It’s Black History Month in Britain. While David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan 2016) traces the long and multifaceted history of Black people in Britain, many ordinary Black Britons, born in the country or not, are still faced with the question, “But where are you really from?” quite regularly.
Some Black British authors are from “somewhere else” and celebrate that in their writing, not just as a nostalgic look at their own history, but as a way of providing Black British readers with a sense of community and tradition. I’m currently working on a piece about Grace Hallworth, who is an excellent example of this kind of “looking back to look forward” in British literature. Hallworth, born in Trinidad in the turbulent period between the two world wars, was educated in schools that valued the British example (in literature especially) as the pinnacle of culture. But she also learned the folk stories, songs, and rhymes of the many cultures of Trinidad, European and African and Asian. She came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation; now in her eighties, Hallworth has been in Britain longer than she lived in Trinidad, but she never forgot her roots. As a librarian storyteller in Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Hallworth told those stories to children born in Britain (Black and white) and she eventually began to publish them. Her books’ introductions often stress the value of multicultural communities to the production of folk culture; in Down by the River (Heinemann 1996), she writes, “As children sing and play and then pass on the songs and games of their childhood, we see a living example of the interrelationship of different cultures. This is something for us all to appreciate and respect” (n.p.). She is also careful to depict children singing the rhymes as part of a modern-day Caribbean; the rhymes may be old but the children who chant them are not stuck in the past. Looking back to Trinidad, for Hallworth, is a way of celebrating the ever-changing nature of both the land of her birth and Britain.
Other Black British authors, however, are “really from” Britain. Indeed, this is more and more the case, especially with authors of Caribbean ancestry; the Empire Windrush, after all, docked nearly 70 years ago now. But the descendants of the Windrush generation, like many of the children of immigrants, grew up surrounded by their “home” culture of Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana, and the other West Indian islands. And those who became writers often “look back” to the Caribbean, even when they don’t consider themselves Caribbean. The gaze of these authors is, however, not directed at the past in the same way as a writer like Hallworth. Instead, authors such as Patrice Lawrence send characters to relatives who stayed “back home” and explore what the Caribbean is like in the present.
Lawrence’s Granny Ting-Ting (A&C Black 2009) is an excellent example. Lawrence, as the book’s “About the Author” section explains, is “Sussex-born, Hackney-living, from a Caribbean and Italian family” (77). The book was part of A&C Black’s White Wolves reading series, “selected to match developing reading skills” (according to the back cover), and published in consultation with CLPE, the UK’s Centre for Literacy in Primary Education. Granny Ting-Ting is one of the Year 5 level “Stories from Different Cultures”; but while the other advertised books Pratima Mitchell’s Bamba Beach and Andrew Fusek Peters’s Ever Clever Eva seem to be based around characters entirely from those “different cultures” (and I’ll admit I haven’t read either one, so if anyone has and I am mistaken about this, please do let me know), Lawrence’s book opens with the Trinidadian characters awaiting the arrival of visitors from London. Michael, the cousin of Trinidadian Shayla, “was born in Trinidad, like Shayla, but moved to London when he was a baby” (8) and is now convinced that everything is better in London. Lawrence’s narrative does not come to the opposite conclusion—that everything is better in Trinidad—but that each place has its benefits and drawbacks. The important thing is learning to appreciate difference—and similarity.
Malorie Blackman is also British-born, from Clapham, but she has been told to “go back where you came from” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/aug/23/malorie-blackman-teen-young-adult-fiction-diversity-amnesty-teen-takeover-2014). She has also said that she wants to “write books that have black characters in them, but that had nothing to do with race” (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/malorie-blackman-the-childrens-laureate-talks-writers-block-noel-gallagher-and-being-a-warlock-8942592.html). This does not mean she doesn’t think about being Black, or having family that “came from” somewhere else, and like Lawrence she celebrates both in her books. The Betsey Biggalow series from Mammoth present an exuberant girl character who gets into trouble and lives life to the full. Although the illustrations and the books’ promotional material promote Betsey’s Blackness and Caribbean-ness, Blackman herself presents the books without fanfare. Betsey is a girl who is both similar to and different from British girls. She fights with her friends and her siblings, and likes milkshakes and trying on her mother’s makeup. She also likes to eat flying fish, a specialty of the Caribbean, has to deal with hurricanes, and plays often on the beach near her house. Neither Blackman nor Lawrence are writing about their own Caribbean past—nor indeed, the Caribbean past at all—but their books, as well as Hallworth’s, allow readers to connect to the history of their family without feeling like they are taking a backwards step, or worse—being forced back into the past.