Tag Archives: Diego Rivera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Migrants of a Different Kind

Anti-Mexican sentiment in the US has been around for a long time, as this ungrammatical poster from the 1950s attests.

Today is Cinco de Mayo, which in the US (at least in the northern parts where I live) means a day for grocery stores and women’s magazines to suggest fifty things to do with salsa. Many people don’t know that this is not “Mexican independence day” (which occurs in September) but a day to celebrate the defeat of a European colonial army (the French) by an outnumbered, ill-equipped Mexican army in 1862. The French did not quit Mexico after their defeat—they simply moved on to a different part of Mexico, where they remained until 1867. But El Día de la Batalla de Puebla, as it is known in Mexico, proved that the imperial forces trying to control the country were not an inevitability.

The French eventually left the country, in part because the US took Mexico’s part in a show of North American anti-colonialism. Unfortunately, this solidarity was not lasting—the US had plenty of its own colonial plans south of its border—and today, while we celebrate Cinco de Mayo by eating Mexican food and downing tequila or margaritas, its people face disdain or mistrust from many US citizens. The image of Mexico for many US citizens is a place of danger and drug lords on the one hand, and poor migrant workers pouring across the border (a sentence like this is frequently concluded with a term normally reserved for animals, such as “in droves” or “in hordes”). I don’t think it would be too great a stretch to say that people in the US do not normally associate Mexicans with intellectual or scholarly achievement, because too often we see them only as criminals or migrants. Books for children, such as Cynthia deFelice’s Under the Same Sky (2003), often reinforce this image even when attempting to humanize migrant workers; deFelice’s book concerns a sulky white teenage boy who has to work with the migrants on his father’s farm in order to earn the money for his motorbike. Joe, the main character, learns how hard migrants work, and how hard it is to have to flee (more animal words) from the Immigration and Naturalization Service because of the way you look. But Joe only learns the latter through observation; he is able to leave manual labor at the end of the summer, and decide on what teenage trend he will spend his earnings. The migrants move on, and new ones come to the farm; there will be more where they came from. Books like these underscore white privilege, and create an image that equates Mexicans with poverty and transience.

So today I’d like to showcase a different kind of Mexican migrant found in children’s books, one that—in some ways—provides an alternative image of Mexican people for child readers: the traveling artist. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo spent time traveling through the US for their work, but they are not typically regarded as “migrant workers”—even though Rivera went from city to city, wherever the work was, and was paid by the piece for his work, like migrant workers today. Rivera painted murals in cities like Detroit, New York, and Chicago of workers. Many of his paintings depict agricultural workers in positive images of strength and beauty. Kahlo traveled to New York City in 1938 for her first solo exhibition. Her work is more personal and autobiographical than that of her husband Rivera’s, but both were active communists at a time in history when the Communists were seen as the defenders of the working people (Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, and WEB DuBois were all associated with the communist party of the time). I mention this because for Kahlo and Rivera, their politics placed them among not just the artistic, but the intellectual scene in the United States.

There are some lovely children’s picture books of the artists that highlight the artistic achievements of Rivera and Kahlo. Jeanette and Jonah Winter’s Diego (1991) indicates that “the murals that made [Rivera] famous . . . told the story of the Mexican people” (n.p.). Yuyi Morales’s unusual Viva Frida (2014), with its simple text and photographed doll illustrations, uses strong verbs in English and Spanish to highlight Kahlo’s creativity and heritage. Both of these books provide good introductions to the creative contributions of these two Mexican artists for young readers.

However, other aspects of these books suggest what can and cannot be said about race, politics, and the art world. First, both these books and others about the artists (including the 2009 Diego: Bigger than Life by Carmen Bernier-Grand and Amy Novesky’s 2015 Me, Frida) refer to the artists by their first names and/or show them as children on the front cover illustration. This is not typically the case for artists in children’s books: there are no books about Monet titled Claude or about Picasso titled Pablo; the only European artists referred to by first name regularly in children’s book titles are Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo DaVinci, but they are also often referred to in this way in adult books. The books also highlight the artwork at the expense of the politics. Frida, in Viva Frida, “knows” and “understands”—but she does not know and understand the events of the day. She understands that she “loves, and so I create.” Diego does mention that “he helped poor people fight their war for equality. They were fighting for fair wages and a better life” but the illustration shows Rivera as separate from the fighters, an observer rather than a fighter himself.

Mexicans shoot at a train for no apparent reason while Rivera, in a suit, sketches them calmly.

Mexicans shoot at a train for no apparent reason while Rivera, in a suit, sketches them calmly.

The combination of first-name referral and removal of politics from Kahlo and Rivera suggest that the artists are more like “us”—separate from and better than the nation of migrants and fighters from which they came. And yet, is this how these artists would choose to be portrayed? I suggest that by viewing Kahlo and Rivera as artists and as Mexicans (even as Mexican migrants), people in the US might begin to be able to see other Mexicans as humans, rather than just a problem.