Is it wishful thinking to have wanted some ethnic diversity in those that taught me at school? I never had a Black or brown teacher. And the data around diversity in management in primary-secondary ed is damning. Whilst I despise BAME, it’s really a sad indictment on the system that diversity in teaching staff is a massive issue.
At the Students’ Union, almost every Friday during term time, I’ve shown a number of films that push audiences to think, but also sometimes to show role models that students can look up to. One Friday in October, we watched To Sir, with Love starring the great Sidney Poitier, met with a positive reception from staff, students and members of the public, including children. Perhaps in watching that film, these children and university students may think about being teachers. I want to show films with people that look like them, and for a Black man to be in a role like that. Epic.
Mark Thackeray is an anomaly to me. This character’s not something that’s familiar. Sidney Poitier is famous for playing the straight jacket and Mark Thackeray is symbolic of what Black men can represent, something other than what numerous screen representations show us to be. No matter if that’s the funny man, or some drug dealer on the streets of London in Top Boy. Sidney Poitier, the man that was loved by everyone in his day. White people. Black people. Good-looking … well-dressed … and got the best lines.
Whilst the narratives shown in Top Boy, for example, are very real, it’s not anything we haven’t seen before. Those types of stories sell and make headlines. Whether we’re talking about Top Boy or taking a trip back to the 1980s and 1990s with those Hollywood thug films and Blaxploitation – from Boyz n the Hood to Do the Right Thing and Richard Roundtree in Shaft. Or if you want something more in the now, what about Blue Story? We continue to push these kind of stories and these images travel all round the world.
Mark Thackeray teaching poor East London children showed an image of a Black man I’d ever only seen in my own family unit. The self-sacrificing father figure, but more importantly, a highly elevated image of a Black male who did not fit the stereotypes of the British establishment. He showed them, that despite their backgrounds, they could have dignity and values. And what’s more, there is nothing wrong with being working class.
To see someone that looked like me that wasn’t violent, a rapist, or a thief, and so on, brings me joy. Whilst characters in shows like The Wire contradict stereotypes, they still look (stereotypically) like thugs. Growing up, and now today, to tell people I did not grow up by Grenfell Tower or in Handsworth, in socio-economically deprived areas still shocks them.
Diversity in teaching is a must; the closest I’ve had to a Black teacher is @drkukustr8talk. Though, he was a lecturer at the University of Northampton where I studied, he wasn’t my lecturer. Not even the same course. Let alone same faculty. He’s a family friend. Yet, he’s been a mentor to me for many years, and have developed more of a comfort for literature because of him. I didn’t feel like I was scaling the walls into somewhere I didn’t belong. He helped me, to, navigate inside my own head, and decolonise my degree. By mentally dismantling race and class inside the academy, I was then able to confidently push boundaries on my course.
Sidney Poitier is a conduit for millions of little Black boys to more positive images of themselves. A contemporary comparison would be the Hollywood actor David Oyelowo, specifically in Queen of Katwe, where he mentors a number Black children in learning how to play chess and in the process, helps them along into finding their identity, self-worth and pride.
In his last post, Dr. Diepiriye quotes bell hooks: “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy” and this is entwined with how Black and brown teachers can aid Black and brown students into finding themselves at school and at universities. When students see themselves in the classroom, that’s an element of safety, the second rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in a person’s quest for self-actualisation.
To Sir, with Love is one of the most important films ever made, as it still has relevance today, whilst our education system is still underrepresented, and yet to break the colour bar. What of the emotional labour Black and brown teachers take on within these structures? What about institutional racism in the education sector? What about the schools’ prison pipeline of exclusion that disproportionately impacts children from an ethnic minority background? Exclusion from class only to be excluded from society later on.
Whilst To Sir, with Love reached its 50th anniversary in 2017, education continues to face cuts, and diversity continues to be a tertiary issue, as universities are run like corporations: ID cards, data crunching, and how much? James Clavell’s classic brings us back to focus on the student. What about the individual needs? What makes each student tick? What’s going on in their lives apart from study? What about community and inclusion?
Race matters, but why do we continue to pigeon-hole Black and brown educators in a system that refuses to change?
Works of Note
Coard, Bernard. How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System. London: Unknown, 1971. Print.
