An Enslaved Girl Dances for Joy When the Slave Trade is Abolished

Front board of Cotsen 92880, a collection of 13 half-penny chapbooks

In 1829, the Irish-born writer Edward Mangin (1772-1852) had thirteen half-penny chapbooks just 83 mm tall bound up for a present.  Twelve published by Philip Rose in Bristol and one by J. and C. Evans in London.  His printed gift inscription, “This Book, containing two hundred and five Engravings, was given to Samuel W. Mangin; as a Reward for Diligence and good Behaviour by his affectionate Father E.M. Ilfracombe August 24, 1826,”  imitated the layout of a title page.   His five-year-old son Samuel was still young enough to appreciate a book with a picture on every page, even if the cuts of soldiers, Jack Sprat   and Joan Cole, boy tossing balls, and Cinderella were far below the standards set by London children’s books publishers.

One of them really stands out because of the highly unusual subject: a Black girl in a white dress dancing for joy, having heard the news of that the slave trade is abolished. There is nothing political or radical about the half-penny chapbook’s contents, however.   “Miss Blackey,” as she is cruelly designated,  appears the last page of Fire-side Amusements, what was sometimes called a picture book because it was a collection of half-page illustrations with captions. The miscellaneous contents are supposed to be appropriate for little children with short attention spans for whom variety improves focus.    What might this illustration have signified to contemporary readers, especially ones as young as Samuel Warrington Mangin?

One way of figuring out how the dancing Black girl might have been read is to study the images surrounding her.   Fire-side Amusements includes a number of comic national types, the brave but impecunious British tar,  the stolid, pipe-smoking Dutchman skating against John Bull, who will outpace him shortly.  There being no evidence that “Miss Blackey” is being compelled by an overseer’s whip to frolic, her figure embodies the stereotype of the simple Black soul expressing happiness through movement.  The paternalistic caption that explains that she dances out of gratitude because “good massa do slave trade away” is in broad dialect, but it is unclear who is speaking. That racist language is used to describe the reaction of an enslaved person celebrating the end of transatlantic traffic in black bodies with the passage of Slave Trade Abolition Act in March 1807 is unsettling, but not unexpected.   The real irony is that she would not be free until 1833 when Parliament passed the Slavery Abolution Act.

Two hundred years later, we feel such an image should elicit approval for this first legal step towards righting a terrible wrong, not invite the reader to laugh at the girl as a comic type that could be on the dramatic stage,  The contrast with the illustration of  Ben the sailor, a blind paraplegic led by a dog reduced to begging is striking because the old veteran is presented with greater compassion than the enslaved girl.  Somehow it does not mitigate the feeling that she is portrayed as not quite fully human to take into account that the block reflects the cutter’s lack of skill rather than satiric intent or that it could have been recycled from another text, with a new caption written just for this page.

Two Hearts: Explaining Pregnancy to Soviet Children

We’re happy to introduce the third post by our special guest blogger: Polina Popova. A PhD candidate in History at the University of Illinois Chicago, Polina specializes in modern Russian and Soviet history and Soviet children’s literature. Having received a library research grant to study Cotsen material in the 2019-2020 academic year, Polina is uniquely suited to demonstrate what we can learn from the Soviet children’s books in Ukrainian and Russian held by the Cotsen collection.   __________________________________________________________________

With the summer approaching, I would like to look at one of the most aesthetically warm, paradisiacal, and summer-like Russian language books in Cotsen’s collection of Soviet children’s books. It is the 1933, surprisingly bright and sunny, Dva serdtsa (Two Hearts) by Vera Smirnova.1

Front wrapper, Cotsen 34171

The book has a simple plot: a mother and her young daughter are on vacation in one of Odesa’s sanatoriums (Odesa is a port city in Ukraine, on the north-west coast of the Black Sea). In the Soviet Union, these were recreational facilities for short-term rest or medical services similar to European spa resorts. The mother, and daughter Irishka (probably named after the author’s own daughter), go for a walk through the streets of Odesa. The daughter is hopping and running, which causes her heart to beat fast. She confides in her mom that “something’s gotten into her” (“chto-to v menia zaletelo”), but mom explains that it is her own heart; that it is supposed to beat faster during physical activity. On the way to the beach, they encounter a family of goats with a kid: the mother explains to Irishka that the goat’s baby was born very recently and is in the care of its mother.

