Tag Archives: slavery

Lost by the System: The Orphanmakers of Children’s Literature

This week marked Independence Day in the US, but I want to focus this blog on the idea of unwanted independence.  Children’s literature—particularly children’s literature for white, middle-class Americans and Brits—has often been predicated on the (at least temporary) disappearance of parents in order that child protagonists might have an exciting adventure.  But for many real children, separation from parents is both economically and (more importantly) emotionally devastating—not the start of an exciting adventure, but the first step in a long and frightening road.  I highlight Principle 6 of the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child:

“Principle 6  The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother. Society and the public authorities shall have the duty to extend particular care to children without a family and to those without adequate means of support. Payment of State and other assistance towards the maintenance of children of large families is desirable.”

This principle may seem obvious (or, given what is currently happening at the US-Mexico border, maybe not): young children should live with their parents when their parents are alive.  But children’s literature is littered with examples of how international institutional systems have separated children from their parents.  Many of these examples depict the separation as being for the child’s own good, but in fact it is usually the institution (or the state that sponsors it) that benefits.

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Missionaries often deemed it best to separate children from the influence of their “heathen” parents.

Take for example the 19th century missionary school.  White writers depicted the missionary school as a place where colonized subjects could escape the tyrrany of their parents’ superstitions and be given the light of knowledge.  This knowledge generally, of course, led them to embrace the white-dominated society and reject their home society, as in this example from The Juvenile Missionary Magazine of 1854.  In a story entitled, “Woman in India,” the text argues that missionaries don’t even have to recruit children to their schools, as they are eager to leave their heathen parents behind:

“In April, 1847, five girls in the Mission-school of the Free Church at Madras determined to embrace the Gospel, and knowing that they would not be allowed to do this at home, they put themselves under the protection of the Missionaries.  One of them, called Muniatthal, was only twelve years old, but she was a very intelligent child.  On hearing her intention, her relations met together, and, taking with them a crowd of heathen, armed with stones, and clubs and bars of iron, they attacked the Mission-house until they were driven away by the police.” (8)

Note how the police are on the side of the state; the parents try to get their child back by using the courts, but the judge tells the parents that “Children have certain rights of their own; and throughout the length and breadth of this land, they will be protected in those rights which God and nature have given them” (9).  The British institutions of church and state collude to remove the child from her parents.

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Eulalie’s drawing of happy lepers; Peter and Tess, the white children, appear friendly, but they keep their hands in their pockets.

While such blatant imperialism might be frowned upon in later years, the idea that the state could better care for children than their parents and that the child should be happy in such situations remains common in children’s literature in the 20th and 21st centuries.  In The Adventures of Peter and Tess Through the British Commonwealth by Stella Mead, with illustrations by Eulalie, the white British children visit a leper colony where children are sent away from their families; while there the children are taught “English” (as opposed, I suppose, to patois) and they are all delighted to be there; an illustration shows Peter, Tess and a white doctor looking at five dark-skinned children who appear to be in a pen of some sort, but who are all smiling.  The text depicts the place as “restful and happy” (n.p.) but it is not clear if or when the children will be reunited with their families.  In Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft, the state is depicted as benevolently stepping in when Donovan’s parents give up on parenting Donovan; white people are obliged to take “trouble” over Donovan’s upbringing because (like the Indian heathens) his Jamaican parents are unwilling or incapable.

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Children torn from their parents to learn the ways of the whites in When We Were Alone; they were only happy when they could escape to nature.

Authors of color depict the separation of children from their parents by the state quite differently.  David Alexander Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree nation, showed how devastating being taken from your parents to be schooled by the colonizer can be in When We Were Alone (Highwater, 2016).  In this book, illustrated by Julie Flett, a grandmother describes to her grandchild how she was taken away because white people “wanted us to be like everyone else” (n.p.).

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Julia Gukova’s illustrations for Richardo Keens-Douglas’s Freedom Child of the Sea; slavery separated children from mothers even at the moment of birth, as this illustration shows. Other enslaved people can only look on helplessly.

Richardo Keens-Douglas reminds readers of the horrors of slavery in Freedom Child of the Sea (Annick 1996): “mothers were separated from their sons, fathers from daughters, brothers from sisters.  The wind that first day blew with a roar that had never been heard before in the beautiful land.  It carried the sounds of fear, pain, tears and broken hearts out to sea” (n.p.).

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This is what separation of mothers and children looks like in Alex Godard’s Mama Across the Sea.

And Alex Godard’s beautiful illustrations for Mama, Across the Sea (Henry Holt 1998) is a reminder of the economic separation that many children face from their parents who have to leave their homes to make enough money to survive—often seeking jobs in the country that formerly colonized them.  All of these books indicate the ways that colonization and imperialism have affected people of color around the world.  Institutions tear children away from their parents, causing them lasting emotional pain and not necessarily improving their physical or economic well-being in the process.

