Tag Archives: Tanya Landman

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.

Guardian’s Galaxy: The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and Black Britain

On July 8, the Guardian released its 2016 longlist for its children’s fiction prize (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/gallery/2016/jul/08/guardian-childrens-fiction-prize-2016-longlist). The list of previous award winners of the prize, given since 1967, reads like a who’s who of great contemporary children’s authors: Joan Aiken, Alan Garner, Peter Dickinson, Diana Wynne Jones and Jacqueline Wilson, among others, have won the prize. Some of the best-known British children’s fiction of the last half-century, including Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig (later made into the movie “Babe”) and Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom were recognized for their merits by the Guardian judges.

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David Almond, author of A Song for Ella Grey, was last year’s winner of the Guardian children’s book prize-and one of this year’s judges.

This year’s longlist contains three titles that feature Black British characters or authors: former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars (which *might* feature Black British characters, but as the book is set in space at a far future time, distinctions between humans based on nationalities are meaningless; however, Blackman is perhaps the most-recognized Black British writer for children); Carnegie-winner Tanya Landman’s Hell and High Water, and One of the most exciting writers of the black urban experience’ (according to the Times) Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights. Before I talk about the books, I want to discuss the prize itself.

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Thomas’s The Runaways won the Guardian prize in 1988, and had a Black Briton as a major character. (Cover art unattributed on my copy.)

 

For those unfamiliar with the Guardian prize, it is—unlike Britain’s Carnegie and Greenaway medals, which are awarded by librarians—judged by children’s authors (this year’s judges are David Almond, Kate Saunders, and SF Said). I was able to see something of how the Carnegie judging worked during my year in Newcastle, and the librarians on the judging committee are not given any support (financial or time) to read the hundreds of books that might be nominated. This means that many librarians (particularly those with families or other commitments) cannot participate in the process. Those that do participate also, inevitably, have their own specific population of readers in mind. The fact that the Guardian prize has a panel of authors who generally spend at least part of their year doing author visits throughout the country (and beyond, for that matter) suggests that the judges might have a broader spectrum of the British population in mind as they read through the longlist.

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Landman’s Guardian prize nominee is about Britain’s past, not America’s.

The Guardian prize has been historically much more likely than either the Greenaway or, especially, the Carnegie to choose texts that reflect the diversity of Britain in its winners. It is, for example, significant that of the three authors on the Guardian longlist that I mentioned here, only Landman has won the Carnegie—and she’s done it for a book (Buffalo Soldier) that is set, not in Britain but in the USA. (Blackman has been shortlisted, but hasn’t won.) As early as 1988, however, the Guardian prize had been awarded to a book with a major character who is Black British—Ruth Thomas’s The Runaways. Before this, the Guardian prize had been awarded to non-white authors, including Anita Desai whose Village by the Sea won in 1983.

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Blackman’s Chasing the Stars, like her earlier Pig-Heart Boy, uses technology to question what makes someone human.

 

The current Guardian longlist continues that tradition of committing to a broad range of texts, but not just in terms of authors or main characters and their skin colour. The three books I mentioned above may have the thread of “Black British” running through them one way or another, but they are themselves very diverse texts. Blackman’s story, as I’ve already mentioned, is set in space and has echoes of Othello (not to mention a pinch of Romeo and Juliet) about it. It is the kind of book that is not written enough for and about Black Britons: science fiction complete with technological jargon and plot twists. Set in the future, it asks readers to think about the things about humanity that might change (as in, how much our humanity can be dependent on technology for example) and the things about humanity that never change (the frustrations of teenage love affairs, for example). Landman’s Hell and High Water, like Buffalo Soldier, is set in the historical past, but in this book it is Britain’s, not America’s, history. And unlike Buffalo Solider, which focuses on one of the few time periods when African-Americans are allowed to exist in children’s books (the post-civil war is not as popular in children’s books as the period of slavery or civil rights, but it is not like World War I when apparently few Black people existed in America if one were to judge by children’s books), Hell and High Water is about a free Black Briton in mid-1700s England. The book speaks not only to racial issues, but to class issues as well, since Caleb and his (white) relatives have to struggle with the unequal justice meted out to poor people during the time period (potentially leading the reader to question the equality of justice in modern Britain as well). Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights is set in contemporary urban Britain, and uses slang-filled dialogue and situations which might appeal to readers turned off by more “literary”-appearing books. But being a book about urban kids involved with crime and gangs does not make it unliterary, just as these qualities did not make the books of African-American author Walter Dean Myers, such as the 1990 Scorpions, unliterary. In fact, it has features of both the other longlisted books featuring Black characters. Wheatle’s story, like Landman’s, raises issues of equality of justice as well as the equality of opportunity for Black Britons. It considers both personal responsibility for actions taken and the meaning and value of loyalty, which are features of Blackman’s novel as well.

 

Even if the shortlist (which is to appear in October) includes none of these books, there’s still a good chance that it will feature at least one book that focuses on non-majority characters; Australian author Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow is about a Rohingya asylum-seeker in a detention camp in Australia. But no matter what happens, it is significant (and I think probably historic) that the Guardian prize’s longlist includes books that feature the past, present and possible future of Black Britons from three high-quality authors. Kudos to the Guardian prize for including these books in their galaxy of potential prize-winners; I’ve got my fingers crossed that the shortlist, as well as other prize and readers’ lists, will include them as well.

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.