Tag Archives: social justice

Love’s Bright Syllable: Speaking of Justice in BAME Literature

You who set free love’s bright syllable

from behind history’s iron door

that those who choose to take heed

may stride toward the sky

from “Voice” by John Agard

 

In the last post before Christmas, a package arrived for me from Newcastle.  It was a book of poems, The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King edited by Carolyn Forché and Jackie Kay (Bloodaxe 2017) that came along with a thank-you for my work on the “Diverse Voices? Curating a National History of Children’s Books” symposium in November.  Both the symposium and the poetry collection I received were part of Newcastle’s “Freedom City” project, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s visit to the city to receive an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University just months before he was assassinated.

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The idea of commemorating such an event is a good one, especially with events and publications that speak not only about the past, but about the present and future.  The Mighty Stream includes poems that discuss King’s life, but also the life and death of Trayvon Martin.  Lauren Alleyne’s “Martin Luther King Jr Mourns Trayvon Martin” includes the lines, “For you, gone one, I dreamed/ justice—her scales tipped/ away from your extinction” (187).  Our “Diverse Voices?” symposium looked at the past, through archival work, but also pointed out the work that needed to continue—in publishing, in archiving, in prize-giving.  Both book and symposium also discussed the need for everyone—everyone—to use their own voice to call out injustice.  John Agard’s poem “Voice,” quoted at the beginning of this blog (and on page 47 of The Mighty Stream), is the optimistic and hopeful counterpart to Ifeoma Onyefulu’s comment at the symposium, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”  Calling out injustice is one piece of the puzzle, but unless (as Gandhi put it), “your words become your actions, your actions become your habits” then words are not enough.

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Brahmachari continues the Levenson family saga with a twelve-year-old girl finding her voice–and sharing it with the world.

One of the authors at the symposium in November, Sita Brahmachari, recently published a book that puts Gandhi’s ideas into practice.  Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) forms the latest book of her fictional Levenson family’s history, but it is also a story of justice born out of (often painful) experience.  Brahmachari’s earlier books, Artichoke Hearts (Macmillan 2011) and Jasmine Skies (Macmillan 2012) focused on the eldest Levenson girl, Mira, as she finds out who she is through art and travel.  Both these journeys of discovery involve Mira’s family in important ways; art is a gift of Mira’s Nana Josie, and Mira travels to India to stay with her mother’s side of the family and learn about her heritage.  Family also plays an important role in Tender Earth, about the youngest Levenson sister Laila, but Brahmachari’s novel expands the definition of family to include a wider group of people.  Indeed, the book begins with two trees—a traditional family tree, and Laila’s “Friend Tree”.  Her friend tree comes first, indicating its central role in the novel.

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Laila’s friend and family trees give her a place on this tender earth that is both local and global.

Friends are perhaps central to Laila because her family is breaking up, not in a negative way but in the normal course of things.  Her sister Mira is going to Glasgow to study art at university; her brother Krish has also departed, to the Lake District to live with Nana Kath.  Laila feels uncertain about her place in the family, as indicated by her new choice of “bedroom”—a couch on the liminal space of a stair landing, “a seat . . . like it’s a waiting room” (253) as one person comments.  At first, it seems old friendships are also breaking up.  Laila’s best friend Kez won’t come over anymore because she is in a wheelchair and Laila’s house is difficult for her to access—but Kez has also arranged to be placed in a different tutor group than Laila, a move that Laila sees as a betrayal. But being thrown onto her own resources necessitates Laila’s growth.  She makes a new friend, Pari, whose parents are Iraqi refugees, and meets her Nana Josie’s old friends Hope and Simon.  Simon gives Laila her deceased Nana’s “Protest Book” which lists a lifetime of social justice marches and activities.  These new friendships, a visit from Laila’s Indian cousin Janu, who is going around the world barefoot to raise money for his charity, and a sympathetic teacher’s gift of the biography of Malala Yousafzai, all work together to point out a direction for Laila.  She sees that what she’s been “waiting for” in her liminal space was a purpose, an identity.

Laila brings her new and old selves together by organizing her first protest.  When Laila’s friend Kez’s grandmother goes to visit the grave of her Kindertransport husband, it has been spray-painted with a swastika along with several other graves in the Jewish cemetery.  Laila witnesses the way the desecration of the graves devastates Kez’s family, and decides to mount a candlelight protest.  Her thought process is recorded by Brahmachari:

“Everything kaleidoscopes through my mind.  Those men’s faces on the tube, mocking Janu with their chanting, the hateful words in Pari’s lift, what her parents had to go through, Bubbe and Stan arriving as children, Grandad Kit marching on Cable Street against the fascism growing in the city, Bubbe’s tears at the refugee children on the news, at Stan’s grave . . . what if . . . what if no one can tell when they’re actually living in a time that’s losing its heart?  What if that’s why evil things happen?  No one says and does anything until it’s too late” (380).

Laila’s protest brings together all the people she has met because they all can say and do something to help make things better.  One of the things Brahmachari does so well as a writer is to draw characters as whole people; Pari’s mother may be a refugee living in poverty whose English is imperfect, but she too has a voice and can take action.  She not only comes to Laila’s protest, she knits Laila a warm hat.  Everyone, Brahmachari argues, has something tangible that they can give to a community—no matter how liminal they may seem.

So in the spirit of the coming new year, and in the hope posited by events such as the Women’s March last January (an event mentioned in Tender Earth) and the “Diverse Voices?” symposium, I am going to think about ways to use my voice in 2018—and put my words into actions until they become habits.  Maybe you can do the same, and love’s bright syllable will help us all stride skyward.

