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Invisible Mass of the Back Row – Telling Tales Analysis – AQA Anthology

Claudette Williams lived in Jamaica for the early part of her life. Her parents moved to England while she stayed with her aunt, but she joined them a few years later. Like Hortense in the story, she also learnt about Black history from her own research rather than from school.

The short story is set in Jamaica and England. It explores the colonisation of the Caribbean under European rule. Jamaica came under Spanish control following Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492. Vast numbers of enslaved Africans were brought over to work following the massacre of the indigenous Taino peoples. It was then a British colony from 1655-1962, after which the country gained independence.

One consequence of colonisation in the Caribbean is that schools taught a Euro-centric education. This means that it focused on White European ideas, ignoring Black history.

Plot summary

  • The story starts in a classroom in Jamaica. Hortense is made to sit at the back of the classroom because she is Black. A school inspector asks her about Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean. Rather than giving the expected answer, Hortense questions why Columbo was in the region. For this reply, the teacher hits her knuckles hard with a ruler.
  • Outside the classroom, Hortense confronts Lorna Phillips, a rich White girl who sits at the front of the class. She tries to attack her, but Lorna runs away. Instead, Hortense and her friends head down to the food stalls for lunch.
  • At home, Hortense discovers that she and her siblings will soon be moving to England, where her parents already live. She is very excited to hear this.
  • In England, Hortense struggles to adapt to the change in language and the colder climate. She is put in a lower set at school, mainly containing other children who immigrated from the Caribbean.
  • Independently, they read up on Black history. They also read about Christopher Columbus and are shocked at the massacres in the Caribbean due to his accidental landing. When asked about Columbus in class, Hortense and another girl give an accurate account of his atrocities. The teacher is left stunned while the girls leave the classroom in a victorious mood.

Characters

Hortense

When we meet her, Hortense has been put on the spot with a question about Columbus. This makes her uneasy, as she prefers to sit in “invisible” silence at the back of the classroom. However, she shows her rebellious nature by giving her opinion rather than the facts her teacher and inspector want to hear.

Her bullying of Lorna is unpleasant, but it demonstrates an acute awareness of the world’s inequalities. She knows she is poor and receives a lesser education because of her race, confined to the back row where the Black students are put. On the other hand, Lorna has wealthy parents and is White, so she is placed at the front of the class. The powerlessness and discrimination that Hortense experiences justify her anger.

In England, she finds adapting to this new country difficult. Her mother insists she calls her “Mother, Mummy, Mum” instead of “Salna”, which Hortense said in Jamaica. However, through learning more about Black history, Hortense gains more confidence about her identity.

Teachers

The teachers, for the most part, are perceived as enemies by Hortense. They have answers they expect her to give in class, which she doesn’t. Miss Henderson hits her when she gives her personal view of Columbus. The only teacher she likes is Teacher Edwards, who has a “kindness about this man that is not usually found among teachers.”

Lorna Phillips

Lorna is a wealthy, White classmate whom Hortense deeply resents for the preferential treatment she is given in class.

Cousy

An elderly relative whose death we see in a flashback. Hortense is sad to no longer be able to look after her grave.

Fay Green

A classmate in her school in England. Fay supports Hortense in giving information about the slave trade to their teacher.

Language, Structure and Form

  • Williams writes the dialogue mostly in Jamaican English. We see Hortense code-switching (changing how she speaks depending on the context). In the classrooms of her Jamaican and English schools, there is an expectation to speak in Standard English. We see this in her first reply: “What was Columbus doing here anyway?” Then, as she becomes emboldened to press her opinion further, she switches to Jamaican English: “Is what Columbus did want? Who invite him here?”
  • The story is in a first-person narrative from Hortense’s perspective. We hear her opinions and insights, such as when she notes Miss Henderson is “as much afraid of the Inspector as I am.”
  • Hortense uses figurative language to show her feelings. An extended metaphor of “imprisonment” shows her feelings about being in school. She also talks of the strictness of her aunt and uses the simile “like walking a tight-rope” to describe how careful she has to be not to get in “trouble” with her.
  • The narrative moves at a high speed, which reflects that it is a story being told from a child’s perspective. There are only a few sentences to describe the journey to England. The fast change in settings is disorientating. It perhaps reflects Hortense’s feelings of having to quickly get used to this new environment.

Themes

Education

In Hortense’s school in Jamaica, the education is from a European perspective. She is expected to give facts about Columbus rather than questioning European colonisation. It is also one where students are hit for providing answers that are considered incorrect. Hortense burns with anger and humiliation after Miss Henderson brings the “sharp sting of the ruler” on her hand.

In England, her education is very poor. She is put into a low set with many others from the Caribbean. The expectation on them is minimal, and Hortense says she learns only “hair plaiting, make up and cussing” rather than any education of worth.

Hortense questions the Euro-centric history at her school in Jamaica. In England, her curiosity and rejection of what she is told increases. She and her friends learn more about Black history, discussing it at length. In the story’s opening, she was less able to express her opinion on Columbus. Now, she is well-informed enough to speak articulately and convincingly. She leaves the classroom feeling a sense of her worth through an education she has gained with the help of her friends rather than teachers.

Discrimination

In her Jamaican school, Hortense feels discriminated against for her race. She is confined to the back row, symbolising lower status, while the White and wealthy Lorna sits at the front. This creates a burning resentment for Hortense, resulting in the aggression she shows Lorna after the lesson. She is also infuriated by the Inspector, feeling he has abused his power to humiliate her. She remembers her uncle saying that those in authority “collude to humiliate… All de poor black people dem.”

Likewise, in her school in England, she experiences a racist system. The Jamaican immigrants are put in “the hottest, baddest stream in the first year” because they have grown up with a different variant of English. She settles into the “culture of the back row”, which involves little education taking place.

However, the girls show unity and determination to learn Black history. Through this knowledge, Hortense is no longer “invisible” in class. Instead, she can gain a sense of empowerment through her self-taught education.

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