Tag Archives: Catherine Johnson

Frozen Smiles: Matthew Henson and the Elusive North Pole

I live in Buffalo, where we regularly get foot after foot of snow that has to be driven through, trudged through, and shoveled for months of the year.  Therefore, the thought of going to the North Pole has never been something that ever appealed to me in the least, unless Santa Claus took me in his reindeer sled.  But there are those who not only were interested in being one of the first people who found the North Pole, they were willing to risk months of loneliness and boredom, a monotonous and unappealing diet, and loss of fingers, toes, or even their lives to try to get there.  One of these people was the African-American Matthew Henson.

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Henson, who went on several Arctic expeditions with Robert Peary, was finally honored with a (joint) stamp in 1986.

Henson, born in Maryland a year after the end of the Civil War, left home after his parents died and went to seek work in Washington DC.  He did any work he could find, including sailing with a merchant ship and clerking in a store; although his white employers were kind, he faced considerable racism in Washington in reconstruction-era America, and found that he was treated more equally on board ships.  It was perhaps for this reason that when Robert Peary came into the shop where Henson was clerking, he accepted Peary’s officer to serve as his valet on an expedition to Nicaragua.  When Peary announced four years later, in 1891, that he wanted to be the first to reach the North Pole, Henson—who had previously been to Russian ports in winter on the merchant ship—agreed to go with him.  In 1909, after several attempts, Henson, Peary, and four Inuit members of the Arctic team, reached the North Pole and planted the American flag.  Henson’s sled was some distance ahead of Peary’s, and it was Henson who placed the flag at the pole.  I will note that there was controversy at the time over whether Peary’s team was first, and controversy later over whether they actually reached the pole or just came close, but whether they did or not is not really germane to what happened to Henson after they returned to the states.

Peary became an admiral and received various medals.  Henson became a messenger “boy”.  Henson was not invited to join the prestigious Explorers Club, not even when Peary was president; and when Peary received medals from various geographic societies around the world, Henson was neither invited to ceremonies nor similarly recognized.  Like Britain’s Walter Tull, whose achievements were similarly ignored in official circles a few years later, Henson failed to receive similar treatment to white people because of the color of his skin.

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The book cover illustration by Paul Johnson seems to indicate racial equality (more or less) in the world of Arctic exploration.

Material written for children about arctic exploration and the North Pole also downplays or ignores Henson’s contributions.  White author Mike Salisbury, who worked in the arctic and researched for the BBC, published a book on Arctic Expedition (Victoria House 1989).  The book’s cover is promising because it includes one brown-skinned and one white-skinned child “explorer” driving dog sleds while walruses look on.

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But Mike Salisbury’s text for Arctic Expedition does not even mention that Henson was African-American, and there are no accompanying pictures of him. All the historical explorers that are pictured are white.

The double-page spread on “Early Explorers” does mention Peary and Henson, but while there are illustrations of several other expeditions headed by white explorers, there is no illustration of either Peary or Henson, and the text does not indicate that Henson was African-American.  (In fact, the only person of color on the page at all is “an Inuit” who apparently does not have a name.)  Given the way that the book’s illustrations otherwise encourage Black and white children to be explorers, the failure to portray Henson is disappointing.  Children need role models, and historical heroes, and Henson is undisputedly both.  He learned the Inuit language (Peary did not, at least not to the extent that Henson did) and could drive a dog sled, which Peary also could not do.  Peary’s leadership and knowledge was necessary to the success of the trip, but so was Henson’s.

At least Salisbury mentions Henson.  The DK “Find Out” website (https://www.dkfindout.com/us/history/explorers/who-was-first-to-north-pole/), designed for children, says that “Robert Peary announced that he had reached the Pole in 1909, but because his men were not trained navigators, none of them could be sure”.  The picture accompanying the text shows an arctic sled, but no photographs of any of the explorers.  Again, this is an opportunity missed to highlight the bravery of people like Peary and Henson, whether they reached the pole first or not.

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Part of a Golden Legacy: Matthew Henson is one of the heroes of Bertram Fitzgerald’s series.

