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Home > News and views > ‘I realised non-white children do not find themselves portrayed in children’s books’

‘I realised non-white children do not find themselves portrayed in children’s books’


An account by Kathleen Smith (nee Asbery)

Report of visit which took place from 9 March – 6 April, 1965.

The itinerary for my visit was drawn up by the ESU in the USA who liaised with librarians. Robert Kennedy had spoken to the Department of Justice in his capacity as Attorney General on April 7th 1964.  It was agreed that I should have, as my area of study, Robert Kennedy’s programmes on Poverty and Literacy.

Robert Kennedy was subsequently assassinated on 6th June 1968.

I travelled in New York, Cleveland Ohio, Toledo Ohio, Dallas Texas, Atlanta Georgia, Knoxville Tennessee, Washington DC, Baltimore, and back to New York.

I had no way of knowing, or understanding that March 1965, was to be of enormous significance in the history of Civil Rights the USA.

In my 28 nights in the USA, I spent no more than three nights with each hostess and mostly engaged in three major activities each day. This included visiting libraries, schools, art galleries, notable buildings and sights, cathedrals, churches and universities. I had breakfast, coffee, lunch, sometimes tea and then dinner with different people each day. My report, written after my return, using documents from my itinerary, shows that, including my overnight hosts, I had significant meetings with 89 people, all in different venues. In addition I had four official parties given for me. The action-packed nature of my month, together with the emphasis put on me acting as an ‘ambassador’ and establishing goodwill seems to have meant that I listened and absorbed while demonstrating gratitude. I probably needed to listen, and certainly that was expected of me. I was dazed and overwhelmed by crowded experiences, albeit extremely thankful for the very generous hospitality and welcome shown to me. I certainly ate a huge amount and variety of food as a guest at the myriad of receptions, homes, cafes, restaurants and eating facilities provided for staff in libraries!

I do not remember asking many questions, even if I had been sufficiently aware of the importance and significance of Civil Rights in March 1965. I was ill informed with regard to legislation. In 1964 under President Lyndon Johnson, the Economic Opportunity Act had been passed, to ‘eliminate poverty in the midst of plenty.’ 800 million dollars was allocated for the fiscal year 1965 to the work of eradicating poverty. There was, nevertheless a concerted attempt by Republicans with the support of Southern Democrats to dismantle the Economic Opportunity Act.

In January 1965 President Johnson in his State of the Union address ordered work to begin on a Voting Rights Bill which was subsequently passed in August 1965.

On 25 March Martin Luther King led thousands of non-violent demonstrators to the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery Alabama, after a 5 day 54 mile march from Selma (pictured, above). With Governor Wallace of Alabama refusing to protect the marchers President Johnson committed to do so. Protected by 2,000 soldiers of the US army and 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard, 25,000 people entered the capital city in support of civil rights.

Violet Liuzzo, a 39- year-old housewife and mother of five, was assassinated in Selma Alabama on 25th March. She was shot by the Ku Klux Klan as she gave a ride to a black 19 year old civil rights marcher. It is surmised by many civil rights activists and Liuzzos’s children, that her death helped with the passing of the voting Rights’ Act in August 1965, which removed barriers to voting such as literary tests and poll taxes and gave the right to every American to vote. The work on voting rights was begun by President Kennedy in 1961.

On Saturday, 27 March I saw my first American television programme  in Knoxville Tennessee when Governor Wallace of Alabama was interviewed as it was very soon after the killing of Violet Liuzzo in Selma Governor Wallace seemed to blame her murder on the fact that she was transporting a young black man from the march.

Later that day I was driven to the airport at Knoxville for my two-day stay in Washington DC.

In Washington DC on 29 March 1965 I was taken by young ESU members to the film The Sound of Music, I was unaware that on that day the film was premiered in the UK.  I remember feeling proud to be English because, I suppose, of Julie Andrews! I happened to have her colouring, her measurements, her hair style and, I suppose, her English speaking voice, developed in my years of contact with university academics in my capacity as Children’s Librarian in the city of Cambridge. What conceit! The theme of Nazi oppression and resistance was not discussed among the group I was with and certainly there was absolutely no correlation mentioned of the oppression undergone by the Civil Rights’ movement.

In March 2007 USA showed poverty statistics to be the highest in three decades. In 2005 16 million Americans were earning less than $5,000 dollars a year.  My travel grant was $1,000 dollars for one month.  In 1965 37 million Americans were living below the poverty line.

On 11 September 1965 Nancy Larrick, president of the International Reading Association, wrote an article in a periodical called the Saturday Review.  It was entitled, ‘The All-White World of Children’s Books’. Nancy Larrick wrote, ‘six million non-white children in the USA are learning to read and understand the American way of life in books which either omit them or scarcely mention them.’

This fact had been emphasised to me by librarians in Harlem and Ohio who spoke of the non-white child who does not find this child portrayed in children’s books. Few children’s books showed an African American, or any other minority, as the main character. As the Civil Rights Movement gathered momentum, a new phase of black cultural consciousness began to enter the literary world in the mid 1960’s.

In 1965 Senator Ted Kennedy introduced the USA Immigration Act which became law in October 1965. The bill was debated at length and was responsible for introducing new rules of immigration which was not about testing suitability but the rules would allow for people to enter the USA on a first come, first served basis.

Returning to Southampton after my month in the USA was, I realise now, extremely confusing as I tried to adapt to living a very different way of life with conflicting principles and values. My award had been given when I was working as Children’s and Schools’ Librarian for the City of Cambridge and I had only been working in Southampton for three months before going to the USA.

Southampton had a significant number of Sikhs who had arrived in the 1950s and 60s and the first Gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship, was opened in Southampton in 1966. The chief librarian of Southampton who was president of the library Association, suggested that I should attempt to find literature for children who were speaking Punjabi and Gujarati at home.  In an article written by Kamal Sheoran in 1975 entitled ‘Children’s literature’ he makes clear that, to speak of children’s literature in India as a specialized field is far-fetched and fanciful.’ We realised in 1965 and 1966 that was indeed the case and efforts to buy books for the library in Indo-African languages proved impossible. The oral tradition of story telling in India was the norm as indeed was the case in areas of the South in the USA.

My extraordinary month in the USA was remarkable for raising my awareness of the enormity of the issues faced by librarians and educators, who frequently showed me evidence of the struggle to serve in very deprived areas. I was taken to slums, and what seemed like shanty towns, together with areas stretching for miles of affluent houses and institutions. I experienced the wild desolate areas of parts of Ohio, and the huge central libraries in cities. The professionalism and commitment of librarians and educators was extremely impressive.

It was therefore somewhat surprising and daunting for me to discover that librarians and educators in the UK perhaps seemed not to be aware of the deprivation in so many cities and areas of the USA.

When I married, some two years after my return, it was to a friend who had worked as a geologist in many parts of Africa for the Commonwealth Development organisation. He was now working in Hampshire for IBM, the American computer company and perhaps some of my limited understanding of current affairs in the USA was relevant in my support for him.  He and I became very active in the work of Amnesty International and he became the first honorary British treasurer in 1968 when Amnesty was struggling for financial survival.

In 1972 I became friends with a mother at my child’s playgroup.  She had lived and taught at university in the USA for nearly 10 years. We have remained great friends ever since, and I was aware of how strange it was for her to find herself living in Winchester after the USA.

The regrets I have concern my lack of letter writing to thank those many people who looked after me so caringly in the USA. I mention everyone by name in the report I submitted to the ESU award committee and I can only hope that ESU branches were aware of that.  More than fifty years later, I am so very glad and thankful that the opportunity of learning so much was given to me.



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