Tag Archives: Hindus

Playing Statues: Monuments, Racism, and Children’s Geography Texts

Do you remember playing a game, maybe at a birthday party, called Statues?  You took a statue pose and had to be the last one remaining still.  You often got a prize for not moving.  I had this image in mind over the last few days, as the events in Charlottesville had people all over the world focused on the way that statues can take us back in history and hold us in a place of racism, division, and oppression.

I’m not the only one who has been thinking about this.  London’s Black History Walks group (http://www.blackhistorywalks.co.uk/) has a list of eight statues and buildings with racist histories in the UK (you can sign up for their email newsletter even if you are outside the UK to get this and other stories, but if you can get to one of their history walks, I can personally recommend that you do so).  And of course there is the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which began in South Africa in 2015 and expanded to Oxford in 2016; this week the global editor of the Huffington Post, Lydia Polgreen, commented on Rhodes Must Fall as a model for Americans who want to remove confederate statues, although she added, “changes to monuments will only be enough once economic justice is included in the redress of South Africa’s socio-economic crisis” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2017/08/14/rhodes-must-fall-campaign-could-help-charlottesville_a_23076674/). There have been many critics of the idea of statue removal as well. I doubt I need to tell you who was “sad” this week “to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” but he is not alone in this sentiment.  Many have suggested that statues of racist and imperialist figures in statues and monuments remind us of humanity’s troubled past, and help keep us from repeating mistakes (although the logic of this when examined in light of this week’s events is somewhat questionable).

But surely, even if you believe that statues can tell a sobering history of human inhumanity, that story must be put into context; otherwise, viewers draw their own conclusions.  Many towns, for example, have statues of generals in full battle gear in triumphant poses, but only simple pillars or crosses to the many ordinary soldiers that died in the battle or war.  To me as a child, that always suggested that generals were heroic and important, but you should definitely try not to be an ordinary soldier, since their lives clearly did not matter as much.  There was no context to tell me anything different, especially before I could read.  Image was everything.

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CW Airne’s Our Empire’s Story shows a triumphant statue of Rhodes. Note that even in the depiction of the Last Stand of [white British] Captain Wilson, it appears the Matabili are losing.

Because of my own childhood experience of statues, I wanted to examine how children’s literature, particularly geography texts, considered statues.  The books I discuss here are from my own collection, which largely contains British empire and post-empire examples (it would be very interesting to look at similar geography books about the US).  Early examples often mentioned statues and memorials.  George Dickson’s A Nursery Geography (Thomas Nelson, ca. 1920) has two children traveling the world on a magic carpet; coming into London, “The first thing we saw was a tall column, the Nelson Monument.  We had heard of Nelson, the greatest admiral that ever lived, who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar” (131).  There is nothing here (or on the statue itself) to suggest that less than six months before his death, Nelson was vowing to fight “that damnable and cursed doctrine” of abolitionist William Wilberforce (http://blog.soton.ac.uk/slaveryandrevolution/tag/horatio-nelson/); in fact, most adults today are not even aware of Nelson’s pro-slavery stance.  C. W. Airne’s Our Empire’s Story told in pictures (Thomas Hope, ca. 1944) has drawings of several statues around the British empire; perhaps the most pertinent page to current events is the page on Rhodesia, which begins with a statue of Cecil Rhodes—contrasted with an “Ancient conical Tower in the mysterious ruins of Zimbabwe” (41)—and several pictures that show Rhodes’s influence (positive, of course).

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Taking a stand against imperialism and slavery; Morrison’s Guyana celebrates Cuffy rather than Victoria.