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Families belong together.  Children should not be lost in institutional systems—nor lost by them.  The UN knew this nearly sixty years ago, and it would do us good to remember it now.

 

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I’ve Got a Name: Children’s Books, naming, and diversity

I’ve been thinking about names and naming lately for a few reasons.  First, because of the difference it often makes to an issue when individuals’ names are attached to a story—the Windrush scandal got more press after individual stories were highlighted by The Guardian (beginning in November 2017 with the case of Paulette Wilson, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/28/i-cant-eat-or-sleep-the-grandmother-threatened-with-deportation-after-50-years-in-britain, and coming to a head with an article that told the stories of 18 individuals, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/20/its-inhumane-the-windrush-victims-who-have-lost-jobs-homes-and-loved-ones). The Windrush scandal resulted in part because of children being brought over to the UK by their parents at a time when children did not have their own passports, but were listed on their parents’ papers—which sometimes meant they had no proof as to when they entered the country.  The #metoo movement and the Michigan State University/ USA gymnastics scandal also gained ground when it became about people with names instead of “sexual assault”.  The US media could take a lesson from the power of naming individuals and stressing the real consequences of political actions in its own growing scandal over separating children from their parents at the Mexican border.

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Children of UN staff members examine the universal declaration of human rights (UN Photo # 123898). Children got their own specific declaration of rights in 1959.

In case you are unaware of this latter story, this week the UN let the US know in no uncertain terms that they were breaking international law by separating parents from children (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/05/world/americas/us-un-migrant-children-families.html). In the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child, principle six states that, “a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf).  Although the New York Times article points out that the US is the only country that has not ratified the Declaration, it adds, “the practice of separating and detaining children breached its obligations under other international human rights conventions it has joined”.

The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has ten points in total.  It’s nearly sixty years old now (originally proclaimed in November 1959—although not adopted by the UN General Assembly for another thirty years).  I’d like to do some thinking about some of the points in this and perhaps some future editions of this blog, and how the points relate to children’s books about diversity particularly.  Today I want to start with the shortest—and perhaps simplest—one, Point Three: “The child shall be entitled from his birth to a name and a nationality.”  The reason to insist on a nationality seems obvious, then (Jews and then Palestininans as stateless people) and now (Windrush); but the right to a name surprised me when I first read it.  A name, of course, gives human dignity, it can be an indication of uniqueness and of family ties.  But children are given names by their family, not the state, I thought.  And then I remembered: children are given names by their family, except when the state—or its legalized institutions—play a role in giving or denying people their names.

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In Marjorie Darke’s The First of Midnight, Midnight was the slave name of a man who was ultimately unknowable to his white wife.

In children’s books, the most obvious place to start thinking about names is in books about slavery and the slave trade.  In my article, “After Midnight: Naming, West Indians and British Children’s Literature” (Names: A Journal of Onomastics 56.1: 41-46), I comment that “Slave names, for example, either ironically mark the low status of a figure (Caesar is an extremely popular slave name in children’s literature) or highlight the slave’s physical features (usually through names that denote darkness, such as Inky or Midnight)” (43) and that both these types of names serve to dehumanize the enslaved person.  It also takes away any family name (either given or surname), disconnecting the enslaved person from their birth family ties.  Of course, characters in books are all given their names by authors and not by slave-owners; however, as I further discuss in the article, “The notion of certain names as ‘slave names’ may have been an historical fact, but their use in fiction continues to underline the concept of ownership by whites of blacks” (43-44).  Children’s books (fictional or not) can choose to recognize the right of a person to a name of dignity, even when they are trying to be historically accurate.  One example is in Jean-Jacques Vayssières The Amazing Adventures of Equiano (Ian Randle 2001).  This book recognizes that Olaudah Equiano was taken into slavery and given the name Gustavus Vassa (an ironic name: Vassa was a 16th century Swedish king) but adds that Equiano “never accepted this name so, to please him, we will continue to call him Equiano” (18).

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Olaudah Equiano has a slave name, but Jean-Jacques Vayssieres chooses not to use it.

The practice of giving or omitting names of dignity for people of color is rife throughout children’s literature.  One only has to look to the continuous and negative emphasis on the word “Black” in Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman (1901), not to mention the fact that Sambo’s parents’ names were literally Mumbo Jumbo.  Often, secondary characters were referred to based on their skin color rather than by their name, even if their name was known.

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A color and not a name: people in Bannerman’s book are constantly referred to as black, equated with objects–because the clothes Sambo wears are colored, but the tigers are not.

