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African History Month

With October been the dedicated month for Black history or BHM, now more than ever before it’s time to shine light on the positive aspects of African history especially for young children of all races. Black history is African history. African history is Black history. It all began in Africa and I believe eventually will end back in Africa – with Africa getting the recognition, respect and reaping her just rewards for her positive part in humanity.

Finally, there is room for African music, African food and African culture in the mainstream so this year for BHM we must remember that Black history has to be a celebration of Africa first. Not because Africa is perfect but because now it’s time take it back to confident African leaders and African royalty who made impact on who we are today, notable figures like Queen Nzinga, Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba and many, many more. The children of the diaspora must be taught that their Continent made and makes significant contributions to life as we know it, so they regard themselves and are filled with African pride.

Africa must stand alone and be counted this Black History month more than ever in order to celebrate her far reaching participation in society, in what has been a turbulent year marked with protests, a global pandemic and tragic death of Black icons. Her people, her landscape, her importance in the world cannot be hidden anymore. As Africans arise to more prominence it begs the question, why wasn’t Africa and her people given more attention particularly during BHM which has been observed since the 1980s? Why did the story of Africa and her people always start in a vast body of water on their way to the Americas to be ensnared and enslaved? What about the woman of North African descent found in the 4th Century with wealthy possessions in England or the African trumpeter from the 1500s in Tudor times for which there is an image of him on that can be seen today at the National Archives? 

Pre-slavery, there were prominent Africans in England and Europe, unshackled and unchained and living normal life or in some cases an exceptional lives. Unrefuted evidence of African soldiers in Rome and Afro-Portuguese royalty give a brief glimpse into life of Africans prior to the slave trade. I cannot speculate as to the reasons why African history begins at slavery but I often wonder what African children are taught back in the Motherland, does history for them begin at slavery also? How unjust would that be if it did. Peter Fryer in his 1988 book Black People in the British Empire stated that apparently the British thought ‘God had entrusted to them: to rescue black people from backwardness, barbarism, and heathenism’. This may give us an incline into why our history wants to conveniently skip over royal households and kingdoms that were expansive and technologically advanced for their era like the Benin Kingdom or Timbuktu – a place that records one of the oldest libraries known to man, now diminished to a throwaway phrase “from here to Timbuktu”, how far from the truth that is. Anything that does not fit the narrative that Black people are backwards, barbaric and a bunch of heathens needs to remain hidden.

I discovered my Queen, Queen Nzinga in my mid to late twenties. I was born in Luanda the capital of Angola. I wasn’t taught that there were kings and or more specifically Queens in my country. I knew of the long-standing civil war and that we came to London for better prospects. But what really dented my confidence was the fact that though I grew up in quite a mixed area of Black, white and Asian – many of my fellow Africans knew nothing about Angola or had even heard of it, only my Congolese counterparts were aware of Angola…one asked me if I was from Mongolia?! From then on, I was from Portugal which is why I spoke Portuguese. And bless my parents they just wanted us to assimilate quickly into British life, plus the past was painful and hard to explain to five young children. I researched myself into Queen Nzinga stumbling across her merely by fate, her bravery against the Portuguese was well noted; her dignity, self-worth and willingness to fight inspirational still today, centuries later. I must say it was a great feeling reading about Angola in Akala’s Natives, particularly as I am still told at times “you’re the only Angolan I have met!”

Amazing Africans was the norm and should be taught so, figures such like Kwame Nkrumah who led Ghana to independence from the British, Thomas Sankara, a leader who shunned foreign aid – his trial for murder commences only now, promoted national literacy programmes and many other policies in Burkina Faso. The formidable Patrice Lumumba who was responsible for an independent Congo free from Belgium’s grip who was assassinated because he threatened the status quo, his influence and resolve would have been unstoppable. There is no point merely learning about the evils of the American slave owners during BHM and the horrors on the idyllic-looking plantations when on closer shores there were human zoos, Black bodies put on show and massacres en masse of the African people that Ronald Segal wrote in his 1962 African Profiles “…such savagery may seem to have been minted more in Europe than in Africa”. 

Let’s not do our children a disservice of not informing about the great leaders of old and the beauty of our landscape today so they can be inspired to truly know that they do not come from slaves but countless noble men and women who wanted to serve the people of Africa and be self-sufficient. Let the children know that our land is one of diamond, gold and oil, of beauty and significance. Yet according to Ha-Joon Chang in 23 Things they don’t tell you About Capitalism it seems that the West believes African geography and too many natural resources makes ‘Africa..destined for underdevelopment.’ It is a myth Chang succinctly refutes. 

So parents let’s start purposely ensuring that our history does not start at the transatlantic slave trade. Here are five books to introduce young children all over the world to iconic African figures and great African stories in general:

1. These are our Heroes: 24 Famous Change Makers from Africa by Delali Avemega
2. Africa, Amazing Africa: Country by County by Atinuke
3. Femi the Fox: A Pot of Jollof by Jeanette Kwakye
4. Tobias The Dream Adventurer by Destynee Onwochei
5. Baby goes to Market by Atinuke

"Mummy why are we the only Black people here?"

