Tag Archives: colonialism

Three Kings of Puerto Rican Children’s Literature

Happy Three Kings Day! While most Americans celebrate Christmas as their major winter holiday, in Puerto Rico, where I was last week, Christmas extends from (as one person there told me) Thanksgiving night when they put up the tree to the San Sebastían Festival in Old San Juan during the third week in January.  One highlight is today, El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos.  Everywhere we went in Puerto Rico there were signs and statues and light displays marking today’s festival, which was at one time the traditional gift-giving day of the holiday season.


One of several books available at Libreria Laberinto for Three Kings Day; as you can tell from the glare on the photo, it was wrapped in plastic like many of the children’s books and therefore could not be browsed through in the store.

Now, as always, influence from the mainland and larger powers have had an effect on how Puerto Ricans celebrate, and Christmas has gained prominence accordingly.  Outside influence is, of course, historically the norm for Caribbean islands.  And like the three kings who came from other lands to bring their gifts, exploring imperial powers have changed—and continue to change—all aspects of Puerto Rican life.  This includes children’s books. While I was pleased, especially after my forays to bookstores in former British colonial islands, to see a wide variety of specifically Puerto Rican children’s literature available, they were dominated by three elements: the history of the island, language issues, and the value (in all sorts of ways) placed on reading.


The folktale section was dominated by Juan Bobo tales. This is only a small part of the wall of books by and about Puerto Rico for children available at the bookstore.

As with many attempts at creating a national children’s literature, a great deal of attention is paid to the history (both factual and folkloric) of the island in its children’s literature.  At Librería Laberinto, a well-stocked bookstore at the heart of Old San Juan, they had a whole wall of children’s books from and about Puerto Rico.  Many of these are folktales.  Prominent among the stories were Juan Bobo tales; Juan Bobo is an apparently foolish character in Puerto Rican folklore who yet often succeeds against ridiculous odds.  Like Brer Rabbit, Juan Bobo has been discussed as a trickster character who wins out over the greater power—in Brer Rabbit’s case, the tales are often seen as an allegory of slavery, and in Juan Bobo’s, an allegory of colonialism with the Puerto Rican succeeding over the Spanish colonizer. Sharing the shelves with the Juan Bobo tales were Taíno folktales, stories from the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the island.  The Taíno were almost entirely wiped out in Puerto Rico by Columbus and the Spanish, but today they have gained a revered status.  As Ivonne Figueroa has pointed out, “Much has been said of the Taínos lately, but it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the study of the Taínos took off” (http://www.elboricua.com/history.html).  This time period accords with both movements for Puerto Rican independence (from both the Spanish and the Americans) and with the international rise in the study of anthropology and folklore, which often manifested as a search for the noble primitive, an antidote to an increasingly industrialized world.  Renewed interest in folklore emphasizes this rejection of the globalized world of technology.


European architectural styles and buildings dominate the counting book, Los Numeros en Ponce in Numbers.

But the power of colonialism is also present in Puerto Rican children’s books.  One of the books I brought back, Yvonne Sanavitis and Karen Dietrich’s Los Números en Ponce in Numbers (Plaza Mayor 2009) is a counting book that tells the history of the city of Ponce in Puerto Rico.  Most of the sights associated with the different numbers are connected to la Plaza de las Delicias, the main town square built by the early Spanish settlers in the 1670s, including the Fuente del Léon (Lion Fountain), City Hall, the fire station, and the Armstrong-Poventud house.  These buildings and monuments are all displayed in their European-style decoration, and a brief description of the Spanish colonizers who created them and held sway over them is given.  The Taínos, on the other hand, are not mentioned until the last number of the book.  The page describing 100 shows an isolated path of stones outside the center of the city.  The text reads, “Floods caused by a hurricane washed away layers of earth in the Tibes neighborhood of Ponce and revealed an indigenous Taíno ceremonial site.  Tibes excavations have provided important information about ceremonies, eating habits, ceramics and construction of homes of the indigenous population of Puerto Rico” (51).  It is difficult to see, looking at the illustration, how any of this information could have come from the pile of rocks; additionally, the book says nothing of the people living in the neighborhood at the time of the floods or what happened to them.  The focus is on the people with the power to shape history; the book opens with a quotation from educator Rafael Pont Flores stating, “Ponce no longer repeats its history, it makes it better” (5).


The Tainos are only represented in Los Numeros en Ponce in Numbers by the number 100; the illustration shows an unreadable pile of rocks.

