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Sunlight on Sweet Water

Written by Chris Searle for Morning Star on no date provided

TO READ the racist words spoken to and about Beryl Gilroy when she first became a teacher in a London school in the 1950s, is to begin to realise the scope of the struggle undertaken by pioneer black teachers in British schools. In Black Teacher, first published in 1975 and now republished by the campaigning black people’s press, Bogle L’Ouverture, these early days are set down with the author’s characteristic clarity, humour, commitment and lack of bitterness. As she muses, 'Life, as a teacher in another country, was difficult enough without the added complication of animosity.' As she walked into her first post at a Catholic infants school, the pupils saw her as 'the Bogeyman’s lady' and asked her how she knew when it was time to take a bath, her headteacher handed her The Ten Little Nigger Boys to read to her class and a parent accused her of giving her daughter nightmares.

How does a teacher turn such racism around and create solutions that work for the benefit of her teaching and the children’s learning? The answer to that is to be found in the substance of Beryl Gilroy’s extraordinary story, as she finds strategies and imaginative answers to the most provocative of classroom situations, surrounded by ignorance on almost every side. Such approaches to teaching, now being strangled by so many formula strands of national curriculum orthodoxy, are a vital learning tool for today’s young teachers too and her courageous and witty story has much to teach them.

The same humanism and vision of community that marks her pedagogy is also to be found in the account of her childhood in a Guyanese coastal village, Sunlight on Sweet Water. In a series of vignettes, memories and portraits of the people who most affected her and built her as a child, she constructs a world in a village. She evokes in her own descriptions the senses she set alive in her London classroom, as she remembers being 'awakened by the smell of cane on the wind, of rice drying out, of rotting lotus flowers in stagnant water.'

The people she remembers most she makes us remember too. There is Mr Apollo the grave-digger, whose greatest 'friend through all weathers' is a stone angel in the graveyard. Or there is Mother Jackman, an itinerant bookseller who carries her books in a 'portmantle' and sells them at front doors. Here was a hermetic world centred on its places of worship and social infrastructures. Childhood is at the core of both these books, at its extremes of urban and rural life and reading them close together gives a deep and strong sense of the unity and hope which it can carry.

This is a review of Sunlight on Sweet Water

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