Tag Archives: Shakespeare

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.

But I’ll Never Be Royal? Shakespeare, the Monarchy, and Black Britain

This week marks Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I thought I might mark the occasions on this blog, and then I thought, huh. What does Shakespeare or the monarchy have to do with Black British children’s literature?

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Edmund Kean as Othello in Skelt’s Toy Theatre version of the Shakespeare play

 

Shakespeare is (at least at first) slightly more obvious. There is, after all, the Noble Moor. Othello, written in circa 1603, is perhaps the most famous early literary depiction of interracial marriage. And kids have learned the stories of Shakespeare from a very early age for quite a long time. The introduction of Shakespeare through Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare was a more “serious” introduction, and the toy theatres of Pollock’s and Skelt’s were more popular introductions, but both included Othello in their repertoire. The Lambs’ version, obviously shortened from the original, is clear from the outset that Othello’s skin color is an issue. The third sentence of the Lamb version points out that Desdemona is dissatisfied with her marital options: “among the suitors of her own clime and complexion, she saw none whom she could affect: for this noble lady, who regarded the mind more than the features of men, with a singularity rather to be admired than imitated, had chosen for the object of her affections, a Moor, a black”. Note that children are to admire Desdemona for wanting a clever husband, but not imitate her. And this is not Shakespeare as written; in the play, Desdemona is not ignoring Othello’s appearance; she is clear that “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/ And to his honour and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (Act I, Scene III). But the Lambs had to make Desdemona “childlike” in order to “excuse” her for marrying a Black man; their account of Othello serves as a warning that only children fail to judge books by their covers.

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The Lambs’ version of Othello claims Desdemona was childlike and not interested in Othello’s looks.

 

But the Lambs did not include pictorial representations of Othello and Desdemona’s love; this was left to the theatre. And in the theatre, Othello was generally played by a white man (in the 19th century and far beyond as well). Even though the famous African-American actor, Ira Aldridge, took over from Edmund Kean after Kean’s death in the 1830s, the toy theatre sold by Skelt’s continued to use Kean’s image as Othello.

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Out, damned spot–the sticker book includes Macbeth and the Tempest, but not Othello or Black Shakespearean actors.

 

And in the 20th and 21st century, this discomfort with Othello as a suitable subject for children continues. Usborne’s Shakespeare Sticker Book has engaging sticker pictures of both comedies and tragedies by Shakespeare, but not Othello—nor are any of the sticker figures Black. Thank heavens for Malorie Blackman, whose Chasing the Stars, a YA science fiction-y retelling of Othello, comes out this weekend. If only someone were still doing toy theatres, they might do a version of Talawa theatre’s all-black cast in King Lear.

 

Prince William said in a recent interview that his grandmother stays “above” politics, and this generally includes racial politics as well; while her husband is famous for his impolitic pronouncements on non-white people, Elizabeth confines herself to the occasional celebratory remark about the many cultures that make up Britain. Children’s literature about or including the queen generally reflects this; the queen is guarded by white soldiers in most children’s books, and even her appearance in Roald Dahl’s The BFG suggests an all-white Britain over which she reigns. There is some suggestion that the queen (or at least her staff) want to encourage this to change; the children’s book that commemorates the queen’s birthday (official and approved), The Birthday Crown, does show a little (very little) diversity in the background.

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Brief appearance for diversity in Royal Collection’s The Birthday Crown by Davide Cali and Kate Slater.

 

But the royal family has, in the past, had more deliberate and purposeful connection with a diverse world. Children’s literature (by both Black and white authors) have written about Victoria’s interaction with various people of her empire, from Mary Seacole to Sarah Forbes Bonetta to Sophia Duleep Singh (two of these three women were themselves royal in their own countries). Victoria did not have to worry about her relationship to these women; she was their queen-empress, and they were her subjects. That means she could afford to employ Mary Seacole as a masseuse in her household, adopt Sarah Forbes Bonetta (not of course in the way that normal people adopt a child), and give Sophia Duleep Singh a grace-and-favour apartment. The mighty can afford to be generous (though it does not always follow that they are).

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Myers’ book about Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

There is evidence that other queens of Britain may have had more direct connection to the non-white world. The Guardian reported in 2009 on Queen Charlotte, known to be abolitionist in her politics, and her possible African ancestry (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/12/race-monarchy). This link, if true, would of course mean that the current royals would also have this ancestry—although much further back in time. The evidence is sketchy, but there are clearer indications about the 14th century Queen Philippa, who one of the English bishops described as having clearly African features. But neither of these queens feature very frequently in children’s literature (and when they are, as wives or mothers of kings, their race is usually unremarked). A rare example of a children’s book that acknowledges the suggestion of African ancestry in the monarchy is Joysetta Marsh Pearse’s Black Royals: Queen Charlotte (2014), which appears to be part of a series—but I can’t find any other books in the series.

 

The first Queen Elizabeth famously complained about too many “blackamoors” in England, and Shakespeare’s play reflects some of these fears. The Jamaican prime minister has just wished the current Queen Elizabeth happy birthday at the same time politely suggesting that Jamaica would soon end the tradition of considering the queen Jamaica’s titular Head of State. Yet some of the best Shakespearean actors in the UK today are Black (Adrian Lester, Don Warrington) and the queen’s Britain today can no longer be seen as an all-white world. Perhaps it’s time that more children’s books reflected these realities.