Racism in Children’s Literature | Research Article Ankita Jain

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Depiction of Racism in Children’s Literature

Paper by Ankita Jain

Published in September 2015 Issue of Ashvamegh


“What age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?”[1]:


“…you white fellow

When you born, you pink
When you grow up, you white
When you go in sun, you red
When you cold, you blue
When you scared, you yellow
When you sick, you green
And when you die, you gray
And you calling me colored??”[2]

Children’s literature, which is inclusive of various genres like fiction, history, fables, folktales, poetry, myths and legends, aid in the development of certain social and moral values in the minds of the young. Children’s literature is a site both for the reflection and promotion of cultural values and practices. It is the tool employed by the adults for the enculturation[3] and homogenization of the children. However, critics argue that children’s literature is not innocent: “rather, their innocence is an ideological projection.”[4]

In children’s literature, the reality is often eschewed or softened to protect the children and childhood- an apparent state of innocence. However, it is the work of the literary critic to identify that beneath this garb of innocence are embedded the deep-rooted cultural and social values which further becomes the means of reconstructing and perpetuating the dominant discourses of a society pertaining to power, race, and ethnicity.

Time and again, one encounters racism in various books or stories meant for the young readers. A study of racism in these texts relates to the position of the “other”[5] that was often accorded to the African Americans and other parallel culture groups like the Indians, people of mixed race, et al. The presentation of racism in literature is restricted not just to the outer appearance, or “biological” differences as Clare Bradford puts it, but also manifests itself through a plethora of other means, be it the behavior and mannerisms of the individuals/characters, language, education or power. The “others” were sketched only to be ridiculed and criticized. It is this representation of racism pertaining to Blacks and the stereotypes that existed in children’s literature that is the aim of the present paper.

Bradford writes: “Cultural production for children in colonial settings generally promoted the virtues of progress and modernity, representing indigenous characters according to the stereotypes which held sway in different cultural contexts.” The literature for children is a response to the cultural and political changes which occurs in different ethnic groups. Bradford further comments: “Since the 1960s, the term ‘ethnicity’ has been used as an alternative to the discredited genetically organized hierarchies of ‘race’, to describe populations distinguished by ancestry, traditions, religious affiliations, values and norms.” She continues that the concept of ethnicity has been utilized for racist purposes.

The first and foremost stereotype that comes to mind relates to the physical appearance. Violet J Harris talks precisely about this when she says that the illustrations that accompanied the stories about the African-Americans depicted them with “protruding eyes and large, red lips, extremely dark skin, and in the case of males, long, gangly arms.” The Story of Little Black Sambo written by Helen Bannerman was first published in England in 1899. It is the story of a little south Indian boy who, in order to save himself from being eaten by the four tigers, has to give his umbrella and clothes to them. However, the tigers start fighting among themselves and chase each other till they are transformed into a pool of melted butter or ghee.

The book is racist not in the story but in the illustrations of the protagonist, Little Black Sambo, his mother (Black Mumbo) and his father (Black Jumbo). The fact that the name of each of the characters itself has ‘Black’ as a prefix attached to them is one point denoting racism. To get back to the point of portrayal in images, Little Black Sambo is portrayed as a very dark skinned child, having a broad nose and big red lips which are juxtaposed with his white teeth and eyes. His mother, though the setting is in India, too is depicted as a conventional African-American looking mother. This exactly corresponds to the description provided by Harris above, though in this case, the characters are Indians.

Despite the setting being India and the characters being Indian, the illustrations that accompanied the story resembled what Langston Hughes recognized as “pickaninny.” He said that “Little Black Sambo exemplified the ‘pickaninny variety’ of story book, amusing undoubtedly to the white child, but is like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at.”[6] The term ‘sambo’, in America, particularly meaning a black servant, had gained prominence as a black archetype.

Another children’s classic story is that of Tintin and his various adventures written by Georges Remi, better known as Herge. One particular book in the famous Tintin series, Tintin in the Congo is indeed racist, reinforcing the prevalent stereotypes pertaining to the Africans. However, the offensiveness lies not in the story as such, which delineates a typical adventure and misadventures of Tintin, but in using Congo as the background for those adventures and how the natives are presented.

This particular Tintin story has a parallel in the Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad, who also used Congo as the backdrop to the story. The Africans, as described by Marlow, the narrator of Conrad’s narrative, have horrid and ugly “faces like grotesque masks”. Marlow comments about one “savage” that “to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs.” This description of the Africans which deploys such animalistic imagery is what led Chinua Achebe term Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist”.

This is what one finds in Tintin in the Congo too. The illustrations, especially those of the Africans, that accompany the story have almost no personality of their own so as to make distinctions amongst them. Coco, Tintin’s African friend, just like Little Black Sambo talked about and described a few paragraphs earlier, is depicted with broad lips and black frizzy hair and so are the other Africans who make an appearance.

