Much of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s writing is poetic, and often throws unforgettable diamond-honed punches.
I have read and valued a number of her books, beginning with her short fiction Foreign Soil, in which the first story refers to a bike that evokes searing memories as well as a mention of patchwork bikes. Her awarded picture book The Patchwork Bike (illustrated by Van T Rudd) is sensory and exuberant. Her memoir The Hate Race enlightened my understanding of the impact of everyday racism on people trying to live safe, happy lives in Australia. Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent.
Maxine has both written and illustrated her new picture book, When We Say Black Lives Matter (Lothian Children’s Books). This is another dynamic work where the author’s wise, impassioned presence is perceptible.
The voice is musical, soulful, hurting, urgent and loving. It first addresses the child as “Little one” and continues with other terms of endearment as the child grows. It begins with the explanation that Black Lives Matter means that “Black people are wonderful-strong. That we deserve to be treated with basic respect, and that history’s done us wrong.”
The narrator walks alongside the child, nurturing, declaiming and crying as she crystallises complex, often harrowing experiences into inclusive, comprehensible, rhythmic rhymes.
The illustrations are colourful although appropriately muted in tone to reflect the weighty message. The characters’ faces, bodies and movement depict their African heritage. Tears are shed when the horror of the past and frustration and suffering of the present are remembered. The dance to “a-thundering on djembe drums” is particularly joyous. Baby and child are universally precious. The final scene with the young graduate in cap and gown is exulting – for everyone. Stained-glass windows frame some particularly poignant scenes and this style also features in the protest (with mask) in the endpapers. “Black Lives Matter” placards encircle another representing “Love”.
This is an #ownvoices work that is clear and honest, hard-hitting yet hopeful.
A history of discrimination, racism, survival and claim for equality is – not condensed but – highlighted in this passionate, heartfelt picture book so that children and others can understand the depth of meaning of Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is more than a slogan. It is a recognition and acclamation of worth. It is a cry for justice and an empowering pledge.
Some of the proceeds from When We Say Black Lives Matter go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.