Black writers, on the other hand, just like Black organizations and clubs in Henson’s time, have always celebrated Henson’s contribution to arctic exploration.  In 1969, the Golden Legacy comics (which I wrote about in a previous blog) did an entire issue dedicated to Henson.  And just this summer, Catherine Johnson, already known for her historical fiction (including Nest of Vipers and Sawbones) and ripped-from-the-historical-headlines narratives (The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo) published Race to the Frozen North: The Matthew Henson Story with Barrington Stoke.  Both these stories, written 50 years apart, emphasize Henson’s bravery as well as the racial prejudice that allowed his achievements to be doubted by his contemporaries and buried by history for many years.

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Ha, ha, ha, microaggression is so funny! Now hand over that $100.

Both stories repeat an anecdote about a bet between Henson and a white colleague that he would not return from the North Pole with all his fingers and toes intact, and link the anecdote directly to the casual racism of the time.  It was common for explorers to lose fingers or toes to frostbite on such journeys, but in both accounts, the white colleague argues that it is impossible for a Black person to survive in cold temperatures.  This is the legacy of a racist version of human evolution that suggested people of African descent were acclimatized to hot countries, and therefore were best equipped to work (and be enslaved) on plantations, while white people were more adapted to colder countries, and had therefore learned to use their minds rather than their physical strength.  This legacy lives on in children’s biographies even now, where people of African descent are more likely to be found in sports biographies than in scientist biographies, so it is crucial to recognize this prejudice and change the paradigm, particularly in children’s books.

I found Johnson’s biography particularly engaging because it is written in the first person.  This allows the reader to get a hint of Henson’s personality: determined, curious, and practical.  Johnson’s Henson recognizes and abhors the prejudice he experiences—“I didn’t like it when people called me ‘boy’.  I was twenty-one—wasn’t I a man?” (61)—but he does not object out loud (“There was no point”; 61) and is quick to see past casual racism when he feels that a person is otherwise “open and honest” (61).  Henson takes jobs even when they don’t seem ideal: “I did not want to be a valet. A valet’s job was to iron and clean clothes.  But perhaps if it gave me the chance to travel again it might be worth it” (62).  His eagerness for adventure and his willingness to take on lesser roles and accept some prejudice to participate in exploration in uncharted territory makes the end of Henson’s story particularly poignant in Johnson’s account.  While the Golden Legacy comic quickly skims over Henson’s omission from the fame that came to Peary, Johnson shows Henson’s pain at being ignored, not just by medal-giving societies, but by Peary himself after their final expedition.  “Admiral Peary had never contacted me after our last trip. That made me very sad but I had to live in the present.  I always knew life would be different for me.  I was coloured.  But I knew that I had done great things” (117).  In this short passage, Johnson manages to highlight historical racism and suggest to readers that belief in oneself and a curious, open mind are the best antidote to the frozen smiles of a prejudiced society.

A Change is Gonna Come: The Diverse Voices Symposium at Seven Stories

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The brilliant and optimistic collection from Stripes includes writing from Diverse Voices? participants Darren Chetty, Patrice Lawrence and Catherine Johnson.

In the foreword to the recently-published anthology of fiction and poetry for young adults, A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes, 2017), philosopher Darren Chetty writes, “We can think of change as the space between who we are and who we want to be—between being and becoming—as individuals and as communities” (7-8).  This sentiment entirely encapsulates the motivation behind the Diverse Voices? symposium I helped to organize with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and Newcastle University, a symposium where Chetty was a participant.  During my year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-16), I formed a relationship with the people at Seven Stories Archives—archivists, curators, and librarians—that was both personal and professional.  They were supportive of (and occasionally amused by my revolutionary passion for) my project to make Black British literature a more “normalized” part of British children’s literature.  As I put it in the book that resulted from that year at Seven Stories, “The face of Britain might have changed after World War II, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of white British people.  This is partly because the Blackness of Black Britons was made manifestly obvious and continually depicted as Other; but the whiteness of white British society has remained largely invisible” (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 5).  Friday’s Diverse Voices? symposium, held at Seven Stories, allowed some of the brightest thinkers in writing, publishing, librarianship and academia to come together and think about ways to ensure that real change would finally come to the UK’s children’s literature.  Today’s blog highlights some of the thoughts (both from Friday and from their more public commentary) of the main speakers of the day.

