Tag Archives: folktales

The Old African(-American): In Memory of Julius Lester

Julius Lester came to children’s literature via Harlem, folksinging, and the Civil Rights Movement.  Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1939, by the early 1960s he was in New York City, singing songs of lynching (“See How the Rain Falls”) at rallies for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).  “I wasn’t big for going on demonstrations and being thrown in jail and this-that-and the other, but music was . . . a gift that I had to offer” he says, in a PBS documentary about him (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=julius+lester+folk+singer&&view=detail&mid=668197C7D071911BC204668197C7D071911BC204&rvsmid=07E8F3E12C66EFF8984207E8F3E12C66EFF89842&FORM=VDQVAP).  In 1964, he took his songs to the south (his “freedom songs,” he called them).  In 1965, he returned to look for old blues singers on behalf of the Newport Folk Foundation.  But he didn’t think the photographer who came with him understood what to look for, and Lester began taking his own photographs.

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SNCC asked him to document civil rights movements in the south, and Lester did—although I wonder if SNCC got what they expected.  Lester’s photographs focus on the reality of life in the south, and the people who had to live those realities.  Whereas photographs of sit-ins and marches may have gotten all the attention, I find myself drawn to a photograph Lester took in Selma, Alabama in 1966.  The photograph shows an African-American woman walking past a white Chevrolet with a bumper sticker proclaiming the single word, “WALLACE”.  The bumper sticker, whether purposefully or accidentally, has a rip in it.  (You can see the photograph here: http://www.profotos.com/pros/index.cfm?member=565). Lester wanted people to hear the words and see the lives of African-Americans clearly.

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Lester’s versions of the Brer Rabbit stories used a mix of African-American dialects to give voice to these trickster tales originating from enslaved Americans.

His early work led to him wanting to write about Black History for children, to tell the stories and give voice to the people he met and sang about.  While his first book, To Be A Slave (1968) was historical, he turned to telling the stories he had heard growing up.  But he quickly realized that many of the stories he remembered had been mediated in print through white authors, such as Joel Chandler Harris.  The invented dialect that authors like Harris used to represent African-Americans often made the characters seem uneducated; but more than that, Lester knew that these characters did not speak like African-Americans—not the ones he knew in the south or the north.  So he reclaimed the stories, by retelling them.  He put in jokes that modernized the stories (talking about washing machines) or familiarized them to a new generation.  In “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” when Brer Fox is going to barbecue Brer Rabbit, Brer Rabbit takes the time to opine, “If you got to go, go in a barbecue sauce.  That’s what I always say.  How much lemon juice and brown sugar you put in yours?” (15).

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In Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, the titular character is frightened and gives away his clothes to save his skin.

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But in Lester’s version, Sam is always in charge of the situation–even when he gives away his possessions, the reader knows he will get the upper hand in the end.

Lester performed similar reclamations with other stories that had been seen as racist texts that caricatured children of African descent.  Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1900) is a folktale-like story in which Sambo is terrified by tigers who take his clothes; he only regains power (and his clothes) when the tigers are too busy to notice him.  Lester rewrote the story as Sam and the Tigers, with pictures by Jerry Pinkney. Although the basic plot is the same, Lester does not depict his protagonist as cowering or weak.  When a tiger threatens to eat him, Sam counters, “If you do, it’ll send your cholesterol way up . .  . You could be the first Tiger smart enough to carry an umbrella” (Sam and the Tigers n.p.).  Although both stories are called trickster tales, only Lester’s version has a true trickster character, one who uses his brain to talk the tiger into something different than what he wanted.

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Bob Lemmons was something of a wild horse himself, living alone and free. But he was one of the best Mustang-tamers in the west because of his persistence.

In addition to folktales, Lester produced (also with his friend Jerry Pinkney) stories of legendary African-Americans (such as that steel-driving man, John Henry) and of the historical realities of African-Americans.  His historical stories, including Black Cowboy, Wild Horses and The Old African are, like his photographs, not about the famous, the celebrity, the well-known, but about ordinary people who struggled.  Black Cowboy, Wild Horses concerns a former slave who becomes a legendary tamer of mustangs in Texas, Bob Lemmons.  Lemmons was well-known in part because he persisted, and in part because (unlike most mustang-tamers) he worked alone.  Lester’s story embraces this strength and persistence against the odds.  Similarly, in The Old African, the titular character “had learned that enduring was a power too” (46) and because of his patience and endurance, he is able to provide visions and relief for slaves who are brutalized by the plantation owner and by a system that ripped them from their homelands in Africa.  Based on a story from coastal Georgia, Lester manages to combine the historical reality of slavery within the confines of mythical storytelling (the slaves, under the leadership of the Old African, walk into the sea and return to Africa over the bones of their ancestors).  His stories give voice and vision to African-Americans, and salutes their courage and persistence through struggle.  Lester made the ordinary person a hero, and gave those historically neglected a central role in his stories, photographs and songs.  His vision and voice will be greatly missed in children’s literature.

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Lester gave voice to the voiceless, and his vision will live on beyond him.

