Rosie’s Umbrella, and the Public School’s Role in Decolonizing, De-Racializing, and De-Masculinizing Our Past
(eBook on Sale $4.95 in the month of February)
In The Conversation, Deana Heath, LINK Senior Lecturer in Indian and Colonial History, University of Liverpool, writes that the UK curriculum continues to whitewash Britain’s imperial past. She writes of Ireland “astoundingly” receiving “short shift” and of the whitewashing of Britain’s ignominious past in India in the approved curriculum in UK schools.
Heath makes the case of the similar treatment with regard to the approved school curriculum in the US with regard to the American War of Independence and the Civil Rights Movement. She writes of how the historic omissions in the U.S. public school curriculum have made possible “a triumphalist, nationalist historical narrative that renders empire a positive force in giving birth to nation states.” Heath states:
This history curriculum that the guidance lays out is ultimately a history of white men. Not only does it devote considerable attention to war, politics, and military history, but women’s and gender history are notably completely absent. Non-white people play a small role as historical agents, particularly in British or wider Western history.
We still have a long way to go in decolonizing, de-racializing, and de –masculinizing our past.
Rosie’s Umbrella addresses this unacceptable rendering of history and the ways in which young people confront the issues in their families and schools. At Garn Press we hope that this YA novel provides the opportunity for many conversations about the whitewashing of history in schools in the U.S. and U.K.
Underlying the family story of Rosie’s Umbrella is the devastating impact of English imperialism on the coal-mining families in South Wales. It is in many ways a coming of age story with powerful scenes in Rosie Llywelyn’s classroom when Rosie and her friends awaken to the false accounts of history that have been presented to them, which laud the power and privilege of very rich white men. Here’s an excerpt:
Rosie had wondered if Daisy meant for her to read the letter. She had no idea but she didn’t think Daisy would mind that she had read it. She’d looked through all the copies of pages from the books and articles Daisy had put together for Sarah. Some of them were just one or two pages of much longer texts, and Daisy had written the bibliographic information at the top of each first page. She had also underlined words and phrases as well as whole sentences,
Rosie had quickly read the underlined words:
… distressed areas … hunger marches … bitterness … hopelessness. … unemployment reached colossal levels … loss of income suffered by many unemployed families forced the older sons and daughters out of the parental home. … the National Government was accused of destroying family life.
Daisy had also drawn a line in the margins to indicate longer passages of relevance:
“Unemployment benefit is not a living wage,” declared the Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald on 25th August 1931. “It was never intended to be that.”
Practically all this property is unfit for human habitation – a good many houses are back-to-back or without through ventilation, the sanitary arrangements are of a primitive type and in some cases shared between houses.
Except those suffering from industrial diseases, whilst the men of the towns looked their age, the women of the communities generally looked older than they were. The children of the valley were particularly badly affected by the Depression. The infant mortality rate doubled from 56.6 per 1000 children less than twelve months old in 1930 to 118.8 in 1934.
If they survived the early years of life, these children had little to look forward to. In 1935, the Monmouthshire County Health Department reported that 80 percent of Abertillery’s schoolchildren were physically incapacitated to some degree. Only ten percent were in normal health.
Daisy had included information on Blaina and these pages were held together with a red paper clip. She had stuck a post-it on the first page on which she had written, “Hunger marches not riots!” Other than that she had not made any notes or marked any passages. Rosie picked up her pencil. She underlined dates, places, and the number of people participating in the hunger marches.
January 1935 a rally at Merthyr … attracted 40,000 people. In Pontypridd a few days later 20,000 people marched in protest, and other such marches and rallies occurred regularly as the previously contained anger of the unemployed flooded out onto the streets.
On Sunday, 3rd February 1935 … at least 300,000 people had been on the streets of South Wales on marches and rallies.
In Blaina and Nantyglo a rally organized for Thursday, 21st March 1935 was witnessed by young children from the mountainside above the road who reported many thousands of people peacefully marching when a police whistle blew from amidst the ranks of police. Many who participated in the rally were injured by the police, who beat them with their truncheons. After the police dispersed the crowd they left the wounded lying on the road, and among them were many women and children. Estimates put the total number of seriously injured at around 200.