Los Números en Ponce in Numbers also highlights another trend I found in the children’s books in Librería Laberinto, a focus on language.  Many of the books available came in dual editions or dual languages, showing the tension between English and Spanish on the island.  Spanish is, of course, the native language of most Puerto Ricans, but—especially in tourist areas like San Juan and Ponce—English is increasingly necessary at all levels of the economy.  In 2012, the island instituted a pilot program to shift instruction in Puerto Rico’s schools from Spanish to English (https://www.caliricans.com/2012/08/english-to-replace-spanish-in-puerto-rico-schools/).  But it is a fraught issue that mirrors the tensions between the island and the mainland United States.


This board book highlights words specific to Puerto Rican culture–perhaps it should be labeled trilingual instead of bilingual.

Perhaps the concerns about language come to a head in Palabras Boricuas/Puerto Rican Words (2016), a bilingual—or perhaps trilingual—board book by Hector E. Baez.  Right on the front cover, along with the title and the Puerto Rican flag, is the sentence, “No decimos Banana . . . decimos Guineo.”  Translated into English, this says, “We don’t say banana . . . we say banana.”  This epitomizes for me the struggles over language found in books specifically for Puerto Rican children.


The Thiago series focuses on issues and concepts important to Puerto Ricans–but because publishing on an island is expensive, even short books like this are costly.

But how many children have access to these books is something I would be interested to know.  As I said, Librería Laberinto had an excellent selection of books, showing how much specifically Puerto Rican children’s literature is valued.  But these books were also incredibly expensive compared to their translated counterparts.  Most were produced by the educational arm of the University of Puerto Rico or the Instituto de Cultura Puertoriqueña.  Again, this shows that children’s literature is of cultural value, but the cost of publishing books on a small island means that most picture books are hard cover only (many of them in the bookstore were sealed in plastic, and therefore unbrowsable).  The books designed for beginning chapter book readers, such as the Thiago series by Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and published by EDP University of Puerto Rico, can cost ten dollars for a twenty-six page paperback book.  These prices mean that many children will only encounter books in libraries or schools, rather than being able to have shelves of books in their homes.  This is true in other places as well, of course.  But Puerto Rico’s past and present shape the audience for their specifically Puerto Rican children’s books—leaving the treasures of reading out of reach for many.

Lost by the System: The Orphanmakers of Children’s Literature

This week marked Independence Day in the US, but I want to focus this blog on the idea of unwanted independence.  Children’s literature—particularly children’s literature for white, middle-class Americans and Brits—has often been predicated on the (at least temporary) disappearance of parents in order that child protagonists might have an exciting adventure.  But for many real children, separation from parents is both economically and (more importantly) emotionally devastating—not the start of an exciting adventure, but the first step in a long and frightening road.  I highlight Principle 6 of the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child:

“Principle 6  The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother. Society and the public authorities shall have the duty to extend particular care to children without a family and to those without adequate means of support. Payment of State and other assistance towards the maintenance of children of large families is desirable.”

This principle may seem obvious (or, given what is currently happening at the US-Mexico border, maybe not): young children should live with their parents when their parents are alive.  But children’s literature is littered with examples of how international institutional systems have separated children from their parents.  Many of these examples depict the separation as being for the child’s own good, but in fact it is usually the institution (or the state that sponsors it) that benefits.


Missionaries often deemed it best to separate children from the influence of their “heathen” parents.

Take for example the 19th century missionary school.  White writers depicted the missionary school as a place where colonized subjects could escape the tyrrany of their parents’ superstitions and be given the light of knowledge.  This knowledge generally, of course, led them to embrace the white-dominated society and reject their home society, as in this example from The Juvenile Missionary Magazine of 1854.  In a story entitled, “Woman in India,” the text argues that missionaries don’t even have to recruit children to their schools, as they are eager to leave their heathen parents behind:

“In April, 1847, five girls in the Mission-school of the Free Church at Madras determined to embrace the Gospel, and knowing that they would not be allowed to do this at home, they put themselves under the protection of the Missionaries.  One of them, called Muniatthal, was only twelve years old, but she was a very intelligent child.  On hearing her intention, her relations met together, and, taking with them a crowd of heathen, armed with stones, and clubs and bars of iron, they attacked the Mission-house until they were driven away by the police.” (8)

Note how the police are on the side of the state; the parents try to get their child back by using the courts, but the judge tells the parents that “Children have certain rights of their own; and throughout the length and breadth of this land, they will be protected in those rights which God and nature have given them” (9).  The British institutions of church and state collude to remove the child from her parents.


Eulalie’s drawing of happy lepers; Peter and Tess, the white children, appear friendly, but they keep their hands in their pockets.

