Tag Archives: Floella Benjamin

African Spiritual: Religion and Children’s Books

The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child does not specifically say that a child has the right to choose his or her religion.  However, it mentions both religion and morality several times.  In Principle 1, it says that “Every child, without any exception whatsoever, shall be entitled to these rights without distinction or discrimination on account of . . . religion”.  Principle 2 argues that “The child shall enjoy special protection . . . to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially”.  Principle 6 says that the child should grow up “in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security”.  Principle 7 says that children’s education should develop a “sense of moral and social responsibility”.  And Principle 10 argues that “The child shall be protected from practices which may foster racial, religious and any other form of discrimination.”  But today I am taking as my starting point for a discussion on religion and the UN declaration Principle 9, which states that children “shall not be the subject of traffic, in any form.”

At first glance, this principle does not seem to have anything to do with religion.  But in fact, the historical period when African children were most likely to be trafficked, that is, the period of European enslavement of African people, was the period when Africans were most likely to lose their traditional forms of religion.  During enslavement, some African people were prevented from practicing their religion in a community.  Some were too young to remember or have learned the traditional religious practices of their community.  Some were given incentives to convert (or at least appear to convert) to Christianity.  All of these had an effect on the way that people of African descent in the Americas, the Caribbean and in Europe practiced religion—and these effects can be seen in children’s books right up to today.

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Morna Stuart’s story of two boys enslaved in Haiti and in France during the revolution includes reference to Yoruba religious tradition.

Many of the enslaved African people came or were descended from West African tribal groups, including the Yoruba people.  The main religion of the Yoruba was based on multiple deities and spirit guides, or orisha.  When Yoruba people were enslaved and brought to the Americas and the Caribbean, their religion changed.  In West Africa at the time, one of the gods, Ogun, was the deity associated primarily with iron—used for weapons but also agricultural implements and hunting tools, and thus a destroyer and creator god.  John Parker points out that in Haiti, “It was the aggressive, warlike attributes . . . which came to the fore on the Caribbean island, where hunting and smithing were less important than in West Africa” (Journal of Religion in Africa 28.4: 495).  Many of the French-speaking islands had enslaved people who practiced a modified version of the Yoruba religion, one which often mixed in elements of Catholic religious practices and saints; the modified religion is referred to as Vaudou, Voudou, or Voodoo.  This change can be seen in Morna Stuart’s Marassa and Midnight (New Windmills 1969) when one of the main characters calls on “Ogoun . . . the African God of fire and war” (4).  Stuart is unusual in portraying African-based religion as ordinary and acceptable; most writers whether Black or white (Stuart was white Scottish) depict alternative religions as at best anomalies practiced only by outsiders and at worst superstition.

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This cover of Benjamin’s Coming to England declares that “Belonging is the most important thing”–but white Christians did not make Benjamin and her family feel welcome in the church, even though the Benjamin family had always been Christian too.

Indeed, by the 20th century, many people of African descent in the Caribbean (and the Americas) were members of a Christian (usually Protestant) religion.  However, their method of worship was often very different from European (and European-descent) Christians, so even when they were practicing the colonizer’s religion, they weren’t always accepted.  Floella Benjamin, in Coming to England (Puffin 1997), discusses her visits to traditional Church of England services when she and her family first arrived in England from Trinidad.  “Inside, the light from the stained glass windows shone on the handful of people taking part in the mild, controlled, unemotional service—not at all like the ones I was used to” (113).  Trying to make herself feel at home, Floella sings the hymns in the manner to which she was accustomed—i.e., loudly and joyfully—only to overhear the white congregation criticize her on the church steps.  Her family eventually switches to a church started by other people from the West Indies, “always full to the brim with people rejoicing out loud” (114).

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The cover of Tony Medina’s I and I, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson. The phrase “I and I” was not meant to signify rugged individualism, but rather a connection to God and to the community.

