This blog represents students at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature within the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. We have been appalled to read the testimony of our colleague Breanna J. McDaniel on her mistreatment at the Centre and within the wider children’s literature community. The following statement has been sent to all staff and students at the Centre and is published here as a public record of our demands. To stay silent is to be complicit.
9th June 2020
We want to express our outrage and condemnation at the Centre’s and the Faculty’s lack of response to the current crisis regarding systemic racism and its intersection with higher education, particularly as it manifests in the field of children’s literary criticism. We affirm our solidarity with Prof. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and current PhD student and author Breanna J. McDaniel and thank them for their testimonies. We demand immediate action regarding curriculum building, research foci, and recruitment efforts within the Faculty. We condemn the mistreatment of Black people and other people of colour in our field.
The MPhil in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature—though its title does not express exclusive focus on British, American, or generally Western texts—orients itself on a near-exclusive Eurocentric curriculum, with few attempts made to problematise that the very child we are constructing is thus, inevitably, one of colonial orientation. For example, because the figure of the child and the concepts of the family were so heavily politicised in 17th & 18th century political rhetoric (c.f. Locke, Rousseau, even going back to Hobbes), the figure of the child in much 18th and 19th century literature is not only one of colonial orientation but is, in fact, implicated in colonial enterprises and the promotion of colonial perspectives, values, and ideas. From Henry in Mary Martha Sherwood’s books set in India (early 1800s) to the white Woolcott family in ‘Seven Little Australians’ (early 20th century) and even Anne and the omission of non-white Canadians in ‘Anne of Green Gables’, children’s texts have historically often been not only colonially oriented but also complicit in the colonial narratives being woven around what it means to be British in India / a white Australian / a white Canadian.
Despite referring to #whyweneeddiversebooks and #ownvoices movements in the field during a couple of lectures, the course itself offers no critical dialogue on how to deconstruct and change its own white-washed focus and/or on why that is important to recognize and situate. The single lecture given on postcolonialism featured three primary texts and two critical texts; two of the three novels were written by white authors, and only one of the critical sources was authored by a Black scholar; additionally, both sources date back to the late 1990s / early 2000s. While the texts responded to racial atrocities from apartheid to police brutality, the majority of class discussion veered away from these incredibly important sociohistoric contexts, prohibiting meaningful discussion on the power of children’s literature. Surely, expanding the canon and curriculum of children’s literature—in both core primary texts and critical ones—offers a means of interrogating the construction of the racialized child? Surely, we should be trying to explore any and all constructions of children? Surely, we should extend our notions of ‘worthy texts’ to extend around the globe, including oral tales, folkloric traditions, and stories that entered the Western imagination through colonial practices? Surely?
We, ourselves, are not exempt from failing to bring these subjects to light in class. Time and Faculty constraints for the course do force a sort of superficiality with topics, but this is not a good enough excuse; we now insist that we make more time to problematise the texts, authors, theories, cultures, and children that ‘get’ to be interrogated here at Cambridge. We insist that we expand our understanding of ‘the child’ and ‘children’s literature’, and that requires recruiting and highlighting Black people and other people of colour in the field and on promoting equity, which would establish space for the world youth literatures to have the footing in developing the foundation of a new curriculum.
There is a current social media movement called #pulluporshutup that advocates for companies, big and small, to examine the numbers of Black and brown people employed at administrative and executive levels. We insist that the faculty examine the ‘diversity’ of its workplace and thus consider how we supposedly value these voices by whether or not we allow them to occupy leadership positions. We thus advocate for a departmental audit. This is not to usher in superficial/tokenistic hiring practices, but to instigate a difficult, critical conversation about who we allow to take on the Cambridge brand—and what they get to do with it. Considering Dr Thomas’s and Breanna’s comments regarding their (RECENT!) horrifying and destabilising experiences in the field, we can see very easily that not all people have a voice in the field; we are clearly not ready to let those voices matter. And, to anyone who insists things have improved since Breanna’s time / forced end in residence at Cambridge, we will draw attention to the fact that the unnamed professor’s claims about the ‘ethics’ of testing on African-American men for the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment mentioned in her blog post were repeated in the self-named RMS lecture this past year. Comments made in other Faculties, including, ‘Remember: colonialism wasn’t just good for white people’, are indicative of the widespread racial violence and unchallenged colonial defence still active across the university.
