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How Racism in ‘Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry’ mirrors life in the UK

I was in primary school when I first read Mildred D Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Cassie Logan was my hero. Dark skinned, kinky haired, bold and outspoken. However, her life with her three siblings, school-teacher mother, farmer father and Big Ma was something I did not envy, mired as it was by extreme poverty and violent, overt racism. It seemed a world away from my quiet life in South East London.

I’ve read the novel many times since then. It has never felt dated or clichéd or simplistic. It is one of those remarkable books that will meet you whenever you are. As a child in the 1980s, I connected with the simple story– the protagonist overcoming a monster. I rooted for the family facing down the menace of racism. But it was very much like reading a fantasy novel, the spitting, clawing racism of Cassie’s world bore no resemblance to my reality. Her world was 1930s rural Mississippi, Mississippi Burning, Mississippi Goddam, as Nina Simone cursed it. It was lynchings, burning crosses and segregated everything. It was not cosmopolitan, liberal London with its melting pot of races and riches for anyone willing to work.

However, as a Black British adult rereading Taylor’s award-winning children’s novel, I could easily fill numerous blank sheets with the lines that connect Cassie’s world and mine. Yes, the easy parallels for the injustices Mildred D Taylor depicts are still in the US. Marches by white men holding tiki torches, scores of black people murdered by the police with zero repercussions, the chronic under funding of public services in inner cities, Colin Kaepernick, Black Lives Matter…the lines draw themselves.

But comparisons to the UK are less obvious, because racism here is more insidious. I’m going to draw out three examples of how racism in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is comparable to the UK.

1. To call out racism is to be attacked

On the way to school, TJ Avery gleefully shares the story of Sam Tatum with the Logan children. Mr. Tatum has been tarred and feathered by ‘night riders’ after accusing a white shop owner of overcharging.

“Mr Tatum’s s’pose to done told him that he ain’t ordered up all the things Mr. Barnett done charged him for. Mr. Barnett said he had all them things Mr. Tatum ordered writ down and when Mr. Tatum asked to see that list of his, Mr. Marnett says, ‘You calling me a liar, boy?’ And Mr. Tatum says, ‘Yessuh, I guess I is!’ That done it.

That did it indeed. The night riders amassed on Tatum’s house after dark to teach him a lesson.

You don’t have to take action against racism to become public enemy number one. Sometimes you just need to acknowledge it, call it out. No doubt Mr Barnett knew that he was guilty as charged. Possibly other white community members knew he was overcharging his black customers. But to call it out, to impugn his reputation, that was the crime.

In 2017 Cambridge student, Jason Okundaye, posted a tweet saying:

“All white people are racist. White middle class, white working class, white men, white women, white gays, white children they can all geddit.”

The British newspaper presses couldn’t spit out the Headlines of Outrage fast enough.

They didn’t trouble themselves to establish the context of the tweets and so did not report that Okundaye was engaged in an online discussion and responding to the suggestion that racism in Britain persisted amongst only the white working class. Instead, they worked to frame Okundaye’s words as a call to arms for black people, coming as it did after the death of a young black man during a police chase.

When people are accused of actual racist acts, the wheels of justice move like a snail in honey. However, under the loud indignation of the papers, the police were quick to launch an investigation, Cambridge University promised to undertake their own and a senior Tory MP demanded Okundaye be prosecuted for stirring up racial hatred.

Though Okundaye was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing, the awfulness of having a country’s entire media allied against you, the deluge of racist condemnation and death threats from fellow citizens – well let’s assume that takes a toll.

Plus, if you google his name, guess what comes up first…

Okundaye was tarred and feathered as effectively as Mr. Tatum in 1930s Mississippi.

It’s a pattern we see repeat itself.

I remember when Hackney MP Diane Abbott was lambasted after a Twitter discussion where she shared her opinion that rejecting the concept of a ‘black community’ was playing into a divide and rule agenda. During the discussion she tweeted: “White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism.”

Once again, the British media swung into action. The objection wasn’t even #NotAllWhitePeople, there was no acknowledgement that Abbott had referred to a tactic widely practiced by the British during the colonial era, that might have forced those critiquing her to concede that in the present day such a tactic might be again employed to weaken the politicking of minority communities in Britain. Instead it was pitchforks and righteous anger. Diane Abbott was a racist and had to be punished.

