Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

Love’s Bright Syllable: Speaking of Justice in BAME Literature

You who set free love’s bright syllable

from behind history’s iron door

that those who choose to take heed

may stride toward the sky

from “Voice” by John Agard


In the last post before Christmas, a package arrived for me from Newcastle.  It was a book of poems, The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King edited by Carolyn Forché and Jackie Kay (Bloodaxe 2017) that came along with a thank-you for my work on the “Diverse Voices? Curating a National History of Children’s Books” symposium in November.  Both the symposium and the poetry collection I received were part of Newcastle’s “Freedom City” project, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s visit to the city to receive an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University just months before he was assassinated.


The idea of commemorating such an event is a good one, especially with events and publications that speak not only about the past, but about the present and future.  The Mighty Stream includes poems that discuss King’s life, but also the life and death of Trayvon Martin.  Lauren Alleyne’s “Martin Luther King Jr Mourns Trayvon Martin” includes the lines, “For you, gone one, I dreamed/ justice—her scales tipped/ away from your extinction” (187).  Our “Diverse Voices?” symposium looked at the past, through archival work, but also pointed out the work that needed to continue—in publishing, in archiving, in prize-giving.  Both book and symposium also discussed the need for everyone—everyone—to use their own voice to call out injustice.  John Agard’s poem “Voice,” quoted at the beginning of this blog (and on page 47 of The Mighty Stream), is the optimistic and hopeful counterpart to Ifeoma Onyefulu’s comment at the symposium, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”  Calling out injustice is one piece of the puzzle, but unless (as Gandhi put it), “your words become your actions, your actions become your habits” then words are not enough.


Brahmachari continues the Levenson family saga with a twelve-year-old girl finding her voice–and sharing it with the world.

One of the authors at the symposium in November, Sita Brahmachari, recently published a book that puts Gandhi’s ideas into practice.  Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) forms the latest book of her fictional Levenson family’s history, but it is also a story of justice born out of (often painful) experience.  Brahmachari’s earlier books, Artichoke Hearts (Macmillan 2011) and Jasmine Skies (Macmillan 2012) focused on the eldest Levenson girl, Mira, as she finds out who she is through art and travel.  Both these journeys of discovery involve Mira’s family in important ways; art is a gift of Mira’s Nana Josie, and Mira travels to India to stay with her mother’s side of the family and learn about her heritage.  Family also plays an important role in Tender Earth, about the youngest Levenson sister Laila, but Brahmachari’s novel expands the definition of family to include a wider group of people.  Indeed, the book begins with two trees—a traditional family tree, and Laila’s “Friend Tree”.  Her friend tree comes first, indicating its central role in the novel.


Laila’s friend and family trees give her a place on this tender earth that is both local and global.

Friends are perhaps central to Laila because her family is breaking up, not in a negative way but in the normal course of things.  Her sister Mira is going to Glasgow to study art at university; her brother Krish has also departed, to the Lake District to live with Nana Kath.  Laila feels uncertain about her place in the family, as indicated by her new choice of “bedroom”—a couch on the liminal space of a stair landing, “a seat . . . like it’s a waiting room” (253) as one person comments.  At first, it seems old friendships are also breaking up.  Laila’s best friend Kez won’t come over anymore because she is in a wheelchair and Laila’s house is difficult for her to access—but Kez has also arranged to be placed in a different tutor group than Laila, a move that Laila sees as a betrayal. But being thrown onto her own resources necessitates Laila’s growth.  She makes a new friend, Pari, whose parents are Iraqi refugees, and meets her Nana Josie’s old friends Hope and Simon.  Simon gives Laila her deceased Nana’s “Protest Book” which lists a lifetime of social justice marches and activities.  These new friendships, a visit from Laila’s Indian cousin Janu, who is going around the world barefoot to raise money for his charity, and a sympathetic teacher’s gift of the biography of Malala Yousafzai, all work together to point out a direction for Laila.  She sees that what she’s been “waiting for” in her liminal space was a purpose, an identity.

