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The Baked Bean Genie


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RACISM [image, unknown] Short story

The Baked Bean Genie
It’s hard enough to find children’s stories that avoid
stereotypes of black people, let alone ones with an anti-racist purpose.
Chris Brazier
offers a short story to be read to young children.

Down on the mud flats Alison, David and Olivine were sitting gloomily on abandoned car tyres. They’d been looking forward to playing here and watching the boats go by on the river. But now everything was spoiled.

‘Why do they hate me?’ said Olivine miserably.

The others didn’t answer - they didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t the first time that Olivine had been called a ‘nigger’ while the three of them had been out together - or that David had been called a ‘Paki’. Alison felt just as sad - she couldn’t understand why people should shout at her friends.

Olivine picked up a can of baked beans that looked like it hadn’t been opened and banged a rusty nail into it with her shoe - she thought that might make her feel better. ‘Sometimes I wish I could wash this skin off and look like you, Ally.’

But as she spoke a weird thing happened -

smoke started pouring out of the tin. And instead of climbing towards the sky like smoke from a fire this just got thicker and thicker. Suddenly there was a flash that made them all close their eyes. When they opened them, a little old brown-skinned woman was standing in front of them. ‘Dear, oh dear,’ she muttered, ‘tomato sauce stains all over my clothes. I knew I should have found somewhere better to live.’

The children looked at each other in amazement. ‘Who are you?’ asked David. ‘Where did you come from?’

‘I came from inside the tin - didn’t you see? Haven’t you ever heard of genies before?’

‘Yes, of course’, said Olivine. ‘But they’re not real, they’re only in books.’

‘Only in books! What nonsense!’ said the old woman. ‘Some of us live in magic oil-lamps, I’ll grant you that. But there aren’t too many of those about these days, so we tend to live in tins instead. Well, you have to keep up with the times, don’t you? But I don’t know any genie who lives in a book - it’d be a bit cramped, wouldn’t it?’

‘Genies are usually men, too, aren’t they?’ said David.

‘Oh no - not nowadays. If it comes to that, the children who call us up usually look different from you. Which one of you was it who got me up anyway?’

‘It was me,’ said Olivine timidly.

‘Right then, what’s that silly line I have to say. Oh yes - Your Wish Is My Command!’

The children didn’t know what to say. Maybe she wasn’t joking after all. Maybe she was a genie ... But they were too frightened to wish for anything.

‘Well I know what you want really - I couldn’t help overhearing what you were talking about from inside my tin. I don’t think you really wanted to wash your skin off - but you do want to know why white people are so nasty to you sometimes, don’t you?’

All three children nodded.

‘Come here then all of you and close your eyes.'

The children joined hands with the old woman and then shut their eyes as tightly as they could

‘Right, are you ready? Oh I nearly forgot, silly me - we need a magic word. Brech dan fel!’

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‘What’s that funny music? Can we open our eyes yet?’ asked Alison.

‘Yes dear - we’ve arrived in India,’ replied the old woman. ‘This is where David’s family came from.’

The children opened their eyes - but the

sun was so bright that they had to close them again. It was hot, too - the hottest sun they’d ever felt. And when their eyes became used to the light, they could see that everything looked different from how it did at home. Here all the people had brown skins like David’s but they didn’t dress like him. There were hunchback cows wandering around and there was even an elephant clomping along the street towards them.

David was excited - he wanted to stay for a longer look and ask all kinds of questions. But the genie wouldn’t let him.

‘Oh, I’d have to be a chief genie to let you stay any longer - and I’m afraid most of those are still white men. But would Olivine like to see where her people used to live?’

Olivine nodded, too excited to speak - her mum had told her a lot about Jamaica. They joined hands again and closed their eyes.

‘Mae ysgol yn fendigedig!’

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‘Is this it?’ asked Olivine - ‘are we in Jamaica?’

‘No, we’re not, we’re in Africa.’

‘But why - my Mum said she was born in Jamaica?’