I was therefore quite surprised to examine more modern examples of geography texts and see how other histories often take pride of place.  My collection only includes a small sampling of geography texts about the West Indies (my particular area of interest) but the books I do have either ignore statues and monuments altogether, or highlight anti-colonial histories through their statues.  Marion Morrison’s Guyana (Children’s Press, 2003), part of the Enchantment of the World series, does not mention the famous statue of Queen Victoria, erected in 1887, dynamited in anti-colonial protests in 1954, and finally permanently removed in 1970 upon declaration of the Guyanese republic (http://interactive.britishart.yale.edu/victoria-monuments/210/statue-of-queen-victoria-), but has a photograph of a statue of the Berbice Rebellion leader, Cuffy (48).

Martin Hintz’s Haiti (Children’s Press, 1998) in the same series, not only has a picture of the statue of King Henri Christophe (22), but also includes an undated historical drawing of “A temple honoring the end of slavery at Le Cap” (85).

Sarah De Capua’s Dominican Republic (Marshall Cavendish, 2004) is perhaps the most disappointing of the books I found with statues.  Part of the “Discovering Cultures” series, the book not only elides Columbus’s connection with the slave trade on the page that shows his statue (11), it fails to discuss the front cover statue, the Monument of the Heroes.  Originally a statue to the dictator Trujillo, the statue was repurposed to depict heroes of the war of independence from Spain in 1961.  But nothing about the statue is mentioned in the text, while Columbus is depicted as the founder of the first permanent colony in the island.

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Malcolm Frederick’s Kamal Goes to Trinidad (Frances Lincoln, 2008), with its pictures by Prodeepta Das, could also have included a photo of the statue of Columbus that stands in Port of Spain, but instead, he chose a statue that acts as a reminder of both the British Empire and a time more than a thousand years’ previous (when Britain itself was a tiny outpost of the Roman Empire).  The inclusion of the statue of Hanuman, the Hindu deity, points out Trinidad’s multiculturalism that resulted from British imperialism—but the religion itself came before and outlasted that empire.

Statues depict a moment in time to remind people of historical events.  They can act as a way to glorify a less-than-glorious history, especially when viewed without a context (or with a one-sided context).  But as some of these examples from children’s geography show, statues can, paradoxically, show us a way to move away from histories of racism and imperialism, and toward one of ordinary people’s struggle against that oppression.

We’re Here Because You Were There—and There, and There: British Children’s Literature and Migration

Britain’s empire once expanded all over the world, dominating at its high point one-quarter of the world’s land mass and the lives of one-sixth of its people. After World War II, the (former) imperial traffic went the other way, as Louise Bennett has put it, “people colonizin’/Englan in Reverse” (“Colonization in Reverse”). By 1970, people of Jamaican descent alone numbered 1.4 million of Britain’s population—and a third of those were children born in Britain. Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, and African people were all among the postwar waves of immigration into Britain. As the new populations of Britons grew up, there was concern among their foreign-born parents that these children would not value or understand their dual heritage. Books to help children focus on their “other” heritage through a recognition of the geographies and histories of empire, began appearing as early as 1972.

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Getting to Know Ourselves by Bernard and Phyllis Coard linked children in the Caribbean to their contemporaries in Africa. The book was published by independent publishers Eric and Jessica Huntley (pictured in front.).

At first, it was independent publishers such as Bogle L’Ouverture Press producing these books. Bogle L’Ouverture, run by Guyanese immigrants Jessica and Eric Huntley, began publishing in the late 1960s to provide access for Black Britons to the writings of political activists such as Walter Rodney, but as their own children began to encounter the white, Eurocentric school system, they expanded their publishing to include children’s books. Their first venture was written by Bernard and Phyllis Coard, Getting to Know Ourselves. Bernard Coard had written his doctoral dissertation on the exploitation of Africa; his wife Phyllis was a clinical psychologist who specialized in the emotional disorders linked to racism. The book they produced for children introduced two children from Jamaica to two children from Africa, and explained why they looked alike. They were linked, the book explains, through a history of slavery. Although the book is indirect about both their enslavers and the horrors of slavery, it does provide child readers with a history that was almost entirely absent from the schools at the time.