The first black female MP was forced to apologise for her comments by party leader, Ed Miliband and barely avoided being sacked. Her statement was treated as prejudice fuelled paranoia. The suggestion that racism might be rampant across the UK, that it might be institutional and thus strategically deployed at times went unconsidered. The spreader of such lies had to be shouted down and tarred so effectively that should she say anything about race in future, this ‘racist’ incident would always be mentioned.

Lola Olufemi’s experience was just as ugly. Olufemi was part of a group of Cambridge students who wrote an open letter to their academics asking that their syllabus include some ethnic minority writers.

The Telegraph splashed Lola’s photo across half of its front page with the headline: Cambridge University caves in to student’s campaign to replace white authors with black writers

Lola said of the incident: “all of my Facebook, my email were flooded with racist and sexist abuse. And that’s not by accident. That is a very purposeful thing that you’re doing.”

It is indeed a purposeful act. The objective of tar and feathering, is not simply to punish the accused, but to warn others from repeating their actions. Britain does not like to be called out for racism. Those who do are always punished.

2. Racism thrives on miseducation

Cassie’s mother is fired from her teaching job after members of the school board observe her lesson on the transatlantic slave trade.

“Mama did not flinch…She spoke on the cruelty of it; of the rich economic cycle it generated as slaves produced the raw products for the factories of the North and Europe; how the country profited and grew from the free labour of a people still not free.”

The board members do not like what they hear.

“Mr. Granger turned the pages, stopped, and read something. ‘I don’t see all them things you’re teaching in here’.

‘That’s because they’re not in there,” Mama said.

‘Well if it ain’t in here, then you got no right teaching it. This book’s approved by the Board of Education and you’re expected to teach what’s in it.’

‘I can’t do that.’

‘And why not?’

Mama, her back straight and her eyes fixed on the men, answered. ‘Because all that’s in that book isn’t true.’”

The true reason for Mrs. Logan firing is her family’s boycott of a white-owned store, however, I imagine the subject matter of her lesson would have been plenty sufficient.

Mrs. Logan makes the link between anti-black discrimination, the exploitation of black labour and the creation of American wealth. It’s an equation that flies in the face of racist narratives that dismiss black people as lazy, unintelligent and a drain on society. For black children to learn that their labour, their parents’ labour and that of their ancestors was the backbone of the American economy would give them a sense of worth that the school board did not want black children to have.

The selective, curated teaching of history that denies the contribution of black people to the building of western countries persists in Britain today.

Teaching of the slave trade wasn’t added to the UK’s school curriculum until 2008. Even then, as history is not a compulsory subject for secondary schools, the Department of Education has admitted it has no idea how many schools are actually teaching it.

This seems incredible considering Britain played a leading role in the trade for over 300 years. Half of the Africans transported into slavery during the 18th century were carried in British ships.

History Professor, Kris Manjapra writes with incredulity on Britain’s selective amnesia about slavery:

“Britain could not have become the most powerful economic force on earth by the turn of the 19th century without commanding the largest slave plantation economies on earth, with more than 800,000 people enslaved.”

In his book, Capitalism and Slavery, Trinidadian historian Eric Williams builds a picture that shows how the infrastructure for industrialism in the UK was spurred on by the market forces of slavery.

“Williams shows how capital accrued from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantation complex financed the construction of English estates, seaport towns like Bristol, Liverpool, and London, and their manufacturing counterparts like Manchester.”

Yet all children are often taught about slavery is that Britain was the first country to abolish it. As though there were no material benefits to Britain during the three centuries that it thrived.

And then there’s colonialism. So many of today’s headline stories that relate to migration, trade, economic development etc, can be traced directly back to colonialism. But it’s easier for the British government to act as though black people migrating to the UK from the Caribbean and Africa are seeking handouts, rather than confess that colonial education set down by the British indoctrinated black children on foreign shores into believing that Britain was the Motherland. They do not acknowledge the authoritarian puppet leaders they left in place to rule their former colonies. They draw no lines of causation between the civil wars that rage in countries they haphazardly created with a map and a black ink pen.

Instead there is a shallow remembrance of the empire, as though it were merely a system that spread the English language, railways and cricket across the planet.

The consequence of this miseducation is that when Tom pulls out his Barclays bank card to pay for his pint in the Kings’s Arms he doesn’t know he is using a bank formed by slave merchants who needed a system of credit for long sea journeys to Africa. When Doris wanders the elegant galleries of the Tate Britain Art gallery, she doesn’t know that its founder, Sir Henry Tate, built the necessary wealth to found his national attraction “by acquiring a Merseyside company that flourished under slavery and the system of indentured labour that followed abolition.”

