Tag Archives: community publishers

In Color: Photographic Images and BAME Children in Literature

This week, Kendall Jenner and Pepsi became embroiled in a controversy over an ad that depicted Ms. Jenner joining a protest march (after ditching her blonde wig—an interesting detail for thinking about issues of how race is presented). Jenner and Pepsi were mocked by multiple individuals and organizations for co-opting protest movements such as Black Lives Matter for commercial reasons (not that they are the first to ever do such things—would you Like to Buy the World a Coke?) and for suggesting that good relations between police and protestors could be achieved with a can of pop (you can see the ad here and judge for yourself: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Kendall+Jenner+Pepsi+ad&&view=detail&mid=6648928C17BBA4A303386648928C17BBA4A30338&FORM=VRDGAR). Even Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., commented on the ad on Twitter, saying, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/06/martin-luther-kings-daughter-gives-perfect-response-kendall/).

 Perhaps Pepsi we thinking of the success of another pop advertisement that co-opted teenage movements–image from the 1971 commercial wanting to bring peace and love through buying the world a Coke.

One of the frequent commentaries on the advert was the suggestion that perhaps if Pepsi had involved the Black community (or the Muslim community, or the Asian community, or any community) not just in the making of the commercial but in its conception that someone, somewhere would have said, hey, maybe this isn’t a good idea. People in a position of privilege (often from the dominant, which is to say white, group) should be aware that diversity is not something (blond-wigged Kendall) that can be put on or taken off; it requires a deep and regular commitment in listening to people from BAME communities, even if what they are saying is not always comfortable or familiar.

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Roxy Harris’s Being Black showed Black Panthers, but no guns . . .

Following several incidents in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the UK, to which BAME communities responded by protesting (both peacefully and, in the case of the Brixton Riot of 1981, not so peacefully) against the unjust oppression of the state, there was a rise in photographic picture books depicting BAME people. Some, primarily for older readers, tried to document the struggles of Black people, both in and out of the UK. For example, Roxy Harris’s Being Black (1981), which excerpted Black Panthers George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and combined the extracts with questions and commentary for young people. Harris, in the introduction, writes, “In Britain, blacks have been generally absent from the mainstream newspapers, as well as from TV and radio programmes. As a consequence, they have grown accustomed to being swamped by white commentators’ interpretations and definitions of the black political, economic, social and cultural experience” (4). The book is illustrated with photographs, and the choice of those photographs is telling. Not one picture of armed Black Panthers—the common image in the media. Although several protests are shown in the book, the only one depicting the Black Power salute includes both white and Black people. Harris’s book is a deliberate attempt to change the image of Black Power and Black Panthers through photographs, without diminishing the power of the Black community as an irritant to white power structures.

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. . . Harris did depict the Black Power salute, but rather than using it to isolate or “other” Black people, Black Power is shown as something that white people, particularly young people, agreed that Black people should have.

For younger readers, photographic picture books often provided a similar antidote to media images of BAME communities—not with regard to protests, but in terms of everyday living. The Peckham Publishing Project, a community-based publisher, produced several photographic books that challenged media images of BAME people as foreigners or outsiders who did not want to accept “British values” or a British way of life. One of these was the wordless Our Kids (1984), which depicted ordinary activities of British BAME families. Although there are no protests, as in Being Black, Our Kids nonetheless counters stereotypes about BAME families and about education in BAME communities. The book depicts involved fathers, parents reading to their children, and BAME professionals (such as doctors) working in their communities.

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Peckham Publishing Project’s Our Kids shows BAME professionals working in their communities.

Being Black and Our Kids come from projects initiated by BAME communities themselves, but that is not to say that white people cannot participate in redefining the dominant media images of minority communities if they are committed to spending time in and with those communities. Joan Solomon, a photographer and creative writer, grew up in South Africa under apartheid; while she lived there, she taught creative writing to Black students in Soweto. She left South Africa and came to London, where in 1978 she began teaching English as a foreign language to immigrant communities. She also began producing children’s books, first for Hamish Hamilton and then for Evans, about life in Britain for BAME children. In these books, Solomon challenges stereotypes about BAME communities primarily through her images. The cover of the 1978 A Day by the Sea (Hamish Hamilton), for example, puts a Black child on a very obviously British (rather than Caribbean) beach, digging with a spade. The opening image of Sweet-Tooth Sunil (Evans 1984) has the title character standing in front of a British fireplace-converted-to-an-electric heater, with Indian sweets and Hindu images on the table in front of him. Both photographs are powerful images, placing BAME people as an everyday part of British society, not as exotic and/or temporary interlopers. By taking the time to go into the homes of BAME British families and talking with them—the book’s publication page thanks the family portrayed in the book “for their hospitality and generous help”—Solomon avoids one of the common problems of multicultural texts of this era, that of deciding between presenting only the “foreignness” of people or erasing all cultural markers to allow BAME people to “belong” in British society.

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A very British home: Joan Solomon’s books show BAME families as a part of Britain’s everyday life, without eliding their cultural uniqueness. From Sweet-Tooth Sunil.

Images are powerful, and images that portray people through film or photographs have a way of suggesting truth—especially when they are repeated in the media over and over. Pepsi has apologized for its “misstep” with its Kendall Jenner advertisement. The company said it was “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” which is of course not a bad thing. But you can’t impose global understanding without trying to understand the people you want to reach.

