Olaudah Equiano is a fascinating figure. Years ago I came across his autobiographical account of his childhood in Africa, capture, middle passage, time as a slave in various parts of the Americas, and life as a freeman in England. I was particularly taken with the African portions of his story as so much of it made me think of Sierra Leone. Thus I was delighted to come across The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano adapted by Ann Cameron for children.
Because even this adapted version has some very harsh sections and because so much about this time and slavery is new and overwhelming to my 4th graders, I read it aloud to them while they follow along in their own copies of the book. They have small booklets (chapbooks, I call them) in which I encourage them to jot down interesting words and ideas as well as personal responses. All of this gives us much to talk about, understandably.
I’ve since learned that there is some question whether Equiano was actually born in Africa. The arguments on both sides are compelling. Whether he was or not, scholars seem to at least agree that what he describes is accurate. That is, if he did not experience Africa as a child firsthand, he had informants who had.
Whatever the truth of his birth, I continue to recommend Camerons’ adaptation as a highly accessible first-person account for children of what it was like to be enslaved in the 18th century. Olaudah’s voice is a compelling one, only lightly abridged by Cameron (as I’ve checked her version against the original) that completely engages children and helps them to begin a lifelong journey of considering the whole idea of slavery and what it means in terms of America then and today.
Watching Leonardo DiCaprio share the screen with genuine handless black Africans or Ralph Fiennes’s gardener learn a lesson in postcolonial realpolitik while I munch my popcorn doesn’t rouse me to action; it stirs horror, pity, sometimes repulsion, sentiments that linger uneasily until the action starts up again to sweep away that empathy with another explosion, gunfight or rousing chase.
So writes Mahohla Dargis in her excellent essay, “Africa at the Cineplex,” in today’s New York Times about the true outcomes of the recent swatch of commercial features about Africa. Movies like Blood Diamond along with recent ad campaigns and celebrity trips — all are certainly making the continent and its troubles more familiar to Americans. But, as Dargis, points out, what of it? Are Americans understanding Africa any better? Doing anything, really? We Americans are lucky to be able to spend a few hours in the cinema feeling for Africas or to be able to buy something nice for ourselves and, on the side, give a few dollars to Africa as well. And the film companies make money for themselves, their investors, with a bit goes to Africa as well.
Don’t know the answer, but I’m glad there are folks like Mahohla Dargis pointing out the realities of Our African Attention.
… There also seems to be a lot of Polar Bears in the movie, and we got to see these. I said they reminded me, in terms of playability, very much of the Star Wars Episode 2 Reek, with roaring and running functions.
There’s also a playset. It’s of an ice setting ….Forme, probably because I haven’t read the books, I personally prefer the Harry Potter figures …
For the whole article (from, I think, an action figure collector), go here. (Thanks to bridgetothestars for the link.)
Linda Sue Park has just written on her blog about a situation in a suburban Boston middle school involving the use of Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ So Far from the Bamboo Grove in a language arts unit. The Boston Globe article about the controversy can be read here.
Linda Sue also also raised the issue on child_lit where I’ve just posted the following:
I think this was an accident waiting to happen. As communities continue to shift and change I anticipate more such controversies. And I think it is related to my oft-voiced and controversial contention that not only do works of historical fiction taught in classrooms need ample historical context , but that when they do involve crimes against humanity that these would be better addressed in history classrooms rather than English classrooms.
If the lesson was on autobiographical writing (according to J.L. Bell on child_lit) and if the population of the school has shifted and the book is now offensive to members of that population for very personal reasons then I suggest that a different book should be used for the English lesson and the controversial book be shifted to a unit in the students’ history curriculum where it would be looked at in all the ways it needs to be looked at. I cannot see how it could be used effectively as an example of autobiographical writing for students of Korean heritage if it is personally offensive to them. Just as I could not imagine teaching Little House in the Big Woods if my class included children of Native American heritage.
Years ago I started a thread here about an assembly at my school that included some scenes from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado which I had not know would be included and which distressed our Japanese students quite a bit. At the least I wanted to have been able to prepare them for it, but having not been forewarned could not. In my opinion, someone could have asked the opera company to either explain the scenes before doing them or skip them entirely given our school’s population.
Curriculum has to change all the time. It has to adjust to the
specific populations of a school and community. If this particular
community has changed and now includes those who have personal experience with this historical time then I think the community has been absolutely right in their efforts to grapple with it this way. I very much can imagine that children may well have been bullied and comments made that were offensive by other children out of limited understanding.
I’ve written here and elsewhere before of my feeling that the
Holocaust should be taught as history and not within English classes for similar reasons. Historians consider the past differently from literary scholars; there are different ways of doing so that students need to learn. Particularly when considering horrific historical topics like the one Watkins explores in her fictionalized autobiography. These would be better considered in history classrooms rather than within an English unit meant to address one aspect of the craft of writing.
… and a member of the 2008 Newbery Committee.
As some already know, at the recent ALA conference in Seattle there was quite a flurry of conversation about blogging when on award committees. Having posted a few weeks back about what I thought I could do based on my reading of the rules, I was puzzled by what I was hearing.
You see, I had hoped that I would be able to encourage readers of this blog to give me their impressions and opinions about eligible books. And to get those I figured I might have to occasionally ask the sort of questions that might give some of my personal impressions and opinions of the very same books. After all the hoopla I don’t know how comfortable I feel doing that any more, but at least I am very relieved to know that I and all other bloggers on these committees, present and future, will be able to do so.
See Debra Lau Whelan’s SLJ article, “Should Members of Book Award Committees Be Allowed to Blog?” for a good overview of this issue.
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