On Friday, the New York Times magazine section published a “Riff” piece titled “How to Read a Racist Book to Your Kid,” by Stephen Marche. The link has been passed around a bit on facebook and twitter, at least in the children’s lit/booknerd circles I move in (electronically, at any rate). I haven’t seen much discussion of the content of the piece, though, which surprises me; when I read it the first time, it set off all of skepticism sensors.
Marche’s introductory example of an Asterix comic he’s reading to his six-year-old is, perhaps, a flawed one to begin with: Asterix is a comic and, in my admittedly limited knowledge of European comics (and comics in general), it’s a general audience series, not a specifically kid-oriented one. But we’ll grant him that, and regardless of source, the question Marche’s six-year-old asks is a good one: “Why do the pirates have a gorilla?”
The “gorilla” is, of course, a racist representation of an “African.” Marche immediately fumbles the entire situation – he enumerates his possible responses thus:
“1) Explain that the gorilla is supposed to be a black person.2) Try to explain the history of French colonialism...3) Say, “I don’t know why the pirates have a gorilla” and flip to the next page”
Marche chooses the third choice, the “cowardly” one. I would buy an argument of readerly expediency, actually, in passing over the question, partly because of the demands of story, but also because talking about racism is pretty important, and midway through a story may not be the ideal time for it. It also might be; it would depend, I think, on the child, the parent, and the situation (is this the last page before bedtime? Is the kid overwrought because of something that happened at school that day? Will introducing the topic now freak everyone out and be counterproductive?).
Marche notes his need to develop some kind of response, because “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.” Yep; that’s true. It’s also true that a lot of the new adult and child literature is racist or has seriously racist bits (The Help? The Secret Life of Bees? Virtually any book featuring a Native American?). Lots of new and old material is deeply sexist, and classist, and homophobic, too. But these are problems for another day, it seems, and Marche never mentions them at all.
Then things get weird. Marche explains that “some decisions are easy,” like Little Black Sambo, and Tintin in the Congo. “As parents, we know what to do with this stuff: Certainly never show it to young kids.” This decision, Marche tells us, is made even easier by the fact that the texts are “lousy.” There’s no real loss in never reading either, according to Marche. I can’t speak to the Tintin book, having never read it, but I’ll accept that Little Black Sambo is maybe not the most riveting, life-changing text I’ve ever read. I’m uncomfortable though with both Marche’s claim that these texts should “never” be shown to young kids, and his classification of some texts as lousy, and some as good. Literary value judgements are never ideology-free; there’s no natural order of Great Literature and Crummy Books, and everyone can see the distinction for themselves. Canon formation isn’t much of a hot topic in literary circles these days (I hope, anyway), but it’s worth emphasizing that, like history, canons are created by the “victors.” There’s a reason why so many dead white men populate literary anthologies, and it may, just may, have something to do with the fact that for hundreds and hundreds of years, the people with power in Western culture have been white men.
Marche moves on to more complex texts: “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.”
Michael Chabon, of whose books I have only read a few, is a good writer, but is also laboring under the misapprehension that he is the first person to have and raise children, and also has special wisdom related to having and raising children (hint: people have been successfully raising decent humans for literally thousands of years). I don’t know how old Chabon’s kids are, but I’m a smidge perplexed about reading Huck Finn out loud to them – if they are young enough that being read to is still acceptable practice (acceptable to them, I mean; it’s hard for me to picture teenagers willing to have their dad read to them), then they are probably too young to really get a grip on Huck Finn, which, despite having a child narrator/protagonist, is not a children’s book. It just isn’t. Twain is smart and sarcastic and speaks to a sophisticated reader; thematically, Huckleberry Finn requires a great deal of historical and social context of its modern reader, not to mention well-developed reading skills. It’s a hard book to read well, and part of reading well lies in understanding its complexity. So why Chabon chooses Huck Finn, when his local library is crammed with excellent fiction for children and young adults, is beyond me.
More disturbing is Marche’s admission that he couldn’t “stomach” the discussion and/or removal of the n-word from Huck. Really? You can’t stomach explaining to your child that this a word that has a very bad history, that means something not at all nice, and so you’re going to avoid saying it? Kids know the world is full of nastiness, and they also know there’s a huge list of things they’re not allowed to say; it’s why kids of a certain age glory in saying “poop!” and making butt jokes. But not being able to stomach explaining the racist history of a racist term – which can be done very simply – it’s a very bad word used to make black people feel terrible, and so we don’t say it – that is pathetic. Is it easier to stomach racism itself?
