On the Imperialist ‘Charity’ of Rebuilding Caribbean Children’s Libraries with Eurocentric Books

1. On Sept. 5, 2017, Hurricane Irma hit landfall in the Caribbean island of Barbuda, wreaking indescribable havoc. Half of the population was left homeless as 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed. Two days later, I listened as Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Barbuda, was interviewed by the BBC. Speaking in the restrained, stoic voice expected of a good leader in such circumstances, he made the blunt allegation: “This disaster was not a result of any wrongdoing on our part. We are literally victims of climate change.” What struck me was his tone of utter conviction. The prime minister, a man who had been educated in two of Europe’s top universities, dispassionately stated that industrial nations, like those of Europe, were responsible for the hurricane and its destruction. He cited the “obligation” of more powerful nations to help Barbuda rebuild. He was speaking to the BBC, which is to say, to an audience of Britons and the wider world. Not only that—he used the word “victim.” Such a squirm-inducing word in our age of self-empowerment where “positivity” is often evoked as the panacea for all ills. Not the kind of word you expect a representative of the people to use. Focusing on victimhood often makes victims an easy target for scorn and blame. One of the noxious themes of the conversation America is having about sexual violence is that of victim-blaming; people who are sexually exploited by powerful men are expected to remain silent, bear the blame, and downplay their suffering. Yet the truth remains that human beings are subject to all kinds of unwarranted violence at the hands of other human beings. Speaking out about violence is imperative for preventing its spread and safeguarding human dignity. Even flawed people are entitled to victimhood, the compassion it invites, and the justice it requires. This is true for societies as well. For the prime minister of Barbuda to claim victimhood for his country—and by extension the entire Caribbean—in the aftermath of one of the most devastating Atlantic hurricanes in modern history is to register centuries of harm done by large, powerful nations. Later that month, in a weighty address to the United Nations General Assembly, he expounded on his climate change claim, making the case for why Caribbean countries are unfairly bearing the brunt of pollution by industrial nations. One of his major points was this: Climate change accounts for the rise in catastrophic hurricanes in the Caribbean, and powerful nations emit the most fossil fuels, the major cause of climate change. 2. Alfred Crosby identified the environment as a site of imperialist violence when he coined the term “ecological imperialism” in his influential writings about the destructive impact of Europe’s colonization of the Americas. Barbuda’s prime minister, in his post-Irma comments, suggested that climate change is the new face of ecological imperialism. The European Union is the third-largest greenhouse-gas polluter in the world, behind China and the United States. It was only recently, in 2000, that Europe established comprehensive policy measures to address climate change by reducing the continent’s greenhouse-gas emissions, among other things. Yet ask any Puerto Rican or Barbudan whose home was destroyed by hurricanes Irma and Maria and they will tell you plainly: The damage has been done. Since Europeans arrived in the region in the 15th century, there has never been a time when the Caribbean has not had to contend with the violence of imperialism. Using military, political, economic, and religious force as their weapons of choice, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United States continually plundered, pillaged, and colonized the Caribbean over the course of history. Most Caribbean territories are now independent, but the ascendancy first of Europe and now of America has ensured that the Caribbean remains crouched under the shadow of imperialism. “Sword of imperialism” is more apt because imperialism cannot be separated from violence. Even in the absence of genocides and literal wars, there is no nonviolent imperialism; the imperialist (or neo-imperialist) project necessarily relies on the forceful use of power. We live in times that call for a broader definition of violence. The term “environmental violence” is useful for describing the way irreversible damage done by humans to the earth is in turn threatening human survival. This includes secondary violence from the natural world, such as the destruction caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria; the violence that results when environmental destruction fuels conflict over natural resources; and the fact that people affected by environmental crises are at greater risk of experiencing other kinds of violence. 