The 6 Most Secretly Racist Classic Children's Books
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.
The 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."
Tintin in the Congo
Tintin is the classic Belgian comic book about a young reporter, his dog and his bearded drunken sailor pal. Georges "Herge" Remi, the artist who created Tintin, is difficult to pigeonhole on the racism spectrum. On one hand, he was arrested four times on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. On the other hand, he worked to change the portrayal of Asian people in European fiction from inscrutable and evil lemon-colored quasi humanoids to, you know, people. On the hypothetical third hand, he wrote this book.
This scene probably won't make it into the Spielberg movie.
On Tintin's journey to the Congo, all of the black people he meets are drawn to look like they're about to take the stage in the most offensive minstrel show ever put on. The Congo in Georges Remi's mind is populated infantile and naive imbeciles who are seemingly designed only to prove that condescension has an equivalent to blind hatred. Tintin and his traveling partner don't mistreat the natives. They find their attempts to build a country adorable, like a chimp that's learned to eat with a knife and fork. It's worth noting here that Tintin isn't nearly as condescending as his traveling partner, a talking dog.
That's pretty judgmental for an animal that regularly eats poop.
Herge's portrayal of the Belgian Congo feels more like something out of Dr. Seuss than the famously realistic and "well researched" worlds that Tintin's adventures typically took him through. In one scene, Tintin is driving his car when it's hit by a Congolese train. Of course the car, made by white men, is left completely unscathed, and the train is derailed. It's like a Shel Silverstein poem about how, if you believe hard enough, racism defies physics.
"See, Snowy? Black people have a higher center of gravity because of all the smug they keep up in there."
In the comic -- which was published 30 years after Joseph Conrad published Heart of Darkness -- the Congolese people practically drop to their knees and begin worshiping their honky masters, thankful for their presence in the Congo.
Tragically, five minutes later Tintin is burned for witchcraft.
Unfortunately, this was a pretty accurate depiction of how Belgian people viewed their role in the Congo, which they began developing with a "humanitarian assembly" called the African International Association, one of the rare humanitarian assemblies now studied by something called genocide scholars.
Belgians were outraged that Tintin made his dog walk.
The Chronicles of Narnia
Narnia has gained a second life as an alternative to Harry Potter for unreasonably offended Christian people. Scholars have always pointed to the heroic lion, Aslan, as a pretty ham-fisted Christ metaphor. Aside from that, the first handful of Narnia books (the ones that have movies so far) steer clear of any real-world implications. They take place in the northern regions of a world comprised mostly of white people, talking animals, extremely white people, centaurs, the aforementioned Jesus lion and a special cameo by Guerrilla Santa Claus. The only things you might pick up from that is that old white women are evil and that lions are much friendlier than they really are.
"I know when you are sleeping ... and I've got a knife. Remember that."
But all of that changes when C.S. Lewis decided to take us to the southern realms of Narnia in the fifth book, The Horse and His Boy. The titular boy is Shasta, and when he finds out that his adoptive dad is planning to sell him into slavery, he packs his stuff and runs away.
The people of the south, including Shasta's adoptive father, are a dark-skinned people known as Calormenes. How do they differ from the cast of characters we meet up north? Well, the Calormenes live in the desert, have long beards, wear turbans and pointy slippers and are ruled by Tarkaans, which some have pointed out is vaguely similar to the Middle Eastern military rulers known as Tarkhans.
"Those filthy people plagiarized me. Arabs are notorious liars and ... this isn't helping, is it?"
While the Calormenes are very clear stand-ins for Middle Eastern people, their religion focuses on a Satanic figure named Tash who requires human sacrifices. Also, they are all assholes. The first Calormene we meet is trying to sell his own adopted son into slavery, and it doesn't get any better from there. They are all self-centered, traitorous, greedy, cruel and cowardly.
Some Lewis apologists like to point out that not all Calormenes are mustache-twirling psychopaths. The prime example, Aravis, is a princess who runs away from her family, culture and nation with a white boy she just met. The other one is Emmeth, a soldier in The Last Battle who is a firm believer of Tash until he meets him and sees he is really a demon. After that, he accepts Aslan in his heart and is granted entrance to Paradise.
"Woooah, that's my God? No wonder he won't let anyone draw him."