Other people of African descent created their own forms of worship.  Probably the most well-known (though not necessarily understood) of these on a global scale is Rastafari.  Rastafari began in the 1930s in Jamaica, and mixed Protestant religious ideas with Pan-African ideals and a mysticism attained through a simple diet and the use of cannabis.  Bob Marley, perhaps the most famous Rastafarian to date, is one of the few who are portrayed entirely positively.  Most Rastafarians are presented as loners, sometimes spiritual but always outsiders.  Tony Medina explains the title of his biography of Marley, I and I (Lee and Low 2009) by saying, “The ‘I and I’ of the title is, like Bob himself, multifaceted.  It is a way of referring to oneself, yet it means more than simply ‘I’.  ‘I and I’ can refer to the unity of God . . . and every human—meaning God is within all of us and we are all one people. . . . It discourages thinking of oneself solely as an individual but instead as part of a community” (n.p.).  But Rastafarians in Britain often faced not only isolation from their community, but trouble from the white police force.  Farrukh Dhondy, in “Go Play Butterfly” (Come to Mecca, Collins 1978) shows his character Jojo “wearing a red, green and gold tam” (119), a symbol of Rastafari, right before he is beaten by the police at carnival.

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Colin Williams’ illustration of Dhondy’s “Go Play Butterfly,” on the cover of a later edition, does not include the Rastafarian character being beaten up by the police.

It’s enough to make a person of African descent want to give up on any religion connected to European traditions in any way, and return to the religion of their ancestors.  This is, after a fashion, what Tomi Adeyemi does in her debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone (Macmillan 2018).  The novel is a fantasy, but it uses Yoruba-based gods and goddesses (including Ogun) and their traditionally-allocated spheres of influence.  Adeyemi, who is Nigerian-American, uses Nigerian understandings of these spheres; thus, Ògún is the deity with influence over iron and earth; fire belongs to Sangó and war to humans.  The novel itself depicts what happens when a child is ripped away first from her mother and then from her religion (although it is called “magic” in the novel, it functions as a religion).  When Zélie realizes she has lost her magic, “The realization reopens a gaping hole inside of me” (456) and notes that “It’s like losing Mama all over again” (456).  Adeyemi’s novel serves as a powerful (and possibly unconscious) metaphor for what happened to Africans who were taken from their mother country and then had their religion taken from them as well, often by brutal force.  Children have a right not to be trafficked—in no small part because doing so can take away or alter their ability to believe in, or reject, the faith into which they were born.

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The cover illustration by Rich Deas for Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, which blends a fantasy world with traditional Nigerian religion.Mo

 

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Without Windrush: British children’s literature and Windrush children

Although I have been following the story for a couple of weeks now, the news finally caught up with the BBC (http://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-43746746/windrush-migrants-facing-deportation-threat) and other news organizations that some Windrush-generation British Caribbean people were being faced with deportation thanks to stricter immigration rules.  These rules require Britons to prove their status as citizens in order to be able to work, use the NHS, and access other services.  However, even though people arriving legally from the Caribbean to fill labour shortages after 1948 and before 1973 were given permanent right to reside, the Home Office kept no records, and the burden of proof is therefore on the migrant.  Many of these migrants came as children, on their parents’ passports, however, and therefore find it difficult to produce the needed proof.  Although the deportations are under review as of this writing, and Theresa May has apologized to Caribbean nations for any distress caused to them or their citizens (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-43792411), many people find the lack of judgment regarding the deportation of people who helped build up the UK after World War II more than deplorable.

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“I was told I was part of the motherland”: but Floella Benjamin is now speaking out about the UK government’s threat to Windrush generation migrants.

I want to highlight British children’s authors who came from the Caribbean as children in this blog, just to indicate how much richer British children’s literature is with the contributions of the Windrush generation.  These authors are only a small part of the writers who claim Afro- or Indo-Caribbean heritage; many authors came as adults (like Valerie Bloom, John Agard, Grace Nichols and Andrew Salkey); many others were born in Britain of Afro- or Indo-Caribbean parents (including Trish Cooke, Benjamin Zephaniah, Malorie Blackman and Alex Wheatle).  The authors I am highlighting here, by the way, are not in any danger of deportation—as far as I know, they have all the correct paperwork and are British citizens with passports.  But like Paulette Wilson, Anthony Bryan, and others highlighted in this Guardian article (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/15/why-the-children-of-windrush-demand-an-immigration-amnesty), they came as children and grew up thinking of Britain as their home.  Their literary contributions have changed the national understanding of British literature, and it is worth pausing a moment to imagine what the bookshelves would look like without them.

