Tag Archives: slavery

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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).


“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.


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.


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.


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.

Becoming (and Unbecoming) Humans: Slavery and dehumanization in children’s books

It’s nonfiction November, a good excuse to think about the idea of nonfiction as it relates to Black British children’s literature. Many literary scholars (myself included) will go on for days about the “real truths” of fiction vs. the “truth claims” of nonfiction, but I think a lot more about nonfiction now than I ever did before I had my daughter—because in the ultimate act of rebellion against her literature professor mother, my daughter doesn’t really like to read fiction. However, when she was little, I could always give her a DK Eyewitness book or a Horrible Histories and she would gobble them up like . . . well, like I used to consume Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books. Which, now that I think of it, were shelved in the nonfiction section of the library.

But DK Eyewitness books and Horrible Histories and Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books all come from a particular point of view, and this shows when you read them through. Most of these books center on European versions of history, science, myth and so on (Lang did include African, American Indian, Asian and South American fairy tales, but as I’ve written about elsewhere, he revised them for English reading audiences). Nonfiction (like fiction) is usually a version of the truth, but it is not always the truth that a book sets out to tell.



This may be a pictured geography, but Wiese avoids picturing slavery, and Henry moves quickly to naps in the sun.

Take nonfiction on slavery for example. There isn’t much available for a young reading audience; slavery is one of those topics that is meant to be too unhappy for children to read about. General histories for young children typically give slavery very little space (if any at all), and then hurry on to something happier or less controversial. A 1943 Picture Geography: West Indies in Story and Pictures by Marguerite Henry and Kurt Wiese gives only the following paragraph:

“Then the Spaniards brought shiploads of slaves from Africa. That’s why there are so many Negroes on the islands. But today they are not slaves. They work in the fields, they fish and they laugh, and they doze in the sun.” (n.p.)

Note the slippages and elisions in the paragraph. Only the Spanish are blamed, and not the British, French, or Dutch colonizers in the region. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because first of all, “they” are all happy-go-lucky and have time to lie around napping in the sunshine. Second of all, “they” are never called people in the paragraph.

This may seem a petty point—you might say, this is a book from 1943; or, the author refers to Negroes which is the same thing (is it? Ask people in the Jim Crow south). But calling people, people or human beings means that readers, no matter what their racial background, have something in common with slaves. And most children’s books work very hard to ensure that there is distance between the child reader and the person who is a slave.


They were people . . . in Africa.

This doesn’t always have to be through avoiding the word “people” either. Usborne is a company that produces history for all ages, and to be fair to them, they often try much harder than other nonfiction publishers to include slavery and the role that white British/Europeans played in enslaving African people. And they do use the word “people”. But they are still careful in their phraseology to distance the story of slavery from modern day readers. A lift-the-flap See Inside the History of Britain (2014) puts slavery underneath a flap, and gives it two sentences: “Some British merchants grew rich from the slave trade—capturing people from villages in West Africa and forcing them onto ships. The slaves were treated dreadfully during long voyages to the West Indies, where they were sold like animals to work on sugar plantations” (9). British merchants are blamed for slavery, but the Africans go from being people to being slaves to being (like) animals. And, because there is no further mention of the African people brought to the West Indies, nor of their descendants coming to Britain in the post-emancipation period, the reader could quickly close up the flap and make them disappear entirely.

Usborne did produce an Usborne Young Reading The Story of Slavery in 2007 (written by Sarah Courtauld). 2007 was the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, but the anniversary tended to be marked by an increase in biographies of post-emancipation West Indians (such as Mary Seacole) rather than histories of slavery, so Usborne is to be commended for that. However, in this book too the presentation is interesting. Compare the first page of Chapter 1, discussing ancient Egyptian slavery:


The first slaves in Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery were people–three times on this page alone.

. . . with the first page of the chapter about people arriving to enslavement in the West Indies.


Enslaved Africans are slaves, then animals, and apparently-mysterious forces strip, clean, and cover them with palm oil.

The Ancient Egyptians are people, even after being compared to cattle being sold in a market; the African people brought to the West Indies are slaves, and then animals. Slave masters in ancient Egypt beat the slaves, but the use of the passive voice in the second passage allows no one to have to take responsibility: “As soon as they left the ship, they were stripped, cleaned, and covered in palm oil” (but by whom?). There are good passages in the Courtauld text, but the way that the book dehumanizes people involved in the plantation slavery system allows the reader to deny their own connection to these people (slaves or slave owners).

I’ll end, for comparison, with an older book that puts the humanity of enslaved people front and center, Anne Terry White’s Human Cargo: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade (1972). Below is the first page of that text:


The first page in Anne Terry White’s 1972 Human Cargo.

It is horrible to look back. But all our children have a right to know their history.

