Tag Archives: Rock Against Racism

Decolonizing Children’s Literature

This week, (another) row erupted over Oxbridge’s university curriculum, but this one hit the front pages of the Telegraph and Mail in a particularly disturbing way.  The Telegraph had a photograph of Lola Olufemi, women’s officer for Cambridge’s student union, with the headline, “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/25/decolonise-cambridge-university-row-attack-students-colour-lola-olufemi-curriculums).  To be honest, when I first read it, I laughed; the day that a BAME woman “forces” Oxbridge to do anything will be the day that Queen Elizabeth will hand over her crown to Paddington Bear.  But these papers (I have a hard time attaching the word “news” to them) do not believe what they are printing either; it is a good headline that fuels the hate and suspicion of “foreigners” trying to “destroy our way of life”.  In fact, the letter signed by Olufemi—and about 100 other students, by the way—did not call for the dropping of white authors, but the inclusion of marginalized authors.  A similar “threat” was, according to Sky News, posed by Malorie Blackman when she called for more diversity in children’s books.  Sky reported her comments, erroneously, as children’s literature having “too many white faces” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/26/malorie-blackman-racist-abuse-diversity-childrens-books). Blackman faced a volley of racist abuse on Twitter following the Sky report, which is of course ridiculous—since Blackman’s own work often references “canonical” literature, such as that sort-of-famous writer William Shakespeare.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company adapted Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, which they promoted as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

Why is it that literature is such a focus of fear when it comes to decolonization?  Music has always been open to crossover influences.  In Britain’s relatively recent history, music has even been a catalyst for societal change.  In the 1950s, calypso musicians helped London clubbers cross racial lines (see http://www.blacklondonhistories.org.uk/uncategorized/co-existence-through-calypsos-and-cockney-cabaret/ for a discussion of this, with a link to a British Pathé newsreel of one such event).  White jazz artists and Black calypsonians learned from each other. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, punk and reggae artists united to fight the National Front in the organization Rock Against Racism; the Clash began incorporating reggae influence into their music and no one worried that British punk would collapse.  Literature, like music, involves dialogues with other works of art and with society at large.  New books do not replace old books, they expand our understanding of life.  More is more, not less.

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Members of the Clash and Steel Pulse did not think twice about decolonizing music.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest some ways that books by white Britons, often canonical, can be introduced to readers in tandem with BAME writers in order to illuminate both—and more importantly, to light up the minds of young readers.  The first comparison I’ll suggest is one that I stole from Lissa Paul, who in Beverly Lyon Clark’s and Margaret Higgonet’s Girls, Boys, Books, Toys suggests pairing Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses with Grace Nichols’ Come on into my Tropical Garden (A&C Black, 1988).  This works nicely, but then, most of Nichols’ collections can be thought about sitting comfortably alongside canonical British poets, as Nichols was of the Caribbean generation brought up reading Wordsworth and others—particularly the romantics and Victorians.  Nichols’ poems can also be used to give depth to a study of art—but that is another story (or painting).

The picture book canon in Britain might also be radically revisioned by looking at BAME authors.  I am a great advocate for teaching young readers the politics of ABC books, for example.  “A” is only for apple in certain parts of the world, as putting Brian Wildsmith’s beautiful ABC book from 1962 next to Valerie Bloom’s Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo (Bogle L’Ouverture, 1999) will instantly reveal.  That doesn’t make Wildsmith’s apple any less beautiful—but it does allow young people to think more flexibly about what language (and not just letters) are for.

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A is for Apple–or Ackee. Illustrations by Brian Wildsmith (apple) and Kim Harley (ackee).

One of my favorite books growing up was Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and of course this can be discussed with any of the many refugee books that have appeared about characters from Africa or the Middle East in recent years.  A book such as Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (Bloomsbury, 2001) shares some similarities with Kerr’s book, but has key differences too.  Having kids think about the difference between being a refugee family and being a refugee on your own, for example, can help them think about what it means to belong, and what helps a person cope with trauma.

The “desert island adventure story” has not really been the same in Britain since William Golding’s dreary, dystopic 1954 Lord of the Flies, a re-imagining of Ballantyne’s 1858 Coral Island (itself a “boys’ version” of Robinson Crusoe).  LOTF is a text that can stimulate discussion about community, leadership, gangs, bullying and violence.  So too is Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom, 2016); and Crongton can be seen as an “island” in the midst of London, since most of the main characters never leave its confines.  Does Wheatle’s book present an urban dystopia similar to Golding’s dystopian island?  Or do the Crongton boys have skills, resources, values and attitudes that help them survive better than Golding’s post-war public school boys?  Or both?

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Perhaps she’s looking so grumpy because she’s about to be decolonized . . .

But books do not have to be of the same genre to be compared.  Take Alice in Wonderland—you can’t get more canonical than that—and think about Alice, a girl in a world that makes no sense to her, where the rules seem arbitrary and designed to threaten everyone in general but her in particular.  Even if you don’t discuss the commentary on Victorian society that is highlighted through John Tenniel’s illustration, you can still compare Alice’s situation with a character such as Mary Wilcox in The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (Penguin 2015).  Both girls face threats to their own existence and both survive through refusing to accept society’s arbitrary rules.  Maybe it’s time we stop applying our own arbitrary rules to literature, and start decolonizing our minds.

