- Neo-imperialism in Children’s Literature about Africa
The raison d’être for Yulisa Amadu Maddy and Donnarae MacCann’s Neo-Imperialism in Children’s Literature about Africa is sounded in the concluding paragraph of the epilogue: “In the works of neo-imperialist fiction critiqued in this book, the novelists’ distortions of Africa call for deliberately thorough rebuttals. Such refutations constitute a Pan-African endeavor—an effort to challenge the ahistorical treatment of Black experience across the globe. The more these counterarguments find their way into children’s book criticism, the closer we will come to attaining social justice and the realization of children’s rights” (149; emphasis added). Maddy and MacCann’s book is essentially a continuation of their discussion [End Page 153] begun in African Images in Juvenile Literature (1996, 2008) and Apartheid and Racism in South African Children’s Literature, 1985–1995 (2001), scholarly investigations of the nuances and subtleties of racism and bias in children’s literature about Africa by some of today’s Western or Euro-American writers. Besides the introduction and epilogue, the book is divided into three parts: Part 1 “Background” (three chapters) is a concise historical background discussion of Western images of “Darkest Africa”; part 2 “Neo-Imperialist Stories, 1994–2008” (eight chapters) is the crux and nexus of the book—a careful analysis of covertly or overtly biased or prejudiced works for children by Isabel Allende, Christina Kessler, Eric Campbell, Anton Ferreira, Carolyn Coman, Elana Bregin, Allan Stratton, Deborah Ellis, Clayton Bess, and Nancy Farmer; part 3 “Rewarding the Best” contrasts the treatment of children’s literature by African writers, through discussion of a selection of stories about apartheid from a native-born white South African writer, Beverly Naidoo’s Out of Bounds: Seven Stories about Conflict and Hope (2001).
Analysis of a variety of degrees of characters in literature does seem to come to readers and critics naturally. But when readers and critics come to the characters that people the literary works for children studied and discussed by Maddy and MacCann in Neo-Imperialism in Children’s Literature about Africa, they are likely to be disappointed. In those works they will find not flesh-and-blood characters, but caricatures emanating from psychological and philosophical mindsets that are not attuned to the current reality, or minds with preconceived notions of the kind of youngsters or characters that live in Africa. As the authors of this study rightly point out, “an anti-African mindset seems to be dominating contemporary children’s literature, as it dominated Western literature in earlier eras. In Christina Kessler’s No Condition Is Permanent (2000), the traditions of the West African nation, Sierra Leone, are twisted out of all recognition. Eric Campbell’s Papa Tembo (UK edition 1997; US edition, 1998) maligns East African peoples” (65). Likewise, Campbell seems to have a knack for such writing even if it means giving six fingers to an African “blood-thirsty youth” in his earlier youth fiction, The Year of the Leopard Song (1992).
The works discussed in this book hardly warrant being called “entertainment.” They are good examples of what the authors dub “pen-on-paper calamities.” Are these needed in a progressive global world with multicultural perspectives? Are some writers just “stuck” on the “grotesque” about Africa or the other, or do they plainly have no meaningful theme to deal with? Maddy and MacCann’s frank discourse recalls for me Nancy J. Schmidt’s seminal work of twenty-nine years ago, Children’s Fiction about Africa in English (1981), in which she identified some adjectives most frequently used to describe Africa and Africans for Euro-American children: queer, frenzied, heathen, dirty, naked, passionate, blood-thirsty, simple, barbaric, quant, hideous, black, ugly, strange, mysterious, unbelievable, cruel, primitive, weird, grotesque, romantic, wild, frightful, hostile, instinctual, splendid, inhuman, dangerous, formidable, faithful, dark, stupid, surly, crafty, greedy, ecstatic, backward, melancholy, and terror-stricken (65). The few positive terms are used negatively: faithful servant—splendid because they epitomize the noble savage.
Many years after...