Richardson, Brian. Tell it Like it Is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children. London: Bookmarks, 2005. Print.
As someone who has loved the art of storytelling for all his short twenty-four years, on characters you are often told “it’s not about the colour of a their skin, but the content of their character” that keeps you engaged. Growing up I struggled to find characters like me in the stories I committed to. Malorie Blackman has been fighting the good fight for the best part of twenty years, but in one of my favourite literary genres, YA Fiction (Young Adults) , Black men are not a commonality. And that’s just the first layer. What about characters in coming-of-age stories for little Black girls? What about those children with non-White skin who happened to be dyslexic, dyspraxic, or even on the autistic spectrum? And this was one of the reasons I read Creative Writing. There were no characters like me growing up, so I started to write my own.
But reading young adults fiction, still even today, I see nothing much has changed. I’m still making the same comments I made when I was ten and twelve years old. Are there fewer authors of colour writing young adults fiction? Are there fewer Black and brown filmmakers wanting to make these films? Or is there a culture in the industry that what sells is “stale” and “pale.” And, you know, Wakanda and all that… but a Black Brit from Peckham has carried a trilogy of films in that little franchise called Star Wars. When John Boyega’s big Black face popped up in the first trailer for The Force Awakens, I cried. Diversity sells, but statistics in YA fiction are dire, whether we’re talking about the number of non-White lead characters or the lack of Black or brown authors getting published in this genre.
At its bones, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a young adults drama but it was pushed as art house / drama / LGBT Cinema… to sell tickets. And LGBT Cinema is not a genre. YA comes in many forms. YA is John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, and George Lucas’ American Graffiti, a film that’s so good that I forgave him for the prequel trilogy. But these films are still very White. Mean Girls, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Carrie Pilby, The Fault in Our Stars, Call Me By Your Name, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid – the list goes on.
YA is whitewashed. When it comes to LGBT representation, we don’t see the intersectionality. Moonlight has become the go-to film for representation of gay Black men. And even there, “gay Black men” are not the focus. It’s more about class, race, and gender than sexuality. Internalised rage from repressed emotions. Its depictions of masculinity, whilst sexuality is marginalised. And as a straight ally who loves films, I struggle to name (mainstream) films about LGBT identity that include Black / brown people.
Moonlight and Tangerine come to mind but you do end up having to look outside of British film and Hollywood; there’s a plethora in non-English speaking cinema – I think of South Africa’s The Wound and it’s really something special.
Well-meaning White people say “it’s not about the colour of their skin [yap yap yap],” and to say that comes from a vantage point of privilege. Most people look like you, since society was built in your image. When you look at the history of Black actors in Hollywood, at how much they had to fight –from Diahann Carroll (Claudine) to Sidney Poitier (To Sir, with Love), to Denzel Washington (Training Day), Spike Lee (School Daze) and John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), look how much it took to get Malcolm X made!
All this said, most of my favourite story characters have been White. In Carrie, from Caren Lissner’s Carrie Pilby I saw a version of myself. Hopelessly introverted with a love of literature and a realist approach to life. Blind faith? “Just go with it?” What the eff’s that? In Charlie, from Perks of Being a Wallflower, there were elements of child me. But neither Charlie nor Carrie had to contend with the first time they were called nigger when they were five years old, or being told “they were pretty for a Black girl,” as numerous Black women I know have been told time and time again.
Seeing yourself reflected in your environment is vital, and whilst we endlessly debate why we need to decolonise the curriculum, can we have a look at how media has often depicted African hair? And why we live in a society where texts like Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri are necessary into understanding the nuances of race. Or if you want something less academic, there’s My Hair by Hannah Lee. “Unruly” and “like weeds” are only two of the phrases I’ve heard Black people’s hair described as. How do you think these comments and perceptions impact teenagers and children?
These experiences are YA (including children’s literature), as are the ones in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or any John Hughes film or an Enid Blyton novel. Whilst here I am discussing young adult stories, this European-centric hetero-normative culture is rampant in almost every industry. From education to journalism, and especially publishing and arts.
