Tag Archives: Civil Rights

Like a Norman Rockwell Painting: Freedom, Justice, and Children’s Literature

This week, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that has always been about more than a harvest feast or festival.  Both in its root (and somewhat mythic) origins as a celebratory meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people at Plymouth Plantation, and in its nationalization as a federal holiday during the Civil War, Thanksgiving in the US is meant to encourage Americans to think about unity.  There are two main images Americans conjure up during this time of year.  The first is a picture of the “first Thanksgiving” showing happy pilgrim women carrying historically unlikely food and serving equally happy Wampanoag people.  It is an image which, in my own childhood, led to many a school “feast” of dry cornbread and koolaid consumed while wearing paper pilgrim “hats” or construction paper-feather headdresses.  (I’m told they don’t do this anymore, and yet a quick internet check shows several “teacher” websites touting the “fun” of wearing feather headdresses.  One even suggests adding gold sparkles, perhaps to recall the reason that Columbus and his men led a genocide of native Caribbeans.)


Where’s my construction paper pilgrim hat? Charles Schulz’s version of the first Thanksgiving, with smiles all around and historical inaccuracies aplenty.

The other popular image of Thanksgiving, however, is more modern.  It comes from the painter Norman Rockwell, and was a part of a series that Rockwell did for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 based on a speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The speech, and the paintings, are called the “Four Freedoms” because they illustrate freedoms that Roosevelt hoped a post-war world would embrace: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  The “Thanksgiving” image is Rockwell’s depiction of Freedom from Want, set in his very white American Vermont town.


This image captured white Americans dream of Thanksgiving unity during wartime.

In fact, all of Rockwell’s freedoms paintings depict white Americans, because these were his neighbors—but also, perhaps, because of where he published. According to a special exhibition on Google Arts and Culture produced in coordination with the Norman Rockwell Museum, “In an interview later in his life, Rockwell recalled having been directed to paint out a black person out of a group picture because ‘Saturday Evening Post’ policy at that time allowed showing black people only in service industry jobs” (https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/ogKyOs7llcWMIg). Rockwell did go on to paint three important Civil Rights Era paintings, most notably “The Problem We All Live With” based on Ruby Bridges’ integration of a New Orleans elementary school. But his lasting image of Thanksgiving continues to remind us of who had access to freedom in 1943.


But Rockwell knew that not all Americans had the freedoms white Americans took for granted, even twenty years after his Four Freedoms paintings. This depiction of Ruby Bridges was published in Look magazine in 1964.

This past March, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Rockwell “Four Freedoms,” Smithsonian magazine had four artists reimagine the paintings for today’s America.  I was particularly interested in the revisioning of Freedom from Fear.  In the original painting, the parents of two small children watch them sleep.  The father is holding a folded newspaper with the words “bombing” and “horror” visible, but no immediate visible threat faces the family.  The revision shows a migrant family in a detention camp, posed exactly as Rockwell’s family is, but with the very clear visible threat of a barred window and guards with guns and dogs.  Rodriguez wanted to use his painting to push Americans to consider their view of migrants and refugees, an idea one reader, a retired immigration officer, called, “despicable” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/magazine/apr_col-discussion-180968411/).


Images from Smithsonian magazine’s re-visioning of Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear (on the left) by Edel Rodriguez (right), once a Cuban refugee himself.

But Rodriguez is a migrant himself, having come from Cuba on the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 at the age of nine.  He and his family came to the US with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the rest having been confiscated by the Cuban government.  Although Rodriguez says he was “warmly welcomed” upon their arrival in the US, he spent time in a Cuban detention camp before their departure.  And when he looks at America now, he says, “I’ve sometimes strained to differentiate my adoptive country from the dictatorship I fled. Violence at political rallies, friends watching what they say (and noting who is in the room when they say it) and a leader who picks on society’s weakest — this has felt all too familiar. I began making art about what I saw, to bear witness” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/opinions/2017/08/25/i-fled-despotism-in-cuba-now-im-fighting-it-in-america/?utm_term=.892f5588276f).  His controversial magazine covers depicting Donald Trump (in one, beheading the Statue of Liberty) have gained him notoriety.


Like Rockwell’s and Rodriguez’s depictions of Freedom from Fear, Rodriguez’s illustration of Sonia Sotomayor as a child shows her sleeping. She has a smile on her face because she knows her mother, though poor and a migrant, can still offer her opportunity in America.

