Last year I wrote an article on my views of the racist nature of many of my heroes, particularly in literature. Most notable in that was Dr Seuss, who was always the champion of people who were odd, and celebrator of quirks. He had made various early cartoons and adverts that were very racist, however, this was a time when the term racism wasn’t common and many people didn’t see a problem. The question of whether I should still admire Dr Seuss regardless of those cartoons still lingers in my mind but that doesn’t change the fact those cartoons were made and it is important that they still exist today. Maybe they should exist to remind us that even a great children’s author is just a man and at least once held some abhorrent or ignorant views.
One of the most well-known cases of changing a children’s story for modern audiences is the Noddy books. Noddy was created by Enid Blyton an incredibly popular and controversial author. Many of her works have been banned from schools and libraries because of their apparent racism. Noddy in particular had a character called Golliwog. For the younger readers a golliwog is basically a black person and is considered very derogatory. In one Noddy book, several golliwogs steal Noddy’s car and dump him naked in the woods, no need to tell you what’s wrong with that.
The fact these racist stories were created isn’t the point, the point is these books have been changed over time, the Golliwogs were replaced by bears and other creatures, the character of Big Ears was said to be derogatory to people with physical impairments and changed (I mean, he was a gnome…)
Some people may be aware of “Black Pete” A Dutch tradition based on a character from a book from 1850. Black Pete was a Moor from Africa and so was… black. However, every 5th of December in some places a bunch of white people black up with make-up and parade about the town. It’s generally considered to be racist to black up, and no black people appear to take part in this tradition, so is it racist? The people who like it say it should be preserved because it is a tradition and they no longer hold racist views. My question is:
Just because its tradition should we keep it?
Personally, my answer is no. There are plenty of things people used to do that in modern times we generally agree we shouldn’t do, regardless of how meaningful they may have been to a community. I won’t get into a debate about cultural appropriation as that is a separate argument but another slightly different example was at certain music festivals people would often wear Native American headdress. After much compliant many festivals decided to ban them as they recognised that this particular cultural appropriation was insensitive, largely because it wasn’t meaningful to the rich white kids doing it. Is this different for a work of literature read by millions? I believe it is.
I don’t believe we should get rid of something purely because a group of people are offended, but when it comes to ethnicity we should agree there’s no need to be racially offensive. The way kids dress at music festivals may seem largely innocuous, because it is, and it certainly doesn’t hurt them to change what they wear.
Many other great authors have been accused of racism or sexism, Roald Dahl’s the Witches, Rudyard Kipling and many others. There has been other occasions of stories being adapted to be more politically correct. This is fairly normal when you look at the world of fiction (including theatre, dance and cinema) is many stories have been adapted and tweaked for changing audiences. This however, is more about evolution of storytelling.
My disdain for nostalgia is well known by some, and I am quite OK with things being reimagined and on occasion they are improved. I did read Noddy books and Dahl and Seuss as a child, I certainly didn’t turn out racist. My view is we should keep some of these as they are, to show future generations how people viewed the world. Many people did question Enid Blyton at the time, but millions more blindly read her books to their children. Maybe we can see it as an embarrassing part of literatures past. I don’t want children’s books to be politically correct, they should tell tales of the dark side (there’s a reason Dahl is so popular) Stories from the Brothers Grimm were at times gruesome but the morals were always clear, even if we may hold slightly different morals now. In some way I see editing Noddy as something of a lie, cynically speaking it was just done to make more money, not to inspire a new generation.
We wouldn’t edit Mein Kampf to be a fluffy cute story about a struggling painter who was misunderstood, because that would be a lie. It’s the story of an evil man. We can’t pretend the past didn’t happen, but we should move on with newer better work that holds the right views.
There are many more great books to be written, we should celebrate those and leave the ignorance of the past to the museums. Removing these aspects feels like we’re pretending that it never happened, we wouldn’t do that about the holocaust or WWII, horrific events of human history that bare remembering to a point (I think people obsess a little too much on those, but that’s also another story) You could argue we haven’t improved much with the recent increase of right wing movements across the globe, but this is why we should retain these things from the past as they were and hopefully most of us won’t repeat it.