Laila brings her new and old selves together by organizing her first protest.  When Laila’s friend Kez’s grandmother goes to visit the grave of her Kindertransport husband, it has been spray-painted with a swastika along with several other graves in the Jewish cemetery.  Laila witnesses the way the desecration of the graves devastates Kez’s family, and decides to mount a candlelight protest.  Her thought process is recorded by Brahmachari:

“Everything kaleidoscopes through my mind.  Those men’s faces on the tube, mocking Janu with their chanting, the hateful words in Pari’s lift, what her parents had to go through, Bubbe and Stan arriving as children, Grandad Kit marching on Cable Street against the fascism growing in the city, Bubbe’s tears at the refugee children on the news, at Stan’s grave . . . what if . . . what if no one can tell when they’re actually living in a time that’s losing its heart?  What if that’s why evil things happen?  No one says and does anything until it’s too late” (380).

Laila’s protest brings together all the people she has met because they all can say and do something to help make things better.  One of the things Brahmachari does so well as a writer is to draw characters as whole people; Pari’s mother may be a refugee living in poverty whose English is imperfect, but she too has a voice and can take action.  She not only comes to Laila’s protest, she knits Laila a warm hat.  Everyone, Brahmachari argues, has something tangible that they can give to a community—no matter how liminal they may seem.

So in the spirit of the coming new year, and in the hope posited by events such as the Women’s March last January (an event mentioned in Tender Earth) and the “Diverse Voices?” symposium, I am going to think about ways to use my voice in 2018—and put my words into actions until they become habits.  Maybe you can do the same, and love’s bright syllable will help us all stride skyward.


Panther Cubs? The Black Panthers and Children’s Literature


This week, Artlyst announced that Tate Modern will be holding a summer exhibition on the art of American Black Power (http://www.artlyst.com/previews/american-black-power-explored-new-tate-summer-exhibition/). Tate Britain’s display of photographs, Stan Firm Inna Inglan, has already begun (http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/display/walk-through-and-spotlight/stan-firm-inna-inglan-black-diaspora-london), and the photograph used on the website about the exhibition by Colin Jones has the phrase Black Power prominently displayed. It is a pity that these two exhibitions are not more obviously linked, but the artistic and cultural adult world in general has been thinking back to the Black Power/Black Panthers era with increasing frequency (including a recent programme on Sky on the British Black Panthers). Children’s literature on the other hand, as I’ve pointed out in other blogposts, tends to avoid images of violence or aggression, especially if either is directed toward the dominant white power structure. So while photos of white people shouting at young African-Americans going to school or police officers threatening Black citizens are common in children’s books about this era, pictures of Black people taking control of a situation aggressively are not. In fact, most recent children’s books that include the Black Panthers go out of their way to take the claws out of the cat, as it were.

Colin Jones The Black House, 571 Holloway Road, London 1976, printed 2012 Tate. Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2016 © Colin Jones Digital Image courtesy of Autograph ABP  Photo by Colin Jones.

As with books about more radical individuals in the Civil Rights and Black Power era, such as Malcolm X and Claudia Jones, there aren’t many that exclusively address the Black Panthers. In fact, try this fun game: type “Black Panthers” into Amazon’s children’s book search (US or UK) and see what comes up. Yes, there are more books about the animal than there are about the movement—a lot more. I went to the library to see if perhaps I could find older books. Most books in the section about African-Americans started with slavery and ended with civil rights (minus the Black Panthers/Black Power) with nothing much inbetween, as if African Americans ceased to exist in the hundred years between the two periods. Civil Rights book covers were telling; the most common cover image for these books was of African-Americans singing, often as part of a multiracial and harmonious group. To be acceptable, Black people must generally appear to be non-threatening to white people.


Civil rights is often portrayed as harmonious–literally–in children’s lit.

Some of the books on Civil Rights do mention Black Power or the Black Panthers, but carefully. Casey King’s and Linda Barrett-Osborne’s Oh, Freedom! Kids talk about the Civil Rights Movement with the people who made it happen (Scholastic 1998), which also has a cover illustration of singing African-American children, nonetheless includes a remarkably frank exchange between Menelik Coates and his former Black Panther father Paul. Menelik begins by asking his dad if he was “in charge of all the guns”; his father is quick to respond that Black Panthers “rarely carried guns openly” although they did have them in their homes, and that the main focus was uplifting Black communities. Paul Coates may admire Huey Newton for calling police “pigs,” but he concludes his interview with his son by saying, “It’s not about blacks wanting to be superior or treat anyone badly. It’s simply a way for us to be equal in this world”. It is unclear whether this interview is a transcription of an actual event, or if the book’s authors edited or organized the questions and responses, but the interview seems to be designed to both acknowledge and deny the connection between Black Panthers and violence.

