Tag Archives: Muslims

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.

Proper Attire as a Racial Issue in Children’s Literature

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What is proper attire? And who decides?

This week, photos emerged of French police in Nice surrounding a woman wearing a burkini, the full-body bathing suit designed for Muslim women to allow them to enjoy the summer and protect their modesty at the same time. The police made her remove part of her clothing due to a ban on the garment in certain municipalities (including Nice). While the French courts mull over the legality of the various bans, Twitter was a-tweet with criticism. One particular photo kept recurring, that of some nuns on the beach, fully habited, generally with a tag line of “Will the police make these women undress as well?”

 

The picture of the nuns was used to show the absurdity of the laws, but it also highlights something else: proper attire is and has been consistently an issue for BAME people for a long time. It is an issue of power—and white people generally have the power to make the rules about attire for everyone else. So, no, of course the French police will not make nuns remove their habits; they are only concerned with women who might be “liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach,” according to the tribunal. Even well-intentioned bodies reveal the power hierarchy. It is great news that this week the Scottish and Canadian police “allowed” Muslim women to wear the hijab while in police uniform, but why should they have to “allow” it in the first place?

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It’s not a class issue–poor white women may feel bad about their clothes, but in the end they still get the one dress that matters.

 

Now, you might say that proper attire, especially in children’s literature, is about class more than race. Didn’t Meg March in Little Women feel embarrassed because she didn’t have the right clothes when visiting rich friend Sally Gardiner? And didn’t Anne Shirley come to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert with only an ugly yellow wincey dress that was too short for her in Anne of Green Gables? Yes, of course. But Meg was lent appropriate dress to the occasion (and learned to disdain frippery at the same time, being a good girl), and Anne had clothes made for her. The clothing was a sign to the reader that people should not be judged by their outfits, but by their characters. As soon as the lesson is learned, clothing ceases to be an issue (neither Meg nor Anne ever have to defend any ragged children from people making fun of them); not that they don’t continue to want pretty things, but they end up getting all the pretty things that they truly need because they are loved and cherished as people.

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No white dress for Lorraine in Dhondy’s “Free Dinners” Cover image by Alun Hood.

 

Life doesn’t come up quite so rosy for some non-white characters in children’s books. Farrukh Dhondy, in 1978, wrote about Lorraine, a Black girl, and Pete, a white boy, both of whom receive “Free Dinners” because they are poor (you can find the story in Dhondy’s Come to Mecca). When the Bishop comes to school to give prizes, the deputy head tells the pupils how to dress. Girls have to wear “flesh-coloured tights” (67). It is at this point that dress becomes an issue, because Lorraine answers back, “Whose flesh, miss?” (67). The deputy head sends her out of the room; when Lorraine shows up in “black velvet hot-pants and a black silk shirt” (67-68), the deputy head tells her she can’t win a prize looking like that. Pete thinks she looks “tarty” but Lorraine’s response is revealing: “Lorraine said she’d wear what she liked out of school time because it was her culture” (68; emphasis mine). Pete admires her for this, and even tries to take her out once or twice, but reveals his casual racism to Lorraine and she blocks any further attempts to connect with Pete. But Lorraine has not learned the “proper” lesson about attire, and because she refuses to dress like white people, she ends up losing all her clothes—getting work as a topless dancer after school finishes, and later as a prostitute. Dhondy, as author, is not showing the error of Lorraine’s ways, but rather the way that society, in a Foucaultian sense, punishes those who refuse to conform. Lorraine was not allowed to dress as she felt appropriate to her culture; her clothing might have been deliberately provocative but it was also a statement about a political kind of Blackness that her teachers rejected. Dhondy’s story is important, because it came after years of comics and stories where Black characters (or caricatures) longed to (or sometimes actually did) wash themselves white. In the time that Dhondy was writing, some schools banned the Rastafarian colours of red, green and gold, and, as Sally Tomlinson points out, “schools worried over allowing pupils to wear dreadlocks” (Race and Education 49) in case it would lead to anti-authoritarian behavior.

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More recently, the issue of Muslim girls wearing the hijab has also been raised in children’s books. Randa Abdel-Fatteh’s Does My Head Look Big in This? is probably the most famous hijab story, possibly because of its humorous look at being female and Muslim. In some ways, though, Abdel-Fatteh’s story tries almost too hard to make wearing the hijab a positive experience (at least in the end); in her own life, as Geraldine Brooks of the New York Times points out, Abdel-Fatteh stopped wearing a hijab at 17, “anxious about prejudicing her job prospects” (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=980CE4DA103AF935A2575AC0A9619C8B63&ref=bookreviews). Tariq Mehmood also wrote about the hijab in his Diverse Voices-award winning novel, You’re Not Proper. Mehmood, who was a member of the Bradford 12 in 1981, a group of Asian Britons who made petrol bombs to defend against racists and who were arrested for it, depicts in his novel what it means to choose to wear the hijab—as well as what it means to have it stripped from you.

 

I don’t know of any books written by Sikh authors about the wearing of the turban that are set in modern times (if you do, please comment). But Sikhs are frequently singled out, just as Muslims are, for wardrobe infringement, and in fact are often mistaken for Islamic “terrorists” because they are not white and wear “different” clothing. Children’s books are a major source of education for young people, and thus people involved with children’s books need to share those that educate (about cultures and religions) but also those that support young people and the choices they make about their dress. To do that, we need more books that describe what constitutes “proper” attire.

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.