Classics We Now Question

There’s no such thing as a swift fall from grace when a classic novel is found to have questionable content. Many of the books I’ve listed below have taken their own sweet time in getting flagged as insensitive to minorities. For the purpose of this blog, I’m focusing on books that include Africans, or African Americans.

While I believe sections in The Help are just as insensitive as the books listed here, it will probably take a number of years for the rest of the world to catch on.

Here are the classics, in no particular order.

Dr. Doolittle by Hugh Lofting – Newbery award winner. The book’s illustrations as well as passages in the novel (original, not revised copies) have been deemed offensive. The revised novel does not reference the black prince who wanted to be white.

The Three Golliwogs by Enid Blyton  - In the original book, the golliwogs were named Golly, Woggy and Nig**r. They also had an Aunt named Coalblack. This book was a children’s classic in England and its still being sold on the Amazon UK site. It was reprinted in 1968.

In The Help, Kathryn Stockett has Skeeter giving her observations  on the skin color of several African American characters.  In far too many of her descriptions, the characters fall back on this cover’s stereotype. They’re called “black as asphalt” or “black as night” and it underscores how even an author with the best of intentions can mis-represent an African American’s appearance.

 

Ten Little Nig***s by Agatha Christie – First published with this title in 1939, then reprinted in the US with And Then There Were None in 1940.

The suspense filled plot centers around ten people tricked into coming on an island (in the 1939 version the island was called Nig***r Island, for American readers it was changed to Indian Island). Each guest finds the rhyme Ten Little Nig***s posted on their room door, as each guest is murdered one by one.

 

Huckleberry Finn by Samuel A.  Clemons, aka Mark Twain – because of the many references to “Nig**r Jim” this novel has been flagged as insensitive. Jim is also a man-child and highly superstitious.

Mary Poppins by P.L.  Travers – The author revised the novel after she realized sections that were insensitive to other cultures (including African)

The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman - Like The Three Golliwogs, this book is being offered on Amazon’s UK site. Sambo wasn’t originally black, but a native of India, where a little boy outwitted the predators in his world to return safely home and eat 169 pancakes for his supper. It was a children’s favorite for half a century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Story of Little Black Mingo by Helen Bannerman – Still being sold on Amazon UK. Reprinted in 2006.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe - credited with first depicting the stereotypes that would now become the stuff of myth about African Americans. This is a novel that helped launch a war and immortalize images and terms in American Literature. To be labeled an “Uncle Tom” is a negative connotation, though it wasn’t always so. Stowe’s original vision of Tom was as a good Christian though a slave, and in the end Tom was a man who gave up his own life to save two female slaves.

Aunt Chloe- The character most credited with being the origin of the Mammy brand (nurturing, usually heavy set, asexual, ever patient, humorous, usually employed as both a maid and a nanny). This prototype of the “Mammy” character is one Hollywood utilized often during the 1930s through the 70s. Hollywood so loved this image, that black female domestics (usually maids) were prevalent in dramas and comedies. In many classic movies each household had their very own “Mammy.”

From Imitation of Life (both the 1939 version and the 1959 remake), to Gone with the Wind, to Rebel Without a Cause, a variation of the Mammy character, the bossy but nurturing maid was part of the cast. 

Other characters created by Stowe – The tragic mulatto (Eliza), the archetypical pickaninny (Topsy), the sympathetic white liberal (Orphelia), the lazy, shiftless worker (Sam), the villain who just won’t quit – Simon Legree. In my opinion The Help is more closely aligned to Uncle Tom’s Cabin than the novel some reviews and readers wish to link it with, namely To Kill A Mockingbird.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – Racism thrived among the British citizens living in India. For whatever reason, Indians were called black, as there is a line in the novel that states “there are a lot of blacks (in India)  instead of respectable white people.'”

These are just a few novels with questionable covers and content, however I want to remind readers that African American’s aren’t the only minorities portrayed negatively.