While Rodriguez’s art is designed to bear witness to the America he believes in, not all of it is controversial.  He also illustrates children’s books, and one in particular that I want to highlight combines his passion for social justice with his depiction of the immigrant struggle in America.  Jonah Winter’s Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx (Atheneum 2009) has a title which recalls Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—another immigrant family story published in 1943, the same year as Norman Rockwell’s paintings.  Winter’s story tells of a girl born in New York who did not have the same freedoms as those people in the Norman Rockwell paintings.  Winter talks about Sotomayor’s childhood economic poverty, but Rodriguez balances what could be a gloomy text with illustrations that show a little girl secure in the love of her mother.  Sonia looks more like the Norman Rockwell children in Freedom from Fear than the children in Rodriguez’s revision.  Sotomayor’s background of poverty made her a compassionate judge: “She had seen things most other judges had not.  People she’d grown up with had gone to jail.  People she’d grown up with were poor” (n.p.).  But she never would have become the passionate judge she became without her mother protecting her and working to ensure her freedom to be anything she wanted to be.  Just as Norman Rockwell’s Freedoms paintings contrasted America as it should be with his later Civil Rights paintings of America at its worst, Edel Rodriguez’s Rockwell revision and depiction of Sonia Sotomayor’s childhood shows the fear and promise of the American immigrant experience.  Both artists are asking Americans to choose the America that they want to embrace, and hoping that they choose love over fear.

The Old African(-American): In Memory of Julius Lester

Julius Lester came to children’s literature via Harlem, folksinging, and the Civil Rights Movement.  Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1939, by the early 1960s he was in New York City, singing songs of lynching (“See How the Rain Falls”) at rallies for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).  “I wasn’t big for going on demonstrations and being thrown in jail and this-that-and the other, but music was . . . a gift that I had to offer” he says, in a PBS documentary about him (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=julius+lester+folk+singer&&view=detail&mid=668197C7D071911BC204668197C7D071911BC204&rvsmid=07E8F3E12C66EFF8984207E8F3E12C66EFF89842&FORM=VDQVAP).  In 1964, he took his songs to the south (his “freedom songs,” he called them).  In 1965, he returned to look for old blues singers on behalf of the Newport Folk Foundation.  But he didn’t think the photographer who came with him understood what to look for, and Lester began taking his own photographs.


SNCC asked him to document civil rights movements in the south, and Lester did—although I wonder if SNCC got what they expected.  Lester’s photographs focus on the reality of life in the south, and the people who had to live those realities.  Whereas photographs of sit-ins and marches may have gotten all the attention, I find myself drawn to a photograph Lester took in Selma, Alabama in 1966.  The photograph shows an African-American woman walking past a white Chevrolet with a bumper sticker proclaiming the single word, “WALLACE”.  The bumper sticker, whether purposefully or accidentally, has a rip in it.  (You can see the photograph here: http://www.profotos.com/pros/index.cfm?member=565). Lester wanted people to hear the words and see the lives of African-Americans clearly.


Lester’s versions of the Brer Rabbit stories used a mix of African-American dialects to give voice to these trickster tales originating from enslaved Americans.

His early work led to him wanting to write about Black History for children, to tell the stories and give voice to the people he met and sang about.  While his first book, To Be A Slave (1968) was historical, he turned to telling the stories he had heard growing up.  But he quickly realized that many of the stories he remembered had been mediated in print through white authors, such as Joel Chandler Harris.  The invented dialect that authors like Harris used to represent African-Americans often made the characters seem uneducated; but more than that, Lester knew that these characters did not speak like African-Americans—not the ones he knew in the south or the north.  So he reclaimed the stories, by retelling them.  He put in jokes that modernized the stories (talking about washing machines) or familiarized them to a new generation.  In “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” when Brer Fox is going to barbecue Brer Rabbit, Brer Rabbit takes the time to opine, “If you got to go, go in a barbecue sauce.  That’s what I always say.  How much lemon juice and brown sugar you put in yours?” (15).


In Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, the titular character is frightened and gives away his clothes to save his skin.


But in Lester’s version, Sam is always in charge of the situation–even when he gives away his possessions, the reader knows he will get the upper hand in the end.

