How should adults respond to racial stereotyping when they are reading a book to a child? Stephen Marche describes a moment of crisis in bedtime reading and sets forth three options:
“Dad, why do the pirates have a gorilla?” This unexpected question intruded on a recent intergenerational cultural exchange: I was introducing my 6-year-old son to Asterix the Gaul. The pirates in the “Asterix” comics don’t travel with a gorilla, of course. One of the pirate crew is a grotesque caricature of an African who does indeed more closely resemble a gorilla than a person. Freze-frame on this parenting situation. What am I supposed to do? I figure I have three options.
1) Explain that the gorilla is supposed to be a black person.
2) Try to explain the history of French colonialism, how the economics of exploitation in sub-Saharan Africa led to an ideology of racism, which survived in a ghostly transfer even after the conclusion of the French Empire, infecting even silly comics about ancient Gaul.
3) Say, “I don’t know why the pirates have a gorilla” and flip to the next page.
Marshe tells us that he chose the last option, perhaps because 1) it was late at night, 2) he was tired, 3) his son was clearly interested in what happens next. Reading with a child, as I argue in Enchanted Hunters, provides us with opportunities to do more than utter the words on the printed page. Having a conversation about that gorilla doesn’t have to be as stilted as option #2 suggests, nor does it have to be a conversation stopper, as option #1 is. Trust the child, not the tale, and reading together can become all the more interesting. It can even be an educational experience for the adult, in large part because, when we read a book to a child, we engage in bifocal reading, looking at the work through the lens of adult consciousness but also through the defamiliarizing optic of a child reader.
You can read more about Little Black Sambo and its afterlife on Wikipedia.
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