After giving some more examples – the excised black centaur-slave in the “Pastoral” sequence of Disney’s Fantasia, Pippi Longstocking, the Oompa-Loompas – Marche drops this staggering set of ideas:
“We rewrite the past to serve the needs of the present. The clarity of history is its great advantage.”
“The clarity of history”? Whose history is so clear? History is deeply muddy, murky, and endlessly complex. Perhaps Marche means something more like “hindsight” than “history,” though frankly that’s problematic too. Equally troubling is his blithe statement that we rewrite the past to serve the needs of the present. I’m not at all comfortable with this; we’re already a culture that can’t seem to remember more than a few years back. I am continually appalled by my students’ (and lots of other people’s) lack of historical knowledge. It isn’t just dates and names and facts; history is context. It’s being able to look at a set of historical events, and make connections, and relate those to the present moment – to say, because that happened, and had those effects, we have this idea/institution/etc now. My students, when I ask them why we should know history, default to that gross cliché about not repeating history’s mistakes. This is faulty thinking, and whoever came up with that truism should be placed inside permanent weaselpants. Removing racist images from children’s books doesn’t remove racism; it removes the memory of racism. It removes the context for a whole slew of practices and problems we deal with every day now.
Marche moves on, pointing out the discussions about the colonialism inherent in the Babar books (which books I loved as a kid; what stuck with me about them was their French-ness, not their colonialist elephant policies). For Marche, the Babar books are boring, and also, “My son won’t be turned into a more effective colonist by stories of elephants riding elevators.” Again, he picks and chooses with his examples. Racism – cartoons of “gorilla” Africans – is Bad; quiet colonialism isn’t a problem. To be fair to Marche, his child will be made a more effective colonist by the endless repetition of American exceptionalism that one encounters virtually everywhere in the United States; but the problems of Babar are still there.
Star Wars is more interesting than dull old Babar, but also alarming for Marche, who is clearly a weak man: “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.”
If Marche thinks that somehow he’s going to be able to avoid introducing stereotypes to his kids, he’s going to be a very sad and surprised man. Those stereotypes are everywhere. They are a part of history, and erasing them from kids’ movies and books isn’t going to mean they never happened and don’t have effects today. Far better to explain the problems of the stereotypes at the moment the child discovers those stereotypes exist, then to come years after the fact to trying to explain why those things are problematic. Some you can let go, for expediency’s sake – the example of the “Italian” grocer-monster in Monsters Inc; he’s a walk-on (or squelch on, since he’s tantacular) character who only appears that one time, very very briefly. If the kid questions it, explain. If the kid starts using that mock Italian accent, put an end to it right away. Simple as that.
“Stereotypes are part of what children want from stories, which of course connects to what we all want from stories: simplification.”
Oh lord. Where to start with this? Marche offers no support for his assertion about stereotypes and simplification, and simultaneously reveals the narrowness of his own thinking. Simplification is what he wants from stories? Well, have at it, Mr. Marche. I myself prefer my stories to be knotty and complex and perplexing and troubling. A simplified world is a false world, whether it’s in comic books or novels or film. There are types, as in archetypes, and tropes, in fiction all over the place, and those are useful placeholders for general experiences (I don’t say universal, because what can that even mean? ). These don’t need to be stereotypes – the princess in the tower can be anyone or anything – she can be an Ogre or a boy or a fancy blonde who loves pretty things.
To assume that children – and everyone else – want both stereotypes and simplification is to do a huge disservice to people everywhere.
But Marche is already a lost cause, I suspect; he winds down with:
“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.”
Does Marche have any beliefs or ideas of his own? Does he have his own set of values? Why doesn’t he have answers to these questions, which he should have in some form anyway, simply as a human in the world. DO ants have souls? Well, do you believe in God? What kind? Do you want your kid believing that? Why not tell the truth – “I don’t know” ? Being able to say you don’t know something is hugely meaningful; it is okay to say I don’t know. It’s okay to not have made up your mind. It’s okay to say: Well, a lot of people have been wondering that same thing for a really long time. No one has really come to a conclusion. Or you could do this: Gosh, kiddo, that’s an interesting question – what do YOU think? Or: Why do you ask that?
