Black History Month: Race to the Frozen North

Catherine Johnson and Race to the Frozen North cover

Race to the Frozen North tells the story of African American explorer Matthew Henson, one of the very first men to stand at the North Pole in 1909, and while his story is well-known in the United States, we in Britain have hardly heard of him. And his life story, from growing up a poor barefoot boy who couldn’t read or write to standing at the top of the world, then ending his days parking cars in New York, is completely incredible and almost- these days – unbelievable.

History is always written by the winners, by those in power.

I’ve always been interested in the people whose stories are ignored, whether it’s Colonel Thomas Dumas – hero of the French Revolutionary Army and a man who made Napoleon jealous, or Beachy Head Woman, we don’t know her name but she lived in Roman Times in a village on the South Coast of England. Her bones show her parents hailed from Sub Saharan Africa. Or John Ystumllyn, a boy kidnapped into slavery in the 18th Century, taken to North Wales where he grew up and married a local woman and became a head steward, or the radical William Davidson, born in Jamaica in 1781 who studied law in Glasgow.

History is always written by the winners, by those in power. This means any stories that don’t fit the narrative tend to stay hidden. So, many of us, whether poor or powerless or out on the edges of society – women, children, disabled, BAME, LGBTQ – rarely get their stories told at all and it’s vital we begin to change this.

There’s a great line in one of the songs from the hit musical Hamilton – Who lives, who dies? Who tells your story?  Stories like Mathew Henson’s can be vital in redressing the balance of power in history. Making these stories available is so important, young readers need to know that we can all have a part to play in the world, and that being an explorer – or a writer for that matter – isn’t a role that is off limits.

I write because there are so many incredible people in our past and I want these stories to be told.

As someone who is mixed race, who was born and grew up in Britain, it took me a long time to understand that whatever my experiences, this is actually my country and I belong here. Even if it seemed like, from books and films and TV, that I, and people like me, had no place in this country’s past.  

The more I read the more I understood that this wasn’t true. People like me are stitched into the fabric of our history, from Roman soldiers along Hadrian’s Wall, to poor women living in villages and rich ones living in cities buried with expensive jewellery. Our island’s history is one of exchange and movement.

I write because there are so many incredible people in our past and I want these stories to be told so we can take our place in our Islands’ history as well as our future.

Catherine Johnson

Catherine Johnson is a British author and screenwriter.