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Echoes of Innocence: War, Black Power and Racial Innocence

This week I finally got to the Black Power exhibition at the Schomburg Center in New York, which recognizes the impact of Black Power and the Black Panther party during the 1960s and 1970s, both in the US and globally.  I was particularly interested in the discussion in the exhibit about children, and have been thinking about this ever since—especially because my week also included a reading of Robin Bernstein’s piece in the New York Times, “Let Black Kids Just be Kids” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/opinion/black-kids-discrimination.html), and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Newbery Honor Book, Echo (Scholastic, 2015).

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Blake was aware in the 1790s that Black children were not allowed innocence in white society.

Bernstein’s op-ed piece talks about the construction of innocence (presumably in the US, since all her examples are American, but her arguments can be stretched to other countries as well) as having racial connotations, beginning especially in the 19th century.  During this period, the romantic notion of the child was as an innocent, blank slate—but only, Bernstein argues, the white child.  “The more that popular writers, playwrights, actors and visual artists created images of innocent white children, the more they depicted children of color, especially black children, as unconstrained imps. Over time, this resulted in them being defined as nonchildren,” she writes.  While she mentions an exception to this (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s representation of Topsy, which was then destroyed by the popular theatre versions of Stowe’s book), and I would argue that there are other counter-examples (William Blake’s version of innocence, for example, was not confined to white children—although as his poetry makes clear, Black children’s innocence was confounded by white society), her main point is sound.  Children who are not white are often seen in white-dominated societies as threatening.

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Kenlock’s Black Panther girls are innocent of wrong-doing, but not innocent of injustice.

I looked back at the photos I had taken in the Black Power exhibit, most of which were either pictures of children or pictures of Black Arts poetry.  None of the children in the photos were smiling, and many of them could be seen as provocative, with the children looking defiantly at the camera adorned with Black Power symbols.  These photographs were not taken by white photographers who saw a threat, but Black and white photographers who saw a possibility.  White photographer Stephen Shames’ image of a Black boy in a white Angela Davis t-shirt was designed, along with his other Black Panthers photographs, to show that “‘black pride’ was not based on denigrating whites, but on showing the black community that they were in control of their own destiny” (http://www.stephenshames.com/projects/black-panther-party). Black photographer Neil Kenlock’s photograph of Black Power girls in Brixton, which was part of the “Stan Firm Inna Inglan” exhibition I saw at the Tate in London, was also reproduced here to showcase global Black Pride.  But whether you looked at these photos and saw strength or threat, it is difficult to see the children in these photos as innocent, in the sense of innocent as someone who is unknowing, a blank slate in John Locke’s definition.  You can’t be innocent if you are aware of injustice.

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Even music is not innocent of understanding injustice in Ryan’s novel that connects children across time and place.

And this is why I found Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Echo so compelling.  The story is really multiple stories, across time and distance and even genre, woven together through the medium of wars (both WWI and WWII) and a harmonica that is owned by multiple child characters.  The harmonica, as an instrument, is not a random choice.  Ryan takes pains to indicate how music connects us all; one of her characters comments, “Music does not have a race or a disposition . . . Every instrument has a voice that contributes.  Music is a universal language” (86) and this sentiment is echoed throughout the novel by different characters.  But the speech made here is in response to another character denigrating the harmonica as an instrument.  Music is not all innocent and even an instrument can be culpable.  Elisabeth is in the Hitler Youth, and the Hitler Youth thinks that the harmonica is “offensive” (85) because it is used to play “Unacceptable music . . . Negro music. Jazz. It’s considered degenerate” (86).  Her brother Friedrich, who is Ryan’s main character in this particular story, knows this is nonsense; music is innocent in the sense that it has not done anything wrong.  But the harmonica and Friedrich are only innocent in this one sense of the term.  They are not the unknowing kind of innocent.  Friedrich may not be Jewish, but he is under threat, both for speaking against injustice and for having a physical “deformity”—a birthmark—that may get him confined to an insane asylum or worse in Nazi Germany.  The harmonica, which is a somewhat magical version of a regular harmonica, “knows” about sadness, and can play it.

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This famous photo from WWII, which appeared in Life magazine, has often been used as a symbol of an innocent boy caught up in fascism. But just because he’s done nothing to deserve a gun being pointed at him, doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand justice.

The knowingness of the harmonica is explained in the next of Ryan’s interconnected stories, in which the Irish-American Mike is taught to play the harmonica by the African-American Mr. Potter.  When Mr. Potter first plays, Mike is fascinated and asks him about the sound he gets the harmonica to make.  Mr. Potter explains, “blues music is about all the trials and tribulations people got in their hearts from living. . . . Blues is a song begging for its life” (293).  Mike has not done anything wrong by becoming an orphan, but he is aware of the injustice that keeps food out of his and other children’s mouths in the orphanage—so he too can play the innocent/not-innocent blues on the harmonica.  Similarly, the next owner of the harmonica, Ivy Lopez, is innocent of wrongdoing but is still sent to a crumbling and understocked school because of her Mexican heritage.  This not only allows her to play the blues, but to understand the injustice done to another: she exposes the wrong treatment and suspicion of Japanese-Americans who have been interned.

Bernstein’s article ends with a slightly mixed message, arguing that all children should be seen as innocent but also that innocence should not be the focus—rather we should look at whether children are being treated justly.  I think most children should be seen as innocent of wrong-doing, because most children are; however, I don’t think any children—Black, white, Latina, Asian, any children—should be the unknowing kind of innocent.  We should not only ensure that children are being treated justly, we should teach them how to fight for justice for themselves and others.  Because only when everyone is working for justice will we ever achieve it.