While such blatant imperialism might be frowned upon in later years, the idea that the state could better care for children than their parents and that the child should be happy in such situations remains common in children’s literature in the 20th and 21st centuries.  In The Adventures of Peter and Tess Through the British Commonwealth by Stella Mead, with illustrations by Eulalie, the white British children visit a leper colony where children are sent away from their families; while there the children are taught “English” (as opposed, I suppose, to patois) and they are all delighted to be there; an illustration shows Peter, Tess and a white doctor looking at five dark-skinned children who appear to be in a pen of some sort, but who are all smiling.  The text depicts the place as “restful and happy” (n.p.) but it is not clear if or when the children will be reunited with their families.  In Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft, the state is depicted as benevolently stepping in when Donovan’s parents give up on parenting Donovan; white people are obliged to take “trouble” over Donovan’s upbringing because (like the Indian heathens) his Jamaican parents are unwilling or incapable.


Children torn from their parents to learn the ways of the whites in When We Were Alone; they were only happy when they could escape to nature.

Authors of color depict the separation of children from their parents by the state quite differently.  David Alexander Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree nation, showed how devastating being taken from your parents to be schooled by the colonizer can be in When We Were Alone (Highwater, 2016).  In this book, illustrated by Julie Flett, a grandmother describes to her grandchild how she was taken away because white people “wanted us to be like everyone else” (n.p.).


Julia Gukova’s illustrations for Richardo Keens-Douglas’s Freedom Child of the Sea; slavery separated children from mothers even at the moment of birth, as this illustration shows. Other enslaved people can only look on helplessly.

Richardo Keens-Douglas reminds readers of the horrors of slavery in Freedom Child of the Sea (Annick 1996): “mothers were separated from their sons, fathers from daughters, brothers from sisters.  The wind that first day blew with a roar that had never been heard before in the beautiful land.  It carried the sounds of fear, pain, tears and broken hearts out to sea” (n.p.).


This is what separation of mothers and children looks like in Alex Godard’s Mama Across the Sea.

And Alex Godard’s beautiful illustrations for Mama, Across the Sea (Henry Holt 1998) is a reminder of the economic separation that many children face from their parents who have to leave their homes to make enough money to survive—often seeking jobs in the country that formerly colonized them.  All of these books indicate the ways that colonization and imperialism have affected people of color around the world.  Institutions tear children away from their parents, causing them lasting emotional pain and not necessarily improving their physical or economic well-being in the process.


Families belong together.  Children should not be lost in institutional systems—nor lost by them.  The UN knew this nearly sixty years ago, and it would do us good to remember it now.


All in this Together? Wartime Britain and its Colonies in Children’s Literature

In Britain, Monday is the celebratory day known as Spring (or sometimes Late May) Bank Holiday.  This particular bank holiday used to be connected with the religious celebration of Whitsun, as Philip Larkin can attest (somehow, “Spring Bank Holiday Weddings” just doesn’t have the same ring to it), but I suppose given the changes in society, naming a day off after capitalism is really much more appropriate.  It is a time of year in the northern hemisphere when a long weekend is welcome; the French still celebrate Whitsun and the Canadians take a day off for a dead British queen (any excuse…).  In the US, however, Americans celebrate the first of two days (Veteran’s Day being the other) to honor the military.  Memorial Day’s origins go back to the US Civil War, when people needed an outlet for nationwide grief over the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in that conflict.  Back then, it was called Decoration Day, and it wasn’t an official holiday.  In fact, it didn’t become an official holiday until 1971, when the Vietnam War divided the country (at least ideologically) once again.


From the IRR’s Patterns of Racism, one of the many incidentsWalt where the British turned weapons on colonial subjects.

What struck me about all this is that both the US Civil War and Vietnam were divisive in large part because of race.  The Civil War’s connection to race is obvious; the Vietnam War perhaps less so, but “during the Vietnam War African-Americans faced a much greater chance of being on the front-line, and consequently a much higher casualty rate. In 1965 alone African-Americans represented almost 25 percent of those killed in action” (http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/african-americans-in-combat/).  And the other thing that struck me—since I was thinking about Canadians and Victoria Day—is that if the British had started a similar holiday in the 1860s, there would probably be a huge debate over whether or not to celebrate it, since many of Queen Victoria’s “little wars” were about putting down the rebellious colonial subjects (the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 and the Morant Bay Uprising of 1865 are two examples that spring to mind where the British military turned guns on colonial subjects).


Together . . . as long as you know your place.

And yet, particularly during the twentieth century, Britain relied heavily on her colonies to provide human power to fight the war against Germany.  A poster from WWII to encourage recruitment was, I’ve always thought, remarkably upfront about how Britain saw their help—we need you, but if you’re not white, please stay at the back of the parade.  Most mainstream children’s books about the world wars (as I’ve written elsewhere; see “A Medal for Walter: Representations of Black Britons and World War I” in Lion and the Unicorn 41.2) show only white British soldiers.  But books by smaller and independent presses have done better in showing the contribution of the colonies to Britain’s war efforts—as well as how those efforts were not always repaid with gratitude.