Please visit this wonderful blog for a comprehensive listing and discussion of how Native Americans appear in many classic and recent works:

American Indians in Children’s Literature blog by Debbie Reese

http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2010/04/portrayals-of-american-indians-in-sljs.html

4 Responses “Classics We Now Question” →
  1. Should we burn these books?

    Or we could just leave them as they are and try and understand the times they were written in. A good many classic works of fiction have awful sexist or homophobic overtones, amongst other things. If we carried on getting rid of offensive books, where exactly would we stop? We’d have very little left in the end.

    Reply
    • Hello oddboggle,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I don’t think “we” have to worry about these books getting burned or even falling out of favor in some circles.

      To many these books are classics and will remain so. That’s why they’re still available for purchase. For others like myself, they just serve as a reminder of how far reaching and long lasting the idea of one race being unequal to another was/is, even in children’s literature.

      Reply
  2. Very well, critical. But know this:

    If we have to ban Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Secret Garden, Huck Finn and probably a lot of the Southern Gothic novels (Faulkner and Harper Lee,) by the same token we’d also have to get rid of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: not a sympathetic portrayal of gypsies. Oliver Twist would have to go, too: Fagan is a Jew and his portrayal is not entirely sympathetic; Jews are equally disliked in Shakespeare and Marlowe. In poetry, Gunga Din by Kipling would have to be axed and so would Kublai Khan by Coleridge: both are legacies of 19th century colonialism and racism. Peter Pan?-The portrayal of Native Americans by Barrie is ridiculous. Cry, the Beloved Country?-Naah, the portrayal of Apartheid doesn’t hit hard enough and romanticizes very painful social class heirarchies, so it should not be read either.

    And then there are stories we tell children on a regular basis: Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood. Most of these stories were told orally long before they were written down by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. The original versions are usually much darker than anything Disney could cook up. Little Red Riding Hood was probably invented to keep young girls out of the forest, where there were thieves and rapists. Hansel and Gretel?-Likely created in the wake of the Black Death, when children were often abandoned, and many more abused. Snow White?-The Wicked Queen wants to cut out Snow White’s heart so she can eat it, a leftover of pagan beliefs. And Beauty and the Beast, though it is the mildest one on the list, is about the mixed feelings of a girl betrothed in marriage-she is going to be subjected to a “bestial” experience on her first night and she has no guarantee that the much older man she will wed will be a prince or stay a beast and beat her.

    Unfortunately, erasing any of this is not at all a good idea. Children need to learn that the world is not always a friendly, happy place. It can be downright scary and cruel. Silencing these voices from the past silences important lessons, like how to deal with scary monsters and situations that are often unfair or morally difficult. Pretending like they don’t exist is the wrong thing to do. Talking about them helps.

    Reply
    • No one is saying (at least I haven’t in this post) to ban these books.

      In fact, they need to be around as a reminder of just how some writers reflected their society at large, and were just fine with demeaning and mocking even children.

      The reason I’m focusing on writers who mentioned those considered black is because not only were blacks demeaned in adult “classics” but there was no relief in children’s stories either.
      The prejudice was thorough and nothing, not even children were sacred. See the GE ad below:

      GE ad using young black child to mock African Americans

      To a few writers credit, some did attempt to clean up their act with later editions. But the damage was already done.

      It’s a cop out to claim “children need to learn that the world is not always a friendly place”

      Children of color know that all too well, as it’s been going on for decades with no end in sight.
      Now they have television to contend with, whether it’s ABC family or Disney, and a host of other stations which cast white teens as the leads and relegate minorities to fight it out for the sidekick spot.

      Representation is going backward instead of forward.

      I’m not here to focus on other cultures. There are sites like racebending.com which do a better job of explaining the Asian experience in literature and film better than I ever could. And there’s also the most excellent:
      American Indians in Children’s Literature

      But Africans, African Americans and all those thought of as “Black” have been handed a raw deal, way past the portrayal in novels. I think you know that, and I think you know it’s not just about the books themselves. But how some of those who claim to want to “protect” these classics have a soft spot for them, regardless of how offensive they are to the culture being demeaned.

      Reply

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