Lester performed similar reclamations with other stories that had been seen as racist texts that caricatured children of African descent.  Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1900) is a folktale-like story in which Sambo is terrified by tigers who take his clothes; he only regains power (and his clothes) when the tigers are too busy to notice him.  Lester rewrote the story as Sam and the Tigers, with pictures by Jerry Pinkney. Although the basic plot is the same, Lester does not depict his protagonist as cowering or weak.  When a tiger threatens to eat him, Sam counters, “If you do, it’ll send your cholesterol way up . .  . You could be the first Tiger smart enough to carry an umbrella” (Sam and the Tigers n.p.).  Although both stories are called trickster tales, only Lester’s version has a true trickster character, one who uses his brain to talk the tiger into something different than what he wanted.


Bob Lemmons was something of a wild horse himself, living alone and free. But he was one of the best Mustang-tamers in the west because of his persistence.

In addition to folktales, Lester produced (also with his friend Jerry Pinkney) stories of legendary African-Americans (such as that steel-driving man, John Henry) and of the historical realities of African-Americans.  His historical stories, including Black Cowboy, Wild Horses and The Old African are, like his photographs, not about the famous, the celebrity, the well-known, but about ordinary people who struggled.  Black Cowboy, Wild Horses concerns a former slave who becomes a legendary tamer of mustangs in Texas, Bob Lemmons.  Lemmons was well-known in part because he persisted, and in part because (unlike most mustang-tamers) he worked alone.  Lester’s story embraces this strength and persistence against the odds.  Similarly, in The Old African, the titular character “had learned that enduring was a power too” (46) and because of his patience and endurance, he is able to provide visions and relief for slaves who are brutalized by the plantation owner and by a system that ripped them from their homelands in Africa.  Based on a story from coastal Georgia, Lester manages to combine the historical reality of slavery within the confines of mythical storytelling (the slaves, under the leadership of the Old African, walk into the sea and return to Africa over the bones of their ancestors).  His stories give voice and vision to African-Americans, and salutes their courage and persistence through struggle.  Lester made the ordinary person a hero, and gave those historically neglected a central role in his stories, photographs and songs.  His vision and voice will be greatly missed in children’s literature.


Lester gave voice to the voiceless, and his vision will live on beyond him.

Panther Cubs? The Black Panthers and Children’s Literature


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.


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.


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.


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.

Voting as a Battleground: Children’s Literature that Reminds Us Why We Vote

Today is election day in the United States. It has been an ugly election year and people of color (not to mention women) have been put in the spotlight at several moments in the campaign. From discussions about walls and judges who might be biased, to labeling whole groups of people as living in poverty and crime, to threats to remove all people from a particular religious group from the country, watching the news during the last few months has often felt like viewing a battleground.

So far, however, most of the American people have ensured that the verbal sparring has not spilled over into actual physical violence. This was not always the case in the US, and today I’ll focus on one of the many books available that remind us of those times. Paula Young Shelton and Raul Colón’s Child of the Civil Rights Movement (Schwartz and Wade 2010) is particularly pertinent for today’s election for a number of reasons.


Just an ordinary friend of the family–Shelton’s description and Colon’s illustration of “Uncle Martin”.

Paula Young Shelton is the daughter of Andrew Young, the first Black mayor of Atlanta. The book is her story, her childhood spent in the midst of Civil Rights leaders such as her father, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the most surprising and tender moments of the book is when Shelton describes learning to swim with Martin Luther King, Jr, at the local YMCA, because it is a good reminder that MLK and other Civil Rights Leaders were also ordinary people, albeit living through extraordinary times.


The sit-in strike–as old as childhood itself.

The ordinariness of people is one of Shelton’s messages in the book, but so too is the idea that ordinary people can choose to do the harder thing, and thus become extraordinary. At the beginning of the book, Shelton’s family is living in the northern part of the country “where there was no Jim Crow” (n.p.). But during the Freedom Rider protests, Shelton’s family sees how “racists pulled the students from their seats and set the buses on fire” (n.p.) and rather than simply shake their heads and say what a shame it is, both of Shelton’s parents, in separate declarations, announce that they need to move to the South to stand up for the rights of all people to do ordinary things. Shelton describes her first “sit-in” strike at a restaurant in Atlanta. When her family was refused a table, Shelton was so hungry that she sat down and essentially had a temper tantrum. Her parents did not make her stop. Any parent who has ever had a child break down in a restaurant or store knows that even that takes courage.


Doing the hard thing is easier when you are together.

