Should We Allow Children to Read Traditionally Adored Texts Which May Appear Racist?

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The Cat in the Hat- Dr. Seuss

Censorship has long been a heavily discussed topic within children’s literature, with critics and parents alike, often dictating what children should be reading. Once upon a time, censorship may have focused on shielding children from topics deemed ‘inappropriate’ such as sex, violence or extreme terror. This was catalysed by the likes of Rousseau in the 18th century, who dictated that the institution of childhood must be preserved for its innocence, fuelling the adult fantasy of the purity of the child.

In our current culture, which may be defined for its liberal and inclusive ideology, there are different questions of censorship being introduced. The question that is being presented is: should we allow our children to read the treasured classics, that may contain rather traditional ideologies, and appear to the modern reader as politically incorrect? This question resurfaced into mainstream discourse in 2017, after first lady Melania Trump donated 10 Dr. Seuss books to a school in each state, to which Liz Phipps Soeiro, a librarian at the Cambridgeport Elementary School in Massachusetts, declined the books, claiming they were “steeped in racist propaganda”. This question is now once again prevalent in the wake of the BLM protests, and the movement to dispel racism.

Dr Seuss, infamous for his children’s books such as Cat in the Hat, spent his early career as a political cartoonist during World War II, creating anti-Japanese cartoons. Although his works may not be allegorical of racial issues, it is easy to spot remnants of his work with political cartoons within his texts. The Cat in the Hat, may been seen as a minstrel figure of sorts, who can be aligned with Bahktin’s ideas of the Carnivalesque, for his humorous yet chaotic nature. Philip Nel, the author of Was The Cat In the Hat Black?, discusses the suitability of the text and concludes that he does not believe that Seuss created his characters to be purposefully racist yet, states that “imagination is influenced by the culture in which it grows, and it doesn’t necessarily filter out the racism bits during artistic creation.” It is these texts, which were created in less politically correct periods, which have subconsciously adopted colonial ideologies, which hover on the line between innocent, and purposefully racist.

Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, depicts slavery, in the form of Wonka’s Oompa Loompas, which he “imported directly from Loompaland”. Dahl depicts the sourcing of these workers in alignment with colonial discourse, which he justifies, by constructing the Oompa Loompas as willing to emigrate and work in the factory. The othering of these characters is stark and, may be a cause for concern in a text which we give to children. This depiction of slavery may be troubling for children who are immigrants, or descendants of those involved in the tragedy of the slave trade. Should we then remove texts such as these which contain troubling ideas from our children’s shelves? Nel argues that “there’s also a reason to read them with children, because racism exists in the world. Children are going to encounter it, and a safer way to learn how to encounter it is via fiction. If you’re reading a racist children’s book with a child, you can help them read it critically, you can help them learn that it’s okay to be angry at a book.”

Enid Blyton has been widely criticised as racist, which is evident in novels such as The Little Black Doll, in which the protagonist is disliked for his “ugly black face”. Consequences of this, include the Royal Mint dismissing the idea of featuring Blyton on a commemorative 50p coin, due to her troubling ideologies surrounding race. Her novels have consequently been removed from some school reading lists and the shelves of school libraries for her detrimental beliefs. Instead of disguising issues of historical racism, perhaps we should be encouraging children to read these texts with a postcolonial mindset. It is important for children to understand the damaging consequences of previously politically incorrect ideologies, and to recognise instances of othering, in order to prevent further internalisation of colonial ideas within our culture.

The act of censorship itself, can be troubling, as we are using our power as adults, to dictate what is ‘good enough’ literature for our children. This dominance can become toxic, as adults may utilise their power over what children are given to read, to suit their own fetish for the preservation of innocence within children. Rather than categorising literature as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we should encourage discussion surrounding texts that we believe to be troubling and equip a child with tools to recognise political incorrectness, then allow them to form their own conclusions from a text. The answer to the question of whether to allow children to read racist texts, is that we should. The act of censoring children from issues such as racism or homophobia, invites the reoccurrence of such damaging ideas. By shielding our children from this history, we are not educating them on the stark horror of incidents such as the slave trade, the holocaust or segregation. It is only through exposing the younger generations to the true trauma of history, that we may prevent it from repeating.

Marilyn Nelson, the author of A Wreath for Emmet Till, notes that “the most important thing is that we remember and that we claim all of our history. We can’t erase things. We can only learn from them and we learn from them by remembering them”. It is increasingly important to remove the taboo around discussing troubling issues with our children, if we endeavour to cultivate a nation of open minded and inclusive young children.

Written by

Cambridge master’s student, literature grad and a semi-amateur writer.

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