Every piece of art is a product of the society that created it. You can't watch a romantic comedy from the early '90s without getting a little desensitized to the horrible high-waisted jeans and turtleneck/flannel combo that was deemed attractive at the time. Fortunately, we can shield our children from movies that might otherwise lead them to believe that the cast of Friends had successful film careers.
Things get a little trickier when classics of children's literature suddenly let fly with the sort of out-of-the-blue casual racism usually reserved for old Southern men after a few too many drinks.
6The Secret Garden
It is the classic tale of a spoiled little girl named Mary whose parents die in India and who is sent back to England and put in the care of her emotionally distant sort of an asshole uncle. As she wanders around her uncle's Castlevania-sized house, she finds a forgotten garden and a small, sickly boy, and with the magical power of flowers and wishes, the sickly boy gets healthier and then her uncle rediscovers the power of love and everyone becomes a better person.
"You're OK! Off to the mines you go."
The story has been brought to movie and TV screens countless times for a reason. For parents of little girls going through their "I hate everything" stage, it is the perfect piece of propaganda. It seamlessly combines flowers, mansions and everything else that little girls go apeshit for with the exact message that their parents would have taught them if they'd thought of it: If you're nice to your family and go quietly play in the yard, your life will turn into a magical fairy tale.
"Yeah, I thought that once. Now I'm a groundskeeper."
Oh, and also, black people are the cause of everything that's bad in the world.
In the book, on the first morning after Mary moves into her uncle's mansion, she is awakened by a straight-talking maidservant named Martha. It's the sort of character who would be played by a sassy black lady in a modern American movie, but this is England, so Martha is just sassy and poor. She's so sassy, in fact, that she tells her child-boss Mary that she thought she was going to be black because she came from India. Mary of course throws a temper tantrum, exclaims that blacks "are not people," and bursts into tears.
And now from racism into a catchy song, just as Disney would do.
Of course, this is Mary at her brattiest. Surely, the wise Martha will correct her, and Mary's racism will be just another part of the person she will leave behind as her face becomes less punchable.
Nope! Unlike Mark Twain's controversial Huck Finn, where the racially insensitive language is offset by Huck and Jim's tender, buddy cop dynamic, Mary's virulent racism is never corrected by anyone or by anything that happens in the book. In fact, Martha uses her role as the voice of reason in the situation to blame Mary's awful behavior on the fact that she is from India, where there are "a lot of blacks there instead of respectable white people."
"You have to clap your hands three times to make sure they're not hiding in the shadows."
Though it's the last time that black people are explicitly referenced, there's also a strong undercurrent of symbolic racism. For instance, Mary can't begin her journey to self-discovery until Martha changes her out of her black clothes and puts on white clothes, while Mary makes the very odd statement that she hates everything black.
Again, this statement isn't even addressed. Once she changes into white clothing and no longer has to deal with the "black" Indian servants Martha blames for her poor character, Mary heads out into the mansion and begins her journey of discovery.
"Good news, I found a rope! For ... skipping."
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most beloved and iconic characters in the history of fiction, and if you are wondering what he is doing in this list, then it's because you are only familiar with him through the countless movies and TV shows and not the original books.
The first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet, is about how the Mormons are a secret society who kidnap and murder people. OK, but Mormons still get a pretty rough go of it even today. So what if Holmes is like a crime-solving version of Trey Parker and Matt Stone? That is, until you get him around black people, at which point he becomes the obnoxious asshole who thinks the people who keep throwing drinks in his face just don't get his hilarious racial humor.
"This is where we keep the black slaves. I'm kidding! They're Chinese."
In "The Adventure of the Three Gables," Holmes pursues a former slave named Steve Dixie. When Holmes catches up to Steve, he quickly dismantles him with his trademark analytical inquiry:
"I've wanted to meet you for some time," said Holmes. "I won't ask you to sit down, for I don't like the smell of you, but aren't you Steve Dixie, the bruiser?"
"That's my name, Masser Holmes, and you'll get put through it for sure if you give me any lip."
"It is certainly the last thing you need," said Holmes, staring at our visitor's hideous mouth.
Holmes' mouth was healthily dusted with tobacco resin and crusted cocaine.
Boom. So in just three sentences, Holmes has ascertained the witness' name and that he is offended when people are racist dicks to him. Meanwhile, everyone else in the room has learned to never bring Holmes to their local black barbershop.
This isn't an isolated incident. In the second Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four, we meet a character named Tonga who is an aborigine from the Andaman Islands. Holmes doesn't even need to smell Tonga to know he doesn't like him, since he's studied up on his people, and therefore knows that "they are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small fierce eyes and distorted features. Their feet and hands, however, are remarkably small .... They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining the survivors with their stone-headed clubs, or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast."
"I deduced this from the dirty look I got from their women when I insisted I was their God now."
You'd think that a man so well-read and living in the world's largest and most diverse city up to that point in history would have realized that not everyone can be as handsome and kind to foreigners as the (chinless and genocidal) British.
The strangest part is that decades before, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a story titled "The Adventure of the Yellow Face." Now with a title like that, you would think you need to brace for the worst, but it's actually about a black woman in love with a white man, an inconceivably progressive idea at the time. In addition to a dim-witted narrator, it would appear that erratic racism was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's favorite device for keeping readers off balance.
"Heads, I hate the Japanese. Tails, I love the Arabs."