Rosie knew her Grandfather had played in the Blaina Brass Band and he would have been a young man at the time of the Blaina hunger march. She’d wondered if he had participated, but did not spend much time thinking about it. She’d been worried about the time and getting home to see Sarah, and she’d decided to read the rest of the documents when she got home. Even so she’d taken a quick look at the big tome that belonged to Daisy’s Uncle Harry.
The articles were about the King of England’s 1936 tour of the coal mining communities in South Wales. Rosie had become familiar with the names of the mining towns and she recognized some of them even if she was not sure how to pronounce them, including Brynmawr, Ebbw Vale, Llanelly, Cymbran.
The King had visited Blaenavon, which was the nearest mining town to Gan-yr-erw. She’d scanned the articles quickly and had been surprised to read that the government response to the plight of the miners and their families was to establish a policy of “Transference”.
“The Government aimed at easing the situation by transferring able-bodied men and juveniles to other parts of the country,” Rosie had read. She had drawn in her breath as she’d read about “the social loss to the nation of having on its hands a lumpen people.” She knew what “lumpen” meant.
The next sentence she’d read was that the “King left Paddington in a private special train consisting of two sleeping cars, two saloons, and two first-class coaches”. It had occurred to her that if she had been alive at the time she would not have been travelling with the King of England, she’d have been weak and malnourished, and possibly even lying in the road bloodied and bruised after being hit by a policeman’s truncheon in Blaina.
Garn Press novels can be read on many levels. First and foremost they have to be good stories – page-turners that you cannot put down. Second, they have to explore some of the issues that are impacting human societies today – especially young people. Here’s another quote that shines the spotlight on the power of young people to see through the misinformation that is presented to them to find their own truth. Jesse is Rosie’s friend and Margaret is Jesse and Rosie’s eighth grade teacher:
Jesse had surprised Margaret and the class.
“Yesterday,” he’d began, “Rosie made a presentation that can’t be beat. Margaret, I know you’re always telling us we are not in a competition, but the reality is in the US we all compete. And the only thing that’s important to the government is that America is number one in the world.”
Jesse did not hurry.
“Up until yesterday I was all for that,” Jesse had said. “Battle ready, you might say, programmed to win.” Jesse had looked at Margaret, “But yesterday I had an epiphany, as you would say.” He’d grinned, “and also, as Margaret would say, I learned that winning isn’t everything.”
Margaret had smiled at Jesse and rolled her hands to encourage him to go on.
“A couple of days ago Rosie sent me an email and asked if I knew anything about the Battle of Thermopylae that took place in Greece in 480 BC,” Jesse had said, not looking as Rosie to put her on the spot. “She also asked me about the Siege of Alcázar which took place in Spain at the time of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, which was also the year the Special Correspondent wrote about the terrible plight of the coal miners in Wales.”
The class waited.
“I’m not saying this very well,” Jesse had said, and Margaret had quickly said, “You’re doing fine.”
“The point is I couldn’t figure out why Rosie was interested in an ancient battle in Greece or a siege in Spain during the Civil War, when she was researching the lives of coal miners in Wales.” Jesse had looked embarrassed. “I thought she was joking around,” he’d paused, “or something.”
The class had laughed and Rosie had shaken her head.
“But yesterday I got it,” Jesse had said. “At the Battle of Thermopylae seven thousand men blocked a pass and stopped the Persian army of a million men, although historians now think it was more likely to have been one hundred thousand men.”
“During the Siege of Alcázar a small group of the Guardia Civil and their families, including six hundred and fifty women and children, participated in an uprising against the Republican forces.” For a moment Jesse hesitated. “I don’t pretend to know much about it, but I do know that the Guardia Civil defended Alcázar to protect the women and children, and the Siege of Alcázar has become a symbol of moral courage. “
“The Battle of Thermopylae too,” Margaret had said, letting Jesse know she was on the same page. “Moral courage can have serious consequences.”
“When you stand-up against tyranny as they did in Blaina and the other coalmining villages in Wales, chances are you’ll end up in jail, or lying bloodied in the road.” Jesse had said, looking at Margaret and then at Rosie. “Or be forced to leave your homeland because powerful men who have made immense profits from working you half-to-death have taken away all your rights and made it so God-awful for you to stay in the village where you were born you have no alternative except to get on a bus or a boat,” Jesse took a breath, and continued quietly, “while these same men, who are thought to be so noble, legalize their violations against your family and your people by putting in place a Policy of Transference.”