In these enlightened (ahem) days, authors would never dream of writing a book about a character and referring to her as Little Brown Jenny (or whatever).  But naming is still important, especially for people of color.  One place this is especially noticeable is in books about refugees, many of whom are traveling from the global south to countries like the US and UK.  I’ve spoken in this blog about Sarah Garland’s Azzi In Between (Frances Lincoln 2012) before, but I’d just add that the book starts out with a nameless country, and a named girl—Azzi.  Azzi is in fact the only named character throughout the refugee journey (family members are called Mother, Father, Grandma, but not given any personal names).  Azzi’s name therefore becomes the focal point, and the book never mentions the word “refugee”.  Azzi is thus made, by Garland, a human being and not a problem.  Other people are named in the book only if they are helpful and friendly to Azzi (and only after she arrives in a place of safety).

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The first page of Garland’s book: Azzi has a name, even though her wartorn country does not.

I prefer this approach to that used in Kate Milner’s My Name is not Refugee (Bucket List 2016).  Milner’s book uses the conversation of an unnamed boy and his mother talking about their upcoming refugee journey to ask the reader, in text boxes, questions that imagine what it would be like to be a refugee.  Some of the questions are open-ended (asking “What would you take?”) but others are leading (“Do you think you could live in a place where there is no water in the taps and no one to pick up the rubbish?”), positing a reader who is privileged and always distanced from the nameless boy in the book.  Milner may have hoped that by leaving her character nameless, she would encourage children to empathize by imagining themselves as refugees, but it is difficult to empathize with someone we can never really know.  And you can’t begin to know someone until you speak their name.

Celebrating Vision: Faith Ringgold and Radical Black Art for Children

This weekend marks President’s Day in the US.  My undergraduate children’s literature students are spending the weekend finding a children’s book that details a US president’s interaction with people of color, because I wanted them to see what and who we do and don’t celebrate in this country.  However, I thought I would give the theme of presidents a miss this year; this weekend also marks the birthdays of two radical Black women visionaries, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, so I thought I’d celebrate them by looking at a Black woman artist who, like Morrison and Lorde, asked us to change the way that we see the world.

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Faith Ringgold’s “For the Women’s House” from 1971.

I began thinking about this because on Friday, Buffalo’s art museum, the Albright-Knox, had a free opening evening for their new exhibit, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985” (https://www.albrightknox.org/art/exhibitions/we-wanted-revolution-black-radical-women).   I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit, but for me, seeing Faith Ringgold’s activism and art contextualized put a new spin on how I understood her work for children.  A highlight of the exhibition is Ringgold’s 1971 mural, For the Women’s House.  The mural, which was painted for the women’s correctional facility on Riker’s Island in New York City, strikes the viewer long before she knows the story behind it.  A set of triangular panels formed into a square (similar to a quilt block, for which kind of art Ringgold is also known) show women of all races and ages working, creating, teaching and supporting one another.  Although the women mostly look directly out at the viewer, the mural is not confrontational; the women appear strong and calm.  According to the explanatory panel, the lack of confrontation is purposeful.  “In an April 1972 interview with her daughter, writer Michele Wallace, Ringgold described her goals for the piece: ‘If I hadn’t done it for the Women’s House then it probably would have been more political; but these women have been rejected by society; they are the blood guilt of society, so if this is what I give them, then maybe that is what we should all have.’”  The canvas may not have been aggressive—given that it was painted in 1971, Ringgold could have focused on many of the difficult political moments of the prior five years in the US—but it was (and is) political.  The idea that all women should have satisfying work that gives them the financial support and time to be creative and look after (and be looked after by) a family is what we all should have.

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Ringgold’s protagonist flies around the city, seeing people in unexpected ways.

Ringgold’s comments about what she creates for whom put her children’s books into a new context for me.  Seeing differently is always Ringgold’s aim.  For women prisoners, she painted a mural focused on the life that they could, and indeed should, have.  For children, she also creates visions of imagined worlds.  These visions often include fantasy: Tar Beach and Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, involve her protagonist, Cassie, flying through time and space to see the world around them and how history has affected them.

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Ringgold’s cover illustration begs the question: how can someone this arresting be invisible?

But Ringgold’s books also encourage readers to think about seeing the world around them—as it is, and as it could be.  In her fairytale set in the American south during slavery, The Invisible Princess, the reader (viewer) is instantly arrested by the cover illustration of the princess, with her large eyes and fantastic, halo-like cornrows.  But in the story, only the plantation owner’s blind daughter can see the invisible, but very real, princess.

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See what you don’t expect is what happens when you open your eyes: Ringgold’s illustration for “Eldora, Who is Rich”.