Donnarae MacCann, talking about the slaves, comments that they were depicted as existing on a lower intellectual plane and were shown to be a part of the childish world. Thomas Nelson Page too, in his essay, “The Race Problem” asserts that the racial superiority of the Whites rests upon “constancy…intellect, and the domestic virtues.” (qtd. in MacCann) The Blacks were not shown as “individuals who could function as citizens.” (MacCann 100) This is exactly what the reader encounters in Tintin in the Congo. The other grown up African characters that feature in the story are shown as brainless clowns, wearing leopard skin and loincloth. A monkey that makes an appearance for a very brief moment in the story is shown to have intelligence which is at par with the Africans, who can be easily outwitted by Tintin. They are mere savages who are ignorant and can be influenced by Tintin, a European, without much effort. This is a common stereotype one may encounter in a number of texts dealing with the Whites and the “others”.

One of the most prominent and widespread racist convention is that the Whites and whiteness is associated with a position of power and the Blacks or the “others” are the subjugated ones. Be it Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl or Tintin in the Congo Herge or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Twain, in every text, it is the white man who is shown to be more powerful vis-à-vis the “other”. In Roald Dahl’s work, it is Willy Wonka, conspicuously, who exercises power over the Oompas-Loompas. Similarly, Twain depicts Huck, a white child, as superior to Jim, a full grown adult, a “nigger”. In a similar strain, in Tintin, the natives of Congo are shown to be taught by Tintin. They also call him their “master”.

Another common stereotype pertaining to racism one comes across in children’s fiction is that of the master who acts “as a father, guide, and friend rather than as a taskmaster” and the slaves are happy and contented.  (MacCann 99) This stereotype operates on the binaries of power between the Whites and the “other”. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by, originally published in 1964, the workers in the factory of Willy Wonka are all African pygmies whose work is being compensated in the form of cacao beans. The description of the Oompa-Loompas and Willy Wonka is in keeping with the colonial discourses of those times which was informed by the “oppositions between civilized and savage.” (Bradford) On one hand is Willy Wonka, the powerful and resourceful owner while on the other hand are the Oompas-Loompas who are childlike and dependent upon their master.

The readers are told that Willy Wonka is a benign master who not only rescued Oompa-Loompas from being the prey of creatures like Hornswogglers and Snozzwanglers but also from starvation. Wonka brought them from Loompaland to his factory where they can feed themselves on cacao beans to their fullest and live safely in exchange for their labor required for running the chocolate factory. Wonka takes care of the Oompa-Loompas as his children while the latter treat Wonka as a caretaker who is benevolent. At no point in the narrative are we given the indication that the workers are unsatisfied or unhappy with their employment.

One prominent way to which the writers resorted to in their sketching of racism was that the “other” that was presented in the children’s literature often disparaged themselves “by announcing [their] second-rate status and stating the proper role distinctions between himself and young Whites.” (MacCann 105) Such characters’ “unusal behavior and speech pattern serve as an implicit signal of otherness.” (105) In Tintin, the fact that the Africans are shown as accepting Tintin as their master reinforces this point. Also, in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a classic of children’s literature, the “nigger” Jim is accorded a distinct speech pattern, peculiar to his ‘type’. For instance, he says: “Yes; en I’s rich now, come to look at it. I owns mysef, en I’s wuth eight hund’d dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn’ want no mo’.” Twain deploys poor language while delineating Jim, making his character sound unintelligent.

While the Blacks and the various “others” were, as a norm, shown as debased and depraved, ranking the lowest in the hierarchy of humans (if at all they were considered humans in the first place!), there were also some superior or slightly better than these “others”, that is, those that were Christianized. Such Christianized “others” were presented with far more dignity and respect and were treated with much less condescension.

The sketch of the Calormene in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis is an example to illustrate this point. The fifth book of the Narnia series titled The Horse and His Boy talks about the Calormenes who live in the south.  They are dark skinned who reside in the desert, have long beards, wear turbans and are ruled by Tarkaans. This description of the Calormenes is quite a close resemblance to the Middle Eastern people. The Calormenes, shown as worshipping a Satanic figure, Tash who requires human sacrifices, are all cruel, greedy and self centered.

One may, however, notice that not all the Calormenes are depicted in the same light. For instance, there is a soldier in The Last Battle named Emmeth who, before he embraced Aslan in his heart, was a follower of Tash. He abandons his faith and culture when he recognizes Tash to be a demon. As a result of his acceptance of Aslan, he is granted entrance to Paradise. The point that can be made, then, is that the Calormenes are not evil inherently; the only thing required is their conversion to Christianity.

