Thursday, February 5, 2009

Children's rhymes and toys may be more racist than you think

Growing up, I had a 45 rpm record of "The Tale of Little Black Sambo." [For those of you who have no idea what a 45 rpm record is, click here] My memory is fuzzy, because I would have listened to this record when I was 5 or 6 years old, but I remember that there was a British narrator, that the cover of the LP featured a dark-skinned Indian looking child and a cartoonish looking tiger, and that besides the narrative, there was some kind of song that was sung about "little black Sambo."

Fast forward to yesterday. In one of my classes we were reading an early 20th C. novel wherein one character refers to an African American man as "Sambo." The scene is racially charged, yet most of my students, all of whom are first years in this particular course, were not familiar with the fact that "Sambo" is a racist label used in a pejorative fashion to refer to African Americans nor were they familiar with the tale of "Little Black Sambo."

To which, when I discovered that they weren't picking up on the racially charged nature of the scene, I cried "Thank Goodness!"

Because thank goodness certain things are finally fading away. Like racist storybooks and racist epithets. Of course, once I had raised this issue, I had to explain the racist meaning of "Sambo" (so they could understand and interpret the scene more fully) and then they wanted me to tell them the tale of Little Black Sambo--which honestly, I couldn't quite recollect for them. I was initially hesitant--because why introduce students to racist stories if they've grown out of fashion--but I thought that they should know the derivation of the racial slur (click here for those of you who need a refresher yourself), and explained that it was a story I had grown up listening to--and more horrifically, "Sambos" was a chain restaurant I remember seeing, where the interior was decorated with scenes from the story, all of which we would find terribly offensive (and of course the chain no longer exists). But I reinforced how GREAT it was that this story was out of fashion and reminded them that this was a racist slur that they should not be using themselves (not that my students would ever do this in a million years--I have a great deal of respect for all of my students in this regard).

This made me think about the nostalgia that some people have for items that we now regard and understand to be offensive to certain groups of people (the vogue for those white shirts that people call "wife beaters," or the racist rag dolls, golliwogs, which most recently were sold in royal gift shops).

It also made me think about the times when we don't recognize certain things as racist, offensive, or stereotypical because we don't know the origins or referents, which are oftentimes regional or specific to a particular time period. Case in point: it wasn't until my first year of graduate school that I had any inkling that the children's rhyming phrase "Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe" had a racist past. During a Henry James seminar (of all things) this issue came up, with my professor, an older scholar who had grown up on the Kentucky-Ohio border, expressing incredulity at my not knowing that this rhyme was racist; that the version of "tiger" I had innocently grown up repeating as a child was not the word that he had grown up hearing in the mid-20th century (I think it should be evident what the racist slur is, but for those of you who are not sure, click here to see the racist version of this rhyme).

Of course, this rhyme exists the world over, and its racist version apparently appears only in the U.S. in the late 19th century--but was repeated as late as the 1970s.

I know that oftentimes people have a nostalgia for childhood things. And it is awful to think that, in the case of a children's counting rhyme, that someone in the past can ruin it for all of us. But truthfully, once I learned about this version of the rhyme, I've never been able to bring myself to use it, even with the more acceptable "Tiger" version, because especially here in the South, there are plenty of people who hearing this would be reminded of another version.

[Let me clarify something though--it's not as if I am in any position to be using a counting rhyme on a regular basis. In fact, I don't know that outside of my elementary school playground I have ever had occasion to invoke "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" or any other such counting rhyme, but then again, perhaps I should think of incorporating this into my teaching...]

Anyway, I have no grand conclusions to draw out of what I've just written above. Maybe just one: sometimes it's hard to figure out just what things in our past have offensive/racist/sexist origins or were simply converted to these uses. So here's a question: once we realize that there is a racist version out there, is it our responsibility not to repeat this rhyme, even if the version we know is seemingly innocent?


dance said...

You may be interested in this post/comments about some British eruptions of similiar issues: Language Log

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the link--I read the site and while I think that there is something to be said about the politically incorrect things we say when we believe we are "among friends" and in a private bubble, I also think that there is a naivety/cluelessness that this demonstrates--because there is no way to know how the Pakistani friend of Prince Harry really felt when he used that term to describe him or how Prince Charles's friend "Sooty" came to be "OK" with a nickname that he probably had little control over.

Carol Thatcher's remarks just seem plainly bigoted/racist.

Whether that means that she, or any of the other royal family, is any more or less racist than the average Brit, hard to say.

But it seems clear that whether it's the actual doll or the phrase "golliwog"--using it to refer to a person of African ancestry just seems WRONG.

Alex said...

I feel this way about Disney movies. After learning that a lot of the early Disney movies are overtly racist- and probably the more recent ones as well- in my psychology of racism class in college, I don't know whether I would want my children growing up to watch these movies. I wrote my final paper on the racism in the Jungle Book, which used to be one of my favorite movies as a kid. Do I completely ban these movies or only allow them to watch the ones that aren't racist? Or, do I let them watch these movies and have a dialogue about the racist undertones of the movie afterward? Just some things to think about since I don't have any kids yet!

Jennifer said...

I know what you mean. There's a way in which I really love certain fairy tales and Disney films, and then I think about the underlying messages of these narratives, with respect to race/gender/sexuality.

I don't think any of it is easy, but I do think that talking to your future kids about all of this is important--you don't want to quash their desires, but you do want them to grow up to be critical thinkers--and I have NO DOUBT that they will with you as their parent!

Sisyphus said...

Sorry to come on to this post sooo way late, but I have to jump in and say, nope nope nope, that chain is _not_ gone!


Jennifer said...

WOW...thanks Sisyphus....this news makes me so_________
(I'm so flumoxed I'll have to leave it blank--I just woke up and can't process this information--part of me is not surprised and part of me just feels disgust).