So basically, all the Middle Eastern characters are evil jerks except those who abandon their culture and faith. So the best case that can be made for Narnia is that Middle Eastern people aren't inherently evil, they just need to be converted to Christianity. It's the sort of thing that makes you wonder why Muslim people waste all their rage on Muhammad cartoons.
Also: Wizards make better Christ figures than lions. Lewis, deal with it.
Noddy is the main character in a series of children's books about a small wooden toy who lives in Toyland with other toys. His adventures were published from 1949 all the way to 1963. While relatively unknown in the U.S., Noddy books are a huge success in Europe and continue to be great sellers. It's even a multimedia empire, having spawned eight Noddy-based television shows since 1955, including Make Way for Noddy.
A horrible dystopian nightmare.
Just like the Toy Story series makes room for every different type of doll you might have grown up with, Noddy covered the bases of early 20th century toy boxes, featuring characters such as Mr. Tubby Bear (a Teddy bear), Dinah Doll (a china doll) and the Golliwogs (a family of racist monstrosities).
We're gonna have to invent a new kind of disbelieving whistle.
To be fair, Enid Blyton, the creator of Noddy, did not invent the idea of Golliwogs. They were based on real minstrel dolls that British children apparently used to pelt with rubber balls for being ugly. The dolls were even adapted into characters by an earlier children's book author, who apparently was also concerned that there might be some confusion about whether British children were racist.
Going back in time to punch children in the face might not be the worst use of a time machine.
In the Noddy books, the Golliwogs are portrayed as deceitful assholes who trick Noddy and steal his stuff. In Here Comes Noddy Again, the Golliwogs ask Noddy for help, only to take him into the woods and steal his car and clothes.
"This is for centuries of toy box repression!"
When a new entry in the Noddy saga was published in 2009, Blyton's granddaughter decided not to include the Golliwogs characters, explaining that "the toys themselves are symbols of an ugly racist period in our history. Suggesting that those toys would steal cars and clothing from white toys is just offensive. We obviously know that now."
Oh, sorry, that was actually the voice of reason we were quoting there. Blyton's granddaughter only reluctantly left the toys out because she thought including them would have been "too controversial."
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
This book has been featured several times here, mostly because parts of it are nightmare fuel, and also because its writer, Roald Dahl, was some sort of nymphomaniac James Bond. But there are also aspects of the book that don't make Dahl seem like an awesome guy to party with.
You probably remember the Oompa Loompas -- they look like compact clowns and sing creepy songs while getting rid of the corpses of the victims of Willy Wonka's shoddy factory safety standards. If you are wondering what's so racist about them it's because you are only familiar with them from the movies.
"Oompa Loompa doompa dee doo, when you're buried in our backyard, no one'll find you!"
In the original book, the Oompa Loompas don't come from Loompaland -- they come from Central Africa, and they were described as just regular ol' black pygmies and not hippie clown dwarfs. They were relocated to Loompaland and their skin was changed from black to white in the illustrations thanks to growing controversy in the '70s. Get your hands on one of the versions printed before the world came to its goddamn senses, and you'll read about how Willy Wonka simply found a tribe of Africans, enslaved them and used them to replace his regular work force because they were willing to work for chocolate. And before you complain that they were not slaves because they got paid, we'd remind you that even the worst slave owners fed their slaves a more balanced diet than Mr. Wonka.
1964 Africans, and 1973 Scottish soccer hooligans.
Of course, the original treatment of the Oompa Loompas is reminiscent of colonial Europe, when white folks were still able to convince each other that they were doing all the other races a favor by enslaving them. Unfortunately for Dahl apologists, the book was published in 1964, right around the time that the "Hey, everyone thinks black people are funny little animals" argument became a hundred goddamn years too late.
1998 punk rockers.
As we've pointed out before, Dahl even based some of the ideas from the book on actual events involving real chocolate companies. So Dahl was probably at least partially aware that a lot of the cacao plantation workers in Ivory Coast, the biggest producer of chocolate, were practically enslaved African children. It seems more than a little insensitive of Dahl to give Wonka a bunch of funny little African slaves who happily give away their freedom just to give white kids some chocolate. But then again, he's never been the most sympathetic guy when it comes to children.
"You tried to drink from my giant pool of delicious chocolate? Death by suffocation!"
For more racism in popular culture, check out The 9 Most Racist Disney Characters and 8 Racist Ads You Won't Believe Are From the Last Few Years.
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