in Britain (and Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy’s mother as well, though he was still at school when his mother met Berg).  Berg records what Gilroy told her about a “failure conference” she held at her school for the mostly white teachers she worked with: that it is the (white) teachers who must change their attitudes about their (BAME) students, not the other way around.  Gilroy, who would write several titles for Berg’s reading series, Nippers, made the case that BAME students are British, and their cultures, traditions, languages and families were part of Britain too.  More than 40 years after Berg recorded this, the case is still being argued by some.  Maybe people who don’t see BAME people as a part of British history could use a trip to their local archives.  Or they might just want to curl up with Indigo Donut.

Playing Statues: Monuments, Racism, and Children’s Geography Texts

Do you remember playing a game, maybe at a birthday party, called Statues?  You took a statue pose and had to be the last one remaining still.  You often got a prize for not moving.  I had this image in mind over the last few days, as the events in Charlottesville had people all over the world focused on the way that statues can take us back in history and hold us in a place of racism, division, and oppression.

I’m not the only one who has been thinking about this.  London’s Black History Walks group (http://www.blackhistorywalks.co.uk/) has a list of eight statues and buildings with racist histories in the UK (you can sign up for their email newsletter even if you are outside the UK to get this and other stories, but if you can get to one of their history walks, I can personally recommend that you do so).  And of course there is the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which began in South Africa in 2015 and expanded to Oxford in 2016; this week the global editor of the Huffington Post, Lydia Polgreen, commented on Rhodes Must Fall as a model for Americans who want to remove confederate statues, although she added, “changes to monuments will only be enough once economic justice is included in the redress of South Africa’s socio-economic crisis” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2017/08/14/rhodes-must-fall-campaign-could-help-charlottesville_a_23076674/). There have been many critics of the idea of statue removal as well. I doubt I need to tell you who was “sad” this week “to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” but he is not alone in this sentiment.  Many have suggested that statues of racist and imperialist figures in statues and monuments remind us of humanity’s troubled past, and help keep us from repeating mistakes (although the logic of this when examined in light of this week’s events is somewhat questionable).

But surely, even if you believe that statues can tell a sobering history of human inhumanity, that story must be put into context; otherwise, viewers draw their own conclusions.  Many towns, for example, have statues of generals in full battle gear in triumphant poses, but only simple pillars or crosses to the many ordinary soldiers that died in the battle or war.  To me as a child, that always suggested that generals were heroic and important, but you should definitely try not to be an ordinary soldier, since their lives clearly did not matter as much.  There was no context to tell me anything different, especially before I could read.  Image was everything.

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CW Airne’s Our Empire’s Story shows a triumphant statue of Rhodes. Note that even in the depiction of the Last Stand of [white British] Captain Wilson, it appears the Matabili are losing.

Because of my own childhood experience of statues, I wanted to examine how children’s literature, particularly geography texts, considered statues.  The books I discuss here are from my own collection, which largely contains British empire and post-empire examples (it would be very interesting to look at similar geography books about the US).  Early examples often mentioned statues and memorials.  George Dickson’s A Nursery Geography (Thomas Nelson, ca. 1920) has two children traveling the world on a magic carpet; coming into London, “The first thing we saw was a tall column, the Nelson Monument.  We had heard of Nelson, the greatest admiral that ever lived, who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar” (131).  There is nothing here (or on the statue itself) to suggest that less than six months before his death, Nelson was vowing to fight “that damnable and cursed doctrine” of abolitionist William Wilberforce (http://blog.soton.ac.uk/slaveryandrevolution/tag/horatio-nelson/); in fact, most adults today are not even aware of Nelson’s pro-slavery stance.  C. W. Airne’s Our Empire’s Story told in pictures (Thomas Hope, ca. 1944) has drawings of several statues around the British empire; perhaps the most pertinent page to current events is the page on Rhodesia, which begins with a statue of Cecil Rhodes—contrasted with an “Ancient conical Tower in the mysterious ruins of Zimbabwe” (41)—and several pictures that show Rhodes’s influence (positive, of course).

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Taking a stand against imperialism and slavery; Morrison’s Guyana celebrates Cuffy rather than Victoria.

I was therefore quite surprised to examine more modern examples of geography texts and see how other histories often take pride of place.  My collection only includes a small sampling of geography texts about the West Indies (my particular area of interest) but the books I do have either ignore statues and monuments altogether, or highlight anti-colonial histories through their statues.  Marion Morrison’s Guyana (Children’s Press, 2003), part of the Enchantment of the World series, does not mention the famous statue of Queen Victoria, erected in 1887, dynamited in anti-colonial protests in 1954, and finally permanently removed in 1970 upon declaration of the Guyanese republic (http://interactive.britishart.yale.edu/victoria-monuments/210/statue-of-queen-victoria-), but has a photograph of a statue of the Berbice Rebellion leader, Cuffy (48).

Martin Hintz’s Haiti (Children’s Press, 1998) in the same series, not only has a picture of the statue of King Henri Christophe (22), but also includes an undated historical drawing of “A temple honoring the end of slavery at Le Cap” (85).

Sarah De Capua’s Dominican Republic (Marshall Cavendish, 2004) is perhaps the most disappointing of the books I found with statues.  Part of the “Discovering Cultures” series, the book not only elides Columbus’s connection with the slave trade on the page that shows his statue (11), it fails to discuss the front cover statue, the Monument of the Heroes.  Originally a statue to the dictator Trujillo, the statue was repurposed to depict heroes of the war of independence from Spain in 1961.  But nothing about the statue is mentioned in the text, while Columbus is depicted as the founder of the first permanent colony in the island.

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Malcolm Frederick’s Kamal Goes to Trinidad (Frances Lincoln, 2008), with its pictures by Prodeepta Das, could also have included a photo of the statue of Columbus that stands in Port of Spain, but instead, he chose a statue that acts as a reminder of both the British Empire and a time more than a thousand years’ previous (when Britain itself was a tiny outpost of the Roman Empire).  The inclusion of the statue of Hanuman, the Hindu deity, points out Trinidad’s multiculturalism that resulted from British imperialism—but the religion itself came before and outlasted that empire.

Statues depict a moment in time to remind people of historical events.  They can act as a way to glorify a less-than-glorious history, especially when viewed without a context (or with a one-sided context).  But as some of these examples from children’s geography show, statues can, paradoxically, show us a way to move away from histories of racism and imperialism, and toward one of ordinary people’s struggle against that oppression.

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.

 

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.