Legends of Myself 25

Posted on August 28, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 24


25. Literary Criticism in Cloverdale, Pt. 2

I was confused by the dialect, by new words, a linguistic thing, but the issue went deeper than that.

About That Elephant.  Uncle Remus was welcomed to my classroom in 1957, but might not be so readily today.  1957 was before the civil rights era, a time when Aunt Jemima wore a maid’s scarf on her head, and virtually all images of Black people depicted them as servants.

Uncle Remus fit in with these stereotypes much too well.

Then of course there were people even as far back as the 1930s who had trouble with the way his character talked.  What was the message intended for our little minds?  That only White people speak proper English?  –Didn’t we already learn that from Tonto, friend Teddy?

Accents and dialects can be misused.  In fact they will inevitably be misused by someone.  That’s merely human nature.  Uncle Remus helped the bullies to mock whether he intended it or not.

And there’s that other matter.  A pachyderm in the dining room?  There’s a whole herd shuffling about in there, I think.

Tell me, Uncle Remus, what about slavery?

Zippety-do-dah, says he.

Oh dear.  It’s no wonder Disney never dared to release “The Song of the South” on video.

And finally, even if we tiptoe past Uncle Remus, there’s the problem with the tar-baby itself.  In African story-telling, where the teller and all the audience is dark-skinned, the tar baby is nothing but a droll prop.  Ha-ha, Brother Rabbit, mistook the doll for a person.  However, move the story out of Africa and some of the meanings shift ground.  –Because a tar baby, no matter how you conceive it, doesn’t look at all like a White child.  That’s one problem.  And then there’s the semantic shift which has begun to use ‘tar baby’ as a racial insult.  That’s another problem.

So, while he continues to have his defenders from among the sociologically naïve, I’m pretty sure Uncle Remus would face a little or a lot of questioning before getting featured in a classroom read-aloud today.

But 1957 Cloverdale?  No problem.

Insults and Tiger Butter.  Another literary encounter that I had in Cloverdale was already controversial in 1957.  That year a group of parents petitioned the Toronto School Board to remove Little Black Sambo from the reading list.

There was nothing wrong with the story itself.  I loved it when the tiger got turned into tiger butter, never mind how.

But there were problems with the illustrations and with the name.  The illustrations, both in the original and in the many reissues, displayed an almost shameless racial stereotyping.  They are the one thing I most clearly remember about the book.  I remember the pictures as strange, unpleasant, the character so caricatured as to be almost inhuman.

As for the name, Sambo was inexcusable.  It had been a racial insult for at least two centuries already, and would have been known as such by the book’s author (who also provided the distasteful original illustrations.)  It is difficult to conceive of a book called Little White______ followed by a racial insult, residing on any school bookshelves either then or now.

That I read Little Black Sambo at my school desk in grade two illustrates just how different a time it was.


Continued at Legends of Myself 26

Posted in: autobiography