Olivia and Aiden rescue a group of stranded refugees from a remote planet, only for their new passengers to start dying in suspicious circumstances. Gripping murder-mystery, space opera based on Othello.
Olivia and Aiden rescue a group of stranded refugees from a remote planet, only for their new passengers to start dying in suspicious circumstances. Gripping murder-mystery, space opera based on Othello.
In July a writer friend posted a link to the report: Reflecting Realities – A Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature 2017. The report was created by the CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) and aimed to explore the extent and quality of ethnic representation in children’s publishing in the UK.
The results were dire. The report concluded that of 9,115 children’s books published in the UK in 2017
When Nick Young invites his girlfriend on a trip to Singapore she frets about meeting his parents. She has no idea that her quiet, humble boyfriend has more money than the World Bank and that she’s about to enter the treacherous, back-biting world of Chinese high society.
At one point in 2017 it felt like Alyssa Cole’s name was coming at me from every direction. She’d pop up in every Twitter discussion that even vaguely mentioned a romance must-read list, whether the sub category was contemporary, historical or science fiction. During my 10 leagues deep obsession with the Hamilton musical I discovered Cole had contributed to a romance anthology called Hamilton’s Battalion, set during the founding father’s assault on Yorktown. She appeared on Shonda Rhimes’ culture website shondaland.com sharing book recommendations and she was splashed all over the Smart Bitches Trashy Books review website.
Yet, despite the universe’s insistence that I read her work, it was the cover design for her novel, A Princess in Theory that finally made me pay attention.
Many black authors have talked about the problems they experience creating appealing book covers for their work. Issues range from difficulties finding stock photography that feature black models, to publishing houses that woefully misrepresent the characters the author has created. Therefore, whenever I spot a good black book cover my heart soars.
Cole’s cover design wasn’t just good. It was joyful, it was effervescent. Take another look. The hero exudes strength and glows with shea butter magnificence, while the heroine is dark-skinned, curly-haired and draped in ankara fabric. What more could you ask for?
A Princess in Theory
The book’s plot line is simple but inspired. Why did it take us so long to realise the notorious scam emails from African Princes claiming to have more money than Midas would make the perfect starting point for a romance story?
I read the novel while recovering from the wonderfulness of Black Panther. It was excellent timing as I was primed for beautiful African landscapes, ground-breaking technology based on African natural resources and a mouth-watering Royal willing to put country before self.
Cole told Book Riot that she “wanted to explore, without making the book explicitly about it, how destructive colonization was by showing what was possible if it had never come to be.”
“I tried to pay attention to small details that would convey that this was a place that was steeped in tradition but also invested in technological advances that would better the lives of its people. It’s no Wakanda, but because they’re small and wealthy, they are able to do test runs of, for example, environmentally friendly technology that would be difficult to roll out in a large country.”
The story’s heroine, Naledi, is a scientist working her way through grad school while holding down a waitressing job. The scenes in her lab felt so rich and authentic I was not surprised to learn that Cole once worked in the science field editing a science journal. I particularly appreciated Naledi’s terse interactions with her co-workers, men who undermine her skills while simultaneously exploiting them.
‘She hadn’t forseen all the other variables that went into life as a woman in STEM: politicians who treated her profession with contempt and threatened her future – and the world’s. Fellow scientists like Brian, who thought that women in the lab were their personal assistants instead of their equals.
“How are you this morning?” she asked him in that tone she’d heard secretaries on old syndicated TV shows use to placate their sexist bosses. Brian smiled; he’d watched the same reruns it seemed.’
A Princess in Theory
The sparks that fly between a smart, capable scientist and the Prince hoping to sweep her off her feet are marvellous. Cole describes it as Princess Diaries meets Coming to America which really does capture how the warm, frothy tone mixes with the rich African culture.
I devoured the book like candy then dove into Cole’s extensive back catalogue for my next read. This was when I discovered that Cole had written an award-winning trilogy set during the American civil war.
The Loyal League Series
As a rule, I don’t read books set during slavery. It’s a preserving-my-mental-health thing. 12 Years A Slave gave me nightmares for weeks. There was a lot of crying after Octavia Butler’s time travel story, Kindred. So it really takes a lot for me to pick up a novel set during that period.
Maybe I relaxed my rule for the same reason Cole decided to write the series. She told Book Riot that she went from: ‘“I’m definitely not going to write anything set in the Civil War” to “I am going to write an interracial romance set in the Civil War because I hate myself! [laughs] Or I wanted to set up the biggest challenge’.
She expanded further in an interview with Jezebel.
“The more I learned about American history, the more I saw it as the staging ground for stories just as entertaining and epic as the Regency dukes and viscounts romance readers swoon for. I also saw the possibility of extending the tropes of the Civil Ware beyond “brother fighting brother” and “swooning Southern belle,” two categories that conveniently left out a whole swath of people, generally of a darker hue.”