This way of beginning with the potential for violence and ending with a peaceful message is common in children’s books. Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement (Capstone 2015) has a chapter on Malcolm X (unsurprisingly titled “By Any Means Necessary”) which begins with Malcolm X quoted calling Martin Luther King Jr a “fool” but which ends with a very different quotation where X says, “Dr. King wants the same thing I want—freedom!” In order to introduce controversial figures—whether famous or not—children’s books remove any threat the individuals might pose. In the end, Mortensen’s book suggests, the radical Malcolm X came around to the viewpoint of non-violence held by Dr. King—a portrayal that at best smooths over the truth, and at worst is a gross misrepresentation of Malcolm X’s viewpoints.


They were pals, really–and Malcolm X in children’s books has to learn that MLK jr is right. From Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.

Even when a children’s text mentions the aggression associated with the Black Panthers and Black Power, it is often euphemized, countered or contradicted by other elements of the text. Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement (Core 2014) uses both softening techniques and textual design to deflect any inference that violence or direct opposition to government and institutional policies had a positive effect on power gained by African-Americans. Like other texts, the Rissman description begins with the “strong actions” taken to achieve change, but concludes that “the majority of black power movement activities were nonviolent” (27), again both acknowledging and denying Black Panther militancy. The chapter title, however, refutes the idea that strong action was successful; and the photographic illustration shows African-Americans looting and rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (which can only indirectly be connected to either Black Power or the Black Panthers). The people in the photograph do not appear powerful; rather, the opposite. The book’s design has the overall effect of raising doubt about the efficacy of Black Power and Black Panthers as positive forces within and for the African-American community on the very page it discusses their “strong” actions.


Were the Black Panthers “strong” if they caused people to act like this? Textual design guides the reader to think not. From Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement.

The embrace of non-violence by authors of books about Black Power may seem just the result of the intended audience for these books; children are not “supposed” to read about violence, ostensibly because it might frighten them. Children’s nonfiction, however, often includes violence, aggression and damage to government property; just look at any text about the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party is not portrayed as colonists looting private property, and the minutemen (who never, by the way, feed any children breakfast) are not brought round to peacefully protesting the monarchy. In England, Guy Fawkes Day is a holiday, but there aren’t any kids’ books (that I know of) about the Bradford Twelve. The fact that children’s books portray Black Panthers/Black Power organizations as either violent but ineffectual or initially violent but later allied with/embracing non-violence suggests that the author’s/publisher’s motive has more to do with their own fears than that of the child reader’s, and their need to ensure that readers dismiss the potential attraction of power for oppressed people found in movements like the Black Panthers.

Voting as a Battleground: Children’s Literature that Reminds Us Why We Vote

Today is election day in the United States. It has been an ugly election year and people of color (not to mention women) have been put in the spotlight at several moments in the campaign. From discussions about walls and judges who might be biased, to labeling whole groups of people as living in poverty and crime, to threats to remove all people from a particular religious group from the country, watching the news during the last few months has often felt like viewing a battleground.

So far, however, most of the American people have ensured that the verbal sparring has not spilled over into actual physical violence. This was not always the case in the US, and today I’ll focus on one of the many books available that remind us of those times. Paula Young Shelton and Raul Colón’s Child of the Civil Rights Movement (Schwartz and Wade 2010) is particularly pertinent for today’s election for a number of reasons.


Just an ordinary friend of the family–Shelton’s description and Colon’s illustration of “Uncle Martin”.

Paula Young Shelton is the daughter of Andrew Young, the first Black mayor of Atlanta. The book is her story, her childhood spent in the midst of Civil Rights leaders such as her father, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the most surprising and tender moments of the book is when Shelton describes learning to swim with Martin Luther King, Jr, at the local YMCA, because it is a good reminder that MLK and other Civil Rights Leaders were also ordinary people, albeit living through extraordinary times.


