Friday, November 13, 2015

Reviewing While White: Up and Down with "Over the Hills and Far Away"

                                                                            by Megan Schliesman 

I was excited when I first picked up Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes from Around the World, a collection compiled by Elizabeth Hammill and illustrated by more than 70 artists.  Excited because it’s a hefty, substantial and visually arresting offering that was making an intentional effort at multiculturalism, and in doing so would hopefully offer something fresh in poetry collections for young children.

In her introduction, Hammill states she sought to create a "genuine intercultural experience" and the opening piece is a strong start of moving beyond the norm: a poem from the Tohono O’odham. But right away I had a question that I could not answer on my own: Who are the Tohono O’odham? I'm sorry I didn't know the answer myself, but I'm also sorry the book made no effort to enlighten me beyond the visual cue in the illustration: indigenous individuals in a desert landscape. I used Google to find out more about the Tohono O'odham, a Native nation in Mexico and the American southwest, and I was happy to discover from the brief bio in the back for the artist, Michael Chiago, that he is Tohono O’odham. I know Native voices have often been misrepresented in anthologies so the fact that Chiago gave permission to use his painting was reassuring to me, especially as the verse was not specifically sourced in the end matter.

The second verse is labeled “African Lullaby (Akan)” in the table of contents. I looked online to discover that the Akan people are from the Guinea coast of the African continent. The illustrator for the Akan verse, Meshack Asare, is a noted children's book creator from Ghana, where the Akan are an ethnic group.

I appreciated the thoughtful verse/illustration pairings like those above or that of the Tsimshian “laughing song.” The poem is illustrated by a Tsimshian First Nations artist, Bill Helin and came from his own family.

But there were also things about the volume that left me disappointed, uncomfortable, and a couple of times dismayed.

Early on there is a page spread featuring the juxtaposition of an “English” lullabye with which most of us are familiar: “Hush-a-bye, baby, / On the tree top” and a “Chippewa” lullabye.  Again, there was no specific source cited in the end matter for the “Chippewa” verse.  But the truly jarring and upsetting element was the illustration spanning the spread and the two poems. Northumbrian artist Olivia Lomenech Gill depicted a tree in the center of the spread branching out to each of the poems. There is a Native mother with her child on a cradleboard below the "Chippewa" verse on the right. On the left?  The Mayflower ship, with “Mayflower 1620-1621” written in script above the “Hush-a-bye” lullabye.

Let’s just think about that a moment. The event that symbolically represents the arrival of Europeans on this continent, which in turn led to the devastation and decimation of Native populations through brutal events that continue to resonate and dramatically impact the lives of contemporary Native people today, is paired with the historical image of a Native woman and her child in peaceful repose. I’m sure it was innocent, and even well-meaning, this British artist joining the two things. The baby hanging from a cradle in the treetop intentionally echoes the depiction of the baby in the cradleboard.  But the end result is far from innocent; it's a painful pairing of images.

Near the volume's end, I came to a page spread with three poems related to ghosts and skeletons. Two were labeled “African American,” and the first one went like this:

                                          W’en de big owl whoops,               
An de’ screech owl screeks,            
An’ de win’ makes a howlin’ sound;  
You liddle woolly heads                      
Had better kiver up                              
      Caze de “hants” is comin’ round.              

I was so appalled that I searched for source information.  While this poem is not specifically sourced (only a relatively small number of the poems are; general sources are listed from which, presumably, the others came), I found online that it is from a 1922 book called Negro Folk Rhymes, collected by Thomas Talley (one of the general sources cited--why the poem wasn't specifically attributed to this collection I don't know). I did additional research and learned Talley was an African American chemistry professor at Fisk University and also a collector of African American folklore. I am not a scholar, and cannot speak to the issue of authenticity, or to the politics of publishing and race at that time. What I do know is this: that language and that imagery (“liddle woolly heads”?) reinforces hurtful, damaging stereotypes that have been used to demean and dehumanize African Americans for generations. Was that the intent here? Of course not. Does that render it harmless? Hardly. The choice to include it in a collection for children makes me angry and boggles my mind.