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May Day: Intersections between BAME Children’s Lit and Workers’ Parties

Today is International Workers’ Day in many countries across the world. It’s a holiday based on an American incident (the Haymarket Riot in 1886), although American celebrate their workers in September, and it’s always been promoted most by the political left: communists, socialists, and even anarchists have frequently staged marches (particularly across Europe) to promote workers’ rights. In the UK, May Day has been given a bank holiday (“early May Bank Holiday” on the first Monday of the month) since 1978. The timing was not accidental; whereas traditionally, May Day had been a festival of spring in the UK, the link with workers’ movements increased after WWII, and became particularly pronounced in Britain with the rise in strikes—especially miners’ strikes—in the early 1970s.

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In Leila Berg’s Fish and Chips for supper, the working class Dad has to worry about putting dinner on the table–but he doesn’t go on strike. Pictures by Richard Rose.

Mainstream children’s literature in the 1970s was still fairly middle class, although the occasional critic—Bob Dixon, Robert Leeson, Aidan Chambers for example—pointed out the missing working-class child in children’s literature. Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series for Macmillan and Aidan Chambers Topliners (also for Macmillan) are two of the series connected with mainstream publishers that tried to address this lack. But although the kids in Berg’s Nippers might have had Fish and Chips for Supper and some of the parents in Chambers’ Topliners were on the dole, these books generally did not depict a radical working class. More often, and in most cases deliberately, the working class families in these books saw Britain’s inequalities as the way things were. Racism (in both Nippers and Topliners) was confronted, but poverty, not so much.

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Brief mentions of Claudia Jones can be found in works for children, such as on Tayo Fatunla’s poster, Our Roots: Celebrating Black History, but full-length discussions of her feminism, anti-racism and community organization are rare.

It was left to independent publishers to not only talk about economic inequality, but highlight the links between race and class. By this I do not mean “if you are Black, then you are automatically poor,” but “people should fight all inequalities in society, because any inequality hurts us all.” This focus on multiple inequalities was something that BAME community leaders had always embraced. Trinidadian-born Claudia Jones, for example, edited the West Indian Gazette, a Black British newspaper, in Brixton; she once said that the Gazette’s “editorial stand is for a united, independent West Indies, full economic, social and political equality and respect for human dignity for West Indians and Afro-Asians in Britain, and for peace and friendship between all Commonwealth and world peoples” (interestingly, she wrote about this for Freedomways, an African-American journal, in 1964). Jones would later go on to found the Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of West Indian culture in Britain. Despite Jones’s history of activism and community organization, her life is rarely celebrated in children’s history or biography texts.

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The photograph on the cover of Chris Searle’s All Our Words underscores the notion that ALL British kids matter.

But independent publishers did produce literature that celebrated a tradition of organizing for both workers’ and BAME people’s rights. Most notably, Young World Books (the children’s book division of the communist Liberation Press) highlighted the ways that workers and BAME people could—and did—work together in Britain and elsewhere. Chris Searle’s All Our Words (1986) begins with the line, “It is the ordinary people of this country that make our language” (1). Searle goes on to write essays about ordinary people, including miners, skinheads, Bengalis, Afro-Caribbeans, and East End Jews, using the writing of London schoolchildren who embrace “all our words” and all of London/England. The book includes poetry, short stories and plays written by British schoolchildren from many different backgrounds, as shown through the front cover. Searle emphasizes the ways that communities in Britain can unite and help each other; during the miners’ strike in 1984, “the harassed black communities in Britain reach[ed] out to the striking miners” (104) with money and support. British people should not allow those in power to divide and rule, but should band together in common cause.

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In Maggie Chetty’s Ring Around the Carnival, white and Pakistani Scottish people work together to fight racism

This message of communities helping each other was further reinforced by another Young World publication the following year, Ring Around the Carnival (1987) by Maggie Chetty and with illustrations by David Lockett. Ring Around the Carnival is the story of a Scottish mining community of both white and Pakistani British people who work together to foil a plot by the British White Power movement. The story is more than occasionally didactic; accepting a white miner’s lamp as a reward for her hard work at the end of the book, the main character comments, “I’m very pleased that we stopped the fascists . . . Raj has told me many times that we can do great things if we unite and work together” (72). But the message is not much different than that found in other children’s books—cooperation is a good thing—even if it has a decidedly political point of view.

Further evidence of attempts to unite different groups of people in protest can be found in the fact that Chris Searle dedicated his book to Blair Peach, the white British teacher and anti-racist protestor who was killed during a rally, probably by police (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/apr/27/blair-peach-killed-police-met-report). Peach was part of the many multi-racial anti-fascist organizations that proliferated in the 1970s in response to the National Front and police oppression. Organizations such as Rock Against Racism brought together white skinheads and punks with dreadlocked Black British Rastafarians. Today these kind of alliances are once again visible throughout the world, as people of all communities react to a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, a lack of concern for BAME people’s rights, and fears about restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom and a disregard for truth and science. These concerns need to be represented in today’s children’s literature—and child readers today need to read about the history of community organization. I would love to see Cathhistorical novelist par extraordinaire, write about a character who—as she herself did—participated in Rock Against Racism. Or see Verna Wilkins write a biography of Claudia Jones that includes her feminism as well as her anti-racism and community organization. Injustice to some people is an injustice to all, and on May Day we should think about how to teach our children this.