Paul F Ford, in Companion to Narnia, commented that “C.S. Lewis was a man of his time and socio-economic class. Like many Englishmen of this era, Lewis was unconsciously but regrettably unsympathetic to things and people Middle Eastern. Thus he sometimes engages in exaggerated stereotyping in contrasting things Narnian and thing Calormene. He intends this in a broadly comic way, almost vaudevillian. But in our post-September 11, 2011, world, he would , I am sure, want to reconsider this insensitivity.”[7]

Children’s literature depicting the “other” was often written by the Whites which, though popular, hurt the former since the latter displayed little or no understanding of the cultural nuances of the “other”. The white authors sketched all the “others” in over-generalized details and racist stereotypes as detailed and discussed above. For instance, the eyes of Chinese characters would be shown with straight slant lines. The ‘normal’ way of representing the Native Americans was to show them as savages while the Latino cultures were often found as feast loving and lazy.

Children’s literature is not merely a site for the enjoyment of children but it is loaded with ideology and covers the various facets and events of history. One must be careful while selecting texts for children for these texts significantly address the questions of race, ethnicity and colonialism. David Rudd, in his essay “Theorizing and Theories: How Does Children’s Literature Exist?”, using the Foucauldian notion of power, talks about the adult-child binary that informs the field of children’s literature. He reminds us that we should not forget that children’s literature is a figment of the adult’s imagination.

One also needs to keep in mind the fact that racism needs to and has to be examined in conjunction with class, gender, etc. since all these threads are interrelated. The ubiquity of racism cannot be exposed until and unless there is participation of the whites in dismantling racism. What is deemed as innocent and beautiful can actually be full of bias and hence, misleading.

With the turn of the millennium, there’s also a shift, a positive one, from how cultures were represented for they are more accurately presented now. One needs to comprehend the fact that mere sensitivity to such issues as racism is not enough; it should be accompanied by an understanding of how texts and illustrations pave a way for the stereotypes to be reinforced.  One needs to be even more careful when it is about children since while approaching a text, they do not come with a preconceived and presupposed notion of culture. Prejudice, discrimination or hatred- humans are not inherently inclined to these for they are something which one learns. Eden Ahbez quite succinctly sums it up when he says:

“Some white people Hate black people,
and some white people Love black people,
Some black people Hate white people,
and some black people Love white people.
So you see, it’s not an issue of black and white,
it’s an issue of Lovers and Haters.”[8]






Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'”. Heart Of Darkness. Ed.

Sumanyu Satpathy. Delhi: Worldview, 2011.

Bannerman, Helen. Little Black Sambo. Chicago, New York: Salfield, 1899. Project Gutenberg. 22 Feb. 2006. Web. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17824/17824-h/17824-h.htm>.

Bradford, Clare. “Race, Ethnicity and Colonialism.” The Routlede Companion to Children’s Literature. Ed. David Rudd. Oxon: Routledge, 2010.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart Of Darkness. Ed. Sumanyu Satpathy. Delhi: Worldview, 2011.

Dahl, Roald. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Penguin, 2013.

Harris, Violet J. “African-American Children’s Literature: The First One Hundred Years.”

The Journal of Negro Education 59.4 (1990): 540-55. JSTOR. Web.

Lewis, C. S. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Horse and His Boy. HarperCollins., 1954.

Lewis, C. S. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle. HarperCollins, 1956.

MacCann, Donnarae. White Supremacy in Children’s Literature: Characterizations of African-Americans, 1830-1900. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

Remi, Georges. “Tintin In The Congo.”  TINTIN IN THE CONGO 1.Web. 17 Oct. 2014. <http://tintinadventures.tripod.com/id32.html>.

Rudd, David. “Theorizing and Theories: How Does Children’s Literature Exist?”. Understanding Children’s Literature. Ed. Peter Hunt. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Superle, Michelle. Contemporary English-Language Indian Children’s Literature: Representations of Nation, Culture, and the New Indian Girl.  New York: Routledge, 2011.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Thomas Cooley. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.

[1] Quote by Jonathan Lethem from The Fortress of Solitude. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/77672-what-age-is-a-black-boy-when-he-learns-he-s

[2] Excerpt from a poem nominated by the United Nations as the best poem for the year 2006 written by an African kid.  http://www.thelocal.se/discuss/index.php?showtopic=20252

[3] By enculturation is meant the process/processes through which the dominant discourses of a group are taught to the members or cultural group of a society.

[4] Joseph Zornado, quoted in Michelle Superle.

[5] The category of the “other”, in this paper, comprises of all those who are not Whites or Europeans, that is, the African Americans, Blacks, Indians, Arabs, Middle Eastern people, among various others.

[6] http://www.ferris.edu/news/jimcrow/picaninny/

[7] “Calormen.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Jan. 2014. Web. 07 Nov. 2014 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calormen

[8] By Eden Ahbez: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Eden_Ahbez



About the Author:

Ankita Jain has completed her Masters in English Literature from Delhi University recently. She loves to write, a hobby that she recently discovered. Teaching is a profession that she wants to pursue in the long run as she thinks that teachers help to build a nation, just like Chanakya was the mastermind behind Chandragupt Maurya.

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