Tag Archives: slavery

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.

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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.

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.

 

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

And the Winner Isn’t . . . Prizes and Black British Children’s Literature

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The “gold standard” has always been exclusive. Sometimes a bit too exclusive.

On Monday, CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) will award the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals for the two books that represent (narratively and illustratively, respectively) the “gold standard in children’s literature” (according to their website). I was fortunate enough to participate in a Carnegie Shadowing group this year run by the UK’s Young Bookseller of the Year, Mariana Mouzhino. The group included academics, writers, and education professionals, and the discussions we had over this year’s Carnegie Shortlist (you can find the list here: http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/carnegie-current-shortlist.php) proved quite thought-provoking—not to mention enjoyable.

One of the issues we revisited a number of times was the selection process. There’s quite an extensive list of criteria (you can find it on their website), but the basic summary is as follows: “The book that wins the Carnegie Medal should be a book of outstanding literary quality. The whole work should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards.” Everyone will have their opinions about the books (both shortlisted and winners) that have been chosen, now and in the past; and if you’re interested in thinking about past winners, do have a look at Lucy Pearson’s Carnegie Project website, https://carnegieproject.wordpress.com/. Within our shadowing group, however, we thought not only about what might win, but also about the kind of books that were and weren’t on the list. Black Britons are in decidedly short supply.

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Does it mean something different to be free in America rather than Britain? Last year’s Carnegie winner.

That’s not to say that the Carnegie selection team ignores issues of race. Last year’s winner was Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, a book about a young African-American and former slave who dresses as a man and becomes a Buffalo Soldier in the American west of the 19th Century. And this year’s shortlist includes Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, about the desegregation of schools in the American south in 1959. These books are both interesting narratives, and directly confront issues of racism, difference, and the laws that governed the separation between Black and white people. But the fact that they are both set in America allows readers to distance themselves from these issues; it is possible for a reader (particularly a young reader) to conclude that slavery and its aftermath and/or racial segregation are American problems that have nothing to do with Britain. This follows a pattern found in many British history books (not to mention school curriculums) that suggest that other countries (Spain, the US) started or maintained slavery, while the British merely “abolished” it. The US certainly has a troubled racial history and a troubled racial present for that matter, but it is not the only country that does.

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This year’s shortlisted title also focuses on American versions of racism.

The Carnegie has in fact occasionally recognized the presence of Black people in Britain. This was perhaps most notable in 2000, when the medal went to South African-born novelist Beverley Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth. Naidoo’s book tells the story of two young refugees escaping a politically-volatile Nigeria and seeking asylum in the UK. Given the current state of debate over refugees from the Middle East (particularly Syria and Lebanon), Naidoo’s story is perhaps even more relevant for child readers now than it was then. The fear felt by Femi and Sade in the novel as they try to find a safe space in Britain is palpable. Naidoo wrote, “Seeing events, personal to political, through the eyes of a young person encourages a freshness of vision. It forces me to research from a particular viewpoint, to be extremely observant and to make leaps of imagination.  The child’s perspective often throws up sharp contradictions between what the child’s expects and what happens. What child getting ready for school, preparing her schoolbag, expects to hear her mother screaming, followed by gunshots?” (http://beverleynaidoo.com/truthcommentary.htm). It’s a powerful novel, and one that certainly meets the Carnegie criteria. Unlike the novels set in America, Naidoo’s book also encourages young British readers to think about their own country’s laws and reactions concerning “illegal immigrants” into their country.

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The cover of Naidoo’s award-winning book about asylum seekers.

 

But none of these books tell the stories of Black British citizens. The Carnegie has never awarded either migration stories (Floella Benjamin, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom, Trish Cooke have all written novels for children about the experience of children from the Caribbean joining or accompanying their parents to Britain in the Windrush era and their subsequent adjustment to British society) or stories about Black Britons born and raised in the UK (Benjamin Zephaniah, Andrew Salkey, and Catherine Johnson are among many writers who have written books in this category). And Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman has won multiple awards, including the Eleanor Farjeon award for her contribution to children’s books and an OBE, yet she has not been nominated for the Carnegie. The history and stories of Black people living in Britain, their triumphs as well as their experiences with racism and struggle against/within the system, these stories matter. They are part of the history of Britain, and they should not only be told, but recognized.

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Will Black British authors ever be able to catch the star medal?

 

These stories are being written, by skilled and lauded Black British writers. I look forward to next year’s Carnegie shortlist—when I hope to see something new on it. Black British writers shouldn’t just be chasing the stars (hint hint, CILIP), they should be the stars.

“I Don’t Have to be What you Want me to Be”: Boxing and Black British Children’s Lit

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Can’t we all just get along? Boxers in the Ahlbergs’ Happy Families series.

An interesting story appeared in the Daily Express on Sunday about recently-deceased boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s “special relationship” with the UK (http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/676911/Boxing-legend-Muhammad-Ali-Special-relationship-Britain-mutual). In the article, fellow boxer George Foreman is quoted as saying that if Ali “had been born and raised in London, he never would have changed his name” from his birth name of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Ali changed his name in part due to his religious awakening and in part because his birth name was seen by him as a legacy of slavery, one that he didn’t want attached to him. Foreman argues in the article that Ali would not have needed to change his name because he wouldn’t have experienced the same level of racial prejudice as he did in the US.