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Verna Wilkins discusses her life in publishing for a multiracial Britain at the Diverse Voices? symposium.

Catherine Johnson encapsulates the idea of Britishness/whiteness in her short story from A Change is Gonna Come, “Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!”  In this story, the young protagonist is told to, “Fight the world . . . You are a black man in a white world.  A foreigner” (69). When the main character protests that he was born in Norwich, the man responds, “I doubt if anyone else sees it that way” (70).  Although I was familiar with this attitude, that if you are Black, Britishness is out of reach, I knew that Seven Stories did not want to mirror this sentiment in their museum or archives.  Collections director Sarah Lawrance pointed out on Friday that, “We have a longstanding commitment to collecting diverse authors and materials” at Seven Stories, but it has not always been an easy task for them.  Part of my remit during my Leverhulme year was to provide some recommendations for expanding the collection, but I was very conscious of the fact that I—like most of the Seven Stories staff—was white and middle-class, and an American to boot: the very picture of privilege.  What is the point of a person who has always been privileged enough to raise her voice (in revolution or otherwise) speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been historically sidelined?  I did not want to replicate old histories.  I suggested we bring some intellectuals—writers, editors, librarians, publishers, academics, book people—from historically-marginalized groups to Seven Stories to hear from them directly.  Sarah agreed—as did so many of the great names that we invited.

Discussing Crongton, war, poverty and racism with Alex Wheatle.

We called the symposium “Diverse Voices?” because it left open the question of whose voices were heard and where those voices were welcome. It became part of Newcastle’s Freedom City project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Newcastle University’s granting an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr.  The themes of Freedom City were those that King mentioned in his speech at the ceremony: the effects of war, poverty and racism on society.  King had come to Newcastle from my current hometown of Buffalo, where he argued that these problems affected young people the most because “the best in these minds cannot come out” when they have to worry about their education, their housing, their ability to make their voices count.  I was lucky enough to discuss these ideas with author Alex Wheatle, who said that the characters in his Crongton series were affected by all of these issues—from World War II, which brought so many of their parents and grandparents to Britain, to the day-to-day poverty that prevents them from reaching their goals, to the institutional racism that keeps them “in their place”.  All of Wheatle’s young adult characters in his Crongton series have creative and artistic dreams, but there remains a question over whether they will be able to achieve them.  As he said at the symposium when talking about how whiteness influences prize-giving, “Otherness wasn’t quite adjudicated for.”

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Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story is about being “other” for a lot of reasons–not about being white.

Otherness, or rather being othered, was something that had affected many of the speakers at the symposium.  Filipino writer Candy Gourlay mentioned that her work had been translated to television with her main characters depicted as white because there was always “the assumption that if I had a hero, my hero would be white”.  SF Said wondered if by only listing his initials on his books, he had created the same assumption: “The minute I took away the obvious ‘difference’ of my name, doors opened for me.”

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Does a diverse book have to be “about” diversity? Does a diverse author have to appear as “other”?

Some of the participants mentioned historical moments when those doors were opened because of cultural change; author Beverley Naidoo talked about how “There were really close connections between anti-apartheid movements and what was going on in the UK” in the 1970s and 1980s.  And librarian Jake Hope reminded the audience of the “radical roots” that led librarians (Black and white) to demand changes in publishing during that same time period.  This sense of history was underscored by author Patrice Lawrence, who highlighted the importance of the historical record: “The joy of looking at archives,” she said, is that “you come to understand how we got to where we are.”  And archivist and author S. I. Martin pointed out that archives could teach more than just adults: “Archives are a world that kids can write themselves into.”

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S. I. Martin (pictured), Patrice Lawrence and Sarah Lawrance all discussed the importance of archives to the promotion of diversity in society at the symposium.

There was at times a rumbling undercurrent of concern that the symposium was a good start whose promise might never be fulfilled.  Author Ifeoma Onyefulu spoke those concerns out loud when she said, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”

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Onyefulu’s A is for Africa is one way that she makes a difference–a difference she expects everyone to try to enact.