Marche’s inability to face up to the reality of history, in the form of slavery and systemic racism, is a shocking failure, and he should be embarrassed to admit it. Yes: it’s a brutal history. It’s appalling. Even a small kid will see that it’s not nice to take people away from their home and work them to death. You don’t need to do a whole lot of explaining there, because many kids, provided they’ve been raised in halfway decent homes, will see the obvious, glaring injustice of it all. You don’t need to give all the details; you don’t need to explain the southern economy, the demands of cotton-growing, the clamor for sugar that drove the West Indian slave trade. What do you say to your kid when Martin Luther King Junior day comes around? Or Christmas, or Passover, or whatever you celebrate? You face up to history, the good and the bad. You say: well, you know how for a long time black people weren’t treated very well? Dr. King worked very very hard with a lot of other people to make sure that black people were treated better. There – you get both the grim and the glory of history, in one short response.
Finally, Marche cops out completely – this essay never does tell us how to read racist books to kids. It dithers around Marche’s pathetic feelings about passively reading racist books to his kid without intervening (perhaps we’re meant to intuit the how-to from Marche’s total failure to handle the situation). His big conclusion is as appalling as the rest of the article: “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.
Again, where to start? Who wants to shelter the past? Yeah, humanity has been one big embarrassment to itself since it began. It’s also had a few successes – Beethoven, and Shakespeare, and whoever invented the printing press in China, and the Indian mathematicians and astronomers, and the Muslim leaders of the translation movement. But being embarrassed by history and therefore sticking your head in the sand is just about the most irresponsible thing you can do, whether as a parent or as a plain old human being.
Leaving aside my eye-rolling over Marche’s use of “an innocent” to describe his six-year-old, his dismissal of racism, colonialism, sexism, oppression, power disparity, war, violence, anger, hatred as “all this nonsense” is in itself an act of oppression and racism. The nonsense is in pretending that we can all smile and sing Kumbaya as if all of history hadn’t happened. It’s a staggeringly white response, as well – Marche identifies himself as such with his admission of “white liberal guilt” – and, I venture, a male response as well. People speaking from positions of privilege can dismiss centuries of oppression of others as “nonsense.” It’s not nonsense for the kids who get shot because of walking down the street while being black; it’s not nonsense for the women who get blamed for being raped; it’s not nonsense for the people being surveilled and suspected simply because they are brown.
Taking the kid’s seeing the pirates and gorilla as a sign of “maturity” is a false move, as well, and a dangerous one that smacks of the deeply flawed idea that we all just need to grow up and get over this race business. Perhaps Marche is one of these people who doesn’t “see” race. I wouldn’t be surprised; he seems committed to willful obliviousness. What the kid is seeing is the 20th century relics of centuries of colonialism and racism. Pretending he isn’t seeing that is a lie. Pretending you don’t need to address it is also a lie. Marche says that Asterix is too much a part of his own childhood for him to not pass it on to his son (because, of course, your kid’s childhood is really all about you, and your nostalgia). He’s also passing on willful oblivion.
One of the mottos of the producers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – modeled after Margaret McFarland’s saying – is that attitudes are caught, not taught. If you’ve been modeling nonracist behavior and attitudes around your kid, she will catch them. She doesn’t need to know the date of the first slave ship’s arrival in the new world, or a lesson/sermon on racism; she will have already acquired sensitivity and antiracist ideas from you. She’ll continue to acquire those ideas – children aren’t dumb, they just haven’t had as much education and experience as adults – and she will figure out that the gorilla is a black man. If you’ve done your job right – outside of book-reading time – she will be appalled by the realization. And she’ll know – because, if you’ve done your job right, she’ll have a sense of history – that this is one way white people used to think about black people, that it’s wrong, that people are working now to make sure no one treats anyone like that ever again.
But to pretend you don’t know, to hedge, to lie, to “shield” your child from reality – that perpetuates privilege and ignorance in the worst possible way. No black child gets to be shielded from racism; why should Marche’s white son be any different?