Tag Archives: Africa

Teaching with Blogs: Amistad Poetry

On Wednesday my class had a truly magical hour with poet Natasha Trethewey who is at our school this year as a visiting artist. Aware of Natasha’s interest in history and primary source documents, I asked her if she would be interested in building on my students’ work with Sarah Margru Kinson, a child on the Amistad. She was.

And so Natasha came and, after leading the class in a close reading of several of Elizabeth Alexander’s Amistad poems from her collection American Sublime, guided them into creating a group poem of their own. After she left, the inspired children created individual Amistad poems and then presented them as collages. Please go see them here; they are quite wonderful!

In a couple of weeks, Natasha will return for a very special Literary Salon during which the children will perform their poems (which we will, of course, podcast).

And so, without further ado, here is the class poem:

Margru

What I remember of home is this:

green – green mangoes, green snakes, green bananas:
brown – my mother, my father, myself, the tree
trunks, the brown earth, the color of my language,
Mende,
the only language I had
to describe these things.

Often I think of
how I came to be here:

my father pawning me, waving goodbye,
his face crumpled, tightened, looking
away from me.

I felt my captor’s white, cold hand
tighten around my wrist as if
he were a solid ghost taking me away.

Now I wish to see again
the green rice fields,
my father’s brown face,
clouds in the sky —
the only white things,

to hear someone speaking my language,
someone saying

Margru.

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Sarah Margru Kinson and Our Long and Winding Road

 

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Millions and millions of African people were taken captive during the long and horrible time of the Atlantic slave trade. Mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, granddaughters and grandsons, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies were ripped away from their families and taken to the Americas. Untold numbers died. Countless others ended up on plantations. Very few ever went home.

Sarah Margru Kinson did.

Sarah Margru Kinson was a real person, one of four children on the famous slave ship, The Amistad. The Amistad captives were mostly Mende and came from the present-day country of Sierra Leone, a place I knew well as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s. The devotion to Africa that Margru expressed in her letters coupled with my own fond memories of Sierra Leone and its people, inspired me to research and tell her story.

After a bumbling first attempt to write about her in a time travel story many years ago, I found more success with creative nonfiction. In the letter I sent to publishers along with that version, I wrote:

My vision of the book is one heavily illustrated with primary sources In fact, I see Margru’s story as a perfect vehicle by which child readers could delve more deeply into Mende life, slavery, life in 1800s US, and more. I have this dream of seeing the narrative in the center of each page surrounded by related newspaper articles, maps, letters, drawings, engravings, paintings, photographs, and other firsthand materials as well as sidebars (say a short glossary of Mende words). That way the child reader would have multiple ways of exploring the book. He/she could begin by reading Margru’s story or perhaps by looking at the images. My fourth grade students adore such books.

Unfortunately, while those considering publishing it found her story fascinating, they complained that Margru was too distant. Readers, they said, wouldn’t be able to connect to her. Since they knew there was little firsthand information about her feelings as a child, they suggested I make it up — that is, write it as historical fiction. I was uncomfortable at first — I wanted to be sure that kids knew that she was a real person and besides, who was I to even try to imagine how she felt about her harrowing experiences? (Aha, you say, now I get her obsession with this genre!)

After many more drafts and discussions with editors, I finally came up with a fictional idea that kept her real, but allowed me a way to bring her closer to the readers too — a scrapbook. With that I was finally able to write it as historical fiction — imagining Margru herself putting that scrapbook together and writing down her story as she did so. This idea worked for one editor, but not her house. The next editor had a different idea — turn it back into nonfiction! Her reasons were valid and her suggestions strong. I was all set to do so last summer when I was told I had to withdraw it from the publisher until I was finished with the Newbery. Bummed doesn’t even begin to describe my feeling. I tried to do the revision, but my heart wasn’t in it knowing I couldn’t give it back till January 2008. So I decided to put it away, read and think, and return to Margru some day.

And then I began blogging with my kids and all sorts of ideas came bursting out including one of putting my manuscript on a private blog for my kids to read during our February study of forced immigration. And so I did and so they are and so far it has been great. I wasn’t sure it would be. A few years ago at the suggestion of an editor I read a bit of the manuscript to a class and found that a very weird feeling indeed. But this is different — they are reading it to themselves.

If you are interested in their progress and opinions you can check them out on our class blog and theirs as well. The manuscript is private as I still am optimistic that some day, somewhere, and somehow it will be published as a book.

ETA October 2010  I sold the book to Candlewick a year ago and so it will indeed be published as a book in a few years.

ETA January 2013 The book will be out this coming October!

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Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Learning About Africa, Sierra Leone, Writing

Learning About Africa: Third in a Series

 

 

The Life of Olaudah Equiano

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.

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African Attention

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.

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Sleepy in Seattle

“Go home” were the welcome words of one of my companions after tiring of watching me try desperately to stay awake through dinner Saturday. And so, passing on Campagne‘s clearly scrumptious desserts, I did. Back at the Grand Hyatt Seattle, I groggily pushed the switch that electronically lowered the shades (can I tell you that is one very cool hotel?) and was out like a light.