The culmination of the story is the Selma to Montgomery march, and this too is a triumph of the ordinary. Shelton lists all the various groups who came, and includes in it “a man with one leg who everybody called Sunshine” (n.p.). This is the only individual she mentions besides Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King, and again it highlights the way that ordinary people making hard choices can make a difference. This march led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which “would make sure all people—black and white—could vote and no one could stop them” (n.p.).


Civil Rights are for all people–and you can make a difference, no matter who you are.

Raul Colón’s illustrations underpin the book’s message. As I mentioned earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. is first mentioned in the story as “Uncle Martin” who teaches little Paula Young to swim. Colón’s first illustration of King is, not as a statesman or even a leader of marches, but of him in his swimming trunks. Colón depicts him filling up the page—larger than life, as we have come to think of him—arms wide open and smiling, but as a person, rather than a Civil Rights leader. This everyday action, of King teaching Shelton how to swim, makes Paula feel a part of a family, “the family of the civil rights movement” (n.p.). Her family—birth and “adopted”—gives her strength to become a protestor herself, to protect the rights of people who don’t have a family like hers to stand behind them. The book ends with this connection to family and to protest: “And one day, when Mama and Daddy were too tired to march, too weary to carry us on their shoulders, too exhausted to fight another battle, the baton would pass to us and we would march on—children of the civil rights movement” (n.p.).

And although Shelton mentions “other battles” that would have to be fought, Colón’s illustrations remind the reader subtly that civil rights affect everyone in all times, not just African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. His cover illustration, which is not drawn from any of the pages of the book but is a separate and unique illustration, with no text other than the book title and authors to accompany it, is of the little girl Paula holding a flag. The flag says EQUALITY, and is rainbow-colored. The book appeared in 2010, during the fight in the US over another kind of civil right—that of same-sex couples to marry. Civil rights, Colón appears to suggest, are more than just a historical issue. And voting is the citizen’s way to protect those civil rights for all people (even the non-citizens) who live in a country. In that way, we are all children of the Civil Rights movement.

And the Winner Isn’t . . . Prizes and Black British Children’s Literature


The “gold standard” has always been exclusive. Sometimes a bit too exclusive.

On Monday, CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) will award the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals for the two books that represent (narratively and illustratively, respectively) the “gold standard in children’s literature” (according to their website). I was fortunate enough to participate in a Carnegie Shadowing group this year run by the UK’s Young Bookseller of the Year, Mariana Mouzhino. The group included academics, writers, and education professionals, and the discussions we had over this year’s Carnegie Shortlist (you can find the list here: http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/carnegie-current-shortlist.php) proved quite thought-provoking—not to mention enjoyable.

One of the issues we revisited a number of times was the selection process. There’s quite an extensive list of criteria (you can find it on their website), but the basic summary is as follows: “The book that wins the Carnegie Medal should be a book of outstanding literary quality. The whole work should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards.” Everyone will have their opinions about the books (both shortlisted and winners) that have been chosen, now and in the past; and if you’re interested in thinking about past winners, do have a look at Lucy Pearson’s Carnegie Project website, https://carnegieproject.wordpress.com/. Within our shadowing group, however, we thought not only about what might win, but also about the kind of books that were and weren’t on the list. Black Britons are in decidedly short supply.


Does it mean something different to be free in America rather than Britain? Last year’s Carnegie winner.

That’s not to say that the Carnegie selection team ignores issues of race. Last year’s winner was Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, a book about a young African-American and former slave who dresses as a man and becomes a Buffalo Soldier in the American west of the 19th Century. And this year’s shortlist includes Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, about the desegregation of schools in the American south in 1959. These books are both interesting narratives, and directly confront issues of racism, difference, and the laws that governed the separation between Black and white people. But the fact that they are both set in America allows readers to distance themselves from these issues; it is possible for a reader (particularly a young reader) to conclude that slavery and its aftermath and/or racial segregation are American problems that have nothing to do with Britain. This follows a pattern found in many British history books (not to mention school curriculums) that suggest that other countries (Spain, the US) started or maintained slavery, while the British merely “abolished” it. The US certainly has a troubled racial history and a troubled racial present for that matter, but it is not the only country that does.


This year’s shortlisted title also focuses on American versions of racism.