The oldest of the books I’m going to look at today comes from the Institute of Race Relations’ racism series.  Book two, Patterns of Racism (1982) shows the many armed struggles between Britain and her colonies, including the Sepoy Rebellion and the Zulu Wars.  Book three, How Racism Came to Britain (1985) points out that, following World War II, “Having helped to win Britain’s war . . . [West Indians] were asked to win the peace for Britain too” (24).  The book goes on to detail how Black Caribbean people who answered Britain’s call for workers then faced discrimination, racism, and poverty.

Neither of the IRR books focuses directly on the West Indian soldiers from the world wars, but Angelina Osborne and Arthur Torrington’s We Served: The Untold Story of the West Indian Contribution to World War II (Windrush Foundation 2005) tells the story of four individuals who contributed to Britain’s success, all from the West Indies.  The book tries to highlight their successes, but downplays their struggles, and racism is almost entirely absent.  One possible hint is found in Norma Best’s story; after the war, she qualifies as a teacher and secures a job in Cambridge, but “was told that she had to return to British Honduras” (11), a rejection that would be echoed decades later in the recent Windrush deportations.


Despite centuries of colonial oppression, Britain’s former subjects still answered the call to the ‘Mother Country’.

The best biography of a Black World War I British soldier also comes from an independent press.  Historian Hilary Claire’s The Story of Walter Tull (Northamptonshire Black History Association 2007) highlights Tull’s skills and talents—but also how those skills and talents were constantly being challenged and threatened by racism, from “ordinary” Britons as well as the British Army in which he served.  “He knew the rules in the Army as well as anyone.  It was written down in black and white.  ‘No negro or person of colour to occupy officer rank’” (22).  Claire’s book rightly celebrates his achievements, but also notes that it took years to recognize him. Describing a memorial dedication service in Northampton, Claire writes, “It is Sunday, July 11th 1999.  Walter died more than 80 years ago, but he has not been forgotten . . . Walter Tull, the first black professional footballer in Britain, the first black officer in the British Army is, at last, being publicly honoured” (28).


Racism on the playing field and the killing fields in Hilary Claire’s The Story of Walter Tull.

The hesitation over people of colour in the British armed forces continued through World War II, despite Britain’s even greater need for help.  Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, wanted to help Britain fight fascism.  But as Liberté: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan (Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Trust 2007), written by school children in Manchester, points out, she had to become acceptable to the British in order to do so.  “Noor changed her name to Nora Baker, so the WAAF would accept her” (13).  She later became a spy, and, like Walter Tull, was killed in the line of duty.


Noor becomes Nora to please the British in Liberte: The Story of Noor Inayat Khan.

Perhaps these children’s books from independent publishers have started to have a slight influence on the way that mainstream publishers depict the war for their readers.  In 2014, Collins Big Cat put out a book by white author Clive Gifford.  This book was not about the war, but it mentioned it; The Empire Windrush indicates that one of the reasons that Caribbean people came to Britain in the Windrush years was to “rejoin the Army or Air Force units that they’d served in during World War II” (12).  The book gives the example of Sam King (who also appears in We Served), and celebrates his contribution to the war but also to London after the war as mayor of Southwark and as a founder of the Notting Hill Carnival.  But the book doesn’t shy away from the racist attitudes people like King had to face.  Britain may have promoted an image of the entire empire fighting together, but Britain’s Black population had to fight two wars—against the enemy of the Mother Country, and against racism.


From Gifford’s Empire Windrush, Sam King gets no help from the British to return across the sea, even though he didn’t hesitate to help Britain in the war.

Decolonizing Children’s Literature

This week, (another) row erupted over Oxbridge’s university curriculum, but this one hit the front pages of the Telegraph and Mail in a particularly disturbing way.  The Telegraph had a photograph of Lola Olufemi, women’s officer for Cambridge’s student union, with the headline, “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/25/decolonise-cambridge-university-row-attack-students-colour-lola-olufemi-curriculums).  To be honest, when I first read it, I laughed; the day that a BAME woman “forces” Oxbridge to do anything will be the day that Queen Elizabeth will hand over her crown to Paddington Bear.  But these papers (I have a hard time attaching the word “news” to them) do not believe what they are printing either; it is a good headline that fuels the hate and suspicion of “foreigners” trying to “destroy our way of life”.  In fact, the letter signed by Olufemi—and about 100 other students, by the way—did not call for the dropping of white authors, but the inclusion of marginalized authors.  A similar “threat” was, according to Sky News, posed by Malorie Blackman when she called for more diversity in children’s books.  Sky reported her comments, erroneously, as children’s literature having “too many white faces” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/26/malorie-blackman-racist-abuse-diversity-childrens-books). Blackman faced a volley of racist abuse on Twitter following the Sky report, which is of course ridiculous—since Blackman’s own work often references “canonical” literature, such as that sort-of-famous writer William Shakespeare.


