I Have a Dream Inspired by the Politics of Children's Literature Disempowering a Generation

Cape Times (South Africa), October 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

I Have a Dream Inspired by the Politics of Children's Literature Disempowering a Generation


BYLINE: Jay Heale David Johnson

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character." So said Martin Luther King in August 1963.

He was speaking on behalf of justice and equality for black people in a country dominated by a white majority. In July, we celebrated the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela, who also who spoke about justice and equality for black people in a large country dominated by a white minority.

What I particularly love about the "I have a dream" speech is that those telling words were not included in King's original script. The crowd was immense, the day was dragging on, and he knew he was on the edge of losing his audience. At the prompting of a friend, King abandoned the committee-created text and spoke from his heart. Simple words, simple heartfelt longing. As memorable as Mandela's words: "Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another."

Young readers are quite capable of understanding great moments and words that come from the heart. That's why Niki Daly's Herd Boy watching his sheep in the Xhosa hills is able to dream of being a president. That is why Piet Grobler's Rainbow Birds can soar wordlessly from a dispirited, colourless African landscape into a sky bright as a rainbow, full of smiles and dancing for joy.

Children's literature often bears clear evidence of its political leanings. Robinson Crusoe (written for adults but appropriated by younger readers) was about a white man who taught a black man how to behave as much as possible like a decent Englishman. The Jungle Book stories feature Mowgli, who learns the law of the jungle then dominates all of them. Jock of the Bushveld told how white men would not survive for a day "if they (the black men) didn't know who was baas".

Children's literature is not political? What rubbish. If it reflects the society we live in, it is political. For years, the only local books about black children featured them living in a round mud hut in a folktale or wandering around chatting up lions and leopards. Then our authors were gradually allowed by our publishers to dream a little, to speak from the heart.

Love, David by Dianne Case portrayed the reality of tough life on the Cape Flats. In Kobie and the Military Road, Peter Younghusband dared to poke a finger of fun at PW Botha. A Cageful of Butterflies by Lesley Beake spoke up on behalf of a physically handicapped Zulu boy

In 1989 Lawrence Bransby wrote Down Street, featuring a white teenager falling in love with a girl who turns out to be coloured. Hands thrown up in horror! He followed that with Homeward Bound, about the first black boy in an all-white school. Neither book received much official approval.

For a while around 1994, South African books tended to include a careful mix of white, brown and black children. That political correctness has dwindled a little, and our youngsters encounter stories with all black or all-white characters. Never yet, though, a story of one white child in an all-black school.

Chris van Wyk has laboured in the Awareness Publishing stable creating three sets of 10 books for primary school readers about true freedom fighters. Men and women to join the ranks of Martin Luther King, told factually, with good photographic back-up. He speaks from the heart, from a boyhood in which such stories were never made available.

I'm going to jump from there into a genre that's fantastic and unreal, a sort of junior version of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The hero is Oliver, a white boy whose father gets lost looking for rare frogs, and the heroine is Zinzi, a girl from Botswana who is wild, wacky and animal-mad.

The latest (second) story involving these two is Oliver Strange and the Ghosts of Madagascar. …

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