The Carnegie has in fact occasionally recognized the presence of Black people in Britain. This was perhaps most notable in 2000, when the medal went to South African-born novelist Beverley Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth. Naidoo’s book tells the story of two young refugees escaping a politically-volatile Nigeria and seeking asylum in the UK. Given the current state of debate over refugees from the Middle East (particularly Syria and Lebanon), Naidoo’s story is perhaps even more relevant for child readers now than it was then. The fear felt by Femi and Sade in the novel as they try to find a safe space in Britain is palpable. Naidoo wrote, “Seeing events, personal to political, through the eyes of a young person encourages a freshness of vision. It forces me to research from a particular viewpoint, to be extremely observant and to make leaps of imagination.  The child’s perspective often throws up sharp contradictions between what the child’s expects and what happens. What child getting ready for school, preparing her schoolbag, expects to hear her mother screaming, followed by gunshots?” (http://beverleynaidoo.com/truthcommentary.htm). It’s a powerful novel, and one that certainly meets the Carnegie criteria. Unlike the novels set in America, Naidoo’s book also encourages young British readers to think about their own country’s laws and reactions concerning “illegal immigrants” into their country.


The cover of Naidoo’s award-winning book about asylum seekers.


But none of these books tell the stories of Black British citizens. The Carnegie has never awarded either migration stories (Floella Benjamin, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom, Trish Cooke have all written novels for children about the experience of children from the Caribbean joining or accompanying their parents to Britain in the Windrush era and their subsequent adjustment to British society) or stories about Black Britons born and raised in the UK (Benjamin Zephaniah, Andrew Salkey, and Catherine Johnson are among many writers who have written books in this category). And Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman has won multiple awards, including the Eleanor Farjeon award for her contribution to children’s books and an OBE, yet she has not been nominated for the Carnegie. The history and stories of Black people living in Britain, their triumphs as well as their experiences with racism and struggle against/within the system, these stories matter. They are part of the history of Britain, and they should not only be told, but recognized.


Will Black British authors ever be able to catch the star medal?


These stories are being written, by skilled and lauded Black British writers. I look forward to next year’s Carnegie shortlist—when I hope to see something new on it. Black British writers shouldn’t just be chasing the stars (hint hint, CILIP), they should be the stars.

The Devil in the Details: Malcolm X as Revolutionary—or not?

In honor of May 19th being Malcolm X day, I thought I’d take a look at some of the biographies available for children of the Civil Rights leader. This is not as easy a prospect as if I were looking for biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., of course. MLK has thousands of biographies written about him—new ones appear all the time, and they are easily available in libraries and schools for kids of all ages. This is partly because of his message of non-violence, but also because in children’s publishing, editors prefer books (in America, Canada, and the UK, anyhow) that they think white readers will accept. And Malcolm X, who once proclaimed white people as devils, is a much harder sell than Martin Luther King, Jr.


Archer places Malcolm X next to other leaders–and concludes Malcolm X is the voice of the “young ghetto blacks”.

All of the biographies (there are three of them) available in the Newcastle University Robinson BookTrust collection (a children’s literature collection given to the university by the charity BookTrust) are for older readers, and one has no pictures. The pictureless text is in a collection entitled They had a dream: The Civil Rights struggle from Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Penguin 1996). Archer, a white radical who mistrusted the government, once said, “I cannot tell how much good my books have done in developing a new awareness of the whole truth about America and the rest of the world in the younger generation, although they are fortunately in tune with the thinking of many young people about what is wrong in our society and how to correct it” (http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv77986). But Archer’s biography of Malcolm X begins with the idea that “Malcolm X was stung when The New York Times ran a poll of the city’s blacks that found Martin Luther King, Jr., chosen by 75 percent as doing the best work for blacks.  Only 6 percent voted for Malcolm.” (186). The entire biography places Malcolm X’s work alongside of King, and in the context of how white people reacted to it. The phrase “black ghettos” is constantly repeated, and Archer labels Malcolm X’s mother a “mulatto” (188), a word that even in 1993 (when the book was first published) was not considered a reasonable way to describe someone of mixed heritage. The final lines of the biography attempt to praise Malcolm X, but instead remind the reader of Malcolm X’s criminal past and also emphasize the poverty of African-Americans: “The young ghetto blacks could believe and follow a man who had been there himself as an underworld pimp, dope addict, con man, armed robber, and convict, and who had then transformed himself into a world-famous, respected black leader, entirely on his own initiative. What he could do, they could do, too” (222). Despite Archer’s good intentions, the book’s discussion of race would not do anything to debunk the sense of white superiority that Malcolm X fought against.