It is 2021. London. The multicultural epicentre of the UK, the former foremost city of culture in Europe. It’s summertime and it’s hot – actually hot. People are out.

I’m in one of the coolest spots in London with my girls, a beautiful place with such breath-taking grounds in the centre of town. My two daughters and I are the only Black family around. We have been here before; the grounds and overall experience makes one visit simply insufficient. As we peruse all that the space has to offer, the incredible art, history, activities an hour in my six-year-old blurts out “Mummy why are we the only Black people here”. I stop. The baby stops – well she’s four. I am now rooted to my spot.

So many thoughts simultaneously scan my head. In a spilt second, I try to grab one and gather myself. “There are”, I respond slowly dragging each syllable through clenched teeth. Clearly I chose the wrong answer because both she and her sister look around, their reality in that moment betraying their own Mummy’s words. “Olhar”, I say in Portuguese meaning look, using this as the most random opportunity to also do what I should have done years ago which was teach these girls the official language of my country. “People come on different days, different times, people can go anywhere and visit all types of places. There are Black people here…just not right now.” After a slight pause, and the girls still looking at me confused – maybe my body language gave something away too, I distract us all by pointing out some fine art. It’s an image of black man being depicted in a strikingly vibrant portrait. See a Black person.

On the tube heading back, I pondered at it all. To be frank each time I had been to this place, a total of three times including this visit I hadn’t seen other Black families with children under ten too. I noticed too that in similar spaces of culture, arts and heritage and the like, I didn’t witness many Black children and families.  Black creatives and cool kids, yes but not Black families. I wonder why. I’m even more taken back that my six-year-old has even noticed. Thought children didn’t see colour? (I know they do).  The visit to this place was for a dedicated exhibition celebrating Black focused creative output in Britain. I should add here that not naming the place is purely to not let the institution be the focus but rather the bigger notions at play. It’s not just this place, the girls and I explore extenstively – this is by no means the first place we have visited where a Black couple or parent with children or a child are noticeably absent.

Why are Black families and children not visiting these spaces more frequently and in larger quantities?

Under the UK Governments’ ethnicity facts and figures from our pre-pandemic way of life commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in 2018 to 2019, 50.2% of people aged 16 and over had visited a museum or gallery at least once in the past year. The breakdown by ethnicity of the statistics were 51.1% of White, 43.7% of Asian and with 33.5% of Black people. It would be great to get updated figures, especially given the impact of the last year granted. Conversely, under 16’s are not represented in these figures which is important to note personally because I feel like these spaces have a wealth of things to offer young people and children under ten.  But these figures could be indicative of something significant.

So back to my daughter noticing the lack of Black families within this space. What was the emotion behind it? She didn’t seem sad when she articulated her observations. Seemed like a genuine question…like an are we there yet? Why can’t I have ice cream for breakfast? A purely innocent and intriguing thought that perhaps Mummy could shed more insight on. I personally know from self-publishing a children’s picture book that children seeing themselves in literature is so fundamental. The age that picture books tend to cover, which is three to five-year-olds even more so as everything they see starts to shape them, their worldview and thinking. Picture books aid in the deconstruction of images, making sense of what an image is invoking and is highly influential to the young mind.

Could the same apply beyond books? The idea that children need to go into spaces to witness how cultures and identities intersect to be comfortable navigating a diverse world. For their future and their reality undoubtedly, whether it be higher education, the world of work and even entrepreneurship will be filled with dynamic people from all backgrounds especially if the girls decide to remain in London.

I’m raising my daughters by surrounding them with Blackness and all its facets, they recognise colour. They have 180 books in their room with characters who like them and characters who don’t. That’s the reality of living in London and a conscious decision was made to intentionally make their consumption of media and literature and art during their foundational years a direct depiction of the reality they are living. Their father and I are African. Born on the Continent in two different African countries. British and African. But our children were born here, in the financial capital of the world, in the financial district of the world to be exact. They can’t be told to go back to where they come from…well they can technically via the DLR to Westferry and walk to the Birth Centre. So, allowing them to understand their core as authentically British as culturally African in the exact same vein is an attempt to help them bypass imposter syndrome, any feelings of displacement and alienation because London is their home, London is their city.

Ultimately, I was scared after the comment Ama made, I don’t want her to formulate an idea that Black people are not present in certain spheres. Especially at this young age – it must be too early. I want her to be assured that whatever space she wants to operate in, she can and will find peers there not for vanity metrics but based on merit, skill, talent and authenticity. Also, I would love parents to understand that exploring is educational. Views are being shaped by what our children see, at such fast rates I did not realise Ama was cognisant of who was Black and who wasn’t. Schools tend to pick similar spaces for reason for trips. I want her to understand that parts of us as Black people inhabit these spaces; art from the diaspora, artefacts from the Continent, Black artists who pour out of their core for culture. These spaces are worth exploring because it’s 2021 and we are meant to be here, who isn’t.

