Reluctant Witness: Kids Books, History, and Whiteness

For many years I have thought of reflecting upon and examining certain conjunctures and countries where I have had the opportunity to spend some time. Unlike many of my middle-class peers in Canada, my experiences of studying, researching and living abroad were often shaped by both overt and covert racism and sometimes homophobia and sexism. Instead, I have been focussing on where I make my home, rather than other places in which I have been fortunate to spend time.

As a young student before the #MeToo era, I was vulnerable in a male-dominated academic field at the time. As a “mature” graduate student, I experienced sexual harrassment again. But my experiences gave me the input and analysis to make links between the varied ways in which people of colour can experience our lives in differing contexts and the sometimes contradictory ways in which we can be called up or dismissed as the occasion warrants.

Growing up in Canada, I experienced overt racism at both the primary and middle school level. While hurtful and exclusionary, overt racism pushed me into the world of books, a world which I inhabited as a largely disembodied being, in which the bothersome nature of my skin and increasingly sexualized body were left behind. I suspect that I was not alone in disassociating as both survival and resistance. I was a voracious and quick reader, blocking out the sounds, sights and smells of a bewildering childhood, where the “leave it to Beaver” ideology of Canadian primary schools in the 1970s seemed to have nothing to do with my own life and experiences.

While I made a sense of my own experiences and observations through stories, I also revelled in the popular children’s fiction of the time—again, an act of deconstruction and self-erasure. But it was the very alien nature of what I read that made it a fiction— whether about an animal or a person! Thus, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons, The Saturdays, Ballet Shoes, or any one of the beloved books of childhood became a complicit act of whitening myself, an escape to a no-trouble zone. A development of a desireable schizophrenia encouraged by all levels of the education system throughout Canada, in particular at the post-secondary level!

Thanks, in large part to my father, I recieved books from all over the world, an opening and flowering of the richness of language and experience from non-hegemonic viewpoints from Andrew Salkey’s Jamaican children’s books, George Lamming’s incomparable In the Castle of My Skin, the stories of the Salish and west coast Dene, of Australia’s colonial outback and natural disasters, of Farley Mowat’s experiences in the Canadian bush or James Kruss’ Happy Islands Behind the Winds. Magnificently illustrated folk and fairy tales and Bengali ghost stories, biographies of artists and scientists and stories of the Underground Railroad and anti-fascist kids’ books such as The Diary of Anne Frank, developed a sense of solidarity in me. The realm of poetry also opened up an exciting and emotionally powerful world.

By the time I started to see the world on my own, I had already developed these multiple and simultaneous positions of non-white/white, male/female and later gay/straight. I read the world through a complex set of filters of self-erasure and began to develop a consciousness about the nature of longing and belonging. Much of the poetry I wrote and was drawn to, explored those themes, siting them as points or moments of resistance in a complex and cotidian struggle.

Over the last few years, I have started re-reading many of the books I loved as a child, viewing them with the lens of accumulated struggles, victories and defeats that are both personal to me and part of the world in which I inhabit, like all of us. Recently, watching the deplorables on the U.S’s Capitol Hill, I asked myself where does so much dispossesion and entitlement come from? Rather than reading essays and newsmedia op eds, I turned to kids’ books.

Not only the obviously ideological Little House on the Prairie Series of my public school, that extolled the libertarian contradictions of a settler class that relied on the government to displace and murder Indians for their westward expansion, while glorifying their individualist “pioneer” spirit, but also other books that were widely available in schools when I was little.

Lois Lenski’s books on the (mainly) white working-class children of America, written in a post-world war two moment of euphoria and nation-building, plagued by Jim Crow and segregation, provide some clues.

While in these books, benevolence and tolerance of Afro-descended or Indigenous people is conveyed, whiteness is the currency of last resort. The children in these books may be dirt poor, but their whiteness gives them a pinch of superiority over any child of colour. In the current context, rereading these incredibly descriptive and honest accounts of numerous childhoods of sharecroppers, travelling migrant workers, coal producers, and cotton-pickers depict how recently public education and public health took effect in the world’s most grandiose country.

When I took time to reread England’s Enid Blyton as a comparator, the upper-class world of Blyton’s child detectives is plagued with class, colour, and ethnic references constructed around racism and the innate superiority of white people.
So, while describing entirely differing worlds of whiteness and childhood- an ocean apart- the books had one glaring commonality— the currency of whiteness in a society of commodification.

This little foray of mine into understanding some aspects of the white supremacy movement on display during the Trump presidency, must be complemented by understanding the ways in which becoming “American” since the inception of the country, is also becoming, white.

No where is this more telling than in some of the ethnic language newspapers which welcomed European immigrants into their new homes, often in urban centers. For many, who had never met or interacted with Afro-descended peoples or other people of colour, nor spoke English yet, these newspapers covered the growing use of lynchings and active racism in the 1900-1930s era as a mechanism for anti-Black violence and socio-political control. The ways in which these crimes were described and the ways in which their victims were discussed, gave recent immigrants a fast track to “Americanness”, by providing them clues on appropriate “white” behaviour with regards to a post-slavery multiracial society.

This converges with a time in which the great migration of Afro-Americans from South to North was occurring, and labour, dominated by urban white working class agendas, had to accomodate Black workers. Unfortunately, these accomodations have barely been succesful and continue to be contested in various ways even now.

So looking back at the varied roots of the current entanglement we in the U.S and Canada are witnessing, children’s literature can provide much insight into why our society’s hierarchies perpetuate and mutate into groups hell-bent on holding on to social power, by, dare I say it, the skin of their teeth!

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