The power of books to affirm identity and belonging
Published on: 20 August 2023 Author: Atinuke
Author Atinuke shares her experience of books being a powerful tool to shine lights on forgotten areas of history, and so strengthen children's identities and confidence.
Photo: Paul Musso
I grew up thinking that Black people were not important. Undoubtedly one reason for this was because the books I came across as a child were only ever about white people.
Books are powerful.
They were my comfort, my escape, my inspiration, my education. And I loved them. But it was not until I was 17 that I read my first book about Black people – The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Reading it the thought flashed across my mind, "Oh! So Black people are important too!" There it was. Internalised racism. In all its ugliness.
I had never read a book with Black people in it so I had concluded that because white people (and their cultures) were important enough to write about, but not Black people (and their cultures), therefore white people must be more important than Black people.
Even though I had spent my childhood in Nigeria where my teachers were Black, the police were Black, the government was Black, and the president was Black....
Books are that powerful.
So I write ordinary children's books set on the African continent. To show children and their adults that African heritage is something to be proud of.
It is that simple.
The difference that books can make
Illustration: Kingsley Nebechi
Once, at a library in Luton, a father told me he had been ashamed of his school-less childhood herding camels in Somalia. He was too ashamed to tell his children about it... until the day they came home with my No.1 Car Spotter books. They thought No.1 and his goat herding life was cool. So he told his children about his own childhood. Now they think he is cool too!
Books just are that powerful. And if fiction can do this, then how about history?
I came to the UK as a child of 10. I was confident in my identity as a Black Nigerian child, who also had one foot in England. One of my parents was white English. And my siblings and I had spent our summers in England, welcomed with open arms by our English family.
Coming to school here, however, was another matter. Once we were allowed to watch a football match on the television at school. England was playing. When England scored we all went wild cheering and clapping. The teacher looked round swiftly at me. "You are NOT allowed to cheer for England!" she hissed. The room went silent. Everyone stared.
My identity shattered. Then, and again, and again. Bits kept breaking off. Every time anyone said words to that effect. I never had enough time in-between these comments to put myself back together.
Introducing children to Black British history
In 2020 I discovered that there was not one single comprehensive book about Black British history for children! What a statement to children that is! What a statement about the importance of Black British people.
Books are powerful.
So I decided to write one.
A book about Black British history – which is the history of Britain, and the history of Africa, and part of the history of America too. And what I discovered in my research has enabled me – after 40 years – to begin to reassemble my confidence in my identity.
I discovered that the first people in Britain were Black.
I discovered that Black British history is longer than white British history.
I discovered that without the inventions and the sheer hard work of Black people Britain would not have become great.
Quite simply, I discovered that Black British history is just British history un-whitewashed. Black British history is as amazing and important as white British history. And together (with Asian, Arabic, Jewish, Roma and other British history) it is simply British history.
This is obvious – but it is not the message that most children's history books give to children (or their adults). Quite the opposite. And if my teacher had known un-whitewashed British history then she might not have made that comment. And if I had know un-whitewashed British history then I would not have shattered. I might actually have laughed.
So I chose to write Brilliant Black British History because books are so powerful that this book, in the hands of children, could help prevent racism, internal or external. It could help identities and confidence not to shatter, but to stay strong, and laugh in the face of ignorance.
Because, as Bob Marley said, "If you know your history, then you will know where you're coming from, and you wouldn't have to ask me, who the heck do I think I am?"
I am a British woman of Nigerian heritage.
I am a Nigerian woman of British heritage.
I am a British woman. I am a Nigerian.
And I am a book-wielding brown woman of mixed heritages, books are my sword and my shield, because books are powerful. Why do you think people burn them and ban them?
Brilliant Black British History by Atinuke, illustrated by Kingsley Nebechi, is out now.
More books about Black history
We've put together lists of great reads exploring Black history for children and teenagers.
Check out our favourite books about Black History for younger children. Warm, truly interesting and pitched appropriately for the age group, these books are perfect for curious children.
Check out our favourite books about Black History for older children, from 9-12. Exciting, engaging and truly interesting, these books are perfect for curious children.
Check out our favourite books about Black History for teenagers. Thrilling, moving and absolutely fascinating, these books are sure to both inform and inspire your teenager.