I’ve read romance historicals that educated me about women’s suffrage, about the beginnings of the trade union movement, about women scientists in the 1800s, about the English civil war. There’s no question that romance can tackle difficult subject matter. But to fold a love story into a subject as abhorrent as slavery without being cloy or dismissive or offensive? That’s a tall order. To add another layer of complexity, the romance in book one of the series, An Extraordinary Union, is interracial.
Holy minefield, Batman!
But I think Cole thrives on this kind of challenge. She told Vulture that a through line she can see in her work is how although “every book is about something different, there’s always generally something political, there is generally some form of activism or involvement with the government or with programs to better the community.”
The activism she crafted for Elle Burns, the heroine in An Extraordinary Union, is spy work. Elle has a photographic memory. Though she is a free woman, her desire to help liberate her people motivates her to allow herself to be sold back into slavery. As a house slave she deploys her exceptional skills to spy for the Union cause.
Her love interest is a Scottish detective, Malcolm McCall. His task is to infiltrate a Rebel group in Virginia.
Cole was very aware of the problematic power dynamics between her characters. She told Book Riot:
“[I was] always trying to keep in mind the power imbalance between them, and I tried to have them both acknowledge that… It took a lot of tweaking to get Malcolm where he was—I didn’t want him to be constantly beating himself up but I also wanted him to understand as best he could her situation and her situation relative to him. Even if he thought she was amazing, how the rest of the world would view her and how the rest of the world could treat her if things didn’t work out between them.”
Cole went to town dismantling the notion of the genteel southern belle as an innocent bystander during slavery. She told Book Riot: “It’s one of those things that I didn’t set out to do but doing all the research and how everything came together, in the end I wanted to show how she was complicit in everything that was going on and was benefitting from everything that was going on, but she was also kind of ruined by the society that she was in.”
Cole’s take on the civil war goes to the heart of the power of historical fiction and the need for more story tellers. For decades the version of the southern belle constructed by Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind has dominated pop culture and gone unchallenged. It obscures the active part white women played in maintaining slavery in the South. We need more writers of colour to bring wider, more varied perspectives to an integral moment in American history to more accurately depict it.
Reading An Extraordinary Union was not the anxiety-fest I had feared. But it wasn’t a comfortable experience either. I worried frequently that amidst the smouldering stares and lingering touches, violence would be just over the page. I worried that the characters were not worried enough. It helped significantly that Elle was such a spunky, intelligent heroine. And that Malcolm was the kind of ally who would lay down his life for his principles. The book managed to be life-affirming and hopeful.
Though slavery was terrible, I think we all benefit from telling it’s stories more and inserting it into the public discourse as much as possible. Not to normalise it but to remind ourselves of the dangers of allowing racial prejudice to run rampant. Cole told Shondaland.com she was dismayed by the sharp parallels between her historical novel and the present day.
“I expected maybe slight relevancy, not white-supremacists-marching-with-torches relevancy. Not the-Klan-shall-rise-again relevancy. This has actually been really disheartening — seeing the worst aspects of American history that I’ve written about, sure that they were firmly in the past, start to zombie shuffle back onto the scene to this degree.”
The book’s challenging premise and Cole’s deft execution has won it plaudits. It was chosen as a top pick of 2017 by Vulture, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly. It also won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award’s Best Book of 2017 and the American Library Association’s RUSA Best Romance for 2018.
Cole has great confidence in her work and high aspirations for what it can accomplish. ‘Sometimes I hear romance authors say they’re not writing the Great American Novel,” she told Buzzfeed News, “Well, if you’re not trying to, that’s on you. I’m never going to say that just because there are people having sex and love in [my books].”
It is a thrill to read novels that combine Cole’s level of skill with her daring vision. She is expanding the boundaries of what romance novels can do. Romance reader or not, we should all be reading her work.
Interviews that I have quoted
Book Riot – World-Building in Romance: A Princess in Theory
Shondaland – Alyssa Cole On the Magic of Writing Romance
Last year my mother’s secondary school friend came to spend Christmas with us. We were settled in the living room, slumped in the obligatory post-turkey coma-haze, when this five-times-a-day praying, Muslim grandmother pulls out a battered paperback. I could see the cover from across the room, the pert, white woman with flowing hair and translucent billowing gown, clinging to her shirtless, muscled white, male love-interest. The cover design was so typical of Mills & Boon I barely needed the M&B trademark initials they stamp in the corner to identify it. I was so amused to see Aunty retreat into the world of throbbing bosoms and hardened members I had to snap a pic. For posterity.
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.
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.
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.