Wednesday, 2 July 2014

brown girl in the ring

I spent a long time considering my blog post today. In case anyone hadn't realised I use song titles to head up my blog posts. Usually it's a bit of a music buff's challenge to find a song that reflects my posts, but today this song sprang to mind; but not with any real joy. This disco chart topper by Boney M reminds me of a time of loneliness, alienation and looking back on it now, complete trauma. 

But before I unload that story onto the psychiatrist's couch I want to draw your attention to an article I read on Lenny Henry calling for more BAME representation in the BBC. This particular comment stood out to me and surely must resonate with so many people of colour, especially from my generation - first generation black British born: "If we don't see BAME people on the TV, or in film, we become invisible". Yes, Lenny, indeed. And in my 1980's life this is exactly what happened. Growing up, I loved watching Why don't you?, all the Saturday morning shows and of course Top of the Pops and I used to think, yeah I'd love to do that. But I do remember thinking that I wouldn't be able to because I was black. Now you have to remember, I was a youngster living in an area and attending a school where no one looked like me; unless they lived in my house and had the same surname. We were a family that jumped hurdles to sit together and tune into the Cosby Show or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the Channel 4 contribution of Desmond's. Great shows - but in a span of over a decade this is all I can remember that was offered in the way of TV shows with positive black protagonists. But look at that - two of those were from the States. So yeah I didn't see much of 'me' out there. I didn't think people wanted to see 'me'. My experience growing up was that my kind were not particularly wanted anywhere, maybe in small doses; I was different and not the 'norm'.

The same was happening in the world of literature. In order to shelter from the difficulties I faced accepting who I was in my childhood world, I escaped into books. I devoured everything from the Chronicles of Narnia to Judy Blume and all her shenanigans. But there were 3 books that simply took my breath away and, I guess, were my literary awakening.

Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (the cover didn't survive the 20 odd years I have hung onto this copy!) . A story set in The South during the Depression with Cassie Logan and her family struggling through the events of a turbulent year dealing with racism and family tragedy.

Crick Crack Monkey by Merle Hodge follows Tee, who is forced to live in her Tantie's home after her father emigrates to England.  Tee discovers the discrimination of colour and class during her journey through childhood.


Philip Hall likes me. I reckon maybe by Bette Greene. Beth's drive and ambition to be the top in her class is hampered by class cutie, Philip Hall. She has some serious decisions to make including what is really important to her.

I have no memory of who bought these books for me, and I cannot tell you how different they were from anything else I had read up until that moment.  But at last, the star of the story was a young, black girl. Like me. I still have my well-loved and well-worn copies of all of these marvellous books to pass onto the 3G when the time comes. Yet it wasn't until my University Days that I started to appreciate why I needed to read the black, female experience on the page.  

These books were just the start of a new chapter in my fictional life...

The Colour Purple by Alice Walker which is still today, my favourite book ever. Celie's horrific life betrayed at the hands of those she wanted to trust pours off every page into my heart. Her discovery of the strength and love in womanhood taught me the importance of my searching for my own sisterhood.

The Unbelonging by Joan Riley telling the story of eleven year old Hyacinth who was summoned to England from Jamaica.  The racism and hostility that she endures forces her to quickly redefine who she is. I read this as I started my new solo life in London where I was referred to as 'light-skinned' and 'not really black enough' which threw my own self-perception into complete disarray.

Daughters of Africa - an international anthology of poetry and prose by women of African descent. I immersed myself in the works of women from the UK, the Caribbean, the Americas, Africa and is a book I regularly revisit. All life is here.

As my own London life moved on , I found:
Small Island by Andrea Levy; White Teeth by Zadie Smith; for coloured girls by Ntozake Shange


and the glorious series starting with Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman - I don't think a single student has passed through my classroom without hearing about these books.

I simply couldn't get enough, through these pages I found myself awash with learning, and laughter, and sorrow, and pain. But so much time had passed, I was now a working woman heading on the path to motherhood. Now I could see black, brown, mixed race faces on mainstream TV, on hit radio stations, presenting. That life and career path had gone, it was too late for me, I had already been so invisible and had lost confidence in what I could achieve and routes available to me.
Admittedly the situation is slightly different for my daughters' and nieces' generation; they are can find books where someone like them is leading the way. But to be honest, it's still a trudging search, and the representation of who they are in the public domain is still limited. 

I'll give you an example. Looking for books in my local, massive, superstore. 

This is what I see...

And this is what I found...

I didn't have time to count the books and work out if the ratio mirrored the ethnic population percentage. But you get my point.

Also last Saturday I was supposed to take BigL to see Malorie Blackman doing a talk at the Reading Zone Festival in Leatherhead. This is absolutely not casting blame on Ms Blackman but I received a call the day before to say the event had been cancelled due to low numbers. This is Malorie Blackman people!! The Children's Laureate for goodness sake!! How on earth did her publishers or Waterstones (sponsors of the Children's Laureate) for that matter allow that to happen. If I had told my team at my previous school of employment or the Head of English at my current one or most of the parents and teachers I know that Malorie Blackman was in my local area, she'd have been able to fill Twickenham Stadium. What's up with that, I ask you? 

So now I search for books with protagonists of colour, with brown faces to have in our home. There are all the other usual books too - the chronicles of Narnia are still here, Harry Potter and his buddies have joined them, Shakespeare for kids, and some bloody fairy stuff too. That's fine - I love it that they read so we'll take it all. But I have to make a concerted effort to get some colour on our bookshelves too. And it is out there - if you search hard enough. Letterbox Library and MixedRaceFamilies blog are usually my first port of call and I pop in every now and then to see what they have added. Then I discovered that Malorie Blackman's branches leap from YA to teen to early readers. MiddleS and LittleE have just discovered her beautiful characters Betsey Biggalow and Girl Wonder and we are always on the hunt for more.

Lately I have realised that there is a plethora of books out there for the child I once was, for the children who, today, need to see themselves on book covers solving mysteries, fighting crime, having adventures, being brave, falling out with friends, falling in love with friends. I just wish I didn't have to crawl on my hands and knees in book shops or hassle librarians to order them for me. As much as I am pro local bookstores, sometimes it is thank goodness for Amazon. So I made a list of the wonderful, exciting books - see my beige books page -  featuring diverse lead characters that I bring home to TwickersTowers, and I'll keep updating it in case you need some too. Feel free to let me know of any that you know of - for any age children and adults too.

Understand that I am not talking about every single book that I read, or my 3G reads has to have an ethnic protagonist - that is not the real world. But it's imperative that children and young people of colour read themselves in a book, see themselves surviving, making choices and succeeding. It is imperative that they are not invisible before they even step out into the world they live in.

Oh and Boney M. In short. Kids party. Brown Girl in the Ring is playing on the tape deck. Children form a circle around me singing and pointing. Wanted to go home. Still hurts. Sigh.

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