In the latest in their Beyond the Secret Garden series, Karen Sands-O’Connor and Darren Chetty examine children’s books dealing with protest and politics.
In 1979, Des Wilson wrote a book for young people on politics entitled So You Want to Be Prime Minister: An Introduction to British Politics Today (Peacock). In it, he argued ‘we should all become politically aware and knowledgeable, and should at least use our democratic rights’ (210). In the chapter ‘We the Voters’, Wilson comments ‘Another, and particularly sad, influence on British elections in recent years has been the question of race’ (48). Wilson goes on to discuss the Smethwick campaign of 1964 (though he did not mention the infamous campaign slogan of this election); Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech; and Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 Panorama appearance before concluding, ‘It is a sad fact that in a country that prides itself on tolerance, prejudice on race cannot be ruled out as a factor that can swing votes in some parts of the country. It is also a sad fact that there are politicians who will take advantage of this’ (50). Racism is depicted negatively, but without describing the effects of racism on actual Black and Asian people in the country. Wilson argues that everyone should become involved in politics, but his rhetoric suggests that it is white British people that have the real political power.
In fact, many of the earliest writers to discuss Black and Asian voices in politics were themselves members of radical political parties, including the British Communist Party and the British Black Panthers (which, unlike the American Black Panthers, included many members from Asian backgrounds). Most of these writers were reacting to a racist British society. Roxy Harris published extracts from George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, books dealing with Black Power and the Black Panther movement, in a book called Being Black (New Beacon 1981). Harris included discussion questions for each extract to ‘help black people, young and not so young, to sort out for themselves where they stand on many of the crucial political, social, economic and cultural issues that they face’ (5). Similarly, A. Sivanandan, the director of the Institute of Race Relations, published a series of four illustrated books on British racism that directed readers to consider the institutional and state causes of racism. The last of these, The Fight Against Racism (IRR 1986) included a list of Black deaths in police custody and prison, noting that ‘No death in police custody has been allowed to go unchallenged’ (28) and reproducing photos of protests against the police. Former Black Panther Farrukh Dhondy published fiction that exposed the limitations of white British commitment to anti-racism in the short stories ‘KBW’ (East End at Your Feet Macmillan 1976), ‘Come to Mecca’ (Come to Mecca and Other Stories Macmillan 1978), and in the novel The Siege of Babylon (Macmillan 1978). Dhondy’s novel, based on the Spaghetti House Siege of 1975, also explored what would push Black Britons into radical politics; at one point in the novel ‘Three hundred police with horses, vans and batons, have stopped a crowd of about a hundred young black people marching’ in protest (80-1). Poverty, racism, unemployment, lack of access to education and police oppression pushed young Black and Asian people to become political in the 1970s and 1980s.
More recently, the six books in the Black History series by Dan Lyndon (Franklin Watts 2010) offer an excellent introduction to the topic for teachers and Key Stage 2-aged children in particular. Two of the books in the series, Resistance and Abolition and Civil Rights and Equality explore protests in Africa, the Caribbean, the USA and the UK. In the first of these two books alone, there are sections on The Amistad, Nat Turner, Nanny of the Maroons, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Katherine Auker, Olaudah Equiano, and Elizabeth Heyrick.
Whilst it is fair to say that teaching about protest against racism in British schools has often neglected Britain in favour of the USA, it is also the case that experience of children has been neglected in favour of a focus on leaders. In 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first black child to integrate an all-white elementary school in New Orleans. In This Is Your Time (Pushkin Press, 2021) Bridges writes a letter to today’s youth, that is at once beautiful and powerful. The book’s cover is a detail from Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting The Problem We All Live With showing Bridges being escorted by US Marshalls against a backdrop of racist graffiti. Bridges offers a personal account, paying tribute to her father, and Barbara Henry, her white teacher; ‘For the entire year she sat alone with me in that classroom and taught me everything I needed to know’ (16). She places her story in a broader political context and makes links with contemporary protest against racism in the USA. The effect is to offer young readers a sense of hope grounded in realism; ‘The first steps toward change are never easy.’
How to Change the World by Rashmi Sirdeshpande, (Puffin 2020) is described as a book about ‘real-life stories of the incredible things humans can do when we work together’. The book offers double-paged accounts of collective endeavours (illustrated in a lively style by Annabelle Tempest), including protest from around the world, including the match-workers strike in Bow, London, a variety of campaigns for votes for women, the Montgomery bus boycott, the start of fairer trade, the end of slavery in the British Empire, the tree planters of Piplantri in India, the fight for marriage equality, and environmental protests.
In his forthcoming book Musical Truth Jeffrey Boakye, (Faber, 2021, illustrated by Ngadi Smart) explores the breadth of experiences in over 50 years of Black British History, through 28 songs – a format Boakye employed to great effect in his study of Grime music, Hold Tight (Influx, 2017). Boakye is careful to not limit Black British history to responses to racism; joy and celebration are core to the book, but Musical Truth explores how the relationship between celebration and protest too. This is perhaps most obvious in the work of journalist and activist Claudia Jones who played a key role in establishing the Notting Hill Carnival.
Elsewhere, the Black British Panthers, the Bristol Bus Boycott, responses to Operation Swamp 81, the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, UK Black Pride, the 2010 student protests, the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol are all discussed. At a time when antiracists are under attack from some quarters of the political establishment and accused of indoctrinating children, Boakye offers young readers (Key Stage 2 and upwards) an introduction to a history to which they are often not granted access, commenting at one point that, ‘[t]here are no easy answers here but we need to keep asking the difficult questions’ (83).
Karen Sands-O’Connor is the British Academy Global Professor for Children’s Literature at Newcastle University. Her books include Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).
Darren Chetty is a teacher, doctoral researcher and writer with research interests in education, philosophy, racism, children’s literature and hip hop culture. He is a contributor to The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and the author, with Jeffrey Boakye, of What Is Masculinity? Why Does It Matter? And Other Big Questions. He tweets at @rapclassroom.
Being Black, Roxy Harris, O/P
East End at Your Feet, Farrukh Dhondy, O/P
Come to Mecca and Other Stories, Farrukh Dhondy, O/P
The Siege of Babylon, Farrukh Dhondy, O/P
This is Your Time, Ruby Bridges, One, 978-1911590590, £8.99 pbk
Musical Truth, Jeffrey Boakye, illus Ngadi Smart, Faber & Faber, 978-0571366484, £12.99 hbk
How to Change the World, Rashmi Sirdeshpande, illus Annabel Tempest, Puffin, 978-0241410349, £6.99 pbk
Black History series, by Dan Lyndon, is published by Franklin Watts, £8.99 pbk