3. Now that hurricanes Irma and Maria have meted out their violence in the Caribbean, the library and publishing communities in more powerful nations have begun to mobilize to help rebuild the islands’ damaged libraries. The American Library Association has started a Disaster Relief Fund for this purpose, and similar efforts by library supporters in other nations are materializing and expected to continue. Not only libraries but also schools and bookstores in the Caribbean have been adversely impacted, and so new children's books are very much a need in the region right now; however, it matters how entities and individuals outside of the Caribbean choose to help. What many don't realize is that under current practices, free books from outside the Caribbean usually hurt literacy, not to mention the economy, in the Caribbean. Hurricanes or not, there are numerous international NGOs that ship free European and North American children’s books to Caribbean countries year-round. This book donation activity is even higher after disastrous events like the 2010 Haiti earthquake or the recent hurricanes; global warming and its effects have only intensified the already white-hot world of children’s book charity. International nonprofits like the OneWorld Schoolhouse Foundation (Canada), the Sandals Foundation (USA), and GBA Ships (Germany) are not the only children’s book donors; multinationals like McDonald's have also felt themselves at liberty to establish extensive children’s book donation programs in the Caribbean. Even the American and European embassies in the Caribbean have jumped onto the children’s book charity bandwagon. These initiatives are often packaged as voluntourism; tourism, of course, is a major Caribbean industry. It has become common for multinational hotels, cruise liners and travel agencies operating in the Caribbean to sentimentally invite tourist guests to “give back” (should thinly veiled imperialist projects be framed as “giving back”?) through their in-house children’s book drives. Blue World Travel and Authentic Luxury Travel are just two of the many organizations that have used this approach to get their customers to donate books to Caribbean children by the thousands. These programs give form to what Teju Cole calls “the white savior industrial complex,” which people in powerful nations are complicit in whether they are white or not. This complex is enthusiastically run by Westerners who habitually set up noble ventures to spread the civilizing influence of Western (read: Eurocentric) children’s literature in the Caribbean. It is based on a handout approach to helping that gratifies the savior and patronizes the saved. It is also a misguided attempt to propitiate Caribbean people. Altruism becomes tainted and is enfeebled by obeisance to negarchy. Caribbean people should not feel burdened to express gratitude for charity that is ill-considered and compounds our troubles; such gratitude is really a dangerous form of servitude. Often, the foreign charities and multinationals pair up with the “Big Five” (North American and European) publishers to implement childhood reading initiatives in the Caribbean. JetBlue’s Soar with Reading initiative, McDonald’s Happy Meal Books program, and the Sandals Foundation’s Reading Road Trip program are collaborations with Random House Children’s Books, Harper Collins, and Scholastic Book Fairs respectively. Caribbean countries have received free children’s books by the millions as a matter of course, and that might seem like a wonderful thing. But a close look at how international donor organizations source the books they send to the Caribbean raises questions and concern. What seem like innocuous, isolated childhood reading projects set up by foreigners in the Caribbean must be confronted as evidence of a larger trend with deeply harmful effects on the region. Most of the books donated to Caribbean countries are the excess inventory of publishers and booksellers in rich, powerful nations. Overpublishing has reached endemic levels in powerful nations, and so there are thousands of surplus children’s books, largely about white people─material evidence of the gluttony of capitalism and its brother, racism─lying around in warehouses that must be disposed of somehow. "First World" publishers and booksellers send their unwanted, unsold, and used books to NGOs in their countries that then ship the books to the Caribbean. Much of the time, this is done with little to no moral inquiry into the literacy needs of Caribbean child readers and with a willingly blind eye to the unequal power relations and harmful cultural dynamics undermining Caribbean children’s literacy development. What is telling about these charity arrangements is that publishers in wealthy nations are driven by profit motive. Under the revenue rules governing charitable contributions in North America and Europe, publishers and booksellers can get a federal tax deduction equal to up to twice the cost of the donated books, which allows them to conveniently feather their nests while getting rid of surplus stock. Publishers have been known to further increase tax-related profits by printing additional copies of unwanted books that have a low production cost. Caribbean countries, then, along with other relatively poorer countries, have essentially become a kind of clearinghouse for rich-nation publishers and booksellers; in fact, the above-described practice can rightly be called "donation dumping." It is a practice that exacerbates several