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Racism in kids’ classics: what do you do…?

possibly controversial picture of Little Black Sambo

One of my favourite books as a child was Little Black Sambo, by Helen Bannerman.  At left, you can see the cover illustration – this is basically what all the pictures in the book looked like:  grinning dark faces (his and his parents, Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo), interspersed with a few leering tigers. 

imageA friend yesterday was talking about “censoring” a classic kids’ story because of its racist, sexist content (after Reconstruction, black girl was finally permitted to attend school with her brothers!).

She also mentioned a passage from Little House where Pa sings a song that has really racist lyrics.  When I read that to my kids, I simply changed the words – as I told her, there’s a reason we can read and our young kids can’t.

I also thought of the sections from Little House on the Prairie which deal with the Indians who live on the land the Ingalls family is trying to settle – particularly of Laura’s obsession with seeing a “papoose,” and at one point, even begging to HAVE one (ie, own it!).

I did read Little House to my kids, and along the way we had what I think were a few nice, brief conversations about tensions between First Nations and white people over the land. 

When I look at some of the book recommendations for Charlotte Mason and other classical-type homeschooling, though, I wonder, especially coming at it from a Jewish point of view when so much of the canon of Great Literature in English is written from a white, Christian, Euro-centric perspective.

imageSo I’m wondering where other parents draw the lines in the sand.  Where do you skip a book entirely?  Where do you censor it?  And where do you choose to read troubling texts “as-is” but supplement the readings with your own explanations and understandings of how the words are written and the attitudes behind them?

I really do want to know.  Any thoughts are welcome!

In terms of Little Black Sambo, I have read two versions to my kids – one by Fred Marcellino called Little Babaji:  exactly the same story, still set in India, with a jolly Indian boy, not a black one (the parents are called Mamaji and Papaji), and another renamed Little Black Sambo, which plops Sambo, a spunky African boy, deep into exotic Indian settings.  The children enjoyed both versions without blinking or really caring about the blackness of Sambo or Babaji one way or another…

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  1. If a book was truly racist (i.e. the book itself treated those of other races as less capable and less valuable) then I don't think I would use it with younger children unless I had some compelling reason otherwise (NOTHING else that would work). Obviously such books might be very important for teens to understand and analyze as part of a study of history or philosophy.
    If a book presented racist attitudes of various people that were appropriate for the place and time in which they lived, but the author didn't seem to be condoning it, then I would read and discuss or not depending on the circumstances. (Too much preaching can do more harm than too little.) *Little House on the Prairie* fell into this camp for me; we did discuss the comments of the neighbor who thought the natives had no right to the land because they didn't farm, we talked about the causes of the conflict and past wrongs, but we ignored Laura's desire to have a "papoose" which just seemed like innocent childish greed, like wanting a baby brother.
    If a book is incidentally racist--i.e., it presents people as "different" in a way that is currently considered offensive, but is not actually saying anything negative about the *value* of those people, then I probably would just let it pass, or if necessary point out that we don't use those terms/draw people that way/etc. anymore. *Little Black Sambo* is in this category, I think. It's only the drawings and the names which are now considered insensitive; the story itself is just a rollicking folktale. I like both the alternatives you mentioned, but I don't think there's any deep harm in the original, either, since children are no more likely to take it seriously than they are to consider *The Three Billy Goats Gruff* as a guide to the behavior of goats.

  2. As South Africans we are really sensitive to racial issues that are so deeply embedded in our history.
    I am often touched by the sensitivity that even very young children have when we discuss racial issues that crop up in some books.
    Strangely, my high schooler's curriculum 2 years ago covered SA modern history and I expected her to have an emotional response to the photos and information, but to her it was 'history'.
    Books are wonderful tools to open up issues and facilitate deep and meaningful discussions.


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