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What is the City but the People? Manchester, Children’s Literature, and the World

Last week I took my MA students to Manchester.  Officially, they are on a course I designed called Race, Literature and the Archive—but students don’t come on Summer Abroad Courses just for extra library time (shock horror).  Many of them were particularly interested in Manchester because of the recent terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena during the Ariana Grande concert in which 22 (mostly young) people were killed.  We had discussed the diversity in Manchester prior to coming to England, and they wanted to know how the city was handling the attack.  I have, of course, been to Manchester several times, and knew exactly how Manchester would be handling it—but I was pleased to see signs all over the city advertising the Manchester International Festival (currently in progress).  They said, simply, What is the City but the People?

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This sign was everywhere in the city–and sometimes it even mentioned the International Festival that it was advertising . . . 

This sign was a perfect introduction for my students before we went to the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre.  I’ve mentioned the centre in previous blogs; it was set up to honor the school boy, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, who was murdered by a classmate in 1986 on the school playground.  The classmate then went on to brag that he had killed “a Paki”.  Ullah was not Pakistani, but Bangladeshi; however, he had been known in the school for defending Pakistani classmates when they were being bullied for their ethnic origins.  Jackie Ould, the director of the education arm of the AIU Centre, talked with my students about the tragedy of Ullah’s death, but also about the positive ways that the community (local and global) came together after the murder.  The legacy of Ullah if he had lived we will never know, but the legacy of his death is described in a booklet which anyone can download: http://www.racearchive.org.uk/legacy-ahmed-iqbal-ullah-2/.  For me, the most important part of the legacy has been the Race Relations Centre, as it not only provided research support for my forthcoming book (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015, appearing from Palgrave Macmillan in a few weeks) but also introduced me to the projects that Ould initiates with school children of Manchester.

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This booklet is downloadable from the AIU Centre website.

These book projects have ranged from biographies of Black and Asian Britons to folktales of the places where Manchester’s immigrants have come.  While early folktales came from Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Roma or Travellers, the most recent two came from communities who represent newer waves of immigration to Manchester, the Somalis and the Sudanese.  Both countries suffered under civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s, and the UK opened its doors to migrants and refugees fleeing from violence.  England has the largest Somali immigrant population in Europe.  Refugees from South Sudan are the third largest asylum-seeking group in the world.  Nonetheless, they represent a tiny proportion of the population of Britain.  According to the Red Cross, “There are an estimated 118,995 refugees living in the UK. That’s just 0.18 per cent of the total population (65.1 million people)” (http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Refugee-support/Refugee-facts-and-figures) – hardly the “swarm” of people that the anti-immigration groups (and tabloids) like to suggest.  Like other immigrants to Britain, they suffer discrimination and racism, even when they don’t struggle to find work that suits their qualifications or decent housing.

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Folktales may seem distant from the present, but interacting with the past the way these schoolchildren did can also make sense of the current moment.

It may seem that folktales, set in the distant past, have little to do with the struggles of refugee groups in Britain today.  But Ould’s folktale projects do important work.  First, the two recent folktales immediately align these immigrant groups with positive attributes just by virtue of their titles: the Somali story is entitled The Clever Princess and the Sudanese story is The Kindly Ghost.  The main characters in these stories not only help others, they also are active in achieving their own destiny.  Both protagonists are beset by problems that they overcome through their strength and quick thinking.  They learn that kindness toward bullies is not worth it, and that persistence is needed to win out over despair.  These are all useful lessons for immigrants—but importantly, they are also useful lessons for everyone.  The book projects that Ould and the school children produce are not done exclusively (or sometimes even at all) by members of those immigrant communities.  In fact, part of the point for Ould is that school children learn about each other.  This includes learning about their similarities as well as their differences: by retelling folktales, school children learn how folktales have universal ideas, common characters, settings and plots.  Characters journey seeking wisdom and happiness all over the world.

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Jackie Ould, education director at the AIU Centre, helps students interact with Manchester’s history through the Archives+ project in the Central Library.

After her presentation on the origins of the centre, Ould took us upstairs in the central library to show us the Archives+ project (http://www.archivesplus.org/), where through digitization of documents and central displays, ordinary library users can unlock the secrets of the archives to learn about the history of Manchester.  My students immediately started looking through the artifacts that told about the various waves of immigration to the city.  They learned about the Sikh struggles to be allowed to legally wear turbans at their jobs or on motorcycles; they found out more about Ahmed Iqbal Ullah’s Bangladeshi community; they looked at pictures of the Afro-Caribbean community at Moss Side.  Being able to interact with the material—just like the Manchester school children who retold and illustrated the folktales—encouraged them to dig deeper, find out more, be aware of the different people that made up this city.  The Archives+ project, like the folktale project, promotes the idea that everyone’s story matters, and that stories of the city are for everyone.  Manchester is not alone in this; it may take more digging, but most cities have histories worth uncovering, and it would be worth examining the treasures of your local archives.  Because, at the end of the day, what is the city but the people?