already-existing problems in Caribbean countries when it comes to literary culture in general and children's books in particular. One such problem is Caribbean children’s lack of access to books that are culturally relevant and written in their nation languages. The best children's books to replace those destroyed by the recent hurricanes are books featuring Caribbean characters, written by Caribbean authors and published by Caribbean publishers. Donors should also respect the linguistic rights of Caribbean people by donating books written in the primary language of the island in question. Most Haitians, for example, speak Kreyòl primarily, so donating large numbers of French-language books to Haitian children makes little sense. The ongoing practice of children’s book donation dumping by more powerful nations places the important needs of Caribbean children at the bottom of the list of priorities. The culturally relevant books that Caribbean children need to build positive self-identities, learn in their mother tongues, preserve their cultural patrimony, engage more deeply with texts, and decolonize their imaginations simply aren't being donated (or produced, for that matter) in anywhere near sufficient quantities. The lack of access to affirming, culturally authentic children’s books produced with Caribbean children in mind is an ongoing legacy of imperialism. Without access to such books, Caribbean children are raised with a poverty of awareness and appreciation regarding their own history, culture, and humanity. Not seeing themselves valued by the literary imaginary conditions them to underestimate their own value in the world. This, too, flattens and reverses Caribbean development. This, too, strips Caribbean people of our power and wealth, generation after generation. This too is a form of violence, deep-seated and unacknowledged—maybe not as obvious as a hurricane, but a catastrophe nevertheless. The U.K.-owned hotel resort that funded the refurbishment of school libraries in Grenada after Hurricane Ivan in 2004 reported on its efforts in a self-congratulatory article titled, “Grenada: The Most Literate Island in the Caribbean.” The irony of such sanguine headlines is that Caribbean children cannot be truly literate when their literacy development is constantly subject to interventions and control by cultural outsiders from imperialist nations. “Post-literacy”─Paulo Freire’s term for liberation from exploitative systems through literacy and the raising of critical consciousness among those who already possess basic literacy─will not be achieved as long as Caribbean children grow up reading books dictated by the countries that continue, in various ways, to colonize ours. 4. Those wishing to help Caribbean children can do so wisely by buying children's books from locally based Caribbean publishers, thereby supporting the region's economy, as opposed to donating books from outside the region. Organizations like Library for All, REFORMA, and the online Caribbean children’s literature magazine, Anansesem, can help with sourcing such books and publishers. Ultimately, the best way to fight the Caribbean’s "children's book famine," a result not just of environmental disasters but also of ongoing socio-historical conditions, is by donating in a way that helps Caribbean countries produce children's books for ourselves. Library for All's model of subsidizing demand for local books through public-private partnership, licensing content from local publishers and authors, and catalyzing home-grown publishing by training local communities in book production is one that should be emulated by other international NGOs operating in the Caribbean. The more European/North American publishers and booksellers wield power and enlarge their pockets under the sanitized pretext of charity and literacy development, the less Caribbean countries are able to incentivize and monetize our own bookmaking industries. Rather than competing with Caribbean publishers who are already grappling with unequal competition from international conglomerate publishers and the challenges of producing local children’s books at scale, international literacy NGOs and donors should use their money to help Caribbean publishers and children’s authors get established and stay established. This may not seem like a priority in light of the current hurricane devastation, but if not now, then when? Silencing. Delegitimization. Erasure. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu understood the devastating power of these things when he first described “symbolic violence”: the ways in which dominant cultures impose their cultural values upon less powerful groups. The environmental violence resulting from anthropogenic warming of the earth is real, as is the symbolic violence of imperialized Caribbean childhoods. Neither should be dismissed as accidents of history or responded to with quietism; rather, they are pressing social justice issues that need to be tackled head-on. As the bookshelves toppled by hurricane winds are restocked, the time is ripe to symbolically rebuild the Caribbean children’s library. Image: A Place Where Hurricanes Happen by Renee Watson and Shadra Strickland