Just the facts–including the fact that “black people are not really the chosen ones”.


Michael Benson’s Malcolm X: Just the Facts Biographies (Lerner 2005) also subtly suggests a racial hierarchy, beginning by describing how “Malcolm had the lightest skin of any of the family.  He looked like his mother more than his father.  Malcolm’s hair and skin were reddish brown, while his brothers and sisters had darker coloring.  (At the time, some people thought that a black person with paler skin might be mistaken as white.  Looking white could be helpful in getting a job.)” (7). There is no follow-up to suggest the inequality of a system that makes it easier to get jobs based on your skin color; in fact, it is inserted as though Malcolm X might have been luckier than his siblings. Benson’s biography is also careful to emphasize that Malcolm X was a reformed racist himself upon his return from Africa in 1964: “He was a changed man.  He had gone to Africa to find his true religion.  He had learned that many of his earlier beliefs about race were false.  White people were not really devils, and black people were not really the chosen ones” (80). It is only when he realizes that white people are all right that he is “able to do things he never dreamed of” (80).


Malcolm X for beginners–and for “us”.


Only one of the biographies I looked at was written by a Black author, and this is clear from the book’s text. Bernard Aquina Doctor’s Malcolm X for Beginners (Writers and Readers 1992) does not talk about “young ghetto blacks” or even “African Americans” but “we, us, and ours”: “Malcolm believed that the destiny of Blacks in America was up to Blacks.  We could not, should not, expect any politician, any group, no matter how well meaning, to attain for us what we want.  We need to take our destiny in our hands, do whatever we must to obtain our freedom, our human and civil rights” (164). The book’s publisher, Writers and Readers, “was formed in England as a publishing cooperative where everybody shared the work and the profits. [The publisher, Glenn Thompson] wanted to prove that nonreaders would read if offered books that addressed their concerns; but most importantly, he wanted to “advance the needs of cultural literacy, rather than cater to an ‘advanced’ but limited readership” (From the Firm’s declaration of intent). Out of these ideologies, Writers and Readers began publishing the immensely popular Beginners series, a comic-book style, trade-paperback series of nonfiction reference titles” (http://www.forbeginnersbooks.com/aboutus.html). Doctor’s book is the only one that is designed, not as a reference biography (something kids use to look up quotations for a report) but an actual artistic creation, with illustrations (unfortunately somewhat let down by the printing process) that place symbols of American freedom next to examples of American oppression.


America as land of the free–and home of the brave–in Doctor’s text.

And it is the only one that suggests that Martin Luther King, as well as Malcolm X, changed his mind: “Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as an advocate of peaceful civil disobedience.  But before he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. King was forced to reconsider his views.  Like his followers, he was beaten by police, thrown in jail, and denied his civil rights” (104-105). By showing MLK’s experience with a racist society, Doctor puts Malcolm X in a different light from other biographers—not a white-hating advocate of violence, but a man who experiences the same everyday racism as other Blacks—even those most acceptable to white people—and wants to do something about it.


Dr. Seuss and Racial Passing

Dr. Seuss is one of the most beloved children’s authors in America. He also has a rather mixed record on issues of race and diversity. As a young man, Dr. Seuss wrote and drew for various magazines and college publications. In these, Seuss portrayed Africans and Asians in stereotypical fashion. During World War II, Seuss drew some political cartoons which sympathized with African-Americans and Jewish people and others that accused Japanese-Americans of perpetrating acts of sabotage.

Dr. Seuss's less stellar diversity moments.  Taken from Richard Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War (NY: Norton, 1999).

One of Dr. Seuss’s less stellar diversity moments. Taken from Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War (NY: Norton, 1999).

After the war, Seuss’s attitudes changed. These changes in attitude came about, in part, because of his writing commissions. He visited Japan on assignment for Life magazine, and saw the devastation caused by the atomic bombs his country dropped. His writing for children also began to take off. Both of these things resulted in a measurable difference in his public attitudes toward racism. Phil Nel points out that Seuss wrote Horton Hears a Who directly after he returned from Japan in1953. The book argues that all people matter “no matter how small”. Many people have also pointed to Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle (1958) as an allegory of Fascism. Writing for children gave Seuss a sense of responsibility about his publications (even to the extent of causing him to revise earlier books for children to be more culturally sensitive).