The Royal Shakespeare Company adapted Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, which they promoted as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

Why is it that literature is such a focus of fear when it comes to decolonization?  Music has always been open to crossover influences.  In Britain’s relatively recent history, music has even been a catalyst for societal change.  In the 1950s, calypso musicians helped London clubbers cross racial lines (see http://www.blacklondonhistories.org.uk/uncategorized/co-existence-through-calypsos-and-cockney-cabaret/ for a discussion of this, with a link to a British Pathé newsreel of one such event).  White jazz artists and Black calypsonians learned from each other. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, punk and reggae artists united to fight the National Front in the organization Rock Against Racism; the Clash began incorporating reggae influence into their music and no one worried that British punk would collapse.  Literature, like music, involves dialogues with other works of art and with society at large.  New books do not replace old books, they expand our understanding of life.  More is more, not less.


Members of the Clash and Steel Pulse did not think twice about decolonizing music.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest some ways that books by white Britons, often canonical, can be introduced to readers in tandem with BAME writers in order to illuminate both—and more importantly, to light up the minds of young readers.  The first comparison I’ll suggest is one that I stole from Lissa Paul, who in Beverly Lyon Clark’s and Margaret Higgonet’s Girls, Boys, Books, Toys suggests pairing Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses with Grace Nichols’ Come on into my Tropical Garden (A&C Black, 1988).  This works nicely, but then, most of Nichols’ collections can be thought about sitting comfortably alongside canonical British poets, as Nichols was of the Caribbean generation brought up reading Wordsworth and others—particularly the romantics and Victorians.  Nichols’ poems can also be used to give depth to a study of art—but that is another story (or painting).

The picture book canon in Britain might also be radically revisioned by looking at BAME authors.  I am a great advocate for teaching young readers the politics of ABC books, for example.  “A” is only for apple in certain parts of the world, as putting Brian Wildsmith’s beautiful ABC book from 1962 next to Valerie Bloom’s Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo (Bogle L’Ouverture, 1999) will instantly reveal.  That doesn’t make Wildsmith’s apple any less beautiful—but it does allow young people to think more flexibly about what language (and not just letters) are for.

Google Image Result for http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-wYLqa-RER20/TrCax2FX3iI/AAAAAAAAByk/BLXotVLZZkw/s1600/Brian%2BWildsmith%2BA.jpg


A is for Apple–or Ackee. Illustrations by Brian Wildsmith (apple) and Kim Harley (ackee).

One of my favorite books growing up was Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and of course this can be discussed with any of the many refugee books that have appeared about characters from Africa or the Middle East in recent years.  A book such as Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (Bloomsbury, 2001) shares some similarities with Kerr’s book, but has key differences too.  Having kids think about the difference between being a refugee family and being a refugee on your own, for example, can help them think about what it means to belong, and what helps a person cope with trauma.

The “desert island adventure story” has not really been the same in Britain since William Golding’s dreary, dystopic 1954 Lord of the Flies, a re-imagining of Ballantyne’s 1858 Coral Island (itself a “boys’ version” of Robinson Crusoe).  LOTF is a text that can stimulate discussion about community, leadership, gangs, bullying and violence.  So too is Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom, 2016); and Crongton can be seen as an “island” in the midst of London, since most of the main characters never leave its confines.  Does Wheatle’s book present an urban dystopia similar to Golding’s dystopian island?  Or do the Crongton boys have skills, resources, values and attitudes that help them survive better than Golding’s post-war public school boys?  Or both?


Perhaps she’s looking so grumpy because she’s about to be decolonized . . .

But books do not have to be of the same genre to be compared.  Take Alice in Wonderland—you can’t get more canonical than that—and think about Alice, a girl in a world that makes no sense to her, where the rules seem arbitrary and designed to threaten everyone in general but her in particular.  Even if you don’t discuss the commentary on Victorian society that is highlighted through John Tenniel’s illustration, you can still compare Alice’s situation with a character such as Mary Wilcox in The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (Penguin 2015).  Both girls face threats to their own existence and both survive through refusing to accept society’s arbitrary rules.  Maybe it’s time we stop applying our own arbitrary rules to literature, and start decolonizing our minds.