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Not quite at the point of saying Two BRITISH children visit Pakistan.

By the late 1980s, more mainstream educational publishers were also producing books for young people that discussed the links between empire in the 19th century and migration in the 20th. Macmillan Education, for example, produced a series called “At Home and Abroad” that addressed South Asian and Caribbean migration to Britain. Steve Harrison’s At Home and Abroad with Amar and Zarqa: Two Muslim Children Visit Pakistan is one of this series. It is very text-heavy, but in part this is because it is trying to, as it were, make up for lost history. The book starts out by explaining, “The children in this book are Amar, a boy of twelve, and Zarqa, a ten-year-old girl. They are British, but they have never met many of their relatives. Their oldest relatives live thousands of kilometres away, in Pakistan. To understand why the members of this family live so far apart we need to look back into history” (4). Harrison then goes on to describe the British Empire, the South Asian contribution to Britain’s WWI and WWII war efforts (“Many people are surprised” by the fact that non-Europeans fought, Harrison says on the same page), the after-effects of independence from the British, and migration. The children visit many places in Pakistan, learning its history but also enjoying its fairs and festivals and seeing the way people in Pakistan lived on a daily basis. Amar and Zarqa enjoy their time, but conclude that they consider themselves British: “I now know that although my home will always be Britain, I’m part of a bigger family that is spread across the world” (47), says Amar, and Zarqa adds, “we’re a part of the village even though our future is in Britain” (47). This series focuses on the heritage that British-born children have outside of Britain.

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Patel’s book widens the definition of British to include Top of the Pops and Hindu comics.

Another education series, Franklin Watts’ “When I was Young” books, includes at least one offering that explores the history of migration. Tarun Patel writes about When I Was Young in the Seventies (1991). Unlike Amar and Zarqa, Patel was born outside the UK, coming to Britain in 1972 from Kampala, Uganda, after Idi Amin expelled all the Asians in the country. This rarely-discussed (in children’s books, anyway) forced migration shaped Patel’s life. Because the Ugandan government made them leave within 72 hours, “and the soldiers made sure you weren’t taking any valuables . . . We were poor when we arrived in London” (6). Patel knew no English, when he and his family arrived, and he describes learning the language from British children’s television. Thus, Patel was both part of and separate from British culture at the same time. He experiences racism from skinheads, who “called all the Asian kids ‘Paki’” (16) but also learned about strikes during the Thatcher era. He watched “Top of the Pops”—Bay City Rollers was a favorite—but also watches Hindi films. “I couldn’t understand the dialogue,” he says, “but I loved the fight scenes and the songs” (19). In a reverse of his education in British culture, he also has to learn about Hindu culture—but he does this through comic books as well as going to temple. Like Amar and Zarqa, however, Patel sees his future in the UK: “I’d really like to go into hotel development here and in Europe, that’s my ambition at the moment” (26). The book focuses on Patel in Britain, but describes his links with his Hindu heritage and the history of empire as well.

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Kamal learns about steel bands instead of the Empire in Frederick’s book.

This is a continuing story. In 2006, the independent, multicultural-focused publisher Frances Lincoln produced a series called “Children Return to their Roots”. The series included Malcolm Frederick’s and Prodeepta Das’ Kamal Goes to Trinidad. This book, which I’ve written about before (see “My (Black) Britain: The West Indies and Britain in Twenty-First Century Nonfiction Picture Books,” Bookbird 50.3: 1-11), is similar to the “At Home and Abroad” series, except that it shows a country much further beyond independence. Thus, the Trinidadians are connected in the text to the world, but not as specifically to Britain as Pakistan was in Harrison’s text. Kamal Goes to Trinidad shows a British child learning about his roots; he visits Trinidad because his grandparents live there, but he lives in Britain because the British were everywhere.

Thanks as always to Seven Stories for access to their book collection; they own the copies of the Coards, Harrison, and Patel texts.