Many of the symposium participants found the pace of historical change too slow, and did not wait for a space to be made for them.  Verna Wilkins, the founder of Tamarind and then of Firetree Books, talked about how her life’s work was “an attempt to redress the balance” in the world of publishing.  The illustrator Yu Rong spoke about seeing a hole in the publishing world: “There is very little about China and Chinese people in UK children’s books” and so Rong has done her best to fill up that hole, at least a little bit. But for almost everyone at the symposium, action by one group of people was not enough to bring real change for everyone.  Instead, it will take hard work and difficult discussions to change children’s literature in the UK if we are going to make every child feel a sense of belonging in the world of books.  We must read differently—think differently—speak differently.  We must cross the barriers that keep us apart by any means necessary.

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We have to talk, and continue to talk, to each other–even when those conversations are difficult.

In Sita Brahmachari’s recent book for the publisher Barrington Stoke, Worry Angels (2017), she writes about the difficulty and necessity of communication:

“If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you . . . when you want them to understand not just the words that you say, but what you feel, then you try to speak in any way that you can . . . with your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand . . . You act things out . . . you let the feeling show in your whole body . . . whatever way you can to show them you want to be your friend” (71).

It is this kind of communication we need to keep up between us all, even when it is hard.  When it goes wrong—as it will—we must keep on trying.  This is the only way to ensure that the change we want will come in British children’s books—for all kids.

To Be Young Adult, Gifted and Black: BAME YA Literature Milestones, Part Two

This week’s blog continues the history of Black and BAME British YA literature.  1981, the year that starts the second half of the timeline, is significant for YA literature.  The end of what scholar Anthony DiGesare calls “the long 1970s”, a period when race was the focus for both Black and white Britons from Enoch Powell to future Guardian prize-winner Alex Wheatle, 1981 saw the Brixton Riots bring institutional racism into the spotlight for the first—but by no means the last—time.

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YA novelist Alex Wheatle was among the people who experienced the Brixton Riot of 1981.

1981: The Brixton riots erupt as a response to the perceived racist attitudes of police against the Black British community.  West Indian Children in our Schools, a government report authored by Anthony Rampton, calls for mainstream literature to better represent the increasingly diverse cultures of Britain.  The Rampton report was written in response to increasing tension between the Black and Asian British communities and law enforcement.

1982: The first of the International Book Fairs of Radical Black and Third World Books is held in Islington Town Hall, London, partly due to lack of outlets for BAME books for children.  New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture are major sponsors.

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The cover of one of the IRR’s histories of racism. The fourth book, The Fight Against Racism, shows pictures of the Brixton Riots.

1982: The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) publishes a series of informational books for older readers on racism, starting with The Roots of Racism.  The four books touch on issues of colonialism, slavery, white privilege, police brutality, protests and riots.

1983: Valerie Bloom’s first UK collection of poems, Touch Mi! Tell Mi! is published by Bogle L’Ouverture, aimed at a young adult audience.  Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea (Heinemann), about an Indian village, wins the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

1984: Geraldine Kaye’s Comfort Herself, about a young Black Briton who goes to live with her father in Ghana, wins the Other Award.  Grace Hallworth’s collection of ghost stories from the Caribbean, Mouth Open, Story Jump Out (Methuen) is published.

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Dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah was recommended by the Youth Library Group for older readers in the year of the Handsworth riots.

1985: Brixton and Handsworth (in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city) again face clashes between police and Black British youth.  The Youth Libraries Group, in their newly revised list of Multiracial Books for the Classroom, recommend Pen Rhythm, “a lively collection by this well known poet” (100), Benjamin Zephaniah.

1986: 13-year-old Bangladeshi Briton Ahmed Iqbal Ullah is murdered by a classmate on the school playground in Manchester.  Ullah’s murder was racially motivated.

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Nichols’ poetry collection includes British Asian as well as Black British poets.

1988: Britain introduces a National Curriculum; many complain it does not address the needs of diverse Britain, but instead urges assimilation.  Blackie publishes Guyanese-born poet Grace Nichols’ collection from Black and Asian poets around the world, Black Poetry (the title was changed to Poetry Jump-Up in the paperback edition).