Colonizing the Imagination

Taylor Swift’s latest video has (shockingly!) faced criticism in the press; after the premiere of “Wildest Dreams” at the MTV video music awards on Sunday night, some complained that Taylor’s version of Africa lacked diversity and represented “colonial fantasy” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/music/2015/09/03/taylor-swifts-wildest-dreams-video-draws-backlash-racism/71629452/). The video tells the story of a 1940s-era film being shot in Africa; Swift is the starlet who falls for the leading man who as they kiss in front of giraffes, lions, and other safari staple animals. Alas for Taylor, the leading man is married, and she runs out at the movie premiere (held, not in Africa of course, but in a Big City) to go off in her limousine and replay her days with Leading Man in her “wildest dreams.” The variety of African animals is the only representation of diversity in the video; the film crew and cast as well as the movie-going audience are all white, and for the most part quite well-to-do. Even Swift’s makeup crew wears gold watches.

Swift’s video brings back the glamour of colonial fantasies? Image from glamour.com

The people in Swift’s video are also older; Swift’s fan-base of tween girls is remarkably absent from the video. Indeed, the way that the video is shot, focusing (especially near the end) on Swift’s wide, childlike eyes and her pouty mouth, make her appear to be the youngest person in the video. This might seem a digression from the point of diversity, but it isn’t at all. Colonial fantasies, presented to children and young people, are about young people gaining the power and capital of the adult world. The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff illustrates this point nicely; the book starts out with a happy elephant society that is interrupted by a white man with power and capital in the form of a gun. Babar, an elephant small enough to ride on his mother’s back, watches the hunter kill her for no obvious reason—perhaps just because he can. After this, Babar runs away to a Big City where he becomes almost instantly a grown-up elephant, gaining power and capital (though no guns—you can give the “good” natives education and sell them your cars and railroads, but weapons of mass or even minor destruction are out of the question) so he can go back and be King of the Elephants. In Paris, there are no children, only old ladies with full purses and old gentlemen with education, clothes, and military advice. Child Babar is happy with a shell, but adult Babar wants to rule the nation. It might comfort Taylor Swift to know that Babar does not contain any non-white people either, despite being set (in part) in Africa.

Like Taylor Swift, Babar puts on the clothes of the colonizer.

But Babar is only part of a long line of colonial fantasies. Most of those set in the “real world” (by which I mean only that the elephants don’t talk; like Swift’s video, they are not about realities) are aimed, not at the picture book crowd, but at tweens and teens who might soon grow up to rule and possess colonial lands. G. A. Henty, in the 19th century, was a master of writing books of this sort: strapping white (usually English) lads of about fifteen go out to the colonies, meet a special guest star (George Washington, for example, or General Kitchener, or Major-General Robert Clive), and have a part in saving the empire from either other colonial incursions or “native” unrest. In Henty’s books, there are almost never any children, and the teen hero is treated like a grownup and welcomed into a grownup world. In fact, the books usually end with the suggestion of an engagement for the young hero, perhaps put off for a few years in favor of more colony-hopping or wealth-gaining. Even in the books that concern uprisings of “native” people against the colonizers, the “natives” are often off-screen, as it were, seen from a distance, and talked about rather than talked with. The exception to this rule is the occasional native who helps the white colonizers escape from trouble, as the “loyal slave” Dinah does in A Roving Commission; or Through the Black Insurrection of Hayti (originally published 1900; my copy, New York: Robinson, 2002).

Our hero (in the funny hat) stands by and stays clean and neat while some "natives" (barely visible) are shot.

Our hero (in the funny hat) stands by and stays clean and neat while some “natives” (barely visible) are shot.

In the 20th century, these colonial fantasies continued, and they were not just restricted to strapping young lads. Young women were also venturing out into the colonies, although they were much more likely to be after financial gain than military success. Ruth Fielding Treasure Hunting by Alice B. Emerson (New York: Cupples and Leon, 1923) has a young female film producer traveling to the West Indies to shoot a motion picture—and find the treasure to finance it along the way. Like Nat Turner in A Roving Commission, Ruth comes into contact with “natives,” but only in a casual way (many are servants in the posh hotels where Ruth stays, for example). The book, like Henty’s, has almost no reference to children. These books suggest to their tween/teen audience that as long as they learn the rules of the colonizer (and are white, of course), they too can have the power and capital of the adult world.

How lucky! A treasure to finance my latest motion picture!  I'm sure no one here needs it . . .

How lucky! A treasure to finance my latest motion picture! I’m sure no one here needs it . . .

The point of these colonizer fantasies is that it is the colonizer that matters. The identity of the colonizer, both individual and nation, is strengthened by the exploitation of the colonies, and the colonizer is enriched. The people who live, year in and year out, in the colonies, do not benefit in anywhere near the same way (if they benefit at all) from the colonizer’s temporary visit to their home. Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” is no different. Perhaps, though, it is a positive sign that—whereas colonizer fiction was embraced in its time as thrilling adventure for the young (white) consumer—critics are beginning to question the suitability of these fantasies for young people.

