How to Read a Racist Book to Your Kids
“Dad, why do the pirates have a gorilla?” This unexpected question intruded on a recent intergenerational cultural exchange: I was introducing my 6-year-old son to Asterix the Gaul. The pirates in the “Asterix” comics don’t travel with a gorilla, of course. One of the pirate crew is a grotesque caricature of an African who does indeed more closely resemble a gorilla than a person.
Freeze-frame on this parenting situation. What am I supposed to do? I figure I have three options.
1) Explain that the gorilla is supposed to be a black person.
2) Try to explain the history of French colonialism, how the economics of exploitation in sub-Saharan Africa led to an ideology of racism, which survived in a ghostly transfer even after the conclusion of the French Empire, infecting even silly comics about ancient Gaul.
3) Say, “I don’t know why the pirates have a gorilla” and flip to the next page.
Naturally I chose 3 — the cowardly choice. There will be time enough to explain the cruelties of history later, I figure. Nonetheless I am left with the queasy knowledge that I had better come up with a solution soon, because my lies and obfuscations are washing ever thinner, and the summer movie season is coming as well, with new “Ice Age” and “Madagascar” installments. Their ethnic typologies and attitudes — from Ray Romano as a Brooklyn-fuhgeddaboudit woolly mammoth to Chris Rock as a zebra whose catchphrase is “crackalackin!” — resemble a sort of preglobalization New York. Besides, much of the great old children’s material, like so much of the great old adult material, is either racist to the core or at least has seriously racist bits. Learning to negotiate around them or through them is something that every parent has to do, unless you want to waste your children’s precious young lives sticking strictly to “approved literature” and Winnie-the-Pooh.
Some decisions are easy. “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” say, or “Tintin in the Congo.” Hergé himself was deeply embarrassed by the latter book, brushing it off as a youthful error. The British bookstore chain Waterstones removed the book from the shelves of the children’s section. The Brooklyn Public Library has placed “Tintin in the Congo” in a special, by-appointment-only rare-books section. As parents, we know what to do with this stuff: Certainly never show it to young kids.
That decision is made so much easier by the fact that both of those books are lousy. The only memorable part of “Tintin in the Congo” is a scene in which Tintin hunts a rhinoceros by blowing it up with dynamite. And who will mourn Little Black Sambo?
Much trickier is material that is otherwise excellent but contains significant racist passages. Michael Chabon recently wrote about negotiating (and ultimately eliminating) the racial epithets while reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to his kids, following a painful and honest discussion about it with them. I admire his spirit of openness, but I have to admit I would never have had the stomach to imitate him — either in the willful alteration or the discussion about it.
So we’re left wondering how to approach, say, “Dumbo” with its racist-stereotype crows, or the original “Pippi Longstocking” trilogy. The publishers of “Pippi Longstocking” long ago changed certain phrases in the books — the Swedish negerkung was traditionally translated as “Cannibal King” until a 2007 edition, in which the translation became “King of Natives.” But one German theologian has recently proposed explanatory footnotes to turn the most problematic passages — the black children abasing themselves before Pippi, for example — into educational opportunities. Even the most politically correct among us are unwilling to toss “Pippi” out completely; after all, despite her appearance in a book with racist elements, she has become a feminist icon.
Sometimes the racist passages can be excised completely, and our crimes can be covered up. If you really want to upset yourself, go to YouTube and look up the original 1940 “Pastoral Symphony” section from Disney’s “Fantasia.” Sunflower the centaur, an amalgam of antebellum pickaninny stereotypes, polishes the hooves and primps the tails of the pastel-colored female centaurs while they prepare to frolic in the wilderness. The scenario is one of maximum sadness and horror; in the American imagination of 1940, even the world of little-girl centaurs was one of humiliating subjugation. But Disney edited the sequence for rerelease in the ’60s, and all subsequent rereleases, which means that I can show “Fantasia” to my son.
Other classics have been successfully rewritten. In the first edition of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Oompa-Loompas were members of an African tribe displaced by Willy Wonka to the northern industrial hinterland. Not quite so funny anymore that his workers worship him like a god, is it? Or that he keeps them scrupulously isolated from the general population? Or that he pays them in cocoa beans? For the second edition in 1973, Dahl changed the Oompa-Loompas from black pygmies into “rosy-white” creatures with long “golden-brown” hair. The 1971 movie made them orange-skinned with green hair. Loompaland is a complicated place.
