When my stepdaughter started middle school in 2018. We were all excited about going to middle school. So, we went to the school’s open house, we got her locker assignment, and we got her class schedule. As we were walking down the hall, I noticed a book in one of the display cases. A book I couldn’t even believe was in the school. It was the German children’s book Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann, published in 1845. Struwwelpeter is a book with ten illustrated, cautionary tales, each with horrible consequences for the misbehavior of children.
Some stories include:
· A girl playing with matches who burns to death
· A mother who warns her son not to suck his thumb and, after he continues to do so, gets his thumbs cut off by a random tailor with a pair of giant scissors
· A boy who refuses to eat his soup; over the next five days he wastes away and dies
As disturbing as these are, there is one story that messed me up even more. The Story of the Inky Boys or, in some translations, The Story of the Black Boys.
The basic storyline is that little German boys are teasing a “Black Moor” (the term “moor”
refers to Muslims from northern Africa). The illustration of the Black Moor portrays a man with a green umbrella (like Little Black Sambo), no shirt or shoes, and overly-exaggerated features. The boys in the story are told to stop teasing the man and, when they don’t, they receive their punishment. Their horrible consequence? They are dipped in black ink and must live the rest of their days black boys. The moral of the story being that teasing a Black person turns you into one.
I’m let ya’ll sit with that for a moment.
Clearly, this story pushes the narrative that having black skin is a punishment and something you should be ashamed of. It tells children of color that their skin color (something they can’t change or choose) is inherently wrong and promotes the idea that their skin color is something to be looked at as negative and unattractive. The story also adversely supports the concept that white skin as inherently right, positive, and attractive. Throughout the story, the Black Moor character was viewed as passive. His voice was silent, his identity was demeaned, and his features were enhanced in comedic fashion.
This is a dangerous narrative to promote, no matter what race or ethnicity you are.
And that’s what I wrote to the school’s principle in an email when I asked for the book to be removed. I battled with this ask because I thought about the damages of censorship and banned books. But I don’t believe that to be the case here. Promoting books with racist illustrations and content without having a meaningful discussion that includes people of color, leaves readers to interpret their own ideas and perspectives. This marginalizes and silences the perspectives, ideas, and experiences of those affected by the racist text and images.
The principle graciously received my email and invited me to have a discussion with her about multicultural children’s literature. The book was removed, and all was well in the middle school world (not really, but you get it).
I’m telling you this to say since this epidemic we have been more involved in our children’s learning and reclaiming our space as parents as our child’s first teacher. Even though our children are not going back this year they will be going back in the fall. Think about what kind of involved parent you want to be going forward.
We can be advocates for our children and others. We are our children’s first teacher and we can have a voice in our children’s school. Our voice doesn’t have to be angry or rude. It can be a voice of love, empathy, understanding, and firmness. State the issue and provide a call to action. You can do it, and when the time comes for you to do it, I will be here cheering you on!