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White Supremacy, Black Erasure and my Childhood Reading List
Growing up with the absence of Black people in my stories
This post was released to paid subscribers on August 10, 2022.
When we say white supremacy is the water and not the shark, one thing we mean is that it’s all around us, and we may not even notice. I’ve been thinking about that as I ponder my childhood and education in various Caribbean countries, and the way people like me were practically invisible.
Though it’s different now, and many younger people are heavily influenced by US media, that wasn’t the case for me. At the time I grew up, the British influence was everywhere, even in island nations that became independent around the time of my birth. And let’s not forget that I was the child of parents and grandchild of grandparents who had literally been born British and taught to swear allegiance to the Mother Country. But I digress.
Even my earliest books - about two kids called Janet and John - were about growing up in the UK. At the time I never noticed that their experiences didn’t match mine, and even though the pictures didn’t look at all like me, the stories themselves were enough. Similarly, when I moved on to Enid Blyton - oh, how I loved St Clare’s and Mallory Towers especially - I didn’t question them, I just enjoyed the stories. Sure, I struggled to picture snow and ice but I managed all the same.
Thinking back, even Nelson’s West Indian Reader, one of the key books in primary school, didn’t appear to have any Caribbean tales in it. It’s too long ago to be accurate, but what I do remember is learning Wordsworth and similar poets - not a Caribbean verse among them. The point is, I didn’t see myself represented in ANYTHING I read as a child.
The problem is that the hidden subtext of this kind of education is the idea that there’s nothing worth publishing, reading, or studying in the Caribbean, something that is patently not true in a region that has produced outstanding scholars and artists, plus a handful of Nobel Laureates in different disciplines.
I think I was nearly 12 before I first read Caribbean literature - novels such as The Year in San Fernando and Green Days by the River and poems such as the Song of the Banana Man. That was the start of looking for more books that matched my experience, though the results of that search were mixed.
Yes, I found books by Caribbean writers, and enjoyed many of them, but I also failed to find books that reflected my childhood and young adulthood in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the books I read fell into two camps.
There were a few books set in the time of enslavement with some historical detail and a LOT of fetishization.
Alternatively, there were lots of books dealing with the pre-independence and immediately post-colonial setting, around the 1940s to 1960s. I read and enjoyed many of those, but still didn’t see myself in them, even in the best, most feted books. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I do know that I didn’t find it.
Strangely, when I finally saw myself reflected in a book, it was not in a book by a Caribbean author, but in Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale. Give or take a few location specific details, the characters were like my friends and me. Needless to say, I devoured most of Ms McMillan’s books, along with books by Dorothy Koomson and others, while continuing my search.
Thankfully, things have changed. These days, as new Caribbean authors have taken up the mantle, there are many more books where I can see myself represented, and where the settings are familiar to me. There’s much more representation, and I’m grateful for it.
In contrast to my own childhood, Caribbean children growing up today aren’t stuck with books hailing from the colonial past. Instead of being erased, they have the chance to read stories that reflect their current experience, and where people who look like them are central and in charge. And that’s important, don’t you think?
P.S. If you want to diversify your own reading list, Arts Etc Barbados publishes a list of the best books from Barbados every year. Here’s the 2022 list to get you started.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.
I am an anti-racism writer, educator and activist, Head of Anti-Racism at Diverse Leaders Group, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.