Black Gold: What a Black Bookstore Can Be and Do

Last week I was in the UK on various projects, and on my last day before returning to Buffalo, I went to New Beacon bookstore in Finsbury Park. Originally when I had planned my visit, I thought it would be my last time, as the bookstore was set to close after its 50th anniversary. However, thanks to a populist campaign, the bookstore has raised enough money to revamp itself (see Natasha Onwuemezi’s article in the Bookseller: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/swell-support-new-beacon-books-helps-raise-10k-513551); it plans a new storefront, a different layout, and most importantly, more room and plans for community space and activities. I’m looking forward to going back with some of my postgraduate students in July to see how it is all coming along.

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Educational essays by writers such as Gus John are not usually available at your local bookstore–unless that bookstore is one like New Beacon.

But of course this reprieve did not stop me from a few (ahem) purchases, especially since, in order to make room for new stock, they were selling off some of their old stock at deep discounts. New Beacon is not primarily a children’s bookstore, but they have throughout my relationship with them furnished my shelves with many gems. This is partly because of founder John La Rose’s connection with the supplementary school movement. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black British children (especially boys) were being placed into ESN (educationally sub-normal) classrooms or excluded from school altogether at an alarming rate. John La Rose, like other activists, tried to counter the effects of this travesty. He did this partly through supporting and publishing educational experts in the Black community, including Bernard Coard and Gus John (and I found a couple of Gus John’s essays at the bookstore this time).

But La Rose was also one of a number of Black British and West Indian activists who began supplementary after- or Saturday school programs, where kids could learn basic skills as well as Black history that the mainstream schools ignored. I have purchased many basic reading texts here over the years that feature Black characters, some from traditional publishers such as Macmillan Caribbean or the Evans English Readers, who had branches in Africa or the Caribbean. These readers were imported specifically by many supplementary and mainstream schools who wanted to be sure that their children found mirrors that reflected them in the books they read.  The one I found this time (above) is from Sierra Leone; the illustrator is Tom Simpasa.

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Independently published stories range in quality, from pamphlets stapled together to hardcover books; but all need independent outlets like New Beacon to provide a market.

Other reading texts came from independent and community publishers, such as Centreprise, the Peckham Publishing Project, or the one I found this time from a group called Brockwell Books. Often these books were “home-made” in quality, created by teachers or even by the students themselves. These are not the kinds of books that are found in mainstream bookstores, or even in places like the British Library—their fragile nature means that few exist anymore, making New Beacon a critical resource. I also found a book of poetry, written by a 14-year-old British Bangladeshi girl, Faryal Mirza, and published in 1987 to an unusually high standard for a self-published book. It still has its original dust jacket, with the photograph of Mirza looking seriously out of glasses she probably would prefer to forget now.

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This book, published by New Beacon Press, “is intended for use in schools and colleges or for individual and collective study.”

At New Beacon I’ve also found Black history, both older works published by New Beacon, such as Roxy Harris’s Being Black (complete with study questions and vocabulary), and more recent works of the kind that too quickly go out of print. This is one of the key features of an independent bookstore like New Beacon—books that either never reach the mainstream chains or are only available for a few months are much easier to obtain at an independent bookstore. Clive Gifford’s The Empire Windrush (Colllins Big Cat: 2014), Errol Lloyd’s Celebrating Black History (Oxford Reading Tree 2007) and Dan Lyndon’s Resistance and Abolition (Franklin Watts 2014) are all still available, but have you ever seen them in a bookshop? I found all three on Saturday.

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Black History texts such as these go out of print quickly–and often are not replaced by anything else.

New Beacon also had books that preserve and teach history in other ways. For example, I bought one of photographer Joan Solomon’s beautiful multicultural books from her The Way We Live series, first published in the 1980s. Sweet-Tooth Sunil is a story of a British family celebrating Diwali; other books in the series include Sikh, Jewish, Caribbean, Chinese, and Japanese families.

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Solomon did a series of photo picture books in Britain’s multicultural communities.

And finally, I bought books that I’ve been meaning to pick up for some time, before they disappear completely (and other than used book sites, New Beacon is the only place I’ve ever seen them). The independent publisher Verna Wilkins produced a series at Tamarind around the turn of this century called “Black Profiles” that showcased Black Britons who had achieved success in their fields despite any setbacks they may have encountered. These books were meant to inspire young Black Britons to do the same, and the books covered a wide range of people. When Tamarind became a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, the Black Profiles series was revamped, changed from a hardcover series with watercolor illustrations designed for the library market to a trade paperback series for the general market, with cover photographs instead of illustrations. The PRH version was perhaps more appealing to the young reader, but one of the editorial decisions made about the revamped series was to change the name, from Black Profiles to Black Stars. This new name made a subtle allusion to Black History, but it also meant that successful figures like the surgeon Samantha Tross disappeared from the series. New Beacon had both for sale.

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Verna Wilkins of Tamarind published the Black Profiles series before the company was bought out by Penguin Random House.

I’m delighted that New Beacon will remain open, even if the changes they make may mean I won’t find quite so many older treasures. It will nonetheless remain one of the few places in Britain where you can find children’s books for and about BAME people in every imaginable category and by every kind of writer. And that is something that everyone in Britain (and outside it) should celebrate.