Book Censorship: What’s an Anti-Racist Parent to Do?

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Dawn Friedman

By now you may have read the article about Tintin in the Congo – the racist children’s book that’s being shelved in the (adult) graphic novel section after a lawyer registered a complaint saying, “I was utterly astonished and aghast to see page after page of representations of black African people as baboons or monkeys, bowing before a white teenager and speaking like retarded baboons.”

I’ve had my own “utterly” astonished moments cracking open a classic ready to read to my son or sitting down to watch Babes in Arms (we’re a fan of musicals) and remembering too late that there’s a long sequence with Judy and Mickey warbling in blackface.

I struggle with this sometimes. I’m with the booksellers who decided to put the book in another section rather than make them entirely unavailable. But I’m frustrated when I hear people saying that these images and stories are not racist because they were a reflection of the times – as if the times themselves should be forgiven because people didn’t have the sense to know better.

It’s disappointing when we discover that our heroes (literary or not) are faulty. But I’d argue that this disappointment is part of understanding the insidiousness of racism. If even Ma and Pa Ingalls can be racists (remember Pa’s performance as a “darky” in Little Town on the Prairie and Ma’s hostility towards Native American) then it must not be so easy to avoid. In fact, it must not just be bad people who are racist; it might be people who we otherwise admire.

Now my 3-year old daughter certainly isn’t ready to explore the nuances of Judy Garland in blackface but my 10-year old is. In fact, I’d say that it’s absolutely necessary that my 10-year old start exploring the ugly truth that otherwise good hearted people can hold beliefs that are immoral, unjust and just plain wrong. He needs to learn this because he needs to recognize that we are all capable of getting it wrong and that we need to be vigilant. He needs to understand that “everyone else was doing it” or “I didn’t know it was wrong” aren’t excuses.

An interesting project is comparing the original “Bad Tuesday” chapter in my sister’s old Mary Poppins book where the children meet a quartet of Eskimos, Chinese people, Native Americans and Africans Americans. “You bring dem chillun dere into ma li’l house for a slice of water-melon right now.” But in 1981, Travers rewrote the chapter, replacing the racist stereotypes with animals and her illustrator aided by creating new pictures. Parents can talk to kids about the climate when the original was written compared to the climate around the time of the rewrite. And they can go further – was it a good idea to rewrite it? Why or why not? Should the original still be available? Why or why not?

Meanwhile, the Babes in Arms debacle was a reminder that I need to screen – not to censor but to prepare. I’m no fan of TinTin – he just never appealed much to me – but I’m glad that he’s still on the shelves and I’m glad that the shelves he’s on better suit him.

Dawn Friedman is a writer and mother to two children. Her articles have appeared in Salon.com, Yoga Journal, Brain Child and the Greater Good and she is the op-ed editor at Literary Mama. She is also the founder of OpenAdoptionSupport.com and since the adoption of her daughter in 2004 has become passionate about the need for adoption reform. She blogs at this woman’s work.

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