Black British Children's Literature

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

Karen Sands-O'Connor (Buffalo State, SUNY)
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British children’s literature about people of African descent is as old as modern children’s literature itself, both proliferating in the mid-18th century during a period of expanding trade, industrialization, slavery and colonialism that increased incomes and the literacy levels of white Britons, as well as the production of cheaper and more readily available books. However, such children’s literature as existed about Black people was generally written by white, British people—many of whom did not know or regularly interact with Black people at all. During the post-abolition and late 19th-early 20th century British imperial period, children’s literature continued to present Black people through and for white British eyes, but as the British Empire began to break apart, Black people in the Caribbean and, later, Africa began writing their own stories. Migration of colonial and former colonial subjects increased following World War II, and Black British writers began to consider writing and publishing for the children of those migrants who were entering school and facing racism and lack of opportunities. Black British writers born in the UK began publishing for children as early as the 1970s, but often had limited access to mainstream publishing. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this began to change, particularly after the appointment of Malorie Blackman as the UK’s Children’s Laureate; however, as surveys of publishers have shown, books by Black British writers form less than 1% of the British children’s publishing market, despite being 13% of the population, and attention from mainstream organizations and bookstores has proved elusive, despite popularity with child readers.

The international trade of enslaved people from Africa helped make Britain one of the richest and most powerful empires ever, and fuelled the industrial revolution. But by the mid-18th century, organizations advocating the abolition of slavery began making headway in the courts and legislature. In part, progress was aided by abolitionist authors who directly addressed the reading public, including the relatively new children’s market. Abolitionist authors for children, like those for adults, took two major rhetorical stances: one, that child readers should pity the enslaved African and therefore work for abolition; or two, that abolition was in the best interest of white people, who had to fear rebellion and uprising from people denied their freedom. An example of the former type of literature can be found in Amelia Opie’s poem, “The Black Man’s Lament; or, How to Make Sugar” (1826), which was written to urge child readers to participate in a boycott of West Indian sugar. An example of the latter is in Anna Letitia Barbauld’s dialogue, “Master and Slave” (1796), in which an enslaved man gains his freedom through reasoned argument, and then tells his former slavemaster that he should beware violent uprising. These two views of people of African descent, that they needed to be pitied and helped by white people and that white people must tame or fear them, would continue to dominate British children’s literature throughout its imperial period.

Following the abolition of slavery in all British colonies in 1833, interest in educating the Black Caribbean and African population slowly rose, particularly from British missionaries. Literacy increased, and by the turn of the twentieth century, white British folklorists like Walter Jekyll were beginning to collect Afro-Caribbean oral tales, and Black Caribbean poets like Claude McKay (later part of the Harlem Renaissance group of writers) began producing work about the Caribbean experience. Black people in the British Empire saw themselves as British subjects, and legally they were—but the British people typically did not see them as equals. This inequality was highlighted during the Crimean War, when Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole traveled to the battlefront to join Florence Nightingale’s hospital in Scutari. Seacole was rejected, but set up her own “hotel” and store for British soldiers. Her adventurous spirit, willingness to work in the meanest conditions, and her understanding of tropical diseases and cures have been both celebrated and the subject of controversy in children’s literature throughout the twentieth century and beyond.  Seacole was one of many Black people who lived in Britain during the Victorian period, and most found life in Britain a mixed blessing. Many had formerly been enslaved, and had limited opportunities for employment; while many remained in the servant classes, others found work as entertainers in minstrel shows in Britain’s seaside towns. The minstrel showman’s outfit of brightly striped pants and suit jacket or waistcoat, which appears in Walter Crane’s depiction of the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole” in An Alphabet of Old Friends (1874), would later appear as the clothing of the Golliwog doll made popular in Florence Upton’s Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (1901). Like the minstrel, the golliwog was meant as a comic figure, with exaggerated physical characteristics and stereotyped actions and reactions. The appearance of other “humorous” Black characters in comic annuals, such as the “Darkietown” comics in Tiger Tim created an unrealistic image of Black people for white child readers, especially younger readers. Older readers of adventure stories by authors such as G. A. Henty and Bessie Marchant rarely found Black characters in British settings; instead, in Caribbean islands or African countries, violent Black characters, as in Henty’s A Roving Commission; or, Through the Black Insurrection of Hayti (1899), or subservient Black characters as in Marchant’s Sylvia’s Secret (1930), functioned to teach white British readers the hierarchy of empire, and the necessity of maintaining that hierarchy.

