I was once in a second-hand bookstore with my older brother, looking for books for my collection of Black British children’s literature. One title and spine stuck out to me, and I said to my brother, “This book has a Black British child in it.” He looked at me, confused. “Do you know the book? Or the author?” “No,” I said, “I’ve never seen it before, and I don’t recognize the author. But I guarantee you it is a British book and has a Black British child in it, probably on the cover.” He looked at me doubtfully, so I pulled the book off the shelf. There, on the cover of John Escott’s Burglar Bells (1983), were two boys looking at a third person breaking into a house. One of the two boys was black.
It wasn’t really a magic trick that I performed. Two things told me all I needed to know. First, the spine, and the fact that it was hardbacked but paperback-sized, let me know it was from Hamish Hamilton—their books are easy to recognize. But second, the title had something about robbery in it. In preparation for writing this blog, I went to my middle grade shelves of books from the 1960s to the 1980s, and easily pulled off half a dozen books with robbery, thieving, burglary, or rioting in the title—all of them with Black British characters. Because of the time in which they were written, most of these books have a white focalizing character who somehow befriends a black child or family. John Escott’s Burglar Bells is one of the few that have the relationship between the white and black children already established; Bernie (white) and Lee (black) go to the same school and are already friends when the book starts. They are joined in their quest to foil a robbery by another classmate, Rosemary (also white). There really isn’t anything in the story to suggest that Lee had any kind of different background from Bernie or Rosemary in terms of language (no patois or slang), culture or homelife (in fact we never see Lee at home throughout the story), so the story could reasonably be reillustrated with all white (or all black) children. But I don’t think it was an accident that this book included a Black British character, as this plot was common during the post-Windrush era.
An early example is Christine Pullein-Thompson’s Robbers in the Night (Hamish Hamilton, 1967). In this book, the main character, Paul, has come to Britain from Jamaica, and he remembers “the blazing sun, the dust, the hot sea” (7) with fondness. But although his family is hardworking and kind, Paul gets caught up with a white boy gang who want him to help them rob houses. At first, Paul is attracted by the boys and their easy money; when his sister tells him to stay away from them because “we have to be better than other people because we are immigrants” (47), Paul retorts that, “We can’t be immigrants for ever. One day we will be like everyone else . . . I don’t want to be different” (47). Paul ends up aiding and abetting the white gang to rob a country house, crawling through a window and opening a door for them when the gang leader threatens him with a knife. When he at last confesses to the police, they do not arrest him as he had feared, but tell him, “You’re a law-abiding citizen. Those miserable youths were trying to corrupt you. Hurry home and get some sleep. You need it” (115).
This idea of being Black British, hardworking and kind, but mixed up in crime nonetheless is repeated in Nina Bawden’s The Robbers (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard 1979). The book focuses on two white boys, the wealthy Philip Holbein and the poor Darcy Green. Philip becomes interested in Darcy and his family when he moves to London to live with his father. He meets Darcy when he sees him on Philip’s family’s estate and thinks he is a robber. In the course of the book, Darcy’s brother is actually convicted of robbery, although he doesn’t knowingly do anything wrong. Darcy and Philip try to earn money for Darcy’s brother’s wife, Addie, who is pregnant and has been sacked by her employer because of her husband’s conviction. Addie is “a tall, handsome black woman” (36), “like a queen” (36). She suffers most from the alleged robbery, but she has done nothing. Like Lee in Burglar Bells, we learn nothing about Addie’s background, and there’s no clear reason for Bawden to have made her character black rather than white. And like all the characters in these stories, the Black British character is not the guilty one, but is led into an association with crime by white British people.
I have always felt vaguely uncomfortable about these books, because the titles and the Black British characters seemed to connect Black Britons with crime and criminality at a time when the British media was filled with stories of West Indian youths mugging white British people, something that Stuart Hall, in Policing the Crisis (1978) called a “moral panic”: “On the margins of the mugging epidemic, then, there arises its pre-history: the longer and more complex story of the striking deterioration in police-black relations, especially between the police in certain areas of the big cities and sections of black youth. It is only in this context that the innovatory role of the police, in the generation of a moral panic, can be properly assessed and understood” (52). Although the Black British characters in these books are only marginally connected to crime, the white characters and the reading public feels that they belong in books about burglary. Institutional racism makes the link between race and crime seem natural.
Therefore, when Alex Wheatle’s latest book, Kerb Stain Boys: The Crongton Broadway Robbery (Barrington Stoke 2018) arrived in my mailbox, I admit to feeling a little nervous about what to expect. In many ways, the story has similarities to the earlier books about robbery; a white boy (Terry, or Terror as he is known to his friends) leads his Black friend Briggy, into a plot to rob the Crongton Broadway Post Office. Wheatle himself has written that the book, “is influenced in tone, language and narrative by film noir” (https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2018/october/alex-wheatle-what-happens-when-diverse-readers-see-themselves-reflected-in-fiction/), a genre which suggest the likelihood of a grim ending for our anti-heroes. But unlike Bawden’s The Robbers or Pullein-Thompson’s Robbers in the Night, Wheatle’s book does not focus on the goodness or badness of its characters. If anything, Briggy and Terror are amoral; they decide it is acceptable to rob the post office because they think that life is not going to offer them anything better. “I’ll tell you what’s stupidocious,” Terror tells Briggy when he objects to the plan, “Trying to get a job that pays you sweet when we’re done with school. Stupidocious is putting on a tie and going to interview after pissing interview when you know they’re not gonna give you shit” (38). Briggy, reflecting on Terror’s words, agrees: “I couldn’t argue. That’s how it was.” Much of the novel is as much comic heist as film noir—the boys and their femme fatale, Caldonia Lake, plan to rob the post office with repainted toy Star Wars guns—but Wheatle’s message is serious: kids living in a society that continually reminds them they are worthless do not feel any reason to abide by that society’s rules. Wheatle’s book is revolutionary because it exposes the system that creates criminals, and does not damn the boys for trying to break out of that system. Although they are punished with time in youth detention, they find an alternative, non-standard route out of poverty while there, and both end the book with success. Wheatle’s novella is a strong and much-needed reminder that the “criminal” is created by society’s refusal to acknowledge the possibility in all members of society, and not by any in-born “criminal minds.”