Jet-lag aside I had a fabulous time in Seattle attending Midwinter ALA. Years ago I attended one of my first NCTE conventions there and discovered that it is one of the best cities around for conventions. The weather (compared to NYC) made walking pleasant, the eating is wonderful/fantastic/extraordinary, and the downtown is just a very cool place to be at any hour.

My congratulations to all the ALA media award winners and to the committees that chose them. I was so happy that I had read and very much enjoyed Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky (and in fact have to congratulate the long-forgotten person who urged me to get the ARC last summer at ALA as she had pegged it as Newbery caliber way back then) and so had a copy to show my students upon my return. Having also read Rules, Hattie Big Sky, and Penny from Heaven, I can say that all three well deserve the honor. All four are books that are very accessible to children and will be read, I’m hopeful, year after year. I must admit I was most excited when the Sibert winners were announced — all are very cool books, but I was especially enamoured with Team Moon and absolutely thrilled that it won.

Since our flight on Monday didn’t leave till almost midnight (seemed like a good idea when we booked and a horrible one while waiting for it at the airport), Roxanne and I had lots of time to play in Seattle and we did! After the press conference a bunch of us got crepes from a place outside the convention center (didn’t I tell you the eating is amazing?) and then found a corner to chat about all that was going on. After some made final circuits of the exhibits we headed to the one and only Pike Place Market and then on the Pan Africa, a restaurant I had found online and was eager to try. It was terrific — while the West African groundnut dish wasn’t quite what I’d have gotten in Sierra Leone, it was still very tasty as were the other dishes as well.

After gelato nearby, Roxanne and I ambled over to Pioneer Square where we followed a guy wearing one into the Utilikilts store. Anyone who knows her will not be surprised to learn she bought one and wore it for the rest of the day. After a quick wander through the inviting Elliot Bay Bookstore we went on BILL SPEIDEL’S UNDERGROUND TOUR . I had done this years ago and I recall it a bit differently (say a more obvious street and a more teasing ghost situation), but it was still fascinating and fun.

By this time my sleep deprivation was kicking in. We hiked to the Red Lion Inn to go to the ALSC/YALSA/AASL reception, then back to the Grand Hyatt for a bite before the airport. There we both conked out for an hour, got on the plane, slept until JFK. (My neighbor by the window noted that the fact that all three of us took Ambien may have presented a problem if we had indeed had to do our exit row duties.)

I picked up a ton of 2007 ARCs and shipped them home — and so my year on the Newbery begins!

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Learning About Africa: Second in a Series

 

 

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Many of the children’s literature bloggers have a tradition of posting poems on Friday. And so in the spirit of the day, here is a lovely book of African poetry. Selected and illustrated by Veronique Tadjo, the poems in Talking Drums give a sense of the vast variety that is Africa.

From the Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) herself, Tadjo writes in her introduction, “Let me tell you a secret; this selection of poems is in fact a story, the story of Africa as told by some of its very best poets.”

The poems are from all over the continent and their subjects are equally wide-ranging from animals to people to death and more. Some of the creators may be familiar names (for example, the Nigerian Ken Saro Wiwa who was executed some years ago), others less so, and then there are some poems with no named authors — traditional poems from a range of cultures. Here’s one:

 

The European

In the blue palace of the deep ocean
dwells a strange being.
His skin is white like salt
his hair long like plaited seaweed.
His dress is made of fishes,
fishes more charming than birds.
His house is built of brass rods
his garden is a forest of tobacco leaves.
His country is strewn with white pearls
like sand on the beach.

Traditional, Gamma

 

 

 

 

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Diamonds are not my Friends

This beautiful place is where I spent Christmas 1974; it happens to be a diamond mine in Sierra Leone.

Conflict diamonds, blood diamonds, these terms had not yet been coined when I lived in Sierra Leone. However, diamonds? Everyone knew about them. In Kono, where the above mine was located, people panned for diamonds whenever possible. At night you had to drive slowly along the dirt roads so as not to run someone over. Everywhere you could see the lights of the miners. Everywhere the necessary equipment was for sale. It was like the North American gold rush; everyone and their brother desperately seeking the diamond that would make them rich.

The stories were wild too — of someone hiding a diamond in his mouth, spitting it into an orange when he feared being discovered, and then the orange tossed and the diamond lost forever. Or of someone who swallowed one and then — well, it didn’t end well for him.

In the early 1990s a group of us former Peace Corps volunteers, Sierra Leoneans, and others began meeting here in NYC and in DC, trying to figure out how to get the world to notice the horrible things that were starting to happen in this beautiful country. It seemed hopeless; attention was NOT paid. We eventually became one group, The Friends of Sierra Leone.

For me the worst time was in January 1999. Americans were paying tremendous attention to the horrors of Kosovo. It was only when Freetown was invaded that they finally paid attention to the horrors that were happening there.

I’m not sure I can bear to go see the new movie Blood Diamond. I understand now why my father cannot see Holocaust movies. I lived in Freetown for two years, it was horrible enough to see the actual images of the invasion, seeing a fictionalized recreation of all of it — I’m not sure I can do it.