This cultural sensitivity continued when Dr. Seuss published The Sneetches in 1961. Many critics take Seuss at his word when he says that he wrote The Sneetches about anti-Semitism. Although Philip Nel adds, almost as an afterthought, that “the book also works as an anti-racism fable” (Dr. Seuss: American Icon New York: Continuum, 59), it is surprising that the critics have not taken this possibility more seriously. Seuss may have been influenced in his anti-racism by his World War II experiences, but he could not have been ignorant of events occurring in his own country in the late 1950s. The Civil Rights movement was well underway, and the nation as a whole was gripped with the implications of laws that would enforce equality between whites and African-Americans. Lines in The Sneetches such as, “When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,/ Could a Plain Belly get in the game . . . ? Not at all” echo the official and unofficial rules of a still very segregated United States.

Starless Sneetches need not apply.

More than that, The Sneetches taps into one of the fears that segregationists held, and which was represented as an ever-present danger in the Northern as well as the Southern states: the fear of “passing.” In a country where “one drop of African blood” made a person black and not white, worries about being able to place people in the racial hierarchy if they could “pass” for white emerged through various forms of cultural production. Mark Twain, Charles Chestnutt, and Nella Larsen all wrote novels about African-Americans passing for white. The 1930s musical “Showboat,” twice made into a film (in the 1930s and the 1950s), has a tragic plot involving passing. Another film, based on a Fannie Hurst novel, was made twice by Hollywood (again in the 1930s and the 1950s). “Imitation of Life,” in its second incarnation became the fourth-most successful movie of 1959—just two years before The Sneetches was published.

Wait–are there African-Americans in this movie? Oh, yes, they’re way down in the corner . . .

“Imitation of Life” (in its 1959 version, which was less faithful to the book than the 1934 version starring Claudette Colbert) concerned two women, one white (played by Lana Turner in increasingly glamorous costumes) and one African-American (played by Juanita Moore, wearing either maid’s garb or middle-aged mom clothes throughout) and their daughters, the insufferably perky Sandra Dee as Turner’s daughter and Susan Kohner as Moore’s. Kohner’s character is light-skinned enough to pass for white (Kohner herself was of Mexican and Jewish descent, not African-American; so she was passing for African-American passing for white), and she does so with a vengeance, denying her color and even her mother (she tells people that Moore is her maid, or her “mammy”). The white characters in the film are somewhat befuddled by this, claiming that Kohner’s color “doesn’t matter” and that they “love her anyway”—only reinforcing the notion that color does matter, if they have to love her in spite of it. The film ends tragically, of course, with the death of Moore’s character and the remorse of Kohner’s.

I have no evidence whether or not Dr. Seuss ever saw “Imitation of Life” but certainly The Sneetches has remarkably similar themes. Before Kohner’s character leaves to become a dancer in Hollywood, she says of her mother, “She can’t help her color—but I can. And I will!” The Sneetches without stars are told that they can have stars “for three dollars each” and they do not hesitate to take Sylvester McMonkey McBean up on his offer. Newly be-starred, these “improved” Sneetches tell the other Sneetches, “We’re exactly like you! You can’t tell us apart./ We’re all just the same, now, you snooty old smarties!/ And now we can go to your frankfurter parties.” These Sneetches were not born star-bellied—but now they can pass for such.

A Star-Belly Sneetch's worst fear: that we might not be able to tell "them" from "us".

A Star-Belly Sneetch’s worst fear: that we might not be able to tell “them” from “us”.

The picture that accompanies this text has very happy Sneetches. When Moore, in “Imitation of Life” asks her daughter if she is happy, Kohner responds, “I’m somebody else. I’m white—white—white! Does that answer your question?” Seuss takes the idea of passing and puts it on a grand scale, amplifying both the joy of those passing and the fear of those deemed racially superior. Kohner’s character must lose her mother before she can gain self-love. The Sneetches lose all their money before deciding that “no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beach.”  Seuss’s book, unlike “Imitation of Life,” can have a happy(ish) ending because the Sneetches have only a single, surface-level difference; “race” is removable.  Hollywood no longer makes movies about “passing,” and it would be nice to think the idea of “racial purity” may be passing out of the American vocabulary as it did out of the Sneetch vocabulary.  Unfortunately, racism is not so easily erased–even by Sylvester McMonkey McBean.