Tag Archives: Florence Nightingale

The Unexamined Life: What the Reflecting Realities Project from CLPE Tells Us

Plato, in a collection of Socrates speeches, wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living.  Of course, he (or they, I suppose) meant that not examining your OWN life gives you an empty, meaningless existence.  But what happens when you fail to examine the world around you, fail in fact to see the other people who make up your world?

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Does David White’s book help kids wonder about the unexamined lives in children’s book publishing?

There has long been a suggestion (to put it mildly) that British children’s publishing produces, in the main, books for and about white, mostly middle-class children, leaving those from other racial and socioeconomic groups largely unexamined—but because publishers in Britain have never put out industry statistics that would allow them and the public to examine their record, no one could ever say so with authority.  And to be fair to the publishing industry, even had an individual publisher wanted to produce these statistics (and some publishers, like Chicken House, Alanna Books, Firetree Books, Knights of, and Frances Lincoln have been very proud of their record on publishing for diverse child audiences), it still would not have given an industry-wide picture.  When I wrote my book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015, I struggled to find statistics to back up what I innately felt—that BAME readers were not represented very well or sometimes at all by the many children’s publishers in Britain, particularly the mainstream publishers.

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Are BAME children like the one on my book’s front cover doomed to only see white children as book characters?

Last year, however, I was asked to help create a framework for determining the number and quality of BAME representation in children’s books by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE).  CLPE then took the framework suggested by me and several other experts and asked publishers to submit all the books that they felt qualified as including BAME representation.  I was not involved with the evaluation of the books by CLPE, but once they had completed the evaluation and statistical analysis, they invited us back to hear the overall results.

You can (and should!) read the full report at the CLPE website (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research) but in the short space of this blog, I just want to highlight a couple of the results.  Keeping in mind that this was not a shaming exercise, but rather one to raise awareness; and also keeping in mind that I did not examine the books sent to CLPE myself, I am going to use some older books as examples of the kinds of things CLPE found.  This works because, at the end of the day, one of the results of this survey is not much has changed in children’s publishing since Britain’s population started changing.  The anecdotal evidence I found for Children’s Publishing and Black Britain played out in the statistics produced by CLPE for last year as well.

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Leila Berg tried to Represent Reality in her reading scheme, Nippers. At first, this meant only background characters with no speaking parts.  Illustration for Julie’s Story by Richard Rose.

One striking result from the survey is that 25% of the books submitted featured BAME characters only in the background.  This statistic can be read cynically—i.e. that “diversity” is a tick-box exercise for book producers and as long as you color some of the faces brown, you’re done—or it can be seen as an honest attempt to include more of the world in a book that would otherwise center on white people only.  Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series from the late 1960s initially had only this kind of representation; she had illustrators and photographers go down to Brixton Market (where many Afro-Caribbean people lived) to make sure that the crowd scenes in her stories about a white, working-class family were accurate.

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But Berg went on to find BAME authors to write for her series. Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose’s New Beacon Bookshop. Illustration by Richard Rose.

However, Berg did not stop with background representation; as she continued to produce Nippers, she sought out BAME British writers, like Beryl Gilroy and Petronella Breinburg, to write stories that accurately reflected and represented the lives of BAME children.  This suggests to me that an honest desire to change will produce results—if publishers are sufficiently aware of the need and thoughtful about how to address it—even if that change takes time.  The results of the Reflecting Realities survey by CLPE will, we hope, raise some of that awareness for publishers.

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Breinburg also created successful picture books (this is the American version, as you can tell by the spelling of Sean) with illustrator Errol Lloyd, but middle grade books were harder to place with publishers.

Another of the statistics that mirrored what I found in my work was that both picture books and nonfiction had a better level of BAME representation than chapter books.  (Note that the CLPE survey only encompassed books for readers under the age of 11, and not YA literature.) This suggests two things to me: first, that book producers (in which I am including authors, illustrators, publishers and editors—and maybe marketing teams and booksellers as well) feel more comfortable with pictures than with descriptions of BAME people; and second, that they value BAME representation in educational texts and settings more than they do in mainstream middle grade fiction.  I might here highlight the work of Petronella Breinburg, who although she had great success with her picture book series about a little boy named Sean, and wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers reading scheme to be used in schools, she struggled to get her middle grade fiction published and marketed.  There are many conclusions to draw from these results, but the one that I would focus on is the loss of the BAME reader.  If a BAME reader ready for longer, more complex texts only sees her- or himself in books connected with school and not with pleasure reading, they are not going to read for pleasure.  And once readers are lost, it is hard to convince them to come back to reading for pleasure—particularly when many of the YA books they will encounter see racial issues or even racial identity as “problems” to be solved.  I once read a memo from a publisher in the 1980s (I won’t name the publisher) who said that the bottom line was that publishing was a money-making business and “certain groups” didn’t read, so they needn’t be catered for.  I do believe that is the very-small-minority opinion (then and now), but even if true, perhaps the Reflecting Realities statistics will help publishers think about ways they might increase their market share and readership by producing quality chapter books for and about BAME British children.