Seeing yourself reflected in your environment is necessary. And to White people, it may seem trivial. But really, most people look like you. I never had a teacher that wasn’t White British. The stats in our schools are damning. The closest thing I had to a teacher that looked like me was Diepirye @drkukustr8talk – who’s a family friend. He was a lecturer at the University, just not my lecturer, yet, still gave me a leg-up in my reading, via a number of authors through debate, conversations and critical thought.
When we are small, we often have our imaginations and dreams bludgeoned out of us by teachers who have lost the ability to dream. To draw a picture, to write a story, to act and express yourself, is no match for science, mathematics, history, geography, foreign languages or “proper subjects.” And retconning a nice shiny A into S. T. E. A. M is not a good look.
It’s a big old world; and it’s cruel enough as it is, but if our children and young people can’t find themselves in stories, how will they ever be able to find themselves in society?
For most of my life, I have been an avid reader of all types of books. As my family will confirm, from childhood, I was never without a book. As an adult, I have regularly selected coats with large pockets and bags purely on the basis that they can hold a book. As many students will attest, my answer to most academic questions is “read, read and read some more”. Despite the growth of the internet and other media, which as @drkukustr8talk has noted recently, diverts and subverts our attention and concentration, reading remains my first and truest love.
This, my third ‘Love Letter’, focuses on my favourite author, above all others, Agatha Christie. I have previously dedicated ‘Love Letters’ to poetry, and art. Both of these forms took a long time for me to develop my understanding of and my love for. This ‘Love Letter’ is slightly different.
I first discovered Christie’s novels when I was about 12, since then they have formed a regular backdrop to my life. They act as a comfort blanket when I am tired, stressed, sad or away from home. I have read and reread everything she wrote and know the stories inside and out. Despite my decades of adoration, it remains challenging to know exactly what it is that appeals to me so much about Christie’s novels.
Perhaps it is the symmetry, the fact that for Christie every crime has a solution. Conceivably, given my pacifist tendencies, it could be the absence of explicit violence within her books. Maybe it’s Christie use of stereotypical characters, who turn out to be anything but. You don’t have to look very far to find the oh-so suspicious foreigner, who turns out to be a caring father (Dr Jacob Tanois) or the shell-shocked former military man trained in violence, who metamorphosises into a rather lonely man, who suffers from epilepsy (Alexander Cust). In all these cases, and many others, Christie plays with the reader’s prejudices, whatever they might be, and with deft sleight of hand, reveals that bias as unfounded.
To be honest, until relatively recently, I did not think much about the above, reading Christie was so much part of my life, that I took it very much for granted. All that changed in 2017, when I spotted a ‘Call for Chapters’
It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, after all I had spent a lifetime reading Christie, not to mention a decade studying war and crime. After all, what did I have to lose? I submitted an abstract, with no real expectation that someone who had never studied fiction academically, would be accepted for the volume. After all, who would expect a criminologist to be interested in the fictional writing of a woman who had died over 40 years ago? What could criminology learn from the “golden age” of “whodunnit” fiction?
Much to my surprise the abstract was accepted and I was invited to contribute a chapter. The writing came surprisingly easy, one of very few pieces of writing that I have ever done without angst. Once I got over the hurdle of forcing myself to send my writing to strangers (thank you @manosdaskalou for the positive reassurance and gentle coercion!) , what followed was a thoroughly pleasant experience. From the guidance of the volume’s editors , Drs J. C. Bernthal and Rebecca Mills, to the support from many colleagues, not mention the patience of Michelle (Academic Librarian) who patiently held restrained from strangling me whilst trying to teach me the complexities of MLA. Each of these people gave me confidence that I had something different to say, that my thinking and writing was good enough.
Last week, my copy of the book arrived. It was very strange to see my chapter in print, complete with my name and a brief biography. Even more surreal was to read the editors’ introduction and to see my work described therein, with its contribution to the volume identified. I doubt many people will ever read my chapter, it is published in a very expensive academic book destined for academics and libraries. Nevertheless, I have left the tiniest of marks in academic literature and perhaps more importantly, publicly acknowledged my love for the writing of Agatha Christie.
The finished article:
Bowles, Paula, (2020), ‘Christie’s Wartime Hero: Peacetime Killer’ in Rebecca Mills and J. C. Bernthal, Agatha Christie Goes to War, (Abingdon: Routledge): 28-45