One of the major questions that has come into sharp relief in the last couple of weeks is ‘but what do we do?’ We are perhaps finally seeing that we need to initiate large-scale change, but we are met with a problem; namely, that, as a generally white and women-dominated department, we are forced to reconcile our own limited perspectives in proposing those changes. We wish to use our power as members of the Centre to recognise and advocate for the recruitment of diverse people in leadership positions to help us inform the future. Without them, we desperately try to posit movements or changes that ultimately come from our own negligence and will never be adequate in voicing the ‘other’.
It’s time for us to #pulluporshutup; we can no longer refer to the Centre or Faculty as a forward-thinking, diverse space if we stay silent. So listed below is the minimum list of actions we want the MPhil, the Centre, and the Faculty to implement and respond to. These demands are to be implemented according to a timeframe to be agreed with senior staff as soon as possible from the date of this statement. Much of this work will unfortunately have to be collective until a selected staff is in place that responds to the needs presented, but it should ALL be initiated by the staff; they are charged with planning, running, and attending meetings, while focusing on how to facilitate equity and growth.
- Hire a consultant to audit current curriculums and make recommendations on how to rebuild new equitable curriculums (CLPE)
- Do an internal diversity audit of all of the booklists for each lecture in collaboration with librarians, students, and outside resources (collective, needs student input)
- Create a system / group to critically review cfps for internal conferences (collective)
- Implement mandatory equitable facilitation training—say ‘no’ to Robert’s Rules (collective)
- Commit to researching and supporting student attendance at conferences that promote the development of equitable learning practices in UK universities (leadership only)
- Research and identify mentor centres that we can use to build ongoing objectives for the Centre (leadership, needs student input)
- Commit to having all speakers for either virtual or physical Open Research Seminars for the next two years be people of colour (collective, needs student input)
- Overhaul the independent study groups (reading group, etc.) so that equity-focused expectations are cohesively established across the board (collective, needs student input)
We must expand our engagement, recruitment, and advocate for the many kinds of children and children’s texts ‘worth’ study. We must insist on mandatory, Faculty-wide anti-racism and diversity training. We must adapt a curriculum that explores global iterations of the child and children’s literature. We must initiate interdisciplinary—even university-wide—studies that critically open up racialized and diverse constructions of the child across the globe. And we absolutely must not allow Black people and other people of colour to be subjected to harassment when they bring their voice to the conversation.
We stand with Dr Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and Breanna J. McDaniel. We must amplify and hear their voices that they have risked everything to raise. Education is, after all, a foundation for learning; if we maintain our current practices and refuse to speak out against inequality, we are complacent in the dehumanization and continued oppression of people we have profited on for centuries.
We must be better.
Kimberlee Anne Bartle, MPhil, Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature (Student Representative)
Emma Reay, PhD
Lindsay Burton, PhD
Michelle Anya Anjirbag, PhD
Stella Miram Pryce, PhD
Breanna J. McDaniel, PhD
Lisa Kazianka, PhD
Madison McLeod, PhD
Madeleine Hunter, PhD
Anna Purkiss, PhD
Carrie Spencer, PhD
Amy Ryder, MEd
Gabriel Duckels, PhD
Nic Hilton, PhD
Miriam Moore-Keish MPhil
Sarah Hardstaff, PhD
Carla Plieth, PhD
Jamie Purdie, MPhil
Lilli Leight, MPhil
Mary Carson, MPhil
Chloe Rushovich, MPhil
Linda Yi, MPhil
Shriya Kuchibhotla, MPhil
Amber Khan, MPhil
Rufus McAlister, MPhil
Victoria Mullins, PhD
Catherine Olver, PhD
Ingrid Butler, MPhil
Jana Klaes, MEd