Tag Archives: Randa Abdel-Fatteh

And the Ship Sails On: The Sea and the Racialized Other in Children’s Literature

In Federico Fellini’s 1983 film, And the Ship Sails On, all the pretty (and not so pretty, but rich) people of society are gathered on a luxury ocean liner to scatter the ashes of a famous opera singer; their memorial is interrupted by some refugees that the captain brings on the ship’s deck. The society doyennes believe that the refugees are terrorists, and demand that they be isolated. When another ship demands the refugees be returned, the captain agrees—but one of the refugees hurls a bomb at the other ship, causing it to open fire on the luxury liner. The liner sinks while the orchestra plays and the cinema projectionist watches film clips of the dead opera singer saying goodbye at the end of a concert.

This is a very brief summary of Fellini’s brilliant satire (among other things, it ignores the love-sick rhinoceros) but I wanted to include it for any of my blog readers who haven’t seen it. Despite the film being set in 1914, and concerning Austro-Hungarian aggression, I was reminded of Fellini’s film this past weekend when, at the BAMEed 2017 conference in Birmingham, I listened to Darren Chetty’s talk on education and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people. Chetty commented that Britain’s education rhetoric is often expressed in nautical terms—running a tight ship, for example—and he wondered if this was a hangover of Empire, when “Britannia Ruled the Waves”. I would go so far as to suggest that it is not just education that suffers from this hangover, but government rhetoric in general. By recalling an imperial past, Britain not only recalls its days as global superpower, but racializes the discourse. White people sail and run tight ships. Racialized others are refugees to be rescued, or impediments to the success of the mission. Or terrorists.

This can be seen throughout British children’s literature. In days when Britain thrived as a seafaring nation, primarily due to the slave trade, the hierarchy was obvious, with white sailors on deck and African slaves in the ship’s bowels. But even as slavery was abolished, children’s books continued to highlight the global inequality Britain had helped create through the presentation of racialized situations. Michael Scott’s Cruise of the Midge (Collins 1895), for example, has sailors rescuing two West Indians when their canoe gets in trouble. The illustrations, by WS Stacey, show an angry West Indian man, dressed in rags, preparing to smash an idol which was meant to bring him luck, while well-dressed sailors do nothing to alleviate his distress but stand around and look amused. Clearly, they would never be superstitious enough to believe in idols and “luck”, like West Indians, and so they would never end up in rags and rage on someone else’s ship.

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Britons rule the waves, while racialized others foolishly depend on superstition to keep them safe from the sea. WS Stacey’s illustration from Michael Scott’s Cruise of the Midge.

During the 1920s, Britain’s empire was at its largest, but was also beginning to face the rumblings of independence movements throughout the colonies. British children’s literature during this period was filled with children (and water-rats and moles) “messing about in boats”. As Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons children’s father says, “Better drowned than duffers.” The white British child was now in charge of ruling the waves, as this cover from the children’s magazine Fairyland Tales from 1925 indicates, and they, like the sailors in The Cruise of the Midge, find it amusing to leave the racialized other—in this instance a caricatured toy version of a racialized other, further indicating their position on top of the racial hierarchy—in a precarious position. Britain continued to enjoy its position of privilege without regard to how the rest of the world was affected by its assumption of control.

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The Non-Stop Boat of British racial imperialism carries on.

It might be argued that this is not, in fact, a racial issue; that Britain’s (idea of) control over the seas extended to other European countries and often America as well. But it is important to look at how white Britons are placed in comparison with not-white others in children’s literature to understand the way that the trope of British control over the seas becomes naturalized and normalized. In 1953, for example, Alice Berry-Hart published To School in the Spanish Main (Puffin), a WWII story about British children sent to the Caribbean to sit out the war. Rather than being portrayed as war refugees, welcomed in by Black Caribbean foster families (as so many evacuee stories set in England show white British families doing), the children are portrayed as being on an extended holiday, even when they have to deal with German spy ships. The Caribbean islanders are portrayed as incidental to the action. Britain still owns the Caribbean, and even as technical refugees they rule the waves.

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You don’t have to live like a refugee–at least not if you’re white. Richard Kennedy illustrated the cover.

Now that Britain is no longer a naval—or any other kind of—superpower, however, the rhetoric has shifted. The language of ships, as Darren Chetty points out, is still used to demonstrate white British need for control. But in children’s books now, the control is over the land and borders. White people can isolate racialized others on islands, as in Kiran Millwood-Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything. The sea segregates “us” from “them”. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s The Lines We Cross (Scholastic 2017) is set in Australia, but demonstrates a similar rhetoric. White people (who first came to Australia by sea as British colonizers) “own” the land. The main white character, Michael Blainey, is the son of the founder of “Aussie Values” which tries to “Turn Back the Boats” (1) of refugees. “Australia has the right to protect its borders” (35), Michael comments, and, “There has to be a limit [to immigration] or we’ll be flooded” (71; there is no irony displayed in any of this rhetoric because “Aussies”–whites–are not immigrants and have a right to the land). Mina, a “boat person” refugee from Afghanistan, is not buying his attitude, and calls it racist: “Is it all immigration, or just Muslim immigration?” (170) she asks him. Michael argues that he’s not racist, and that “we don’t have a choice who we’re born to, or where” (219), but Mina counters, “You want me to make it easier for you to confront your privilege because God knows even antiracism has to be done to make the majority comfortable” (219).

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Although Michael and Mina eventually work through their personal differences, The Lines We Cross never resolves the larger societal issues, and one of the later images in the book returns to a nautical image to describe Mina’s family’s position in Australia: “It’s like we never left the boat. Ten years on and we’re still on deck, being rocked and swayed, coming closer to the rocks and then pulling back, smashing against the waves” (345). Racism continues to pervade society, but we would do well to remember that, as with Fellini’s film, we are all in the same boat—and if we let racism sink it, it will sink us all.

 

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.