Bob doesn’t know how all the Caribbean seniors in his neighbourhood came to have a right to remain in Britain. Ade doesn’t know that his parents’ country was named by a British journalist who married a British colonial administrator. He doesn’t realise that Nigeria is actually an amalgamation of 500 different tribes who don’t speak the same language or have very much in common at all, hence the problems that have led to his parents moving to England.

All this ignorance supports the racist ideology that black people are takers rather givers to the UK and that we have stumbled into the country by happen-chance.

3. Racism insists black people wait their turn

One of the most powerful, painful scenes in the book is Cassie’s visit to Strawberry. She has been longing to go to the market town, to see something more sophisticated than the dirt roads of her home.

While Big Ma visits the family lawyer, Cassie, Stacey and TJ decide to be helpful and go and buy the items from the Strawberry mercantile. They wait their turn in line, hand the shop keeper the list, then wait some more as he serves every white person who enters the store before them.

Cassie is not impressed. Especially when a girl her age is served ahead of them.

“‘Uh…’scuse me, Mr. Barnett,’ I said as politely as I could, waiting a moment for him to look up from his wrapping. ‘I think you forgot, but you was waiting on us ‘fore you was waiting on this girl here, and we been waiting a good while now for you to get back.’

The girl gazed at me strangely, but Mr. Burnett did not look up. I assumed that he had not heard me. I was near the end of the counter so I merely went to the other side of it and tugged on his shirt sleeve to get his attention.

He recoiled as if I had struck him.

‘Y-you was helping us,’ I said, backing to the front of the counter again.

‘Well, you just get your little black self back over there and wait some more,’ he said in a low, tight voice.

 

Cassie is traumatized. Her sense of fairness and decency are upended.

I’m going to stretch out an arm here and reach to say that when I read this today, it makes me think of black people trying to penetrate white collar and creative industries in the UK.

A 2017 survey of the UK publishing industry found that more than 90% currently working in the sector classify themselves as white British.

We’ve seen the mass migration to the US black actors as a result of the lack of opportunities here. A survey carried out by the BFI (British Film Institute) in 2016 found that in the 10 years previous, 60% of British films released cast no black actors at all.

Studies in 2017 found that fewer than one in 10 management jobs in the UK were held by members of black, Asian or minority ethnic groups. And an analysis of board members across the biggest charities in the country found that only 6.3% were BAME.

And so it goes on. Industry after industry, all waiting for their day of reckoning, for a light to be shone before recognize the blinding whiteness of their corner of the job market.

Now this is where I reach.

Black people applying for jobs in these industries know they are being discriminated against. Like Cassie at the shop counter, they can see they are being passed over, ignored. But if they raise a fuss they are slapped back, just as Cassie was.

In 2014, award-winning author Malorie Blackman called for greater diversity in publishing. Sky News ran the story under the misquoted headline: “Children’s Books ‘Have Too Many White Faces’, says Malorie Blackman.”

Cue anger, racist vitriol and death threats.

Sky later changed the headline to “Call for More Ethnic Diversity in Kids’ Books”.

But surely the sentiment is the same. There is an obvious lack of racial diversity in Britain’s children’s publishing. Yet, as a person of colour, you’re not allowed to notice.

Alongside those offended by Blackman’s request for more books by people of colour were the ‘liberal justifiers’. The ones who wondered whether black people were applying for publishing jobs, whether they were qualified, whether publishers were just following the market and responding to the lack of demand for books with black characters, they wondered whether the whole discussion was even necessary because surely colour didn’t matter at all as long as you have quality books on the shelves.

Racial bias in UK industries can be shout-in-your-face obvious, but people will argue to the death that they come about organically and as the result of merit-based recruitment. Black people are left at the counter, waiting for a turn that will only come when every last white person in the building has been served first.

Winding down

There is so much more we could parse out of Roll of Thunder on the topic of race. The hostility towards black success, what it means to be a white ally in the struggle for racial equality, the criminalization of black children and so on.

In future I will be revisiting the whole series to fawn over my favourite character, Cassie Logan.

But to end this post I will simply praise Mildred D Taylor for being so clear-sighted in identifying to many building blocks of racist discrimination. Revisiting the book forces us to ponder why 90 years after the story was set, we are still fighting the same battles as the Logan family, and not just in poor, backwater American outposts, but in the heart of what we consider liberal, progressive places.

Something to consider.

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