Despite rarely according Black British people the same rights and opportunities of white Britons, the British government did not hesitate to call upon their imperial subjects when needed. As they had during World War I, the British portrayed service in the armed forces as the duty of all British colonial subjects. Many British Caribbean men and women found opportunities for advancement in the RAF and other branches of the armed forces. The BBC introduced a radio program to allow Caribbean members of the forces to send messages home; this program would go on to include short stories and poems by Caribbean writers entitled “Caribbean Voices”. Jamaican-born poet Una Marson was the program’s original presenter; although she wrote mainly for adults, her poem “Little Brown Girl” (1937) details the experience of a Black child’s experiences in London, one of the earliest such depictions by a British Caribbean writer. After World War II, the British again called upon colonial subjects to help Britain rebuild and fill vacancies, particularly in the British Transport services and in the new National Health Service. Thousands of British Caribbean subjects answered this call; they became known as the Windrush Generation after the ship that carried some of the earliest Caribbean migrants to the UK in 1948. The “Caribbean Voices” program also brought migrants to the UK, in the form of writers looking for fame and publication in Britain. Among these writers was the Jamaican Andrew Salkey, who arrived in the early 1950s and quickly became part of the burgeoning West Indian literary scene. In addition to helping form the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) with John La Rose and Kamau Brathwaite, Salkey became one of the first British West Indians to publish books for children, beginning with his disaster quartet, Hurricane (1964), Earthquake (1965), Drought (1966) and Riot (1967). These books, published by Oxford University Press, were set in Jamaica, but offered their mostly white British readership a view of urban, middle-class Jamaican family life that countered stereotypes of island life found throughout the mainstream press.

Although the British government initiated the mass Caribbean migration from 1948-1968, many white British people expressed fear and dismay at their new neighbours. Black British people faced discrimination in housing, employment, and education, and immigration restrictions were put in place in 1962 and again in 1968 following the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech from conservative minister Enoch Powell. When the children of the Windrush Generation began attending British schools, many were placed in “Educationally Sub-Normal” (ESN) classrooms and attempts were made to segregate schools by ability-level in a practice called “banding”. Windrush Generation parents, many of whom had participated in labour strikes in their Caribbean homelands, used the skills learned in those efforts to organize community protests and create supplementary schools to improve their children’s skill levels and opportunities. Trinidadian John La Rose, the founder of the first Black British press, New Beacon Books, and Guyanese-born Jessica and Eric Huntley, who founded another independent Black publishing company, Bogle L’Ouverture Press, recognized that Black children had few positive role models in school texts and children’s literature. Both publishers made an effort to produce literature with Black characters that promoted a positive self-image and a sense of Black history and culture. Andrew Salkey acted as Bogle L’Ouverture’s first children’s editor, and the press published Phyllis and Bernard Coard’s Getting to Know Ourselves (1971) which gave a basic explanation of British colonialism and the effects on people of African descent. John La Rose published folktales by Petronella Breinburg, originally from Suriname; Breinburg would later produce a picture book series, illustrated by Jamaican-born British artist Errol Lloyd, that was the first from a mainstream press (Bodley Head) to feature a Black British child character by a Black British writer and illustrator. The first of the series, My Brother Sean (1973), was highly commended by Britain’s Kate Greenaway Medal committee. 

Writers connected more directly with the British education system were also producing literature for children in the 1970s and 1980s. Guyanese-born Beryl Gilroy, one of the first Black female headteachers in the UK, wrote several books for Macmillan’s Nippers reading series, edited by Leila Berg. One of these, New People at Twenty-Four (1973), contained examples of casual racism by white Britons; the Black British characters attempt to educate their white counterparts, sometimes with humour. Buchi Emecheta, an important novelist and playwright born in Nigeria, worked for the Inner London Education Authority between 1969 and 1976; soon after, she produced her only two picture books about Black British children, Titch the Cat (1979) and Nowhere to Play (1980). These stories, along with Guyanese-born poet Grace Nichols’s early novel for children, Leslyn in London (1979), expressed the casual racism and culture shock faced by young Black Britons who were often marginalized in their own country.

