Tag Archives: Caribbean

Back to the Old Country, not Back to the Past: Black Britons Consider the Caribbean

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.

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Hallworth uses childhood rhymes and games, not to look back to the past, but to showcase a modern and multicultural Trinidad.  Illustration by Caroline Binch.

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.

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Lawrence’s Granny Ting Ting celebrates the good things about being British and being from the Caribbean.  Illustration by Adam Larkum.

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.

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Blackman’s Betsey has much in common with her British counterparts–except for the hurricanes and flying fish. Illustration by Lis Toft.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Architecture of Home and Empire in Children’s Books

Last week, I did my blog on migrants, but this week I was prompted by a friend looking at “vernacular architecture” in children’s books about Africa and the Caribbean to do some thinking about the pictures of “home” that appear in children’s books, and why those pictures matter. For many beginning readers, children’s books are a first source of information about what the world looks like beyond their front doors, and so both the text and the pictures that these stories include matter; I would argue that the pictures matter more than text in creating a lasting impression in the mind of the child.

 

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I grew up with illustrations like these from Syd Hoff (from A Book About Christopher Columbus by Ruth Belov Gross) where naked natives lived in the woods.

Take this little quiz, for example: In what kind of houses did the indigenous people Christopher Columbus encountered live? When I asked myself this question, I came up with a blank—not poor houses or huts, but no houses at all. I have a collection of Columbus books for children, and started to look through them, and realized how this lack may have been created in my mind. Many children’s books about Columbus show the “natives” on the beach or in the jungle, but never show them where they lived, slept, or ate. Robinson Crusoe, as the Ladybird Read-it-Yourself version from 1978 depicts him, built a house in a matter of days. The man Crusoe rescues has no home and no name—Crusoe gives “Friday” both, and with them come the benefits of civilization.

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Crusoe rebuilds civilization in the Caribbean, complete with English flag, in this depiction from the Ladybird version with pictures by Robert Ayton.

This can lead to a leap of logic that the “natives” didn’t have homes, allowing for the racist narrative of indigenous people as being animal-like, living off the earth in trees or caves, to be easier to accept. In children’s picture books written and illustrated by white Europeans, this image of indigenous people living “nowhere” can extend to any black or brown people in the global south. Jimmy Buffett’s Jolly Mon (Harcourt Brace 1988) is one example of an author whose book depicts the “simplicity” (“Storyteller’s Note”) of the Caribbean and never shows its people near anything other than cabanas. Gillian Oxford’s Anansi the Spider-Man for Heinemann (1999) gives the main character a straw hut with no door or windows to live in.

 

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In this version of Anansi the Spider-Man, the lovely Miss Selina lives in a straw hut without any door. Pictures by Gilly Marklew.

But the modern Caribbean is not at all a collection of grass huts or beach cabanas. And authors/illustrators can get it right; the “My Home” series from the late 1950s depicts Trinidadians living in modern, if rural, settings with houses that have windows and doors. It is true that the architecture in the Caribbean is different than it is in Europe, reflecting not the poverty or lack of civilization of the people, but the climate. Caribbean homes have to be built to withstand flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters, so they are often built of cement blocks and placed up on stilts. The verandas that surround many Caribbean houses give a place for people to gather and enjoy the cool breezes at the end of the day. Authors with Caribbean connections depict these “vernacular” architectural features as a matter of course, but non-Caribbean viewers may not see or understand them, just as someone not from Buffalo might misunderstand the need for the three entry doors to my house (every single one is for insulation against the freezing winters, not as some sort of Fort Knox protection).

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Isabel Crombie’s My Home in Trinidad has houses with windows and doors.  You can just see the cement blocks on which the house is resting.

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Houses in Verna Wilkins’ Hurricane (Tamarind 2004) show the verandas common to Caribbean houses.

An understanding of the purposes behind vernacular architecture features also needs to be applied to early Black British literature for children in order to understand it today. Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headmistress in the UK and mother to Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy, deliberately tried to counter some of the racist images of how Caribbean migrants lived when she wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers series in the early 1970s. In Knock at Mrs Herbs’ (1973), Gilroy depicts the communal homes shared by Caribbean migrants when they arrived in Britain; these homes, usually crumbling Victorian mansions, were bought communally and shared amongst several families when they found themselves turned away from white-owned lodging houses. The house where Roy lives shows the ways that community is valued in the notes that neighbors leave each other to tell their whereabouts; it also shows solidarity through the Black Power messages on the wall. In Bubu’s Street (1975), the outside of such homes are shown, and it is the Black residents who are living in fixed-up and newly-painted homes of bright colors. That they did the fixing up is implied by the boarded up and broken-windowed homes in dull brick right next door. Gilroy counters the narrative that Black migrants did not care about their homes and were happy to live in slums by the images she creates in her books.

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Gilroy’s Knock at Mrs Herbs’ creates a sense of community through text and pictures (illustrations by Shyam Varma).

 

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Gilroy’s Bubu’s Street counters stereotypes about Black migrants to Britain and their homes. Pictures by George Him.

Home is a basic concept in children’s books, particularly in picture books for the very young. The architecture of home has traditionally been connected, in books about Black people, with the racist assumptions of empire. We need to ensure that we are sharing books with children that depict “vernacular architecture” accurately, but also with understanding of why and how the architecture came about. Because how we think about ourselves and others, especially for children, is intimately tied up with ideas about home.