This powerful text calls attention to the racism in children’s books. It was written in 1966 by the Caribbean British author, James Berry. He was one of the first Black writers in Britain to achieve wide recognition for his work. Berry sent the script to BBC Radio, but it was rejected.
What made James Berry write this radio script?
When Berry took his young daughter Joanna to ‘choose her own books at the library’, she was drawn towards books with black characters such as Little Black Sambo (1899). But Berry was left ‘utterly speechless’ when he saw how they were portrayed as ‘dependent’ and ‘immoral’.
He said, ‘It concerns me very much that my child, in the country she was born, inherits books with a grotesque image of herself, read by her contemporary playmates, that are completely acceptable to the rest of the population.’ The ‘harmony’ of ‘future generations’ depends on ‘the seeds we now sow in children’.
Which books and programmes shocked him?
Berry describes children’s books and radio programmes which contain racist stereotypes.
In The Pirate Twins by William Nicholson (1929), a white child finds two black pirates and takes them home. She teaches them ‘how to dress’ and ‘where to find Jamaica on the map’. They are portrayed as disobedient, and in the end they ‘steal a boat and clear off, though always return for their little host’s birthday feast’. In one ‘golliwog’ story, a stereotyped black doll creeps in to a house to steal other dolls’ money. Such stories were first written by Florence K Upton in 1895, and later by Enid Blyton and Ruth Ainsworth.
On the radio, Berry feels that the presenter of 'Music and Movement' is implying that Native Americans killed by white settlers are not ‘relevant human beings’.
Why was this radio script rejected?
Berry sent the text to BBC Radio, hoping they would broadcast it with the title ‘Adult Voices’. But the editors of Women’s Hour, who had aired Berry’s work before, said it was ‘not right’ for their programme. They thought ‘listeners would feel that your reactions are somewhat exaggerated’ and they could not see anything ‘sinister’ in the ‘misdeeds … performed by a golliwog’. In an unsent reply, Berry points out that he is expressing the views of many ‘people like myself’, which are too often kept quiet.
Who was James Berry (1924–2017)?
James Berry grew up in a Jamaican coastal village and came to England in 1948. He became a widely respected author and educator, publishing poems, short stories and important anthologies of Black British Writing. He was passionate about promoting multi-cultural education and ran many workshops for children. In the 1980s and 90s, he published his first children’s poems and stories, including The Thief in the Village and Anancy-Spiderman.
- Full title:
- Talks produced for Radio
- 1963–1972, London
- Manuscript / Typescript
- Usage terms
- © Estate of James Berry. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
- Held by
- British Library
- Add MS 89353/4/2
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The characters that we meet in children's books shape the way that we see ourselves and our community around us. Take a look at the history of Black British representation.