1993: 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence is killed by a gang of white British youths while he is waiting for a bus.  Lawrence did not know his attackers.  The murder was racially motivated. The official inquiry into Lawrence’s death, the Macpherson Report (1999), would call for many changes, including revisions to the National Curriculum to include anti-racist and diverse teaching and reading materials.  Meiling Jin, a London-based writer of Guyanese Chinese descent, publishes Thieving Summer (Hamish Hamilton)

1997: Poet Benjamin Zephaniah publishes his collection for older readers, School’s Out: Poems Not for School (AK).

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Bali Rai has produced several titles for Barrington Stoke on high interest topics such as football for reluctant readers.

1998: Barrington Stoke, a publisher focused on reluctant and dyslexic children and YA readers, is founded.  They publish books for YA readers by many high-impact BAME authors, including Bali Rai, Malorie Blackman, and Sita Brahmachari.

1999: The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (http://www.racearchive.org.uk/) is set up in Manchester to honor the 13-year-old killed by his classmate; the trust would publish stories of young refugees and immigrants to Manchester, as well as illustrated biographies of BAME Britons created by young people.  Benjamin Zephaniah’s first novel, Face (Bloomsbury), “a story of facial discrimination,” as he calls it, is published.

2000: Black British publisher Tamarind Press publishes the first in its Black Profiles (later renamed Black Stars) series by Verna Wilkins, biographies of living Black Britons of achievement, including author Malorie Blackman.  The Carnegie Medal goes to South African-born white British author Beverley Naidoo for her book about Nigerian refugees, The Other Side of Truth (Puffin).

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Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses led to a series of successful novels–and to her becoming the first Black British Children’s Laureate.

2001: Black British author Malorie Blackman’s novel, Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday), detailing an imagined England where Black Britons have all the power positions, is published.  The book would go on to win a number of book awards.

2003: Black British poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah refuses an OBE because of the British Empire’s involvement in slavery.

2004: Guyanese-born poet John Agard publishes Half-Caste (Hodder), a book of poems which encourages readers to “check out” their Black British history.

2009: Publisher Frances Lincoln teams up with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, to offer the Diverse Voices Award.  Poet John Agard’s revision of Dante, The Young Inferno (Frances Lincoln), with illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura, appears and is nominated (not shortlisted) for the Carnegie Medal.

2013: Malorie Blackman is appointed the first Black British Children’s Laureate. Pakistani-born Tariq Mehmood becomes the only non-white author to win the Diverse Voices Award, for his novel You’re Not Proper (Hope Road).  White British author Nick Lake’s In Darkness (Bloomsbury), about the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, is shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

2014: Seven Stories and Frances Lincoln publish a list of “Diverse Voices: 50 of the Best” books for children and young adults (https://www.sevenstories.org.uk/news/latestnews/diverse-voice-top-50).  The BBC and BookTrust collaborate to offer the first BBC Young Writers Award, for short stories by 14-18 year olds.

2015: The Carnegie Medal is awarded to white British author Tanya Landman for her book about post-Civil War African Americans, Buffalo Soldier.  Catherine Johnson’s novel of a poor, Black British woman masquerading as a princess in the early 19th century in order to survive, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, appears from Corgi; it would be shortlisted for the YA Book Prize in 2016.  A graphic novel version of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, adapted by Ian Edginton and illustrated by John Aggs, appears.

2016: White American author Robin Talley wins the first Amnesty CILIP Honour medal for her book about Civil Rights-era America, The Lies We Tell Ourselves.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom) becomes the first story about Black Britons written by a Black British author to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy (Hodder) is shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award; it would win the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and the YA Bookseller’s prize in 2017.

2017: The UK’s Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories in Newcastle, hosts “Diverse Voices?” (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/diversevoices/),  a symposium designed to think about ways to better represent BAME voices in children’s books, archives, museums, prizes and publishing on November 24th.  If you are reading this at first publication, you’ll know that this event has not yet happened, but it’s something I’ve been involved with planning over the last year.  YA authors Alex Wheatle, Catherine Johnson, and Patrice Lawrence are among the invited guests (several other authors, including picture book and middle grade authors, are also participating), and author and publisher Verna Wilkins will also be discussing publishing for a BAME audience.  I’ll be getting ready for the symposium next week, but hope to have a blog or two following the event discussing some of the salient points.  Watch this space!