Process Blog Home

Innocence Betrayed

“Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wall-flowers need ruin to make them grow.” Nathaniel Hawthorne possessed a certain tragic perspective concerning the soil from which literature springs. But with his knowledge of original sin and his belief in black racial inferiority, he would certainly have appreciated the structural ruin that could underpin a child’s book of literature—and how it could help foster white supremacy. Indeed, for Hawthorne, that would have been a desirable end. Many of us would like to believe that literature has moved well beyond the days of Little Black Sambo, and likely many of us have convinced ourselves to see such works as unfortunate remnants of a long-ago past without much relevance to modern times. Yet that book, first published in 1899, began as a depiction of a dark-skinned child from India and quickly blossomed into a thriving industry of texts, lithographs, and advertisements, as well as a mountain of commercial items based on offensive and demeaning images of African Americans. There have been at least 116 editions of Little Black Sambo, with five e-books and even one edition in Braille, and it remains in print. It’s enough to make one wonder exactly what constitutes “the past.”[1]

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, first published in 1964, is not part of the literary canon that Hawthorne had in mind when he speculated about the origins of literature. But in one fundamental way it is intimately related to Hawthorne’s work, and to the works of so many other authors in the Anglo-American tradition. It is part of the educational canon that we have developed to teach our children, as Dahl’s book often has been used in elementary schools to inspire student writing and creativity. The book also shares a spot in the literary canon of a different sort, one that includes a broad range of writers from Joel Chandler Harris to William Faulkner to Margaret Mitchell to the authors of the Nancy Drew children’s novels and to a plethora of academic and educational studies, political tracts, and illustrations. This canon has proven to be one of the most enduring in our transatlantic literary heritage. Although Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has received some criticism for the way it depicted people of African descent, we have not fully recognized its place in the canon of white supremacist literature.

Roald Dahl’s children’s book has shown remarkable endurance, not only by selling millions of copies around the world, but also by its transformation into film twice, with a possible third version in the works. According to a recent report in Newsweek, the popular actor Donald Glover is being strongly considered for the role of Willy Wonka. According the magazine’s website, the “Willy Wonka adaptation is rumored to be a prequel, telling the story of how he acquired his riches and his legendary chocolate factory.” This would certainly put an ironic twist on the toxic origins of the book, but would it overcome the story’s white supremacist grounding or simply serve to extend its life? Understanding the background to Dahl’s work is more important than ever.[2]

As the response to the recent removal of statues memorializing Confederate heroes shows, white supremacist desire remains menacingly just below the surface of American culture. But such ideology also thrives beyond the streets, and surfaces in terrain where many do not expect it and where it is least welcome. According to the report recently published by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, as a nation we have failed miserably in our responsibilities to accurately and honestly teach this nation’s past. Since only eight percent of the thousand or more high school students surveyed by the SPLC could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, we should not be puzzled that the report also found that teaching the connection between this past and the present was largely missing. Few teachers and even fewer textbooks connect the nation’s slave past to the history of race relations, and nearly every single teacher and textbook surveyed avoided the subject of white supremacy as avidly as the school textbooks of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It would appear that despite the monumental outburst of scholarship produced since the mid-1960s, the way we teach history in the public schools remains as lifeless as John Brown’s body. But slavery, as the authors of Teaching Hard History observed, “isn’t in the past. It’s in the headlines.” However taught in schools, history is far from a dead thing. “We carry it within us,” James Baldwin memorably remarked in his essay, “The White Man’s Guilt.” We “are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”[3]

Children’s literature, often occupying a cherished place in our hearts, is hardly immune from the influence of white supremacy. Indeed, like intense love of any sort, it can make us overlook the flaws raging before us. The enormously popular Nancy Drew series, for instance, originally published between 1930 and 1979 in fifty-six volumes, is aimed specifically at young girls. The original texts, from first publication in 1930 through 1956, however, had so much racism that modern reprints of those volumes are prefaced with a “trigger warning” about the abhorrent stereotypes, including anti-Semitism, embedded in them. For instance, Jeff Tucker, the black figure in The Secret of the Old Clock (1930)—the first book in the series—is an amiable but dishonest drunk who speaks only in dialect: “You was in dat dah closet all dat time!” The Hidden Staircase (1930) refers to a “colored woman” who of course is a servant and who “looks as though she were an ogre.” As Donnarae MacCann observed in “Nancy Drew and the Myth of White Supremacy,” the original series, when not exclusively white, consistently depicted African Americans as inferior and criminal. Drunks and servants, “negresses,” criminals, or fools: this is the legacy of one of the nation’s most popular series for children. While modern reprints and recent editions have been scrubbed of the series’ offensive stereotypes, the Bedford, Massachusetts-based Applewood Books, which reprinted the original Nancy Drew books in 1991, acknowledged in a note at the beginning of each book that the series possessed “racial and social stereotyping.” Yet, the company determined that since the original books are “part of our heritage” it would continue selling them. So, as part of our “heritage,” white supremacy must live on.[4]

[1] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun (1888; Cambridge, Mass., 1860), 15; Philip McFarland, Hawthorne in Concord (New York, 2004), 109–10, 158–62. The many editions of Little Black Sambo can be seen through Worldcat.org. Helen Bannerman, The Story of Little Black Sambo (London, 1899).

[2] Autumn Noel Kelly, “Rumor: Donald Glover Might Be Willy Wonka,” Newsweek, June 5, 2018, http://www.newsweek.com/donald-glover-willy-wonka-movie-charlie-chocolate-factory-rumor-960382

[3] Maureen Costello, ed., “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/tt_hard_history_american_slavery.pdf, 12–13; James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” Ebony, 10 (Aug. 1965), 47. Republished in James Baldwin, Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York, 1998), 722–23.

[4] Carolyn Keene, The Secret of the Old Clock (1930; Bedford, 1991), 140 and “Publisher’s Note”; Carolyn Keene, The Hidden Staircase (1930; Bedford, 1991), 123; Donnarae MacCann, “Nancy Drew and the Myth of White Supremacy,” in Rediscovering Nancy Drew, ed. Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov (Iowa City, 1995), 129–135.

Recent Posts

2024 JAH African American History …

READ MORE

On “The U.S. Culture Wars Abroad: Li …

READ MORE

What’s in the December Issue of the …

READ MORE

(Trans)American History across Borders

READ MORE