Both Kate Elizabeth Ernest and Floella Benjamin came to Britain from the Caribbean, Ernest from Jamaica and Benjamin from Trinidad.  Both had lived with their grandparents in idyllic circumstances while their parents settled in Britain; both experienced the harsh reality of racism when they at last came to Britain.  But both of them survived the experience and wrote about it.  Ernest’s fictional account, Birds in the Wilderness (1995) tells of bullies who ask the main character, “What was it like living in the bush?” (54) and spit on her (34).  Hope, Ernest’s character, clings to books and education, hoping to become a writer in the future, but the book ends with “A feeling of uneasiness” (158) that the family won’t stay together.

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Floella Benjamin, now Baroness Beckenham, started her work for children in television, on BBC’s Play School.

It is family that is crucial to Floella Benjamin as well, in her memoir, Coming to England (1995).  She came to England in 1960, and like Ernest, experienced racism and isolation because of her skin colour, her accent, and her heritage.  But “Dardie had opened our minds to the world with knowledge,” Benjamin wrote about her father, “Marmie had instilled strength, determination, conviction and confidence in us.  Now it was up to me to merge them together and absorb them into my soul.  These were the ground rules on which my new life was to be built.  I had to make something out of it without losing my true identity” (116).  And make something of it she did; not only is Benjamin the author of multiple children’s books, she was a children’s television presenter and is now a member of the House of Lords and patron of many children’s charities, the Baroness of Beckenham.

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De Souza’s Rastamouse is helpful to the police and gets criminals to reform . . .

Two authors who brought the music of the Caribbean to their literary efforts—albeit in very different ways—are Michael de Souza and Linton Kwesi Johnson.  De Souza came from Trinidad at the age of eight in the same year as Floella Benjamin—1960.  He is best known for his Rastamouse books, in which a reggae-playing mouse fights crime and does his best to “make a bad ting good”—all the criminals reform under Rastamouse’s good advice.  De Souza’s cheerful picture books are in stark contrast to the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson, who arrived in Britain in 1963 at the age of eleven.  LKJ is not a children’s poet, but he was publishing poetry as a teenager and he continued through his twenties to write about teenagers; he was a British Black Panther and a voice of protest against many of the outrages committed against Black British youth in the 1970s and 1980s.  He was the first of the British dub poets.  On his blog in 2012, LKJ wrote, “I am often asked why I started to write poetry. The answer is that my motivation sprang from a visceral need to creatively articulate the experiences of the black youth of my generation, coming of age in a racist society” (http://www.lintonkwesijohnson.com/2012/04/18/riots-rhymes-and-reason/). Johnson could not make the bad of a racist government into something good just by writing poetry about it.  But he could call attention to it, and in poems like “Dread Beat an’ Blood,” “Sonny’s Lettah” and “Five Nights of Bleeding” he exposed the struggles of young people facing a country that didn’t want them.  Those same youths that Johnson was writing about then are among those the government is targeting now.

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As a young poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson saw the brutality of the police visited on his community, writing about it in poems like “Sonny’s Lettah” and “Forces of Victory”. Photograph by Robert Golden.

Floella Benjamin spoke this week in the House of Lords, reminding the government and the British people that, “I came to this country in 1960 as a British citizen, a Windrush generation child, who was told I was part of the motherland, I would be welcomed.  Luckily I had my own passport . . . otherwise I too would be having to prove my status” (www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-parliaments-43791047).  Britain was forever changed in so many positive ways by the Windrush generation.  Children’s literature in Britain was too.  The nation’s children should not have to imagine a world without Windrush—or without the next generation of writers coming from the current migration into Britain, for that matter.

How to Solve a Migrant Crisis with Children’s Books

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The diary series was a popular format; Cooke used it to interrogate racism in Britain. Illustrated by Brian Duggan.

Last week, Alex O’Connell made the recently republished memoir for children by Floella Benjamin, Coming to England (Macmillan), the Times children’s book of the week. The tagline (in the paper edition but not on the website) calls Benjamin’s book, “a timely tale of migration” and O’Connell writes, “There aren’t many successful memoirs pitched to this age group, but Floella Benjamin’s story . . . is gripping”  (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coming-to-england-by-floella-benjamin-b2cbc0grg). I’d like to unpack some of the language here, particularly the notion of the timeliness of the story, the apparent absence of memoirs for young people, and the idea of what makes a memoir for children successful.

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The 1997 Puffin edition of Floella Benjamin’s memoir. Cover illustration by Michael Frith.