Ringgold did not write all the books she illustrated, but even the ones for which she did not provide the text have a focus on what can, and perhaps should, be seen if young people open their eyes to the world around them.  In 2006, Ringgold celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of a book of children’s poetry by re-illustrating it, literally re-visioning it.  Gwendolyn Brooks’s Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), a children’s book follow-up to her first adult collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), chronicled the lives of children in a working-class area of Chicago that had grown up as part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north of the US in the decades following emancipation.  The poems in Bronzeville Boys and Girls do not seem on the surface highly radical; they are about ordinary things that most children experience—like, for example, what you can get away with doing when company comes over and your parents aren’t paying attention to you.  But I would argue that this is one of the reasons why Ringgold chose to re-illustrate it, fifty years later.  So many children’s books in the US about African-Americans resolutely ignore the ordinariness of African-American childhoods.  Brooks in 1956 and Ringgold in 2006 asked readers to see the invisible.  This part of Brooks’ and Ringgold’s vision may have been aimed primarily at adult buyers of the book; but there are specific poems that urge child readers to see the world, to look up and out, to re-vision.  Perhaps one of the most obvious of these is in the poem, “Eldora, Who is Rich.”  The poem opens with an expectation of what a rich girl looks like, someone with “a golden head” (Bronzeville Boys and Girls, n.p.).  But Eldora, in the illustration by Ringgold, looks so much like the other children that until a reader completes the poem, it is not clear if the rich girl of the title is in it.  Eldora, of course, is African-American and not white (or golden-headed) as the children expect.  Change your expectations, Brooks and Ringgold argue.  See differently.  See new.

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Faith Ringgold and her daughter, the writer Michele Wallace, protesting the lack of Black Women Artists on show at the Whitney in New York, 1971.

Audre Lorde once wrote, “I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, ‘Why don’t they?’ And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change” (Black Women Writers at Work).  Faith Ringgold’s art, for all ages, demand that we ask why that joy should not belong to everyone around us as well.

The Old African(-American): In Memory of Julius Lester

Julius Lester came to children’s literature via Harlem, folksinging, and the Civil Rights Movement.  Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1939, by the early 1960s he was in New York City, singing songs of lynching (“See How the Rain Falls”) at rallies for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).  “I wasn’t big for going on demonstrations and being thrown in jail and this-that-and the other, but music was . . . a gift that I had to offer” he says, in a PBS documentary about him (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=julius+lester+folk+singer&&view=detail&mid=668197C7D071911BC204668197C7D071911BC204&rvsmid=07E8F3E12C66EFF8984207E8F3E12C66EFF89842&FORM=VDQVAP).  In 1964, he took his songs to the south (his “freedom songs,” he called them).  In 1965, he returned to look for old blues singers on behalf of the Newport Folk Foundation.  But he didn’t think the photographer who came with him understood what to look for, and Lester began taking his own photographs.

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SNCC asked him to document civil rights movements in the south, and Lester did—although I wonder if SNCC got what they expected.  Lester’s photographs focus on the reality of life in the south, and the people who had to live those realities.  Whereas photographs of sit-ins and marches may have gotten all the attention, I find myself drawn to a photograph Lester took in Selma, Alabama in 1966.  The photograph shows an African-American woman walking past a white Chevrolet with a bumper sticker proclaiming the single word, “WALLACE”.  The bumper sticker, whether purposefully or accidentally, has a rip in it.  (You can see the photograph here: http://www.profotos.com/pros/index.cfm?member=565). Lester wanted people to hear the words and see the lives of African-Americans clearly.

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Lester’s versions of the Brer Rabbit stories used a mix of African-American dialects to give voice to these trickster tales originating from enslaved Americans.

His early work led to him wanting to write about Black History for children, to tell the stories and give voice to the people he met and sang about.  While his first book, To Be A Slave (1968) was historical, he turned to telling the stories he had heard growing up.  But he quickly realized that many of the stories he remembered had been mediated in print through white authors, such as Joel Chandler Harris.  The invented dialect that authors like Harris used to represent African-Americans often made the characters seem uneducated; but more than that, Lester knew that these characters did not speak like African-Americans—not the ones he knew in the south or the north.  So he reclaimed the stories, by retelling them.  He put in jokes that modernized the stories (talking about washing machines) or familiarized them to a new generation.  In “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” when Brer Fox is going to barbecue Brer Rabbit, Brer Rabbit takes the time to opine, “If you got to go, go in a barbecue sauce.  That’s what I always say.  How much lemon juice and brown sugar you put in yours?” (15).

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In Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, the titular character is frightened and gives away his clothes to save his skin.

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But in Lester’s version, Sam is always in charge of the situation–even when he gives away his possessions, the reader knows he will get the upper hand in the end.