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Rats, yes. BAME figures, not so much. Terry Deary’s and Martin Brown’s amusing version of British history does not include the West Indian troops who participated, nor the Black Britons like Walter Tull.

One place publishers might start producing middle grade literature is with funny books, which many children of all ages, classes, genders and ethnic groups enjoy.  The Reflecting Realities report demonstrated that BAME characters almost never appeared in books classed as comedies.  Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series rarely includes BAME people in the long stretch of British history, though they laugh with and at just about every group of white Britons (and pre-Britons for that matter).  I think it’s safe to say that most kids are goofier than most adults, and the goofier the kid, the more they want to read about other goofy kids.

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Is Mary Seacole a great Briton, or a great Black Briton? Biographies of Seacole always mention her white contemporary, Florence Nightingale, but biographies of Nightingale rarely mention Seacole.

And that highlights another idea that all of us on the Reflecting Realities team believe: books about BAME characters are for all readers.  I recently had someone—meaning to compliment me—tell me that my work on BAME children’s books was “niche” (he was saying we needed more interesting “niche” projects like mine).  The more that children’s books reflect the reality of the British population, the less “niche” books with BAME characters will appear—and the more readers will feel that other people think their lives are worth reading about too.

Passive Voice, Active Prejudice: Mary Seacole in Children’s Literature and Media

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Harewood’s ITV programme celebrates the new statue of Mary Seacole in London–but not everyone is pleased.

This week, Britain’s ITV showed a programme on Mary Seacole entitled “In the Shadow of Mary Seacole.” In some ways, the programme could have been titled, “Mary Seacole in the Shadow of British Racism.” Many people who initially celebrated the fact that ITV was telling the story of the woman labeled “The Greatest Black Briton” in 2004 were dismayed to find that the programme was put on the schedule at 10:40 pm. Others complained that the programme focused on the opinions of white historians. Indeed, it seemed that most, though not all, of Seacole’s defenders in the programme were non-historians: actors, comedians, nurses. Unfortunately, none of this is new when it comes to Mary Seacole—and children’s books about the Jamaican Crimean War nurse are no exception.

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You have two minutes for questions on . . . Mary Seacole: the biography with Mastermind presenter Magnus Magnusson listed as author.

 

I’ve written in various places about Mary Seacole before (see my article in Bookbird, for example, “My (Black) Britain”) so rather than rehash what I’ve previously written, I want to focus on a particular children’s biography that caught my eye. Its title is fairly unremarkable, Famous People: Mary Seacole 1805-1881, but what led me to order it last year was one of the listed authors. Christine Moorcroft—who I presume is the main author of the book—shares author credit with Magnus Magnusson. British readers of this blog will know Magnusson’s name as the original presenter of the long-running quiz show Mastermind; I was curious about his involvement in a book about Mary Seacole (as an Icelandic citizen all his life, I doubted Mary Seacole was his “specialist subject”). When the book came, I understood. Prominently on the front of the book, in between the authors’ names, is a multicoloured number “4”. The book was written as part of a Channel Four Schools project that combined short videos (still available here: https://shop.channel4learning.com/?page=shop&cid=8&pid=1603 although this is not an endorsement since I haven’t seen them yet—just in case you are interested) with books and related classroom materials. Other people profiled in the series include Cleopatra, Boudica and Gandhi, so the series clearly had a commitment to a broad range of historical figures from within and without Britain.

 

But although the series is committed to “historical evidence” “to show that the story is true” (both these quotations come from the promotional blurb on the website listed above), the book version of the biography is hampered by its use as an educational tool and its desire not to alienate a white British audience into some rather strange versions of historical accuracy. Factually, it often allows untruths for the sake of its audience; Mary Seacole’s mother “married a Scottish officer” (6), something for which there is no evidence and which overall historical patterns would suggest was unlikely. In children’s books, however, parents are still supposed to be legally married, and the complicated relations between Black and white people in the Caribbean were perhaps a bridge too far for this book. Later, when Seacole goes to London, “She was called names by other children because she was black. Nonetheless, she went back to London many times” (8). Racism can’t be that bad if she keeps going back—can it?

