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