Lester performed similar reclamations with other stories that had been seen as racist texts that caricatured children of African descent.  Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1900) is a folktale-like story in which Sambo is terrified by tigers who take his clothes; he only regains power (and his clothes) when the tigers are too busy to notice him.  Lester rewrote the story as Sam and the Tigers, with pictures by Jerry Pinkney. Although the basic plot is the same, Lester does not depict his protagonist as cowering or weak.  When a tiger threatens to eat him, Sam counters, “If you do, it’ll send your cholesterol way up . .  . You could be the first Tiger smart enough to carry an umbrella” (Sam and the Tigers n.p.).  Although both stories are called trickster tales, only Lester’s version has a true trickster character, one who uses his brain to talk the tiger into something different than what he wanted.

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Bob Lemmons was something of a wild horse himself, living alone and free. But he was one of the best Mustang-tamers in the west because of his persistence.

In addition to folktales, Lester produced (also with his friend Jerry Pinkney) stories of legendary African-Americans (such as that steel-driving man, John Henry) and of the historical realities of African-Americans.  His historical stories, including Black Cowboy, Wild Horses and The Old African are, like his photographs, not about the famous, the celebrity, the well-known, but about ordinary people who struggled.  Black Cowboy, Wild Horses concerns a former slave who becomes a legendary tamer of mustangs in Texas, Bob Lemmons.  Lemmons was well-known in part because he persisted, and in part because (unlike most mustang-tamers) he worked alone.  Lester’s story embraces this strength and persistence against the odds.  Similarly, in The Old African, the titular character “had learned that enduring was a power too” (46) and because of his patience and endurance, he is able to provide visions and relief for slaves who are brutalized by the plantation owner and by a system that ripped them from their homelands in Africa.  Based on a story from coastal Georgia, Lester manages to combine the historical reality of slavery within the confines of mythical storytelling (the slaves, under the leadership of the Old African, walk into the sea and return to Africa over the bones of their ancestors).  His stories give voice and vision to African-Americans, and salutes their courage and persistence through struggle.  Lester made the ordinary person a hero, and gave those historically neglected a central role in his stories, photographs and songs.  His vision and voice will be greatly missed in children’s literature.

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Lester gave voice to the voiceless, and his vision will live on beyond him.

The Mathematics of Slavery and the Classroom; or, an Open Letter to Rochester Grammar School

It’s 2017.  That’s 210 years since England abolished the slave trade, and 152 years since the abolition of slavery in the United States—I did the math. Other people are also doing mathematical problems involving slavery, as evidenced on Twitter this week when the following assignment surfaced from Rochester Grammar School in Kent asking students to calculate the best business deal they could get spending £100 on slaves.

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I would love for someone to tell me that this is not a real assignment . . .

The idea that trading in humans could be seen as a reasonable school assignment is part of a wider problem.  Recently, I took MA students to Speke Hall outside of Liverpool, where they were told that the money to pay for the hall came from “farming” in the West Indies—despite the fact that one of the coats of arms in the Oak Parlor of the house has three Black people’s heads on it.  This happened less than ten miles from the International Slavery Museum, where they have a painting of a slave ship named the “Watt”—which also happened to be the name of one of the Speke Hall families.

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The coat of arms of “Watt of Speke” with three African heads on the top. But their sugar plantations were maintained by “farmers”.

As a former teacher of mathematics (yes, this was how I started my adult working life), I am sympathetic to the notion that children should be given “real” mathematics problems to solve.  I spent enough time as a child figuring out how old someone was if they were a quarter of their grandmother’s age now and twenty years from now they would be half their mother’s age (why couldn’t you just ask them how old they were?) to grow up despising mathematics.  In fact, this is why I got the job teaching third and fifth graders the subject; the experimental school valued philosophical understanding of concepts and real-world problems.  I agree, too, that an integrated curriculum is one of the best ways to accomplish this kind of deep understanding of mathematical concepts.  So I’d like to offer Rochester Grammar School some alternatives to their assignment.  My suggestions incorporate not only mathematical and historical concepts, but integrate the literature curriculum as well.

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The cost of escaping was more than a mathematics problem.

Students might, for example, look at Tanya Landman’s Passing for White (Barrington Stoke 2017).  This story is a fictionalized account of married slaves, the wife being light-skinned enough to “pass” for white.  She dressed up as a white slave-owner who “owned” her husband in order to escape north to freedom. Despite Rosa’s light skin, they could not have made the journey without money.  Landman writes,

Over the years Benjamin had been allowed to take on extra carpentry work and he got to keep a little of the money people paid for that.  As for me, well, there were times that Mr Cornwell’s conscience bothered him some.  He’d slip me a few coins, tell me to get myself ‘something pretty’.  But I had no need of ribbons or frills.  I put every last cent in a jar . . . It was against the law to sell anything to a slave without his master’s permission, but there were places that turned a blind eye to that.  They’d charge twice the price for goods that were half the quality, but they’d do it” (25).