Who are the writers of children’s picturebooks featuring Black, Asian and other ethnic characters?

 

Picturebooks are profound. I have seen this first-hand in my six- and four-year-old, the positive impact of literature that reflects a wide scope of identities and purposely includes theirs. When they can identify with moments within the books they have and draw on the feelings and messages even after the book is closed it is indescribable as a parent. Books increase confidence, adds to self-concept, and creates a great foundation for the developing mind.

So, reading the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s 2021 report, as an annual interest of mine since becoming a writer and author, I couldn’t help this year to ponder beyond the surface of the findings and just gather my thoughts on it.

Of 5875 children’s picturebooks, fiction and non-fiction published in 2020, only 879 featured characters of colour. That is 15% compared to 10% in 2019, 7% in 2018 and 4% in 2017.

This was the stat being heralded on social media. The soundbite. 15%. A big enough number. All the summaries, posts and stories particularly on Instagram seemed to focus on this number. 15%. Granted it was an increase from 6478 children’s books published in 2019, 680 featuring ethnic minority characters, so it is progress of course, progress that the CLPE notes as a “…conscious effort by the publishers to make the content more representative”. This was this quote that made me stop. The content is more representative but are the writers, authors or storytellers? Does financial incentives underpin this “conscious effort” also? Afterall publishing houses are publishing companies. Money matters. Are diverse books and Black books just a trend? Are they popular now because they are accessible to a white readership?

Who are the authors that are causing the increase in characters of colour within children’s publishing? Are they Black, Asian or any other underrepresented groups that reside in England? The 15% of British minority characters, and I must insert that British caveat because frankly across the globe minorities are not quite that but encompass large groups of people. They are actually only a minority in this country but when looking at overall population numbers are far from that. But anyway, when we dive into the ethnicities of authors will the numbers correlate with the characters who are becoming more richly diverse? I believe not. For me the publishing world is still not reflecting the diversity of the characters that it could be by way of writers, authors and editors. Strides are being made, absolutely, but those strides need to focus on the writers and not simply the content because when we look past the big number being displayed, in actual fact only 8 percent of picturebooks had a British minority ethnic main protagonist a mere 3 percent increase from the year before. Only 8% of children’s picturebooks had a main character who was not white though non-white children of primary school age account for 33.9 percent of the population in England. This is not good enough. I pose this question if only 8 percent of the characters were non-white what was the percentage of the writers who were also non-white?

Even more alarming, when the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education looked in detail at the types of books that had Black, Asian or other underrepresented characters, the books were focussed on current affairs and the increased discourse on the legacies of imperialism, anti-racist advocacy and identity politics or biographies. So three- to five-year-olds are seeing an increase of reflective characters in terms of skin colour and hair texture but only in these aforementioned areas? How disheartening that from an early age these are the types of books that are introducing them to their identity and the world. It is disheartening because there is scope for so much more for their little minds to come in contact with through the pages of books. Are picturebooks with white characters focussed on their history as colony masters and the God-awful things done under the banner of religion, modernising ‘barbaric’ practices of Africans and Asians? Of course not. So why are books that feature Black characters are for the most part dealing with identity politics and anti-racist messaging?

I do believe there are a significant amount of non-Black writers writing Black characters. I also believe that many Black books and characters are geared to white readers. Just my honest thoughts hence the increase in more books of the above-mentioned nature – which I dislike by the way. There is nothing wrong with white authors including diverse characters in their books or indeed making the main character one from Black, Asian or other communities. Nothing at all. However, steps must be taken to include and increase the number of writers from all backgrounds to share their stories and support them telling their own stories. As a Black writer, I cannot see myself writing about non-Black characters – for me I want to elevate my community and tell stories that directly speak to an aspect of our community in the first instance at this present time. I can and will include non-Black characters of course, it is the reality my children see. Ultimately I need to ensure my daughters see themselves. I hope I get the opportunity to share the stories deep within me because for me books are the first medium that children typically are exposed to. This medium being representative of the world they find themselves in is paramount.

Data from self-published authors could be telling too, will their books go beyond the legacies of imperialism? I won’t lie, I am inclined to believe so. I’ve seen it, I am proud to say I have supported many self-published authors and the topics are so wide ranging and refreshing. Nothing to do with race just relatable characters, clear stories and fun storytelling.  Self-published authors are filling in a gap and their contribution to the world of literature cannot be understated. When their manuscript was not picked up, they did not withhold their stories. They courageously believed in themselves and in the power of their book and published it. Independent bookshops also are the lifeline to a self-published author. They are passionate and resourceful and contribute to this parallel world outside the big publishing houses.

I want to add to making literature a realistic depiction of life as we know it – people from a myriad of backgrounds sharing space in this land. It’s an achievement to ensure content is diversified but also the writers because books are one of the largest exports when it comes to the UK’s creative industries as reported by the Publishers Association. Children’s books need to mirror society at large. We all should contribute to remaining committed to ensuring culture and identity is validated and valued and preserved in the pages of children’s picturebooks through writers from all backgrounds. The journey continues.