Tag Archives: Kate Elizabeth Ernest

Yes, actually, they DO know it’s Christmas: Imperialism and the holidays

My least favorite Christmas songs involve people feeling sorry for other people.  There’s no better way to encourage smug self-satisfaction about your superior life than listening to songs where people buy shoes for little boys who have mothers with cancer.  At least the shoe song is about local, face-to-face charity.  The all-time most annoying Christmas song, in my opinion, is Bob Geldof’s 1984 “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, a world-wide smash hit and Christmas Number One in the UK.  I know that I am not supposed to hate this song, because all the profits went to help sick and starving children in Africa—not once, but three times (it was re-recorded in 2004 and 2014, both times as charity singles).  But this song embodies for me all that is wrong with formerly (?) imperial countries and the way that they understand the world.

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An image from Iceland’s banned Christmas advert–perhaps the orangutan isn’t starving enough?

First, there is the idea that white westerners must save the Africans.  This is problematic on two separate accounts.  One, it ignores the fact that white, western countries stripped African countries of people and resources for hundreds of years through colonialism, and continue to do so—just ask the UK supermarket chain Iceland, whose Christmas advert heralding their ban on palm oil, the harvesting of which destroys orangutan habitats, was banned for being “too political” (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/09/iceland-christmas-tv-ad-banned-political-greenpeace-orangutan).  Nowhere in Geldof’s song does it suggest that Britain might help Africa because Britain helped cause the problem in the first place.  Two, even if you quibble with the notion that European colonialism continues to affect African countries, the idea that Africans need pity (rather than, say, economic development, fair trading practices, or reparations) perpetuates a racial hierarchy that is often felt much closer to home in the UK or US.  Several children’s books written by people of colour detail the humiliation of being compared with “pitiable” Africans; Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s semi-autobiographical Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995), for example, includes a school lesson about the famine in Biafra (1967-1970).  After hearing from Sister Agnes tell the class that “We in the West are fortunate to have fertile land, enough food, water and wealth . . . We must help those who are less fortunate” (29), Hope watches the pictures of the Biafran famine with horror and shame.  “How could Grandpa be proud to be descended from Africans?” (29) she asks.  Then she realizes that the rest of her class associates the starving children with her, even though she is from Jamaica: “I was the only black girl in the class and everyone looked at me” (29).  Hope’s classmates learn the lesson that it is acceptable to be racist, as long as you are charitable while doing so.  As Bono famously sings in the Geldof song, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”

The linking of race and poverty (consciously or not) is the most egregious of problems with “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” but it is not the only one.  Simplistic attitudes toward “the world outside your window” range from the idea that “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” (it actually does snow in Ethiopia, although not in the plains); to the idea that all Africans would care if they knew it was Christmas (about a quarter of the population is Muslim, to say nothing of other non-Christian religions); to the idea that if people don’t have the consumer trappings of a Western-style Christmas, then they will not recognize the day as Christmas.  Rachel Isadora’s The Night Before Christmas (Putnam 2009) tries to counter some of the stereotypical attitudes toward Africa by resetting Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in Africa.  Her dreadlocked Santa visits a family in Africa, bringing snow in his wake and providing presents from his sack.  Isadora, who is white American, lived in Africa for ten years, and has redone a number of traditional European and American tales by placing them in African settings; and although I think they are designed more to counter those naïve stereotypes about people in Africa for white people than I think they are for Africans themselves, it is still nice to see a book with a Black Santa on the cover.

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There will be snow in Africa–and Santa Claus too.

I thought about imperialism and its continuing effects too when I saw the cover of Esmeralda Santiago’s A Doll for Navidades (Scholastic 2005), which shows two brown girls cuddling a white doll.  Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, and illustrator Enrique O. Sanchez, who is Dominican, did not accidentally depict a white, blonde, blue-eyed baby doll.  The story is based on an incident from Santiago’s own childhood, when she longed for a doll like her cousin had and specifically requested the blonde blue-eyed baby as a present.  This recalls Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s infamous 1950 “doll test” in which all children of any colour who were offered white dolls or black dolls chose the white dolls.  The experiment was used as evidence in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to demonstrate the effects of systemic racism on children’s self-image.  Two of my former students—one Puerto Rican and one Dominican, as it happens—are currently looking in to what it means to have “national” children’s literatures in places where the shadow of imperialism (economic, political and cultural) still affects people on a daily basis.  What is interesting to me about Santiago’s book is that, while she allowed the white baby doll to remain, and titled the book A Doll for Navidades (Christmas), the book itself focuses on the difference between an American concept of Christmas and the Puerto Rican traditions.

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Giving the readers what they expect? Santiago doesn’t get the doll, and she doesn’t get anything for Christmas, because gift-giving in her Puerto Rican childhood happened in January.

The main character does not ask Santa for the doll, nor does she get gifts at Christmas.  The family go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and eat traditional dishes on Christmas Day, but the gift-givers are the Three Kings, and the gift-receiving day is January 6th (their feast day).  Again, these are, I believe, deliberate choices.  Santiago, writing for an American audience, allows readers to think they are getting a story that mimics American stories of writing to Santa with demands—but then, without fuss, gives a story that introduces other customs.  Further, the main character does not get the doll because her family cannot afford it; but this is not a story of wretched poverty and reluctant self-sacrifice.  Her sister gets the doll, and—seeing the protagonist’s disappointment—asks her to be godmother to the doll.  The children had learned to desire the consumer object made in a white western mode, but tradition and familial love made Christmas (and Three Kings’ Day) a memorable feast.

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.