Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Racial Rabbits and Other Problems in Multicultural Kid's Lit

[Following up on my previous post here, with more obscure questions.] In 1959, Alabama sought to ban The Rabbits' Wedding from public libraries because of it's celebration of interracial (rabbit) marriages.  True story.  Here's a little more about the librarian who sought to keep the book on the shelves.

Even in 1959, the effort to ban The Rabbits' Wedding was supported only by the harder edges of the  segregationist fringe.  But the incident raises an interesting question, do animals in children's literature have race?  Or maybe the question is, do child readers perceive animals to have race?

Of course in naturalistic portrayals of animals in animal habitats, race as a human construction is irrelevant.  Then there are books like the Arthur series in which some of the highly anthropomorphized characters have distinct racial/ethnic/religious identities.  These identities are signaled primarily through a limited set of distinctive cultural practices, so the reader knows that the Brain is African American because he celebrates Kwanza and Francine is Jewish because she celebrates Hanukkah and attends a bar mitzvah.

But what is Arthur's race?  Like most of the characters in the series, aside from the very white Buster, most of the characters are some shade of brown.  Does that make Arthur a character of color?  Do characters that don't signal cultural practices or language associated with a particular race or ethnicity leave child readers a space to ascribe or not ascribe a race to the character as they see fit.  Or does Arthur  represent a normative whiteness-a race that need not speak its name?  Or maybe Arthur just represents normative middle-classness without representing any particular race.

Who creates the race of anthropomorphized animals?  Maybe an animals race is in the creator (author and/or illustrator) or maybe it's in the reader-like those people so offended by and a black rabbit and a white rabbit joined in Holy matrimony. 

I'd love to know what young readers think.   B may have gently suggested that they would think I was a little bit crazy. 

More on some African American children's books that should be classics here.

1 comment:

  1. It certainly is an interesting subject. I published a children's book, "Lost and Found" a book about diversity, that follows two mice, one white, and one gray, through an adventure. The gray mouse gets covered in white chalk dust, and the white mouse (this takes place in a school) doesn't realize he is gray until he gets wet and the chalk dust comes off. Whenever I read it to children (6 and up) they do not see or speak about race. They always talk about the mice being "different" and how they learn to accept each other for those differences. It has been quite an amazing thing to experience.