Benjamin’s book was first published in 1995, after she had rose to prominence as a children’s television presenter on shows such as Play School but before she had become a baroness. Britain was at an uncertain moment with regard to race relations; only two years earlier, 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence had been murdered and the two white youths charged had not been prosecuted, due to insufficient evidence (and, it would later be determined, investigative failures by the police). Thus Benjamin’s book was originally speaking to an audience with a heightened awareness of British racism against Black, and particularly Caribbean, people (whether they felt that racism was a justified response or not). Benjamin discusses her own experiences of racism, concluding after one incident, “That was the day I realized that in the eyes of some people in this world I was not a person but a colour” (82). Benjamin’s reaction to racism, however, was not to fight the power structure, but accept it. She learns to speak the “Queen’s English” after her teacher calls her a guttersnipe for using patois; Benjamin puts away her Trinidadian accent for “appropriate times” (101). She also accepts that in order to “make people see me as a person” (116), she would “have to work twice as hard as anyone else and be twice as good” (116). Benjamin’s story provides a model for dealing with racism that puts the onus on the victim, rather than the racist, to change their behaviors and attitudes; it is a model that has worked for Benjamin, allowing her to maintain a strong sense of self-esteem that she tries to convey to her readers. It also makes her a “good immigrant”—one willing to accept the ways of society without pushing back (and perhaps this is why it has been reprinted several times and is now being touted as a “timely” book for a society uncertain over new waves of migrants).

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Front cover of Nichols Leslyn in London, illustrated by Annabel Large

But Benjamin’s model is not the only one, and there are several book written for a similar age and audience that address issues of migration and the racism that results differently. Interestingly, some of the best are fictional memoirs written by authors who migrated later in life (such as Grace Nichols) or who are British-born (such as Trish Cooke). Poet Grace Nichols wrote one of her only novels for children, Leslyn in London (Hodder and Stoughton, 1984) more than ten years before Benjamin’s memoirs appeared; Britain was, if anything, even more gripped by racial tension than in 1995, as the book appeared during the time period of the Brixton and Handsworth riots and the New Cross Fire. The protagonist, Leslyn, is quite young in the story—a first year junior—but this does not safeguard her from racist experiences. She is called a “nig-nog” (23) and “gollywog” (43) but this does not make her want to try harder to please. Her teacher finds her restless in school, and Leslyn makes up imaginary friends for company. Success comes, not in overcoming racism, or in working twice as hard at school, but in finding a person—a new girl at school who feels similarly left out—with whom she can be herself, as she is, rather than how others want her to be.

Bradford-born Trish Cooke also wrote a fictional migration memoir, which was published in Franklin Watts “Diary” series (the series included titles such as Diary of a Young Nurse in World War II and Diary of a Young Roman Soldier). The Diary of a Young West Indian Immigrant (2003), unlike Leslyn in London, is about a somewhat older girl (the book spans the period from 1961 to 1966, when the protagonist, Gloria, is between the ages of 10 and 16), but the reading level is suitable for a younger reader. The many illustrations and short page count (96 pages total) also place the book in a younger reading category. Cooke’s book also deals with racism, of both a casual and more direct kind. On Gloria’s first day of school, the teacher pats her hair and lets the other students in the class do the same (37), so the next day Gloria straightens it in order to better fit in—but the teacher and students “all looked at me with pity” (38). It is apparently better, in her teacher’s eyes, that Gloria be petted like an animal than try to fit in. Later, when she is older, her school careers counsellor tells her she is “out of her depth” (68) when she says she wants to become a lawyer, and suggests factory work instead. As with the hair incident, Gloria at first tries to accept her fate and fit in, taking the factory placement work experience. But when they offer her a permanent place, Gloria decides not to take it, writing that her counsellor, “didn’t give me the right advice. I intend to find out how to go about becoming a lawyer, and if not a lawyer then something more fitting to me” (91). Cooke’s narrative reinforces the notion that sometimes even well-meaning white people do not have answers that work for migrants.

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Bloom’s novel, like fellow poet Nichols’ novel, is no longer in print.

 

I’m glad Benjamin’s memoir is back in print, but the books I discuss here, along with Valerie Bloom’s Surprising Joy (Macmillan 2003) and Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995) are not. Fictional accounts of migration can often address issues of racism more directly than a nonfiction memoir—and may give readers more options for thinking about their own experiences. Having more accounts of migration experiences, fictional or not, accepting British society or rejecting it, would be timely for all British readers to remind them that migration is not a new issue, and there are lots of ways to navigate its pitfalls and celebrate its joys.