The late 1970s and early 1980s, the years following immigration restrictions for both Caribbean and African immigrants (1971 UK legislation replaced employment vouchers with temporary work permits, severely limiting immigration) and the rise of Thatcherism were difficult years for Black Britons. Margaret Thatcher famously announced on the 1978 television programme World in Action that white Britons were “really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”, and, as prime minister, she would re-institute tough policing powers, including the “sus” laws allowing police to arrest anyone suspected of criminal activity without evidence. The 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riot, the 1981 protests over the New Cross Fire (which John La Rose helped to organize), and the 1981 Brixton uprising all resulted from frustration over police brutality and indifference to the plight of Black Britons. Andrew Salkey’s only British-based novel, Danny Jones (1980), was set during this period in London’s Ladbroke Grove. 

The music scene was particularly responsive to the events of this period; although the BBC refused to play reggae music on their stations, pirate radio stations popped up all over the UK, particularly in London. In addition to the music of reggae artists like Bob Marley and the Wailers or the Birmingham-based Steel Pulse, pirate radio stations and the reggae clubs they fostered also introduced dub poetry to listeners, and it was here that dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson began performing works such as “Sonny’s Lettah” in Jamaican patois. Johnson produced an album of his poetry, Dread Beat an’ Blood, in 1978. Although his poetry was mostly aimed at the young adult and twenty-something audience, his use of patois and the performance aspect of his poetry changed attitudes toward Black British poetry. Other poets, including Jamaican-born Valerie Bloom and Guyanese-born John Agard, began producing poetry in patois for children and young adults. Bloom, who became the children’s editor at Bogle L’Ouverture after the departure of Andrew Salkey for America, is best-known for her patois-infused counting poem “Fruits”, first published in the collection Duppy Jamboree (1992) from Cambridge University Press, and then in a picture book version with illustrations by David Axtell in 1997, which was a runner-up for the Smarties prize. Agard, who worked for the Commonwealth Institute after coming to the UK in 1977 promoting Caribbean culture in schools, began publishing for children in 1979 with Letters for Lettie, a novel about a Caribbean girl delivering mail in her Georgetown home. He is most famous, however, for his collections of Caribbean and global nursery rhymes, edited with his partner Grace Nichols, such as No Hickory, No Dickory, No Dock (1991); and poem collections about life in Britain such as Half-Caste (2005), the title poem of which features in Britain’s national curriculum. More recently, the Nigerian-born Atinuke, who had a successful career storytelling in schools across Britain, began writing the Anna Hibiscus and No. 1 Car-Spotter series when an illness kept her from performing.

Performance of a different kind, television presenting, kickstarted the careers of Black British writers Trinidad-born Floella Benjamin and British-born Trish Cooke. Both presented for BBC, Benjamin for Play School and Cooke for Playdays, both popular educational sketch shows for young children in the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike the performance poetry scene, BBC children’s shows only permitted patois in humorous songs on the show, recalling the minstrel shows of the 19th and 20th centuries (indeed, the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show did not conclude until 1978, after both Benjamin and Cooke had started at the corporation). Benjamin played a character known as Reggae Rita for a while; and she recalled in her memoir for children, Coming to England (1997), that she learned to speak “the Queen’s English” in school, saving her Trinidadian accent for home and for performance situations. Similarly, Cooke’s Diary of a Young West Indian Immigrant (2001) begins with mild patois when the main character is in Dominica, but this use of language disappears when she arrives in England. 

The tendency of British schools to emphasize a “standardized” British accent and customs, which had resulted in so many Black British children either being placed in ESN classrooms or deciding to erase their Caribbean accents and speech patterns in order to succeed, extended in subtle and insidious ways through the 1980s and 1990s. Verna Wilkins, whose British-born child told her that he couldn’t colour himself brown in a story about himself because books were only about white people, decided to start her own publishing company, Tamarind Press in 1987. Like New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture had done, Tamarind’s aims were to improve the self-image of the Black child in Britain; however, Wilkins’ Tamarind Press did this through stories and picture books set firmly in British surroundings rather than Caribbean ones.

Tamarind Press illustrators as well as authors came from diverse backgrounds. One of the most successful was Pamela Venus, who drew the illustrations for Jacqui Farley’s fairy tale Giant Hiccups (2008), as well as producing a series of board books about small children from diverse backgrounds doing ordinary British activities like attending playgroup and feeding ducks in the park. These board books would be republished in 2016 after Verna Wilkins sold Tamarind to Penguin Random House and started another publishing company, Firetree Books.