We rewrite the past to serve the needs of the present. The clarity of history is its great advantage. The racism in “Fantasia” or “Pippi Longstocking” is overt: instantly identifiable by its noxious odor and satisfyingly dismissible with enlightened disgust. More subtle instances may provoke hedging and justification. The “Babar” series of books has long been the subject of ferocious debates about its status as a propagandistic celebration of colonialism. The argument makes complete sense to me — the elephants return to their native land bearing the gifts of civilization learned in the metropolis and make war on the rhinoceroses who don’t share the benefits of acculturation. But as a practical parenting matter, I don’t care. My son won’t be turned into a more effective colonist by stories of elephants riding elevators.
Besides, “Babar” is boring. The influence of the more recent “Star Wars” installments is more profound, and it worries me. I managed to avoid the recent rerelease of “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” in 3-D, but only barely. Every father who loves the original “Star Wars” trilogy eventually runs into the fiasco that is Jar Jar Binks — a character capable of destroying a generation’s worth of affection with a single rustle of his oversize ears. While many have noted Jar Jar as a racist stereotype, it’s unclear exactly which stereotype he is. Is Jar Jar a Rastafarian stoner or a Stepin Fetchit or a Zuluesque savage? Or is he just a Gungan? And what about Watto, also from “The Phantom Menace”? A dark-skinned, hooknosed, greedy slaveholder, he’s an all-purpose anti-Semitic caricature. Or possibly he’s just a hovering bad guy in a fantasy world. The conundrum is how to explain to your kids that Jar Jar and Watto are stereotypes without first introducing the stereotypes that you are hoping to negate.
Even Pixar, which deserves the gratitude of every parent for its nearly unbroken series of classics, indulges a surprising amount of relatively crude stereotyping. In one of my favorites, “Monsters, Inc.,” Sulley and Mike, on the way into the office, happen to pass an orange squidlike grocer with a handlebar mustache who kind of talks-a-like-a-this. Perhaps that kind of stereotype is not as gruesome or upsetting as the one in the original “Fantasia,” but I had the distinct impression, as my son laughed at the scene, that my Italian immigrant grandfather was turning over in his grave.
How am I supposed to explain to a child the superimposition of cultural generalizations onto toy cars and monsters and space aliens? I can barely explain it to myself. Blissfully unaware of what is being promoted, children love those movies. Try convincing any kid under the age of 12 that “The Empire Strikes Back” is a better movie than “The Phantom Menace,” or that “Finding Nemo” is better than “Cars 2.” You’ll be laughed at. Stereotypes are part of what children want from stories, which of course connects to what we all want from stories: simplification. We want all stepmothers to be evil. We want all huntsmen to be heroes. And apparently, for the most part, we want characters’ ethnicities to be equally simplistic, whether the movie is set in a monster world or an ice age or Madagascar. Who knows what the consequences are or whether there are any? Is it because children like the simplification? Or are our minds simplified by exposure to these early stereotypes?
Despite my misgivings, I know that I won’t be able to give up Asterix. My relationship to the comic is too deep; it was made too early, bound up with my own childhood. They were the only comics we were allowed to read in French class in Canada. (The Smurfs were banned because of their limited vocabulary.) When I gashed my knee playing tag in the back alley behind my house and had to have 15 stitches, the treat that I received for being brave was “Asterix in Britain.” And so I’m hedging, cravenly. I believe this is the very definition of white liberal guilt: I feel bad but I won’t change my behavior.
That familiar and insoluble knot of moral difficulty is infinitely complicated by the fact that I’m sharing it with a child. I don’t want to explain the human gorilla and all the chains of horror that went into that caricature because I’m afraid of the follow-up questions. Recently as I was laying down ant traps against the annual spring invasion, my son asked me, “Do ants have souls?” I didn’t have a good answer for that. What is he going to ask when I explain that for 400 years, white people took black people from their homes in Africa, carried them across the ocean in chains, beat them to death as they worked to produce sugar and cotton, separated them from their children and felt entitled to do so because of the difference in the color of their skin? Whatever he asks next, I’m pretty sure I won’t have an adequate reply.
Academic notions of the unspeakability of historical horrors become very immediate in the face of a child. There are many children’s books to help children understand the horror of history, or introduce them to the failure to understand the horror of history. But explaining how those horrors play out in everyday life, through a thousand subtle means, often unexpected, like children’s books, seems nearly impossible. No doubt I want to shelter my son and also myself, but I think, in some vague, indefinable way, I want to shelter the past too. I’m embarrassed for humanity at all this nonsense, and I don’t want to submit the world to the complete and perfect judgment of an innocent.
We all need to grow up, I know. Me, the moviemakers, the audience. The only person who seems mature enough for the situation is the 6-year old. All he sees is a gorilla with some pirates.
Categories: racism, racism is white supremacy is racism, white supremacy
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