There are multiple opportunities for mathematical story problems in this passage alone—not to mention the potential for powerful discussions about the difference between the law and justice.

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Are rich people just rich because they manage their “purchases” better? Illustration by Frank T. Merrill from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

If Rochester Grammar School preferred a “classic” literary text, they could look at Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a novel set during the American Civil War that does not in fact mention slavery at all.  Teachers might read my article, “Anything to Suit Customers: Antislavery and Little Women” in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26.1, to get some background into why slavery disappeared in the novel, and then lead a discussion about the economics of publishing in an ideologically-divided nation (a not untimely lesson to have in this era).  The absence of slavery in the novel could then be compared with the 1994 film version, in which Meg’s anti-slavery wardrobe is compared to that of her rich friends who are not bothered by such scruples as social justice.

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This page from Plant Hill Arts College students’ “To Be Free is Very Sweet”: The Life of Mary Prince shows that school-age people can understand the realities that come with the mathematics of slavery.

Alternatively, they could do what I often did as a teacher, and ask the students to come up with their own mathematics problems.  They might use as a model the book produced by students from Plant Hill Arts College in Manchester, “To be free is very sweet”: The Life of Mary Prince (Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust, 2010). The students, who wrote and illustrated the text, were keenly aware of the mathematics of slavery, in which people could be bought and sold to enrich plantation owners, and families could be torn in half—or, in Mary Prince’s case, in quarters.  And unlike the Rochester Grammar School assignment, the students at Plant Hill Arts College recognized that the mathematical facts had emotional and physical consequences for real people.

Children need to be taught about slavery, and they need to understand it in a deep, rather than surface-level, way if they are ever to grapple with the continuing racial inequalities that exist in former slave-owning nations.  But treating slavery as a mathematical problem replicates the arguments made by slave-owners in the West Indies and the southern states of the US, who claimed—rightly, as it happens—that the economies of these regions would tank if slavery was abolished.  But you would not teach children mathematics by having them calculate how to purchase drugs, or illegal guns, or children for trafficking, at an economical price.  We have to see slavery for what it is: robbery.  And one of the best ways to open children up to the true mathematics of slavery is through reading.  As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his Narrative, “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.”  The mathematics of slavery has never been more clearly expressed.

Let My People Go (on Holiday): The Magic School Bus does Ancient Egypt

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Would Ms. Frizzle teach history as well as she taught science?

Nearly twenty years ago (!), I wrote a book on children’s science fiction series with my friend Marietta Frank, Back in the Spaceship Again (Greenwood, 1999). One of the series that I discussed, and liked very much, was Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen’s Magic School Bus series. After complaining that “In picture-book science fiction series, scientific concepts are both presumed and presented incorrectly” (65), I go on to praise Magic School Bus for being “accurate and simple” (66). So when I was looking for children’s nonfiction texts on Ancient Egypt recently, and saw that Cole and Degen had produced a book on Ancient Egypt in their Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures series (Ms. Frizzle is the teacher who took children into scientific adventures on the Magic School Bus), I ordered it straight away. I wanted to see how the book would depict Ancient Egyptians in terms of both their appearance and in terms of their labor system, as both aspects of Egyptian society have been important to people of African descent. In both cases, Cole and Degen’s book seems to avoid issues rather than confront them in ways that the scientific adventures in the Magic School Bus series do not.

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The Magic School Bus series teaches science in a simple but accurate way.

Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures differ from the Magic School Bus books in several ways. First, the Magic School Bus books take place within a classroom setting; Ms. Frizzle takes her class on field trips on the eponymous bus that doesn’t have to follow the laws of physics—so the class goes inside the human body, out into space, and back in time to the era of the dinosaurs. The children write reports on what they learn, which the reader can see and evaluate. Student learning is therefore the focus, even though the books contain fantasy, adventure and humor as well. But in Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Ancient Egypt, the teacher is not in her classroom. “It was the first day of school vacation. I had said goodbye to my class. I had packed my bags and locked my door. Now I, Ms. Frizzle, was on the move!” (n.p.). In the Magic School Bus books, the story is part of the school curriculum, and is focalized through the adventures and school reports of the students. The Ancient Egypt book, on the other hand, is from the point of view of Ms. Frizzle, acting not as a teacher but as a tourist, and it is definitely extra-curricular. This says, I think, a lot about the attitude toward primary school history, and also about who history matters (or should matter) to; the group of tourists that Ms. Frizzle joins is made up of more adults than children. There are no school reports.

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Rasheeda, seated in the bottom right-hand corner, writes in her diary about what she sees. Her vision of a single marketplace becomes the truth of all Ancient Egyptian marketplaces.