 

Children in London might call racist names, but the text exonerates specific British adults from any racism against Seacole. It mostly does this through the use of passive voice. Seacole goes to London to join Florence Nightingale’s nurses and is rejected—but not by anyone in particular, and not necessarily because she was Black: “Mary was told that no more nurses were needed” (11). When she eventually gets to the Crimea, and to Nightingale’s unit, “Mary went to see her and was given a bed for the night” (13). Nothing is said in the rest of the text that even hints of racism, and the book ends quite happily: “Mary was famous when she arrived in London. People had read about her in the newspapers. She was the guest of honour at a dinner with the army. The soldiers cheered her” (19). The book never calls out British officials or Florence Nightingale for racist attitudes, and lessens the impact of Seacole’s heroism by avoiding the real struggles she went through to be accepted.

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Right to be skeptical? A still from the deleted CBBC episode of Horrible Histories.

 

Moorcroft and Magnusson’s reluctance to talk about British racism is a justifiable attitude—if you look at what happened when other accounts of Seacole’s life tried to depict this racism. Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories book series generally avoids discussions of racism (there’s no Horrible Histories: Rude Racists, for example), but when the television sketch show based on his books did a segment on Nightingale and Seacole where both women were jostling each other over who would get the attention of a PR agent, the show received official complaints for appearing to criticize Florence Nightingale’s attitude toward Seacole. The complaint was upheld, and the segment is no longer available to watch (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2775315/BBC-criticised-implying-Florence-Nightingale-racist-children-s-Horrible-Histories.html). One of the people who complained was Professor Lynn McDonald, a member of the Florence Nightingale Society. McDonald, and the Florence Nightingale Society, regularly write letters and newspaper articles criticizing various forms of media for their portrayal of Seacole.

 

Which brings me back to presenter David Harewood and ITV’s programme, “In the Shadow of Mary Seacole”. One of the people interviewed by Harewood was Mark Bostridge, who wrote a biography of Nightingale—and who is also a member of the Florence Nightingale Society. He calls the “myth” of Mary Seacole “faking history at its worst” (“In the Shadow” 1.24). This claim is left alone, being countered with a response about the caring concern of Seacole. I’m not arguing that Seacole was not caring, but by not putting Bostridge’s claims next to one of the other people in the programme who talk about the kind of medicine that Seacole practiced, the show appears to accept that Seacole was, as Harewood says directly after Bostridge’s comments, “medically unqualified” (1.36). Imagine if Nightingale was portrayed as learning her nursing skills from a group of religious zealots in only four months (she did her training with Lutheran “deaconesses” and only spent a short time with them): would we still look at her as the heroine she has become? How we describe people matters, and it matters especially in books and media for children. We should never teach children to passively accept a power hierarchy—like Mary Seacole, we should constantly challenge it.

Victoria in Black: “Race” and Queen Victoria

Today is Victoria Day, a curiously antiquated holiday to celebrate, in Canada, a queen of England who has been dead for over a hundred years. (In Quebec, they tried to change the name to honor a Frenchman who died battling the Iroquois near what is now Montréal; now the holiday is called National Patriot’s Day in Quebec, to celebrate the struggle for freedom from British rule in the year that Victoria came to power, 1837.) The reason for this continuing praise of the deceased monarch is that Victoria is seen as the “Mother of Confederation” in Canada. The image of Victoria as mother, and Victoria’s own emphasis on family and motherhood, extended to the empire in places other than Canada. In fact, it was during the Victorian period that the British Empire became known as a family of nations rather than simply a collection of production sites for empire goods. Queen Victoria had a great deal to do with this herself, and not just in the “white” colonies such as Canada or Australia. She was godmother to several imperial subjects, providing education and economic support for her godchildren (and her godchildren’s children) from Africa and India. Some of these were royals of their own country, including Duleep Singh and Princess Gouramma of India, and Prince Alamayou of Abyssinia.

Myers' book leaves questions unanswered.

Myers’ book leaves questions unanswered.