I also had to wonder about the overall lack of balance regarding cultural diversity in the collection, and had questions about the cultural labels. Over half of the 148 entries are listed as "English," perhaps not surprising in an anthology grounded in nursery rhymes but also curious in a volume with "A Treasury...from Around the World" in the subtitle. Other poems labels include (but aren't limited to) Scottish, Welsh, South African, Australian, Maori, Yiddish, and Trinidadian. Poems from North America include labels such as American,Chinese American, African American, Anglo American, and the names of various First/Native nations. And there are several labeled simply "Latino."

The deeper I read, the more the labeling made me uncomfortable. American versus Anglo American versus African American? Ok.... From this do I presume all the poems labeled English are Anglo in origin? (They looked to be.) Where are poems reflecting the multiethnicity of British identity?  What about those labeled simply American--how do we interpret that label culturally? There is mixed messaging here. Additionally, was there no way to trace the handful of "Latino" poems to specific countries or regions? If there wasn't I wanted to know why.

I ended up wishing that rather than the labels, which I'm guessing were based on what was revealed in the sources consulted but collectively left me twitchy with discomfort, each poem had included a brief note on the page, which was done with the Tsimshian "Laughing Song," that told what was, or wasn't, known about its cultural origins. Not what the compiler knew but what could have been discovered with additional research (such as the fact that "Ojibwe" is generally the preferred term today for "Chippewa," or that in the source for one particular poem , the marvelous Pío Peep: Traditional Spanish Nursery Rhymes, compiled by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy, it's noted that the verses are widely known across Latin America.)

Conceptually, there are good intentions behind the creation of Over the Hills and Far Away, and there are marvelous moments within it. But I began to realize that this "around the world," "intercultural" book--as is so often the case--presents diversity as something that is is an add-on to Whiteness and western culture, which dominate the selections. I couldn't help but contrast this volume with the 1992 book This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World, edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, which privileges non-U.S., and often non-western voices, and another poetry anthology out this year, Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation, compiled by Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick. Please Excuse This Poem, an anthology for teens, is also clearly intentionally multicultural yet never states this as its intent. The end result feels effortless and genuine, rich and authentic: a true reflection of who we are.

It's true Over the Hills and Far Away is a very different book for a very different audience, comprised largely of poems I'm guessing are in the public domain. But Hammill was clearly open to broadly interpreting the definition of "nursery rhyme," which is wonderful. Was it truly impossible to find more culturally diverse and authentic offerings that more widely span the globe?

For me, Over the Hills and Far Away sometimes shines but overall falls short of, and in some ways seriously undermines, its best intentions.


Jamalia Higgins said...

Megan, thank you for steering me clear of this title. The glowing reviews in SLJ, PW, Kirkus and Booklist all missed the horrific inclusions that you found. I was also unaware of the damage that African-American scholar Thomas Talley continues to inflict on the children of today. It is my sincere hope that his research from the 1920s ends up in the dustbin of history. I am also pleased that you have illuminated my eyes to the racist and hateful illustrations of Olivia Gill. Now, as you mention, I can feel safer Reading While White, Reviewing While White, and Analyzing While White.

Nanette said...

That poem from the Talley collection--I think it's cute. I can imagine reading it in a whisper to my grandchildren on a windy, rainy night, as they are at the age where they love being scared (but not too much.)

Thing is, though... even as it was written/recited, like so many of the other songs/poems Talley found for his collection, it's an "in house" thing. *I* can tell my grandchildren to take their nappy (or wooly) heads to bed, for example, but if you (or any other non-Black person) did that, well, I'd just have to knock you out. Okay, or give you stern looks and a good talking to.

Bit hard to do, though, when this sort of thing is introduced into the vocabulary (and minds) of young children, and only reinforced in other problematic reading material as they grow older.

You make a lot of other good points as well.

Megan Schliesman said...

Nanette, I love your term "in-house"!