In place of the school reports, however, Cole and Degen have depicted pages from one child’s travel diary. This might at first seem like a fairly equal substitute; both are child accounts of knowledge gained through their adventures. But the Magic School Bus school reports include reference to the work of scientists, and also make room for alternative theories. For example, in The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System (Scholastic 1990), one child writes in a report on asteroids, “Scientists think they are the building blocks of a planet that never formed” (24). This technique teaches child readers both about current theories and about the idea of theory itself, recognizing that ideas about science change as new knowledge becomes available. History, as depicted in Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures, however, is fixed. Rasheeda’s travel diary does not refer to historians, only describes what she sees. Diary entries begin with definitive phrases: “In the marketplace we saw” (n.p.) and “What farmers grew” (n.p.). Scientific knowledge has the potential to change over time, but history, in these books, is known and knowable. This makes the illustrations of Ancient Egyptians matter, because here again, a “truth” about history is depicted. Degen’s illustrations show Egyptians as orangey-brown in skin color, to random degrees, with Rasheeda—the African-American visitor from modern times—as considerably darker than all of them. Modern Egyptians are tan-colored. Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures leaves no room for the idea that Egyptians may have included some people who had more “African” features.

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Sarah Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery does not paint a pretty picture of slavery (although it doesn’t say the slaves built the pyramids either).

Another reason that this difference between Cole and Degen’s depictions of science and of history matters so much (particularly for a blogger concerned with ideas of race and diversity) becomes clear on a single page of the narrative, the page about who built the pyramids. I have written before about how books on slavery often begin with Ancient Egypt—see, for example, Sarah Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery (Usborne 2007).

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“People” are wrong about slavery. These Ancient Egyptians are perfectly happy to be dragged from their farms and do hard manual labor–as long as there is beer.

Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures also mentions slavery, but in quite a different way. “People often think the pyramids were made by slaves,” Cole and Degen write, “but that isn’t true. Pyramid builders were paid in bread and beer, just like other workers” (n.p.). The language that Cole and Degen use in this passage is extremely important, because it removes authority (historians did not think that the pyramids were built by slaves, people did—and they were wrong), suggests that slavery did not exist in Ancient Egypt (and, whatever the truth about who built the pyramids, historians are pretty sure that slavery existed), and defines not-enslavement as being paid in bread and beer, as if slavery couldn’t have existed if the workers were fed. Rasheeda’s diary entry adds, “Many farmers worked on the pyramid during the flood, when their farms were underwater” (n.p.), suggesting that the farmers were glad of some off-season work (and beer and bread). Both the box about what “people often think” and Rasheeda’s diary entry present history generally as factual, and these facts specifically as the correct and only interpretation. However, even historians who think that the pyramids were not built by slaves (at least not in the way that we think of slavery now), do not think the workers were part of a labor market of free individuals. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, with the University of Chicago, put it this way in an interview with the PBS show Nova: “the King’s men come, and it may not have been entirely coercion, but it seems that everybody owed a labor tax. We don’t know if it was entirely coercive, or if, in fact, part of it was a natural community donation”  (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/who-built-the-pyramids.html). The key words there: we don’t know. Teaching kids about history should open them up to the same kind of questions and possibilities that teaching them about science does, not just offer them half-truths and surface-level observation. Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Ancient Egypt lets kids go into the past, but only as temporary tourists who are kept away from history’s wrong side of the tracks.

With You in History: Using Traditional Forms to Tell Black Britain’s Story

In the nineteenth century, Britain’s G. A. Henty was advertised as “The Boys’ Historian” because of the novels he published. And while Guy Arnold, who wrote a monograph about Henty entitled Held Fast for England: G. A. Henty, Imperialist Boys’ Writer (Hamish Hamilton 1980), claims that “Henty was no historian, nor did he ever claim to be one” (88), the fact remains that many British boys in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had their first grounding in imperial history from Henty’s stories and novels. The books, which had titles like With Wolfe in Canada, With Clive in India, A Roving Commission or Through the Black Insurrection of Hayti, and The Young Colonists: A Tale of the Zulu and Boer Wars offered British (and other) readers a chance to experience vicariously the conquering and securing of the British Empire throughout the world, with frequent reminders about white British superiority. One of the key reasons for Henty’s success is that, unlike a traditional history book or even many historical novels, his stories used a young white British boy (there were a couple of exceptions, where a girl character was center stage) to focalize the history. When Henty used a title such as With Wolfe in Canada, he addressed both his main character (in this case, teenaged doctor’s son from Sidmouth, James Walsham) and his potential reader as being with Wolfe; essentially, Henty was urging the reader to go along on the journey.

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George Washington calls the main character of Henty’s novel “a spirited lad”.

 

Any readers choosing to do so were rewarded by “introductions” to famous figures in history. In With Wolfe, for example, not only does James interact with those involved in the battle over Quebec in Canada, he also meets General George Washington, the future first president of the United States:

James resolved, at once, that he would speak to Colonel Washington, and ask him if  he could join the Virginian militia. He accordingly went up to him, and touched his hat.