One of the earliest of Victoria’s imperial godchildren may or may not have been a princess, but she certainly was of good (though massacred) family, as she was presented to the queen in 1850 as a gift from the notorious slave-trading King Gezo of Dahomey. The girl, Sarah (or Sally) Bonetta Forbes, had been named after the captain (Forbes) who represented the queen’s wish that the king cease his slaving activities, and the captain’s ship (the Bonetta)—like Paddington Bear, her birth name is lost to history, replaced by an English one at the whim of her rescuers. She was brought to Britain, but the British climate was seen as potentially fatal to Africans (much as the tropical climates were seen as potentially fatal to Europeans), so the young girl was sent back to Africa (to the Sierra Leone colony, where ironically the British had tried to send indigent Black Londoners in the 18th century—most of whom had died). She was sent there to be educated as part of Victoria’s Christianizing mission of Africa; it was felt that Forbes would be an excellent voice for Christianity in Africa, someone who would be listened to more readily than white missionaries. Forbes did not like Sierra Leone, and returned to England until her marriage to an African businessman. Following a short time living in Bristol, the couple returned to Sierra Leone, but Forbes visited the queen a number of times, and her own daughter—named Victoria after the queen—continued to do so after her mother’s death. Forbes’s story, which is highlighted in Walter Dean Myers’ biography At Her Majesty’s Service (1999), raises a number of unanswered questions about the peculiar “empire family” relationship between Queen Victoria and Sarah Forbes. Myers concludes the book with an afterword in which he asks several of them, including wondering about her birth name and her relationship with Africa. The questions remain unanswered, but Forbes’ story (and Myers’ account of it) keenly highlights the way that the British saw themselves as head of the imperial family, caretakers of the “childlike” races.

Books about Seacole were published after she was placed in Britain's National Curriculum--but now there is controversy about including her.

Books about Seacole were published after she was placed in Britain’s National Curriculum–but now there is controversy about including her.

Another Victorian troubled this image of the Great White Mother, even as she clearly longed to embrace her Mother Country. Mary Seacole, a Jamaican “doctress” (a common figure in the West Indies, who healed the sick through herbal remedies) came to Britain in 1854 to join Florence Nightingale’s nursing staff headed to the Crimean battlefields. Nightingale rejected her help, but Seacole went anyway, and by attending to soldiers on the battlefield (Nightingale and her nurses were positioned some distance away) and opening up The British Hotel, a hospital and recreational club (card games and alcohol—both disdained by Nightingale—were available for the soldiers), nearby, Seacole earned a nickname she coveted and promoted in her autobiography (The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857): that of Mother Seacole. In an era when many women of African descent were not considered by British people as anything more than heathens to be converted or servants to be ordered about, Seacole earned the highest honor possible for any (especially childless) Victorian woman, white or black. She was allied through her name to Queen Victoria, the mother of the nation and the empire, through this nickname. But although this was a link that Nightingale herself never achieved, Seacole wanted to be recognized as a capable, useful, even heroic human being by the queen herself. Several reports offer connections between Seacole and the Royal Family, and though they are all unsubstantiated, it is of some significance that children’s versions of Seacole’s life continue to introduce this idea of Seacole on familiar terms with the queen. John Malam’s Tell me About Mary Seacole (2006) argues that “when the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s eldest son, was ill, it was Mary who made him better” (20). And Paul Harrison’s Who was . . . Mary Seacole? (2007) said that “Mary would often meet with the Queen and Prince Albert” (18). True or not, it is the image that matters. A poor Jamaican nurse rejected by Florence Nightingale becomes accepted by two great symbols of imperial power: the British soldier who enforces empire, and the “ruling mother” of the Mother Country, Queen Victoria.

Curious that on the page where Mary Seacole dies, her death isn't mentioned.  From Paul Harrison's Who Was . . . Mary Seacole?

Curious that on the page where Mary Seacole dies, her death isn’t mentioned. From Paul Harrison’s Who Was . . . Mary Seacole?

Queen Victoria ruled over the largest empire ever to have existed, with dominion over people of many different nations. For a few of empire’s subjects, the queen herself played an intimate role as a mother figure to be honored or emulated. Both Sarah Bonetta Forbes and Mary Seacole were placed in the impossible position of having to reject their birth homes and pasts in order to be recognized as worthy of (white) Victorian England’s notice. Even then, Seacole and Forbes were often treated as curiosities or second-class citizens. In children’s books, the women are treated as heroes; but the underlying message of all of the books is that true power lay with a woman who, by virtue of her birth, could accept people as gifts and bring her version of civilization to a large portion of the world, whether they liked it or not. After all, Mother knows best!