Revisiting Racially Offensive Book Characters in Children’s “Classics”

Before the world of television and the internet… before SpongeBob Squarepants, Facebook, and Twitter shaped our lives, there were things called “books” and they were arguably the most influential form of entertainment around. They taught children lifelong lessons about cultural mores, right and wrong and were one of the most important tools in shaping a young person’s mind.

But for all today’s handwringing of overexposure to violence and sex, we tend to ignore the amount of antiquated ignorance contained in books that are still categorized as classics and are still on current reading lists for young people.

Some racist depictions from the classics were included deliberately to evince outrage and empathy. But we’d argue that these characters, some over 100 years old, have since had the opposite effect on society of what the author intended and instead, are the inspiration for many of today’s stereotypes.

5. Little Black Sambo

Appears in: The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman

What’s the plot? A black-skinned little boy outwits a pack of tigers, and turns them into butter.

Why all the fuss? While the story isn’t overtly racist, the title character’s name “Sambo” was turned into a racial slur that many find just as offensive as the N-word.

The character is actually a dark-skinned Indian, not an African-American. However, the illustrations that accompanied the story looked a lot like blackface minstrel show performers. In 1932 Langston Hughes criticized Little Black Sambo as a typical “pickaninny ” storybook which was hurtful to black children.

4. N*gger Jim

Appears in: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

What’s the plot? Huck Finn runs away from home and befriends Jim, an escaped slave.

Why all the fuss? Well, Jim is sometimes called “N*gger Jim” in the book. While he is actually a well-formed character, some schools have banned the book for using the N-word.

“The people whom Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi” — Russell Baker wrote in the New York Times in 1982 — “are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is ‘Nigger Jim,’ as Twain called him, to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt.”

3. The Africans

Appears in: Tintin in the Congo by Hergé

What’s the plot? Tintin, a young Belgian reporter, visits the Congo where he meets native Africans who are amazed by his “magical” powers. And then Tintin blows up a rhino with a stick of dynamite.

Why all the fuss? “It makes people think that blacks have not evolved,” said Bienvenu Mbutu, a Congolese man living in Belgium who wants the book to be banned in Belgium, home of Tintin’s creator. Meanwhile, English bookstores are required to sell the book with a warning sticker after the Commission for Racial Equality condemned the book.

In the book, Africans are depicted as monkey-like and are shown treating Tintin, who is white, like a god.

Tied for 1st place: The Uncle Tom, and The “Happy” (aka Lazy, Carefree) Darky

Both appear in: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

What’s the plot? A long-suffering slave is sold, meets new people on his journey through life, and is savagely murdered. Basically one of the most depressing as well as offensive stories ever written.

Why all the fuss? Many people argue that nearly every negative black stereotype can be found in this book, and that it even was the original source for several of them.

Today, an Uncle Tom is now one of the most offensive terms you can call an African-American in today’s world. It implies that a person has no self-respect as they would do anything to get in the good graces of the white folks. The “happy darky” depiction of blacks being lazy and carefree has, in my opinion, done more damage to our race than any other stereotype that can be brought to mind.

Believing that a person is lazy and having no worries about the future is somehow due to the natural inclination of their culture or a race is nefarious. I have no doubt that it’s one of the single most damaging labels that have been put on black people. Even in “post-racial” 2010 and with a black US President, we still can’t seem to shed it fully. In the meantime, it can be argued that well-developed and fairly portrayed characters from African-American books abound but for whatever reason they have never reached cultural meme status. The old question, ironically, seems more pertinent than ever: When will we overcome?

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