Black Belfast girl threatened after telling of unease over Of Mice and Men

A Black teenager in Northern Ireland has been threatened after calling for the removal of John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men from the GCSE curriculum.

Police visited the Belfast home of Angel Mhande this week to notify her of the threat, prompting the family to take security measures.

“It’s scary. If we had known it was going to cause all this we wouldn’t have done it,” her mother, Apolonia Mbondiya, 49, said on Friday. “A difference of opinion is healthy, we don’t have to agree in a discussion, but threatening a child for something that she said, that’s terrible.”

In a BBC interview broadcast on 25 May, Angel, 16, said the novel’s depiction of prejudice and use of racial slurs made her uncomfortable and that she thought it should not be part of the GSCE English literature course.

Steinbeck’s story features migrant ranch workers in 1930s California, including a Black character called Crooks who experiences discrimination and abuse.

“It’s just really uncomfortable sitting in a classroom where we have to listen to racist slurs and comments,” she said. “I understand the history behind it and stuff but you can learn that in history about slavery. The impact that it’s had is that it just makes you feel weak, really. It doesn’t sit right.”

The comments attracted widespread attention – and at least one threat that police relayed to the family. Neighbours, friends and the school had rallied around the family but the affair was distracting Angel from her exams, her mother said.

Mbondiya defended her daughter’s right to express an opinion about Steinbeck’s book. “It was a good book for the time, 1937, but we review things, things change. There are things in that book that do not sound right and affect children in a negative way.”

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland director, condemned the threat. “Unfortunately, racism is not confined to 1930s America, where this book is set. Racism – including violent racism – is a sickness in our society today.” More than eight hate-motivated incidents or crime were reported in Northern Ireland daily, said Corrigan.

Steinbeck won the Nobel prize in literature but some educators and parents have expressed unease about the language in Of Mice and Men. In 2021 more than 100 British academics, campaigners and parents signed an open letter urging teachers to not read out racist terms that appear in it and other novels, including Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.