The sit-in strike–as old as childhood itself.

The ordinariness of people is one of Shelton’s messages in the book, but so too is the idea that ordinary people can choose to do the harder thing, and thus become extraordinary. At the beginning of the book, Shelton’s family is living in the northern part of the country “where there was no Jim Crow” (n.p.). But during the Freedom Rider protests, Shelton’s family sees how “racists pulled the students from their seats and set the buses on fire” (n.p.) and rather than simply shake their heads and say what a shame it is, both of Shelton’s parents, in separate declarations, announce that they need to move to the South to stand up for the rights of all people to do ordinary things. Shelton describes her first “sit-in” strike at a restaurant in Atlanta. When her family was refused a table, Shelton was so hungry that she sat down and essentially had a temper tantrum. Her parents did not make her stop. Any parent who has ever had a child break down in a restaurant or store knows that even that takes courage.


Doing the hard thing is easier when you are together.

The culmination of the story is the Selma to Montgomery march, and this too is a triumph of the ordinary. Shelton lists all the various groups who came, and includes in it “a man with one leg who everybody called Sunshine” (n.p.). This is the only individual she mentions besides Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King, and again it highlights the way that ordinary people making hard choices can make a difference. This march led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which “would make sure all people—black and white—could vote and no one could stop them” (n.p.).


Civil Rights are for all people–and you can make a difference, no matter who you are.

Raul Colón’s illustrations underpin the book’s message. As I mentioned earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. is first mentioned in the story as “Uncle Martin” who teaches little Paula Young to swim. Colón’s first illustration of King is, not as a statesman or even a leader of marches, but of him in his swimming trunks. Colón depicts him filling up the page—larger than life, as we have come to think of him—arms wide open and smiling, but as a person, rather than a Civil Rights leader. This everyday action, of King teaching Shelton how to swim, makes Paula feel a part of a family, “the family of the civil rights movement” (n.p.). Her family—birth and “adopted”—gives her strength to become a protestor herself, to protect the rights of people who don’t have a family like hers to stand behind them. The book ends with this connection to family and to protest: “And one day, when Mama and Daddy were too tired to march, too weary to carry us on their shoulders, too exhausted to fight another battle, the baton would pass to us and we would march on—children of the civil rights movement” (n.p.).

And although Shelton mentions “other battles” that would have to be fought, Colón’s illustrations remind the reader subtly that civil rights affect everyone in all times, not just African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. His cover illustration, which is not drawn from any of the pages of the book but is a separate and unique illustration, with no text other than the book title and authors to accompany it, is of the little girl Paula holding a flag. The flag says EQUALITY, and is rainbow-colored. The book appeared in 2010, during the fight in the US over another kind of civil right—that of same-sex couples to marry. Civil rights, Colón appears to suggest, are more than just a historical issue. And voting is the citizen’s way to protect those civil rights for all people (even the non-citizens) who live in a country. In that way, we are all children of the Civil Rights movement.

The Devil in the Details: Malcolm X as Revolutionary—or not?

In honor of May 19th being Malcolm X day, I thought I’d take a look at some of the biographies available for children of the Civil Rights leader. This is not as easy a prospect as if I were looking for biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., of course. MLK has thousands of biographies written about him—new ones appear all the time, and they are easily available in libraries and schools for kids of all ages. This is partly because of his message of non-violence, but also because in children’s publishing, editors prefer books (in America, Canada, and the UK, anyhow) that they think white readers will accept. And Malcolm X, who once proclaimed white people as devils, is a much harder sell than Martin Luther King, Jr.


Archer places Malcolm X next to other leaders–and concludes Malcolm X is the voice of the “young ghetto blacks”.

