Tag Archives: immigration

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.

Taking a Red Pencil to the Executive Order on Immigration and Refugees

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Not wanted–Pinkney’s novel depicts a girl fleeing from conflict who only wants an education.

“Sec. 5.  Realignment of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for Fiscal Year 2017.  (a)  The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.  During the 120-day period, the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Homeland Security and in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, shall review the USRAP application and adjudication process to determine what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States, and shall implement such additional procedures.”

“Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States.  The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism.”

“The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.  In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.”

–from the Executive Order on Immigration issued 27 January 2017 (full text of the order can be found here: http://www.npr.org/2017/01/31/512439121/trumps-executive-order-on-immigration-annotated).

There have been numerous lists published this week on blogs and on various social media sites about children’s literature dealing with migration and refugees. It is an issue of our times, as countries of the global south experience many of the after-effects of colonialism, racism, and global economic inequity and people leave their homeland both to escape war and violence and to seek a more economically-stable life. This past week that issue came into even sharper focus when the US president issued an executive order on immigration. The order has been referred to as a “Muslim ban” because the seven countries where visas have been halted are all predominantly Muslim countries, and the only exceptions made in the order are for “persecuted religious minorities” in these countries. There are many aspects of this that can be discussed, and I can’t discuss them all, so I just want to focus on one of the seven countries, and a children’s novel that offers red pencil correctives to some of the implications in that order.

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Devils on horsebacks: the Janjaweed who burn Amira’s village to the ground.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s and Shane Evans’s The Red Pencil (Hachette, 2014) is set in one of the seven countries whose nationals can neither immigrate nor even visit the US, Sudan. Sudan is not only primarily Muslim, it has been wracked by civil war, and more than 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. The executive order says that, in places like Sudan, people become more desperate to get to the US, and will use “any means necessary” to do so. But Pinkney’s novel paints a very different picture. Amira, the twelve-year-old main character, is only vaguely cognizant that a place like the US exists (she sees “pink people” with “teethy mouths/ speaking English” on a “flicker box” in the camp [Red Pencil 162]). She never mentions wanting to go there, even after she arrives in the armed-guarded displaced persons camp. She longs only for her lost home, destroyed by “torches/Flames hurled to the roofs./ Our livestock pen alight with fire” (112) when the Janjaweed militia raided and burned her village to the ground. Knowing she cannot return there, however, does not mean she thinks of getting to America by any means necessary. The only other place she thinks about going is school.

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Amira uses her pencil to tell the truth about becoming a refugee.

School for Amira has been a dream because girls are not encouraged to get an education in Sudan. She is not taught how to read or write until she has lost everything else and is in the refugee camp. When she is given a red pencil by a Sudan Relief worker, she does not know how to use it. She feels trapped by lined paper in the same way she feels trapped by the barbed wire fences surrounding the camp, but she learns how to ignore those lines and create something beautiful or something truthful. “the pencil’s music./ It plays on paper,/ shows me highs,/ lows,/ in-betweens” (210). Amira draws angry pictures of the “wicked helicopter . . . spitting big bullets” (208) and of the Janjaweed, “devils on horseback” (59), but she never speaks of revenge. For Amira, the Janjaweed are like the dust storms that ruin the crops, and how can you revenge yourself against nature? Amira’s only possible response is a creative one, and the red pencil she is given by an American organization allows her “soul’s bird [to] wake” (208) and, eventually, to fly.

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Will refugees be able to fly free in more than their imagination? “What else is possible? I am.”

But even if her soul’s bird yearned to fly to freedom in America, she could not do so. She is not someone who might “engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation”. She is a child, not a potential terrorist, who has never held a weapon and only wants to learn, and create. She is the victim of war, not the perpetrator. A month ago, a real girl like Amira still would not have been allowed to come to the US as a refugee, because she is still in Sudan and to be designated as a refugee by the UN you need to be relocated to an intermediate country. Less than one percent of the world’s refugees are ever resettled, because the process of resettlement has been made extremely arduous by countries wanting to protect their borders and put their nationals first.  Now, however, the executive order will prevent Sudanese from even that much hope, until and unless someone else’s red pencil strikes through the refugee ban. Fiction such as Pinkney and Evans’s The Red Pencil allows us to humanize an experience not one of us would choose.

A Good Immigrant of another Time (But the Same Story)

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Salkey’s Danny Jones thought leaving Britain might be the only solution. Illustration by Errol Lloyd.

This week, Nikesh Shukla’s edited collection, The Good Immigrant, appeared, a volume of 21 essays by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers about their experience in Britain. He edited the collection because, as he writes, “while I and the 20 other writers included in this book don’t want to just write about race, nor do we only write about race, it felt imperative, in the light of . . . the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country, that we create this document” (“Editor’s Note”). Too many white Britons (and Americans, for that matter) see BAME Britons (or Americans) as bad immigrants—thieves of one kind or another, prompting those white Britons (or Americans) to “want their country (or their job or their girl/boyfriend or their place at university) back.” This attitude persists even when the writers are not, in fact, immigrants, but born and bred citizens. White people are entitled, but everyone else has to earn their rights, prove their worth.

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Shukla’s Good Immigrant appeared to excellent reviews–and, hopefully to a more receptive audience than some Windrush Generation authors experienced in the 20th century.

This has all happened before. Multiple times.