Instantly Rachel had been on her feet, fist clenched, arm raised, and without a moment’s hesitation Margaret had stood up at the back of the room in solidarity with Rachel and Jesse. She stood, as beautiful as Maya Angelou and as majestic as Toni Morrison, and she’d raised her arm and clenched her fist as a matter of conscience.
The room had been still.
Slowly, as if weighted down by the grief of generations of the tragedy that had happened in Wales, Rosie had quietly pushed back her chair and stood up, fist clenched, she raised her arm as the rest of her class pushed back their chairs and fists clenched they raised their arms in solidarity. Then Rachel had lowered her arm and Margaret had sat down, and sitting, everyone had focused their gaze on Jesse.
Jesse had looked out the window for a few seconds, and then he’d turned and faced the class as the last chair was pulled in.
“Some stories you never tell,” Jesse had said, looking around the class to make sure everyone understood. “But I should tell you,” he’d continued, with a grin on his face, “that Daisy Blake used to be my baby sitter and I know her Great Uncle, so I stopped by to see him after school yesterday, and I asked if I could take a look at that book of 1936 Times newspapers.”
“I wondered how you managed to pronounce Thermopylae so flawlessly,” Margaret had said, and several students laughed.
“Daisy was there with William who was into everything,” Jesse had said. “She had just brought back the book of old newspapers, so after she took William home, I sat with her Uncle and we read the articles.”
In the fiery moment of solidarity Jesse’s face had been almost as red as his hair, but now his color had drained.
“I wanted to know how the English government got five hundred thousand people to leave their homes and their country,” he’d said. “And so that’s what I talked about with Daisy’s Uncle.”
Jesse had stopped for a second.
“Go on,” a student had shouted out, “tell us.”
“The families lived together,” Jesse had said, “sons went down the mines when they were twelve and had been digging coal underground for two years by the time they were fourteen, the same age as me. But when the mines started closing there was no work for the miners and the government stopped paying the small amount of unemployment money sons gave to their mothers for their keep. So their mothers had no money to feed them. Sometimes there were two or three grown sons living at home and daughters too, often with a Grandfather or Grandmother living with them as well, in two rooms up and two rooms down, and a toilet out the back, all half-starving to begin with, so when the pittance the sons got from the government was stopped, boys as young as me had to leave home.”
“Daisy’s Uncle said the families were between a rock and a hard place, mothers agonized because they did not want their sons to go down the mines, so they did not try to stop them from leaving,” Jesse had said. “Daisy’s Uncle said many of them thought they made their own choices, but they did not. He told me that what happened was hegemonous, which is a word I’ve heard you use Margaret, but I never understood what it meant until now.”
“Basically, it means you tell a people they are lumpen and of no social worth, and they believe it and call themselves lumpen, even though they are courageous and the fact they survived is miraculous.”
Again Jesse had paused.
“So,” he’d said, signaling he was moving on. “I finished my report a couple of days ago,” he’d said, gesturing at the bound document that was lying on his desk. “My father had a cover put on it.” He’d looked at Margaret. “I’ll give it to him when you have read it.”
Margaret had nodded and smiled, hoping the look was reassuring, but she had no idea what Jesse was going to say next, and she knew it would take her a long time to understand what had just happened to her class.
“And Margaret,” Jesse had said, his voice rising, “I know you don’t put A’s or B’s on our reports, or a number, or anything like that, but we all know when we’ve aced-it or when we’ve effed-up.” Jesse had smiled, his voice dropping, “Sorry Margaret. But right now I’ve had enough of famous men who win great battles and great wars.”
Jesse walked over to his desk and picked up his report and handed it to Margaret.
“My report is filled with the great men history remembers and the great battles that they fought, but you all know that.” He paused. “The only part I would like you to read is about Cúchulainn. He’s still my hero because he’s my Dad’s hero.”
Jesse had looked around the class at his friends who were on the edge of their seats silently cheering him on. “So I am going to talk about something else,” Jesse had begun. “I’m going to talk about potatoes and a famine and some of the great writers and poets from the land where I come from.”
In her conversation article Deanna Heath makes the case that children know very little about the colonial truth.
“In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things,” M.K. Gandhi said. “Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth.”
At Garn Press our mission is to publish works that challenge acceptance of ways of thinking that propagandize the past and encourage people to find their own truth.
Rosie’s Umbrella – eBook on Sale $4.95 in the month of February