Independent publishing continues to be a place where Black British writing for children finds a home. In 2018, Zimbabwe-born Ken Wilson-Max joined forces with Anna McQuinn to form AlannaMax books, which publish the popular Lulu and Zeki series. The previous year, Black British Aimée Felone helped co-found Knights Of Books, aimed at diverse readers, with a combination of crowd-funded money and a matching grant from mainstream publisher Penguin Random House. Following in the footsteps of New Beacon, Bogle L’Ouverture, and other independent Black British publishers, Knights Of opened a bookshop, Roundtable Books, in Brixton to increase access to diverse children’s books. 

The children of the Windrush Generation, many of whom were born in Britain, came of age in the turbulent period of the 1970s and 1980s, and this has shaped the careers of several Black British-born writers. Benjamin Zephaniah, influenced by Linton Kwesi Johnson, was already part of the dub poetry scene when Brixton and his hometown of Handsworth, Birmingham, erupted in riots in 1985; many of his early poems concerned racial inequality, and he refused an OBE in 2003 because he did not want to be associated with an award based on the horrors of the British Empire. His poetry and novels for young people, however, tends to focus on racial harmony and the absurdity of racism, as well as causes he supports such as veganism. These include the young adult novel Face (1999), which he says is about “facial discrimination”, and the children’s poetry collection, Talking Turkeys (1995), which encourages veganism. Alex Wheatle grew up in a care home near Croydon, but participated in the 1981 Brixton uprising, for which he was arrested. It was in prison that he became a reader and a writer; his early novels for adults, such as Brixton Rock (1999) and East of Acre Lane (2001), chronicle life in Brixton during the 1980s. His novels for young adults, however, particularly his Crongton series beginning with Liccle Bit in 2015, are set in a fictional British town called Crongton. Notably, the characters frequently connect with a British literary past, referencing the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and the King Arthur legends, among others. The third book in the series, Straight Outta Crongton, won the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize, but was passed over for a Carnegie Medal nomination, which resulted in a great deal of criticism of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), which awards the medal. In the two years prior, other Black British writers, including Catherine Johnson, whose Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (2015) was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize; Patrice Lawrence, author of Orangeboy which won the Waterstone’s Prize for Children’s Fiction; and Malorie Blackman were also passed over for the medal, not even appearing on the shortlist. These Black British novelists write in all different genres; Johnson’s books place Black Britons in 18th century British history, Lawrence’s characters face problems in contemporary Britain, and Blackman’s are often found beyond the stars, showing the increasing breadth of writing available for children. Unfortunately, many Black British authors have consistently been passed over for awards. The Carnegie had never been awarded to a Black British writer; since 2016, however, CILIP has undergone an independent diversity review, including reconsidering its criteria for judging. The publishing industry also faced scrutiny; in 2017, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) began its first review of publishing practices with regard to racial diversity; that report, Reflecting Realities, indicates that the problem is widespread throughout the children’s book industry.

Perhaps the most successful Black British writer of this period, Malorie Blackman, also frequently references British literary tradition, particularly Shakespeare, although she often sets her books in fantasy or science fictional worlds. Her 2016 Chasing the Stars uses elements of Othello, and her most famous novel, Noughts and Crosses (2001), was inspired by Romeo and JulietNoughts and Crosses, which developed into a multi-novel sequence, portrays a world where Black people have political, cultural and economic advantages over white people, but Blackman did not want to be known as a writer who only focused on racial issues. She had written nearly fifty books for children prior to Noughts and Crosses, most with Black British protagonists in situations where they were rarely found in British children’s books—at the centre of medical dramas in Pig-Heart Boy (1997) or solving crimes using computers in Hacker (1992). Unlike Zephaniah, Blackman accepted an OBE in 2008, and she was the first Black British writer to be named Children’s Laureate, serving in that capacity from 2013 to 2015.

As Black British writers have expanded their readership, those in the wider, mainstream children’s book world have often failed to recognize Black British writers’ contribution to British children’s literature. Independent publishers and organizations concerned with diversity have tried to fill the gaps and highlight the issue, with some success. Although there are still many hurdles to mount, Black British children’s literature has come into its own, moving from books designed to challenge stereotypes, improve self-image and connect Black British readers with their past, to literature which reaches into every corner of the children’s publishing industry. 

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Citation: Sands-O'Connor, Karen. "Black British Children's Literature". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 03 September 2019 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=19550, accessed 22 February 2024.]

19550 Black British Children's Literature 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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