Sympathy for the Devil: Writing about Racists for Children

While in New Beacon books in London, I came across a book whose title gave me pause—so I bought it. Anne Rooney’s Race Hate, part of the “Voices” series from Evans, was published in 2006. According to the back cover blurb, the “Voices” series “brings alive a range of modern-day issues—many of them highly controversial—and aims to stimulate debate and discussion.” A quick glance at the other titles in the series suggest that the issues are not necessarily controversial—presumably one is not expected to be pro-Hunger or pro-Poverty—but that the “debate and discussion” will center on who or what is to blame for whatever eponymous topic is being considered.


And despite a claim (also from the back cover blurb) to be “broad-minded” about race hate, Rooney’s book from the beginning has already packaged the debate within to give young readers the “correct” answer to race hate: it’s a bad thing (sorry—should I have given a spoiler alert on that?). But it also, subtly, gives readers answers to the question who or what is to blame, and (perhaps most controversially) who is a victim of race hate.

As is perhaps common in this age, race hate is no one’s fault. “Much of the world’s racial tension,” the author writes, “is rooted in the past” (12); later, she argues that “The Internet is used more and more to spread racist materials and bring racists together” (40—note the shift to the word “racist” instead of “racial tension”). These two statements are not in and of themselves controversial, but they do something in the text which prevent the reader from being able to pinpoint blame. “History” and “the internet” are responsible for race hatred, and therefore there is little an individual can do about it. At various times in the text, computer games (28) and the media (30) are also blamed. These things may all be factors in the rise of racist behavior, but they are not the cause of it. Racist behavior is caused by humans, and can only be stopped by humans.

Race Hate seems to acknowledge this on the final two-page spread of the book, entitled “Is there a way forward?” Rooney writes, “Taking a stand might mean arguing a case or choosing to be with different people” (42), but she unfortunately undermines this positive message. One of the quotations she uses to discuss taking a stand is from a former member of a racist group who speaks now to youth. This individual (and none of the individuals are identified by their full names, making it hard to verify the “truth” of this book) says in part that a bad economy “wasn’t [Black people’s] fault then and it’s not their fault now. It’s an economic problem, not a race problem” (42). So now it is the economy that is to blame, another non-human entity. Additionally, the message about “choosing to be with different people” also gets blurred. “Some people forge friendships with those from different backgrounds, but find they are bullied or criticized for it,” (43) Rooney writes. The book’s final quotation is from a girl who “treat[s] everyone the same” (43). This suggests that we should not acknowledge difference, and we should erase the deep and problematic histories of racist behavior across the globe. It is also a bit facetious; if she treated everyone “the same” then she would not understand the question of race in the first place.

That this book is aiming to reach—and perhaps is even mainly directed at—one particular group is clear from a number of the book’s “discussion topics.” Rooney is careful not to blame white people any more than any other racial group in the book, and even discusses white people as victims (this is perhaps why the title is “race hate” and not “racism”). She includes quotations from an African-American who killed a white woman because he “hated white people” (11). The two-page spread about Zimbabwe says that “black militants” and “black aggressors” (15) are killing or encouraging white farmers to leave the only country they have known. But on the very next pages, discussing immigration, Americans are not labelled militants and aggressors for “resentment and even violence” (17) when “unskilled workers” try to enter the country. And in the section titled “Racism against whites?” the author works hard to keep her tone “neutral,” through a passive voice and unanswered questions. “Some white people feel strongly that they are being treated unfairly . . . Do they have a right to protest?” (36). She does not answer the question directly, but white supremacist groups, who “want to put white people in control again” (37) in much the same way as the Zimbabweans discussed previously, are not militants or aggressors. Instead, Rooney says merely, “Their activities often stir up race hate” (37). This is important: the white supremacists do not hurt or kill people, their “activities” stir up bad feelings. But Blacks who want the same control over their country—which was taken from them by colonialism—are militant aggressors.

White farmer falls victim to militant aggression . . .

White farmer falls victim to militant aggression . . .

. . . does he have a right to protest?

. . . does he have a right to protest?

Race hate is a bad thing, no matter who is doing the hating. But arguing that white people suffer as much and in the same ways as other groups of people discounts the past of dominance, colonialism, and brutality by white people over these other groups, and the ways that this white privilege still manifests itself today. We must examine our own actions and statements with this in mind, and teach all our children to do the same; only then can we start to dismantle race hate.