Slavery in Black and White (Puffins, that is)

While I was researching at Seven Stories this past year, I started doing an inventory for them of books in their collection that had non-white authors and characters. They have a generous amount, so I didn’t finish the list, but I did get through a collection of Puffins while I was there. Puffins, the juvenile imprint of Penguin, had their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, when books were cheap and middle class aspirations were high. Puffin even ran a club, with magazines (including games, book excerpts, and advertisements for new Puffin titles) and outings to places like the Whipsnade Zoo. The magazine is revealing, because it includes photographs of young Puffin Club members at author events and outings. Despite paging through a couple of decades of the Puffin Post, I did not find a single non-white face in the club member pages.


The Puffin Post contained stories, games advertisements for new Puffins and puzzles–and photos of its members.

This does not necessarily suggest there were no Black or Asian Puffin Club members, but it does indicate that the audience for the Puffin Club and Puffin books was largely white (and, in order to be able to afford outings and yet also find them novel and exciting, probably middle-class white in the main). But the books that Puffin published were not exclusively about white Britons during this time period. Most famously, perhaps, Puffin did the paperback edition of Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft in 1977 (and then in several reprints with different covers). This is a book focalized through the white character about his mute Black foster brother, Donovan Croft. Puffin also published other contemporary stories with Black British characters, including Geoffrey Kilner’s Jet: A Gift to the Family (1979), also (like Donovan Croft) by a white author; and reprints of books by West Indian authors Andrew Salkey and James Berry—although these were set in Jamaica.


The 1977 Puffin cover of Andrew Salkey’s Hurricane, from artist Julek Heller, contains nothing to indicate its Jamaican setting.

Historically, however, Black people only existed during one period of time in Puffins during the 1960s and 1970s: slavery, and curiously, most of their depictions of slavery were set in America rather than the British colonies. Or perhaps it is not so curious. British history books, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, tended (indeed, until very recently) to gloss over the British participation in slavery and the slave trade, blaming the Spanish for the plantation slavery system before quickly moving on to extol the work of British campaigners in abolishing the slave trade in 1807 without ever mentioning the British embrace of slavery in between. After abolition in the British colonies, many writers and campaigners moved on to protesting American slavery, and as this campaign coincided with the rise in both Empire and children’s literature during the Victorian period, the idea became cemented, sometimes unintentionally, in textbooks that the British had always been against slavery everywhere.


Puffin’s cover for Sophia Scrooby Preserved, illustrated by David Omar White.

Certainly one of the Puffins that I first encountered at Seven Stories embraces this line of reasoning. Martha Bacon’s Sophia Scrooby Preserved was first published by Puffin in 1973, but like most Puffins it had been published previously in hardback. In Bacon’s case, her book had not only been published by the left-leaning Victor Gollancz in Britain in 1971, but also by Little, Brown and Company in 1968—because Martha Bacon was American. Bacon was the daughter of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and the wife of an historian, so her credentials as an author of historical fiction are validated by association. Sophia Scrooby Preserved, however, did not make a particular splash in America and I, who read prodigiously as a child in the 1970s, had never seen the book before. There were multiple copies of Scrooby at Seven Stories, however, all of them in Puffins. The Puffin Club sent books and book advertisements out to its members, so the books they chose to publish often had a longer life than they did in other editions.

And there were reasons for Puffin to choose Scrooby. First, it has an element of adventure, since the book starts with the main character—who would eventually be renamed Sophia Scrooby—in her African village, which is burned to the ground by another African tribe. The girl escapes and lives with impala for a while before “accidentally” becoming enslaved when looking for food. She is taken to colonial America, just before the Revolution, and lives with a family of royalists who treat her like family and teach her Latin and to sing operatic arias. Unfortunately, they “accidentally” forget to free her, so that when they are driven out of their home by creditors, Sophia has to be left behind with the goods to be sold. After a number of adventures, during which she preserves her French lace dress and the necklace she wears, and is never once beaten or struck, she ends up escaping once again (this time from a “West Indian voodoo queen” in New Orleans) and goes to Britain. Upon setting foot on English soil, she is treated like royalty and goes to live with a rich old lady as her companion. In London she meets no less than Ignatius Sancho, the composer and anti-slavery companion. Sancho discovers she is from London and complains, “I cannot countenance rebellion. Better to make peace and pay her taxes and free her slaves” (206). This is some forty years before Britain “frees her slaves”, but as with the bad Victorian history textbooks, Bacon’s text assumes that because Britain has passed the Somerset Ruling, all of Britain’s slaves are now free.

Bacon’s book was one that worked for Puffin, because it contained all the elements of an exciting adventure story, as well as being on “the side of the angels” politically at a time when a growing population of Black British students were being told that West Indian students couldn’t learn in the British school system or integrate into British society. Sophia Scrooby Preserved presents a picture of a well-dressed, well-spoken, independent African girl in London who can earn her own living and move in society’s circles. Sadly, what Sophia Scrooby preserves is the idea that the white British were innocent of the brutality of slavery.