All of the biographies (there are three of them) available in the Newcastle University Robinson BookTrust collection (a children’s literature collection given to the university by the charity BookTrust) are for older readers, and one has no pictures. The pictureless text is in a collection entitled They had a dream: The Civil Rights struggle from Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Penguin 1996). Archer, a white radical who mistrusted the government, once said, “I cannot tell how much good my books have done in developing a new awareness of the whole truth about America and the rest of the world in the younger generation, although they are fortunately in tune with the thinking of many young people about what is wrong in our society and how to correct it” (http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv77986). But Archer’s biography of Malcolm X begins with the idea that “Malcolm X was stung when The New York Times ran a poll of the city’s blacks that found Martin Luther King, Jr., chosen by 75 percent as doing the best work for blacks.  Only 6 percent voted for Malcolm.” (186). The entire biography places Malcolm X’s work alongside of King, and in the context of how white people reacted to it. The phrase “black ghettos” is constantly repeated, and Archer labels Malcolm X’s mother a “mulatto” (188), a word that even in 1993 (when the book was first published) was not considered a reasonable way to describe someone of mixed heritage. The final lines of the biography attempt to praise Malcolm X, but instead remind the reader of Malcolm X’s criminal past and also emphasize the poverty of African-Americans: “The young ghetto blacks could believe and follow a man who had been there himself as an underworld pimp, dope addict, con man, armed robber, and convict, and who had then transformed himself into a world-famous, respected black leader, entirely on his own initiative. What he could do, they could do, too” (222). Despite Archer’s good intentions, the book’s discussion of race would not do anything to debunk the sense of white superiority that Malcolm X fought against.


Just the facts–including the fact that “black people are not really the chosen ones”.


Michael Benson’s Malcolm X: Just the Facts Biographies (Lerner 2005) also subtly suggests a racial hierarchy, beginning by describing how “Malcolm had the lightest skin of any of the family.  He looked like his mother more than his father.  Malcolm’s hair and skin were reddish brown, while his brothers and sisters had darker coloring.  (At the time, some people thought that a black person with paler skin might be mistaken as white.  Looking white could be helpful in getting a job.)” (7). There is no follow-up to suggest the inequality of a system that makes it easier to get jobs based on your skin color; in fact, it is inserted as though Malcolm X might have been luckier than his siblings. Benson’s biography is also careful to emphasize that Malcolm X was a reformed racist himself upon his return from Africa in 1964: “He was a changed man.  He had gone to Africa to find his true religion.  He had learned that many of his earlier beliefs about race were false.  White people were not really devils, and black people were not really the chosen ones” (80). It is only when he realizes that white people are all right that he is “able to do things he never dreamed of” (80).


Malcolm X for beginners–and for “us”.


Only one of the biographies I looked at was written by a Black author, and this is clear from the book’s text. Bernard Aquina Doctor’s Malcolm X for Beginners (Writers and Readers 1992) does not talk about “young ghetto blacks” or even “African Americans” but “we, us, and ours”: “Malcolm believed that the destiny of Blacks in America was up to Blacks.  We could not, should not, expect any politician, any group, no matter how well meaning, to attain for us what we want.  We need to take our destiny in our hands, do whatever we must to obtain our freedom, our human and civil rights” (164). The book’s publisher, Writers and Readers, “was formed in England as a publishing cooperative where everybody shared the work and the profits. [The publisher, Glenn Thompson] wanted to prove that nonreaders would read if offered books that addressed their concerns; but most importantly, he wanted to “advance the needs of cultural literacy, rather than cater to an ‘advanced’ but limited readership” (From the Firm’s declaration of intent). Out of these ideologies, Writers and Readers began publishing the immensely popular Beginners series, a comic-book style, trade-paperback series of nonfiction reference titles” (http://www.forbeginnersbooks.com/aboutus.html). Doctor’s book is the only one that is designed, not as a reference biography (something kids use to look up quotations for a report) but an actual artistic creation, with illustrations (unfortunately somewhat let down by the printing process) that place symbols of American freedom next to examples of American oppression.


America as land of the free–and home of the brave–in Doctor’s text.

And it is the only one that suggests that Martin Luther King, as well as Malcolm X, changed his mind: “Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as an advocate of peaceful civil disobedience.  But before he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. King was forced to reconsider his views.  Like his followers, he was beaten by police, thrown in jail, and denied his civil rights” (104-105). By showing MLK’s experience with a racist society, Doctor puts Malcolm X in a different light from other biographers—not a white-hating advocate of violence, but a man who experiences the same everyday racism as other Blacks—even those most acceptable to white people—and wants to do something about it.