But about those diamonds. Just so you know, a certificate that the one you bought is not a conflict diamond, not a blood diamond — don’t count on it. If Kono was wild and unruly in 1974, it can only be worse now. Please keep in mind that there are not policemen on every corner checking that the diamonds are honestly mined, honestly bought, honestly sold. No way. Those stories I remember of swollowed and lost diamonds are propably laughable compared to those of today.

In the midst of the war I was in another country and unexpectedly brought to a diamond factory — a place where they were cleaned, polished, and prepared as jewelry. I refused to go in. The country was far from Africa and my fellow tourists looked at me askance and I did understand how they must have seen me — smug and sanctimonious. But I didn’t care. Just being outside that factory made me sick to my stomach.

I just listened to a NPR program on blood diamonds in which someone mentioned that Tiffany has its own diamond mines as a way to assure their customers that their products are conflict and blood free.

Whatever. Just please don’t give me any diamonds this holiday season. Thanks, but no thanks.

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Learning About Africa: First in a Series

I had a peripatetic childhood; my father’s academic career took us all over the United States and Europe. However, when it came to Africa, I was no different than someone who had grown up in one spot. I remember being titillated by photographs of strangely adorned people in National Geographic, reading about Albert Schweitzer in my Weekly Reader, creating an ancient Egyptian farm out of sugar cubes, and visiting zoos all over the place full of fantastic African animals. If there was more at school or home, I don’t remember it.

In 1974 I applied to the Peace Corps requesting an assignment in Africa. As I waited to hear what my assignment would be, I developed further requirements: I wanted to learn a new language, live in a dry climate with plenty of game parks, and there should be no snakes, please.

Finally I received my invitation — to teach in Sierra Leone, a country I had never heard of. A former British colony on Africa’s west coast, Sierra Leone’s official language was English, the country was riddled with snakes, it was mostly tropical rain forest, and there were absolutely no zebras whatsoever. The invitation emphatically put my sentimental notions to rest: “Peace Corps service is not a junior year abroad nor a romantic adventure….The Peace Corps in Sierra Leone does not exist for the benefit of Volunteers, but rather for the benefit of Sierra Leoneans….So come to do a job, not to find yourself.” On August 9, 1974, I flew off to Freetown, Sierra Leone leaving behind my preconceived notions of Africa.

Two years later I came back to the United States, changed forever. And ever since I’ve looked for ways to help American children gain a deeper more complex sense of Africa, to move them beyond the exotic imagery, past the foreign Albert Schweitzer-like icons to the African people themselves, to real African art not sugar cube farms, and most difficult of all — beyond those admittedly magnificent beasts of safari lore.

One way is through books.

There are more and more good books for children about Africa than when I grew up. But many still do, in my opinion, present the continent as an exotic one, focus on the animals, or on it as a place of deprivation and war. While many of these are admirable and often excellent works for children, I tend to look out for different sorts of books, ones that I feel help my privileged 4th graders make a real connection to the people of Africa.

One that I feel does so beautifully is Penda Diakite’s I LOST MY TOOTH IN AFRICA. Penda was twelve when she wrote this story about her sister’s experiences during a visit to their father’s family in Bamako, Mali. Beautifully and authentically told by Penda with gorgeous illustrations by her father, Baba Wague Diakite, this is a gem of a book. I spent some time in Bamako during my time in Africa and the images and events that Penda and her sister experience feel totally authentic to me. They are small ones, simple elements of daily life, but beautiful ones too. This is a book that helps bridge the chasm between Africa and America for children in a delightful way. I recommend it highly. (For an interesting look at the creation of this book check out this article by its editor Dianne Hess.)

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Madonna and Child — the African Version

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It was Uli Knopflmacher, at that magical NEH seminar I attended so long ago, who called this Garth William’s illustration from the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web, “Madonna and Pig.” When pointing this out to my fourth graders, I always need to say that it has nothing to do with the singer Madonna, celebrated children’s book author and Malawi Orphan Adopter.

But today’s post does.

What troubles me about Madonna’s adoption is what troubles me about so many of the wealthy and well-known do-gooders who drop in various parts of Africa with their media entourages in tow, start their own NGOs because they think they know and can do better, and offer sound bites of Africa that don’t do much to expand people’s understanding of the continent. Yes, they mean well. So many do.

I have this outlying point of view because I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, a country on the opposite side of the African continent from Malawi, but one that is most likely perceived by many as very similar — a desperately poor country that needs all the help it can get.

For many years I stayed pretty quiet about my experience. People were not interested and had such simplistic responses that I learned to say nothing. Until the war. It went on for years without American media paying much attention to it. Only when they got wind of the atrocities, when the capital Freetown (where I had lived for two years) was invaded, when child soldiers became an issue, finally the media paid attention. Finally Americans noticed. Even my students noticed and so together we created the Edinger House Sierra Leone Project.

Atrocities drew the world’s attention to Sierra Leone, genocide to Dafur, and a celebrity’s adoption to Malawi. Which country will be next? Why? And will it result in a better understanding of Africa and its people? I wonder.

I’ll end with another Madonna, “The Holy Virgin Mary” by African- inspired artist Chris Ofili, which sparked quite a bit controversy here in NYC some years ago.

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