“If you please, sir, I am anxious to join the Virginian militia, and, as they tell me that you are adjutant general, I have come to ask you if I can do so.”

“I see no difficulty in it, my lad,” the colonel said; “but if you have run away from home, in search of adventure, I should advise you to go back again, for we are likely to have heavy work.” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17766/17766-h/17766-h.htm)

James manages to convince Washington that he is not a mere adventurer, and the general calls him a “lad of spirit” and organizes his entry in this militia, recommending he go to the stores for “a brace of pistols and a sword, a blanket, and cooking pot”. James, and the reader, are riding by Washington’s side when the battle begins.

 

Henty’s style of writing invites identification with the young protagonist, rewards that identification through equality of status with “history heroes” like George Washington, and then enforces the values—including white privilege and white supremacy—of empire through use of language by, about and for non-British, non-white subjects and characters in the books. In With Wolfe, Washington discusses the Indian tribes as savage, in more ways than one: “The Indians will pounce upon a village or solitary farm house, murder and scalp the inhabitants, burn the buildings to the ground, and in an hour be far away beyond reach of pursuit,” he says, and Henty describes them elsewhere in the book as “swarming”—a word which suggests animal, rather than human behavior. These are just a couple of examples, and With Wolfe is not the most racist of Henty’s novels; his description of Black people, whether slaves or insurrectionists or rebel fighters, are far worse. British empire history and racism go hand in hand in the 19th century boys’ adventure novel.

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Johnson’s history is both similar to and different from Henty’s. Cover illustration by Royston Knipe.

 

I mention all this because I have recently been reading historical novelist Catherine Johnson’s Blade and Bone (Walker 2016), a sequel to her 2013 Sawbones (also published by Walker). I had a brief moment of déja vu at the beginning of Blade and Bone when the main character, Ezra McAdam, finds himself in Revolutionary-era France. Sixteen-year-old surgeon’s apprentice Ezra is performing an amputation on an infantryman when a historical figure enters Ezra’s makeshift operating theatre: “Lieutenant Colonel Dumas, the head of the American regiment” (10). Like Washington did in Henty’s novel, Dumas praises Ezra’s skill, gives him guns, and invites him to stay with the regiment. The respect Dumas accords a mere boy is not depicted as surprising in any way, because the reader has already been encouraged to identify with Ezra, the character through whom the novel is focalized. In this way, Johnson’s novel is a 21st century version of 19th century Boys’ Adventure stories such as those written by Henty.

 

However, while Johnson may be writing boys’ adventure, she is not writing the novel of empire. In fact, in many ways, Johnson’s novels act as anti-Empire narratives. Ezra is not, like James Walsham, a born-and-bred white British lad but a former mixed race West Indian slave. Unlike slaves and former slaves in Henty’s novels, Ezra is not an escaped slave turned rebel (or, “insurrectionist” in Henty’s terms) nor is he brought to England as a servant or page boy. Instead, he is taught to use his brains and his hands to become a surgeon, nearly equaling the skill of his employer, William McAdam, by the time of the surgeon’s death. Dumas, too, is the mixed race son of an enslaved mother and a white father who did not remain in slavery but was educated in France, becoming the first Black person in the French army to be made a brigadier general. Both the fictional Ezra and the historical Dumas defy their imperially-designated roles in life, but while both are remarkable, neither is shown by Johnson to be so remarkable that readers could not aspire to similar greatness.

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Johnson’s character Ezra McAdam first appeared in Sawbones (2013). Cover image by Royston Knipe.

 

Additionally, Johnson writes Ezra as a British character who neither likes nor approves of the idea of Empire; in so doing, she reminds us that although Ezra may have been of the minority opinion, he was not alone and surrounded by the flag-waving British imperialists of Henty’s novels. For Ezra, Empire and slavery are inextricably linked throughout the world; in Sawbones he tells the son of a Turkish sultan, “No one man should belong to another. No man should have that power. That is wrong . . . My life has been thrown into chaos because of your stupid empire” (189). And in Blade and Bone Ezra writes to his friend Loveday Finch that “I think it a sign of Great Advancement for any people to want to Govern themselves without the Intercedence of any Kings or Lords or Suchlike” (7). Ezra is an anti-monarchist, and in favor of the principles of the Revolution (though not, as he later finds, the methods of it); but he is not anti-British. At the end of the novel, he wants to go home—and home means London. Johnson’s novels, like Henty’s, take the reader through British history by creating a young, highly skilled British character who meets up with famous figures and has a hand in affecting history. But unlike Henty, Johnson takes readers with her through different kinds of histories, and makes room in the past for Black Britons and anti-imperialists.