Je Suis Juif, Musulman, Français: The Intertwined History of Muslims, Jews, and the French

The attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and on a Jewish grocery store last week in Paris revealed the racial and religious tensions in France to many people across the world.  The country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe and the third largest Jewish population in the world has struggled for some time with the problems that arise from the diverse nature of their population.  Some (maybe most) of these are problems that have (France’s former) colonialism at its core; many of the members of Muslim and Jewish communities in France, for example, come from North African countries where France was once the colonial ruler, such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.  Often times these communities are isolated in some way from the rest of France (the phrase “disaffected Algerian youths” comes up a lot in reports out of Paris, especially when poverty and unemployment is high or football matches go wrong).  The BBC, CNN and the New York Times have also all recently published stories about French Jews (“disaffected Algerian youths” are always Muslims; Jewish communities are rarely referred to by their national origin) facing increasing anti-Semitic attacks and wanting to emigrate from France to Israel in increasing numbers.

Religious and racial tensions are not new to France (or, I might add, to most other former imperial powers).  But the opposite attitude of tolerance and equality are not new to France either.  The French people chanting “Je suis Charlie” and “Je suis juif” in large numbers and the Muslim employee of the kosher grocery store who protected a group of several hostages during last week’s incident are the other, better side of France’s attitude toward minority groups within its borders.  However, it is typical that it took a tragic event to showcase these better angels.  Historically, it took the Dreyfus Affair, in which the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of selling state secrets, to help bring about the 1905 law separating church and state affairs in France; and it took the death of 30,000 Muslim North African soldiers at the Battle of Verdun during World War I to get the French government to finance the construction of Paris’s Grande Mosquée in 1926.  Both these events are prelude to another tragedy—and triumph—of French racial and religious relations discussed in a children’s book by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix, The Grand Mosque of Paris (Holiday House: 2009).

Another moment when French Muslims and Jews were united.

Another moment when French Muslims and Jews were united.

The subtitle of the book, “A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust,” struck me for a couple of reasons.  The first was that it occurred to me I had never considered the plight of Muslims in Europe during the Second World War.  The second was that it made me wonder how and why Muslims escaped the wrath of Nazism (at least enough that they could be rescuing Jewish people).  After all, one of the purported reasons for Nazis to imprison and murder Jews (not to mention other groups, including Catholics, communists and homosexuals) was that they did not believe in (the Nazi version of) Christianity and Christian values.

The answer to both “how did the Muslims escape victimization by the Nazis?” and “how did they manage to hide Jewish people?” are explained, or at least addressed, in Ruelle and DeSaix’s book—and, looked at from a certain angle, “colonialism” could be the answer to both questions.

Hitler was certainly no supporter of Islam.  He once referred to the entire population of the Middle East as “half-apes” (see the Projet Aladin website, http://www.projetaladin.org/holocaust/en/40-questions-40-answers/the-nazis-the-holocaust-and-muslims.html, for more on the Holocaust and Muslims).  But Hitler was, in the end, a pragmatist, and he saw cultivation of a relationship between his Nazi government and the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa as one path to defeating the Allied Powers, particularly Britain and France (who at the beginning of World War II were still heavily invested in and reliant on their colonial “possessions” in the region).  To placate Arab leaders such as Ibn Saud and Mufti Haj Amin, Hitler did not round up Muslims as he did other “non-Christian” groups.

In France at the start of World War II, the Muslim population was almost exclusively North African.  The Jewish population was more mixed, thanks to anti-Semitic attitudes in Russia and Eastern Europe, but a number of the Jews in Paris were part of the Algerian community.  Algerians had been declared French citizens in the Crémieux Decree of 1870, and many had migrated to the metropole.  It was these Jews, largely, that were hidden by the Parisian Muslim community.

The Grand Mosque of Paris certainly simplifies both these histories.  Regarding the Nazi tolerance of Muslims, Ruelle and DeSaix state, “The Nazis were reluctant to target Muslims.  They feared a Muslim uprising in North Africa, where they were already fighting the Allies” (18).  This statement sidesteps the anti-Semitic attitudes of some of the Arab leaders who Hitler was courting.  But to admit to Arab sympathy with Hitler’s anti-Jewish aims would complicate the book’s focus on Muslim-Jewish harmony. The authors spend a bit more time on the relationship between Paris Jewish and Muslim communities, emphasizing the unity and connections within the groups.  “Jewish or Muslim, the people of North Africa lived as neighbors and shared similar cultures.  Through the centuries, they referred to each other as brothers.  They also looked very much alike” (12).  In other words, it was the lack of what Nazis believed to be typical Jewish “racial” features that allowed North African Muslims to save North African Jews.  Ruelle and DeSaix add that “only people who . . . could pass as North African Muslims could stay at the mosque for more than a few days” (16).  The indirectly-offered message of The Grand Mosque of Paris is that the Muslim community succeeded in rescuing Jews by using the German racial (and racist) “theories” against them. During a time when it was dangerous to be Jewish, French Muslims helped at least a few of them to say, “Je suis musulman” instead.