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The writer Andrew Salkey, who came to the UK from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation. Photo Caribbean Review of Books.

I could write (and have written) about many different examples, but I’m going to highlight just one today in this blog, the writer Andrew Salkey. Salkey came to Britain from Jamaica in the early 1950s, part of the Windrush Generation. The Windrush Generation encompasses migrants from all parts of the English-speaking Caribbean (as Sam Selvon pointed out in Lonely Londoners, white Britons had a habit of lumping all Caribbean people together and calling them, collectively, “Jamaicans” as if there were no other islands or political differences between them) who came to Britain between 1948 and the early 1960s because the UK had asked them to come to fill postwar labour shortages. Salkey, like the other migrants, was British—he had British citizenship as part of the colonial system—and he came to the “Mother Country” to work. He should have been seen as a model citizen. The colour of his skin, however, meant that Salkey had to earn respect through hard work.

And he did. He not only worked for Henry Swanzy’s BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices, contributing stories and commentary and interviews, he worked for other parts of the BBC as well, including the African Service, the Pacific Service and the General Overseas Service. He got broadcasting jobs because he was extremely well-spoken (you can hear him speak in a documentary on Caribbean Voices, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02sbplt ) and—in terms of his own stories—he followed Swanzy’s dictates for what a good contributor should do. Philip Nanton, in his article “What does Mr Swanzy want?” (Caribbean Quarterly 46.1, 61-72) says that the answer to this question is simple: Henry Swanzy wanted local colour in work that was publishable by British publishers. That meant that the stories presented on the BBC had to be comprehensible (at least mostly) to a white audience, as well as giving them the ocean breezes, calypso, and other acceptable tropes of the Caribbean that white listeners expected. Most of the contributors, including Salkey, praised Swanzy for the work he did in editing their stories and poems to a “metropolitan standard” because they wanted to be published where it would matter—meaning London, not the Caribbean.

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Salkey’s “disaster sequence” from Oxford University Press allowed him to present a broader picture of the Caribbean to children. Illustration by William Papas.

It was through Salkey’s work on Caribbean Voices that he caught the attention of Oxford University Press, who published Salkey’s “disaster sequence” for children, Hurricane, Drought, Earthquake and Riot. Like his Caribbean Voices work, these novels were set in the Caribbean and were full of local colour. But, because of his earlier success, he was able to do something different. These books showed that life in the Caribbean was not all calypso music and coconuts on the beach—the natural disasters that strike the area affect the economy and its ability to grow. Caribbean people were not all poor and rural (the books center on middle-class families in the capital city, Kingston). The last book in the sequence, Riot, shows labour unrest in Jamaica, subtly laying the blame for problems of continuing poverty and a breakdown of community on the colonial system. Salkey continued in these novels to be well-spoken (they are mostly written in “school” English, not patois) and provide a vivid picture of his “exotic” homeland. But his children’s work shows him starting to become a “bad” immigrant, or at least a “less good” one.

Salkey stopped publishing children’s books with Oxford after Riot, but he continued to write for children, and to support other Caribbean writers. He was one of the founding members, in 1966, of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement (CAM), along with John La Rose and Kamau Brathwaite. By 1968 he was an editor and advisor to Jessica Huntley, a Guyanese migrant who had come to Britain ten years earlier and who had started Bogle L’Ouverture press with her husband Eric Huntley. Bogle L’Ouverture came out of Jessica Huntley’s desire to produce books for Black people, by Black people, in Britain. Salkey advised her on publishing work by Walter Rodney, Bernard Coard, and Linton Kwesi Johnson—all of whom were or became revolutionaries of one kind or another. He also offered Huntley his own work for children, literature that was very different from what he had produced for Oxford, much more overtly political. Joey Tyson (1974) is a fictionalized account of Walter Rodney’s expulsion from Jamaica from a child protagonist’s perspective; The River that Disappeared (1979) details American imperialistic attitudes and drug trafficking in the Caribbean (not the kind of local colour usually looked for in a Caribbean story for children), and Danny Jones (1980) discusses the difficulties of being Black and British in contemporary London. At the end of this last novel, the title character is pondering a “return” to Jamaica, the country of his parents’ origin, thinking it might be the “more hopeful” option than being hassled by the police in Britain just for being Black.

By the time that Danny Jones was published, Salkey had himself left Britain for an academic post in the US. He continued to write for and correspond with Jessica Huntley and many of the writers he had known in Britain, but American universities were happy to do what Britain at the time was not: hire Salkey to teach creative writing to university students. The US, unlike Britain, already had a tradition of African and African-American or Black Studies programmes, and even smaller places were eager to have a professor who could teach a class or two of Black Literature. Britain, on the other hand, has only just begun its first Black Studies programme at Birmingham City University this year.

In the last chapter of Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant, Musa Okwonga writes about how he spent his life in Britain on the one hand being “an unofficial ambassador for black people” (225) and on the other frequently “stop-searched by police, on one occasion merely for waiting by a bus stop” (225). Okwonga went to Eton and Oxford, but this was never enough: “we were still seen as guests, our social acceptance only conditional upon our very best behaviour” (231). Like Salkey, Okwonga finally had enough and left for somewhere he could feel welcome. By not extending that welcome, Britain is continuing—generation upon generation—to lose some of the people who could add to its great literary heritage.