 

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Muhammad Ali at Tulse Hill School in Brixton. Photo from Memoirs of a Black Englishman.

This is perhaps a questionable notion (you’ll note that Foreman was not born and raised in London either, and you might find *one or two* Black Britons who would disagree with his statements), but it is true that Ali liked Britain and felt well-treated by the British. His contact with the British people included school children in Brixton. Ali visited a school in 1974 at the behest of Paul Stephenson, a Black British member of the school’s Board of Governors. Stephenson didn’t like the low expectations that some of the teaching staff had with regard to the Black pupils in the school, and he wanted provide positive Black role models for the students (see Stephenson’s Memoirs of a Black Englishman for more about his efforts) so he asked Ali to come and talk to the students. After that visit, Ali helped Stephenson set up the Muhammad Ali Sports Development Association to develop confidence in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic pupils through sport.

Ali’s interaction with British schoolchildren and Foreman’s comments about racial prejudice got me thinking about boxing in/and children’s literature. Two very different books sprung to mind, one for the picture book reader and one for the novel reader. They illustrate quite nicely the aspirational and actual attitudes about race in Britain and in British children’s literature. The picture book, by white author-illustrator team Janet and Allan Ahlberg, is part of the “Happy Families” series, Mr Biff the Boxer (1980). The novel, written by Black British author Catherine Johnson, is Hero (2001).

 

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The boxers give up fighting because they have so much in common (but who’s going to pay for dinner now that they’ve made themselves redundant?)

The Ahlbergs’ titular Mr Biff, a white boxer, is meant to face Mr Bop, in a charity fight. The Black Mr Bop, we are told, is “fit as a fiddle . . . the toughest man in town . . . the champion” (n.p.) whereas Mr Biff is lazy and requires his children and his wife to “toughen him up”, which they do by feeding him carrots and banging him on the head. They succeed well enough that the fight between Biff and Bop ends in a draw. The two boxers meet each other in the dressing room and decide that boxing is “silly” because it leaves them feeling sore—so the two families go out to dinner at a restaurant together “And a happy time was had by all” (n.p.). The message of the book is one of, not just happy boxing families, but a happy British family full of racial harmony. Bop is initially seen as a threat who must be fought against, but Biff and Bop soon realize they have more in common than not, and they (literally) break bread together, becoming one big happy family. The Ahlbergs depiction of race here does and does not matter; on the surface it does not matter, but the book would not have the same impact if both fighters were white, for example. The fact that Puffin, who published the series, thought that the multiracial aspect of the Happy Families series was important is indicated by a letter I found in the Seven Stories archive (look and see what the collection holds here: http://www.sevenstories.org.uk/collection), in which the Puffin editor of the time decides not to republish Leila Berg’s multiracial reading books in the Nippers series because Puffin had already committed to Happy Families (the idea that the books were a like-for-like substitute is worthy of an article of its own—but another time). The Ahlbergs’ version of boxing and multiracial Britain is, perhaps, the one that George Foreman saw (or imagined), and certainly the one that many Britons want to believe.

Black British author Catherine Johnson shows a very different version of race and boxing in her novel Hero. Boxing is not about just going to work; it’s about survival and freedom. Set in London in the 18th century, the story concerns the way that Black people were treated in Britain between the abolition of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery. It’s a perilous time, one in which a man can have his pub commandeered by his dead wife’s relatives because they are white and he is Black. Worse, he’s in danger of being sent back to Barbados and slavery. His daughter, Hero faces prejudice and violence when she tries to rescue him and regain their livelihood. Her father’s boxing saved him from slavery in the first place and made his name in London, but it can’t keep him from being sent back. Hero isn’t expected to fight, because she’s a girl, but she won’t let others define her, and uses her fists to make them take back ugly words.

 

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Boxing can only get you so far if you ignore other kinds of knowledge–a sentiment that Ali would approve.

But fists are not enough, and Hero must learn another way of fighting. Her father has been rescued by another group of people who have been fighting with something other than their fists: Black abolitionists who fight with words, in the courts. This move from the physical to the verbal is marked in Hero’s own life as well. At the beginning of the story, she “didn’t want to think about slavery” (6), and disdains her cousin Daniel’s impressive vocabulary; by the end, she realizes that book-learning and the ability to read the law and write a will has saved her father, and she determines to quit fighting and start listening. In the last scene in the novel, she asks her father to tell about his life in Barbados, under slavery. Boxing and a thinking mind are not mutually exclusive in this story; in fact, it takes both to survive.

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Always defining himself–photo from The Daily Mail.

Muhammad Ali once said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” And he certainly didn’t act the part of a happy member of the American family. But he knew enough to realize that being who he wanted to be, and defining himself on his own terms, meant fighting all his life. Sometimes that fight is best fought through action—but other times, it can only be fought in words.