page [4], Cotsen 34171

Later, Irishka’s mother falls asleep at the beach, and the little girl wonders if her mom is well and alive. Irishka brings her ear to her mother’s body: surprisingly, she not only hears the heartbeat, but feels strange movements… Maybe her mother’s heart “moves” inside her, Irishka wonders. Or does she maybe have two hearts (“dva serdtsa”)? Irishka’s mother wakes up and resolves the mystery: a human heart cannot move, she explains, but unborn babies inside their moms can! The mom tells Irishka: “I now have two hearts inside of me. One of my own, the other – of the baby” (“… dva serdtsa u menia teper’. Odno moe, drugoe – rebenochka”). Mother explains that mother-goats, such as the one Irishka just saw, give birth to their babies, growing them first inside their bellies, just like humans.

The choice of topic for the book is unconventional. Never before in Soviet children’s literature was the topic of reproduction raised and gently explained to young children. But, there was a very particular political reason why Smirnova’s book was published at the time. By the early 1930s, with the introduction of the First Five-Year Plan, the Soviet government started to push a much more conservative political and cultural agenda, laying the groundwork for a more “traditional” (i.e., patriarchal) vision of the Soviet state. The “Stalin Constitution” of 1936 enshrined this vision legally, while the legislative act “On the protection of Motherhood and Childhood” from that same year criminalized abortions (which had previously been decriminalized by the Bolsheviks). With her political flair and talented intellectual sensitivity, Vera Smirnova started to adjust her writing style to the new realities of the Cultural revolution epoch much earlier than many of her writer colleagues.

Thus, Dva serdtsa has new, utterly different stylistics. Rhetorically and aesthetically, it is much closer to the socialist realist genre that, at the time, was just starting to develop in Soviet literature. But it was also rooted in themes generated by the 1920s Soviet Sanitary Enlightenment policy, going along with books such as Iakov Meksin’s Kak Alla khvorala (1926) and Sofia Zak’s Boria v ambulatorii (1928). Yet Smirnova did not go along with the 1920s rhetorical trend of Soviet avant-garde writers who explained medicine and health issues to children in scientific language; treating children as cognitive equals to adults.

In the immediate years after the Revolution of 1917, the path of Soviet children’s literature went in the direction of realism. The model child of the 1920s (promoted by Soviet children’s writers, as well as the official agenda) “‘could hardly wait to grow up’ to become an adult.”2 The 1920’s was also a time when gender differences between children were seen as minor and unpronounced.3 Smirnova’s book undoubtedly promoted a different idea of childhood more typical to socialist realist children’s literature: a little girl who will eventually become a mother, as it is “naturally” supposed to be (thus, there is a narrative focus on the goats’ family). The book also sets up a different ideal for women – Irishka’s mom’s quietness and feminine calmness is juxtaposed with the crowd of strong and manly young Komsomol men.

Page [10]. Cotsen 34171. Irishka and her mother in the crowd of the male Komsomol’tsi. The Komsomol was the youth wing of the communist party.

Dva serdtsa is a fascinating book – it does a great job of conveying the aesthetics of a hot summer day in Odesa where time almost freezes because of the burning morning sun. Irishka is a highly amicable character – fast, somewhat paradoxical in her thinking, and curious, as all children are. She is also caring – more so when she finds out about her mother’s pregnancy. Smirnova’s book is a true masterpiece of interwar Soviet children’s literature. However, it was a product of the newly-established Soviet conservatism (Stalinist cultural revolution) and cannot be viewed outside of this political context. Irishka is first a future woman, mother, and only after that – a child.

  1. The author would like to thank friend and colleague Ismael Biyashev for help with editing of this text.
  2. Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 78.
  3. Kelly, Children’s World, 79.