‘Yes, she was - but your people didn’t start off there. They used to live in Africa.’

This time when they opened their eyes they found they were in a village full of huts - the genie called them thatched cottages. People with black skins like Olivine’s were working in front of the huts. It was the first time Olivine could remember that she’d seen a crowd with only black people in it.

‘Do they have elephants here, too?’ asked Alison.

‘Yes of course. And lions, and giraffes.’

‘Can we see them as well?’

‘No, we must go back to Britain now. Hold hands - Ty’n edrich yn wirion!’

[image, unknown]

They found themselves back by the river. Everything was just as they had left it. The sun was still out - but it didn’t seem very hot any more after India and Africa.

‘But please missus,’ said David. ‘You’ve shown us India and Africa but not why people call us names. And you haven’t shown Ally anything about her people.’

‘I was just coming to that. There were once white people in both the places we went to - I’m going to take you back very quickiy so that you can see them. Pyscod a sglodion!

[image, unknown]

Quick as a flash they found themselves back in India, but this time the genie showed them a big house and told them to look through the window. Inside they could see white people dressed in posh clothes as if they were at a wedding. They looked very hot. ‘Why are they all dressed up?’ asked Alison. ‘Well, I think it’s because they wanted to think they were different from Indian people so that they could tell them what to do. Wearing posh clothes helped them to feel like that - even if it did make them hot."

And before they could ask any more questions the genie has whisked them off to Africa. There they saw a white man on a horse. He was carrying a gun, and behind him there was a line of black people tied to each other so they couldn’t get away.

Rydw’i eisiau mynd gartref’ said the genie, and suddenly they were back by the river.

‘What were they doing, those people?’ asked Alison.

‘I was hoping you’d ask me that,’ said the old woman. ‘Well, the white people went to Africa to make lots of money. Because they had more guns and machines they could make themselves bosses. One way they made money was by selling black people as slaves, making them work very hard all their lives for other white people. They took them across the ocean in ships - and that’s how your people went from Africa to Jamaica, Olly.’

The children didn’t know what to say - they hadn’t been taught this at school.

‘Is that still happening?’ asked Olivine, a bit frightened.

‘No, it’s not,’ said the genie. ‘But the thing is that if they were goingtotreatblackpeople as slaves they had to believe they weren’t real human beings - you couldn’t hurt someone else that much if you thought they feltjust like you. And ever since then some people have carried on believing it - that’s called racism.’

‘And is that why they call us names, because they think we don’t feel the same?’ asked Olivine. 'That’s stupid.’

‘Of course it is. And it’s not just calling names - it’s stopped your families getting good jobs since they came to Britain. They moved here because India, Africa and Jamaica are still very poor - you should ask them all about it, find out as much as you can. Anyway that’s how the three of you ended up

living by the river and being friends. Can I go now please? - all this travelling makes me hungry!’

The children laughed and thanked the genie for using her magic. Alison picked up the old baked bean tin and offered it to her, but she didn’t want it.

‘Oh no - I’m sick of the smell of beans. ‘I’ve been planning to move house for a long time - I thought a shoe box might be nice and comfortable. Must dash then, or there won’t be any food left in the genie canteen. Bye dears.’

Suddenly the genie turned back into smoke, but instead of going back into the tin, it drifted through the air across the river until they couldn’t see it any longer. Olivine, David and Alison looked at each other - and then burst out laughing.

‘The grown-ups’ll never believe us,’ said Olivine. ‘They don’t know anything about magic!’

‘No, they don’t,’ said David. ‘Let’s not tell them and keep it a secret.’

And that’s what they did - they never told anyone else about the genie. But whenever they got called names they knew it was because something was wrong with white people, not with themselves. They started asking their family lots of questions about what the genie called ‘racism’. And every time they saw someone open a can of baked beans they looked very closely just to make sure there was no smoke pouring out. But there never was - that kind of thing only happens once.


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New Internationalist issue 145 magazine cover This article is from the March 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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