Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman: a Mirrored World

Erin Hutton

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevado

Artwork by Natasha Ruwona:

I read Noughts and Crosses when I was about thirteen. It is the first powerful book that I can remember reading. However, re-reading my slightly battered copy at eighteen was a very different experience.  It was easier to understand that good people, like the characters in the book, could react so badly to violence. The terrorism in the story is painfully similar to current news headlines. Finally, after studying the fight for Black American civil rights at school, I could clearly see where Blackman got her inspiration. The scene where nought children face a mob of angry crosses to get into a decent school could have been drawn straight from the textbook photos of Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas, 1957.  This seems especially important when one considers the things people said to the author as she was writing: “‘Slavery is in the past’, ‘Why d’you want to rehash something so painful?’, ‘Why do black people always harp on about slavery?’”(Penguin Random House, 2016). Perhaps, if books like Blackman’s were studied at university level, people would be less likely to have these attitudes, especially if the novel’s stark confrontation of cruelty made them consider that their comments are insulting. There are many example of history where people have ignored atrocities as they occurred.

Noughts and Crosses is powerful because it is a mirrored version of our own history. Crosses, the people with dark skin, are dominant. Noughts, with light skin, are the underclass. Each has racial slurs hurled at them by the other.  Segregation is enforced in hospitals, in jobs, in schools, where “Until a few years ago [noughts] were only allowed to be educated up to the age of fourteen – and in noughts-only schools at that, which don’t have a quarter of the money or resources that [Cross] schools have” (Blackman, 23). Plasters are made for dark skin only – and, as the earliest article I can find on the production of plasters in a variety of skin tones was written in 2010 (Russell, 2010), this may have been a prominent issue for Blackman writing in 2001.  It is also assumed by everyone that God is a Cross, to the extent that Callum, a nought, apologises to Him when he prays: “I know noughts aren’t really supposed to believe in you or pray to you because you’re really the God of the Crosses ” (Blackman, 96).

Sephy and Callum, a Cross and nought respectively, defy all odds by being friends, even before they come up against violence, politics and terrorism. Callum tries to overcome the disadvantages he faces due to racial barriers, while Sephy, the privileged but neglected daughter of an influential Cross finds that even in her attempts to help, she contributes to the problem. Their relationship evolves into something loving but angry, hopeful yet futile. The idea that innocence is the first casualty of war is sickeningly clear.

In a way, Blackman’s story resonates even more strongly with its intended young audience today than it did when it was first published nearly twenty years ago. The NSPCC has created a webpage about how to talk to children about terrorism. The University of Birmingham created an event to “bring together academics, teachers, safeguarding specialists, and those who have dealt with consequences of terror attacks to debate issues related to the prevention of terrorism and violent extremism among young people in a safe space”(2018) as part of their festival of social science. School students in the USA protested violence in front of huge crowds in March for Our Lives, where Yolanda Renee King called for a gun-free world (Holpuch, Owen, 2018). A significant proportion of the novel’s intended teen audience is already involved in fighting the issues that the book explores. The relevance of a novel about how young people must fight against violence is startling, which makes it an even worthier candidate for study. Blackman’s work may be useful for highlighting historical figures neglected partly for their youth, such as Claudette Colvin, who fought against laws prohibiting people of colour to sit at the front of the bus before Rosa Parks took her famous stand.

Additionally, the novel addresses racism through dystopia, a genre popular in young adult fiction, the power of which to address social issues is often underestimated. Whitewashed syllabuses, which ultimately contribute to racism, are prominent in both schools and universities, although they are being increasingly challenged.  For example, in University College London’s – short video entitled “Why is my curriculum white?”, the students highlighted the positive way colonialism is presented in class, the lack of non-white writers in the curriculum, the perception of some races as ‘primitive’, racist authors being engrained in the syllabus, and finally a lack of diversity in lecturers (University College London, 2014). Perhaps the study of this novel would allow further exploration of this issue. For example, in the novel, Callum challenges the ignorance of nought contributions to history: “Matthew Henson was joint first to the North Pole. Robert E. Peary was with him” (Blackman, 137). In reality, Henson and Peary both went on an expedition to the North Pole, but Henson’s contribution was largely overlooked because he was African American. In fact, he did not receive the recognition he deserved until years afterwards. The author effectively asserts that history books are biased. In this way, the novel would be valuable in the history syllabus, especially in modules which explore racial discrimination or praise colonisation, such as the way Empires are built or the way the indigenous inhabitants of America and Australia were killed. Equally, Blackman’s work could pose some interesting questions to English Literature students. Her world-building skills are admirable, as she states the basic Cross and nought relations in the first few chapters, then allows the story to unwind with racial issues interwoven into the plot. The novel is just as much about star-crossed lovers as it is about a flawed society. Furthermore, Blackman’s ability to write a novel aimed at young adults, due to its coming-of-age and romance themes, whilst also addressing serious issues, is worthy of study.

With a stage adaptation already performed, a TV adaptation on the way, and a fifth addition to the series, inspired by current political events, being written, Noughts and Crosses is certainly getting the recognition it deserves in popular culture, but the chance to study it academically would be a welcome opportunity. It resonates with teenagers and adults alike. The dream that Callum has of ” living in a world with no more discrimination, no more prejudice” (Blackman, 434) is incredibly valuable to young people today. The chance to study this book at university level would make it accessible to a wider audience and teach them the damage that racism can cause across the whole of society.

Works cited:

Blackman, Malorie. Noughts and Crosses.  Doubleday, 2001. 2012 edition. Print.

Holpuch, Amanda and Owen, Paul, “March for Our Lives: hundreds of thousands demand end to gun violence – as it happened”. The Guardian, 24 March. 2018. gun-violence-washington. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Penguin Random House, “Noughts and Crosses Q&A”. 21 June. 2016. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Russell, Akilah, “Out now – a plaster that matches brown skin”. The Guardian. 26 Sep. 2010. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

University College London, “Why is my curriculum white?” 9 Dec. 2014. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

University of Birmingham, “Talking Terrorism with Young People”. 7 Nov. 2018. 2018/events/talking-terrorism.aspx. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

About the author:

Erin Hutton is a first year student studying English and Theatre at the University of Warwick. She is interested in works of mythology and fantasy, as well as books and TV series that deal with social issues.

Noughts and Crosses: a Mirrored World

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