A little over a year ago, Edi Campbell reflected on anthropomorphized monkeys in the book Voices in the Park via this blog post. In March of this year, Campbell continued the conversation through this critical analysis of Monkey: Not Ready for Kindergarten by Marc Brown. In April she added even more context through this post, in which she writes:
Monkeys and apes perpetuate white imperialism in children's books. Sentiments combining their images with African Americans began in tandem with the notion of race and they continue to be used to perpetuate racist views. Sure, there's not always intentional misrepresentation, but when you know the history, you know how the images are interpreted. And, when you know better, you have to do better.
Images of apes and monkeys have been historically used (and are still used today, even if subtly and/or unconsciously) to dehumanize Black people and justify or minimize trauma, injustices, and disrespect they endure. This has historic roots and it is still happening, right now, every day. And because kid lit does not exist in a vacuum, in kid lit this is happening right now, every day.
|Image from Zack at the Dentist.|
Campbell’s writing has helped me to pay better attention to how this type of racist imagery and messaging shows up in children’s literature, and ever since I’ve been reading and reflecting on her posts, anthropomorphized monkeys have been entering my consciousness left and right. There’s the new release from Serlin and Selznick, and the Barnett-Pizzoli early readers that were advertised last year
(though there are questions now about if/when these will be released). There’s Zack at the Dentist by Jonathan London and Jack Medoff, in which a gleeful banana-loving monkey never brushes his teeth and causes a commotion at the dentist’s office. (He leaves with knowledge of dental hygiene, but he still gets toothpaste on his shirt.) And there’s Monkey Needs to Listen by Sue Grave and Trevor Dunton, in which the only monkey in a class of animals cannot sit still and does not listen to the teacher’s safety tips. (As a result of him throwing paper airplanes, hanging from a tree, and shouting out instead of listening, Monkey crashes a go-kart and spoils the group’s go-kart race.) This book has been created for the White-dominated field of education—the same field in which Black students are disciplined and suspended at disproportionate rates—as part of a “Behavior Matters” series.
|Image from Zack at the Dentist.|
|Image from Monkey Needs to Listen.|
I have not gone out of my way to search for any of these titles, but the stream of books like this is constant. Consider what this messaging—over and over, and rarely acknowledged outright—does over a lifetime. Consider the implicit bias it helps to build...the internalized dominance or internalized sense of inferiority...the warped sense of reality...the “fun house mirrors” (to quote Dr. Debbie Reese).
There may be a variety of reactions to these representations from members of different racial groups (no experience is monolithic). I do know the history, however, and that I can't ignore the painful reactions to this imagery many have shared. A common impulse might be to belittle criticisms. “It’s just one book” or “I don’t see it that way” are just two of many predictable defenses. While each book is factually one book, there is much to be learned from taking a step back and working to understand the big picture, the system in which that one book exists. It might be one book AND it is one book that continues a legacy of racist depictions and associations. It is one book, AND that book is supporting a view of society rooted in anti-Blackness. To the person wanting to shout “I don’t see it that way” or “why can’t a monkey just be a monkey?” when someone else has shared how those images function and make them feel, I would ask them to consider how that response affects others and the situation. I would ask that person to think about why it might be, and perhaps what privileges they have, that make it easy for them to not “see it that way.” One might claim to be unaffected by racism, but we are all socialized beings. Whether or not we know it or claim to be aware of it, what is normalized in society—including the racism normalized and embedded into our world—has an impact on us.
To suggest that critics are too sensitive or reading too much into a particular book/image/situation is to ignore many of those critics’ expertise as well as the very real way that racism functions. If you are angry at learning about this imagery and its effects—why not direct that anger towards the racism, and not the people pointing out the racism? Feedback causes discomfort, and feedback is an invitation to learn and to change behavior in the future. What is one doing when that invitation is rejected?
White people, myself included, cannot honestly claim (whether to others or to ourselves) to be innocent on this. It is our responsibility to listen to the people who have been sharing expertise and information with us (again and again, often thanklessly, often over generations), and to use what we learn to direct our future actions, including the work of creating, editing, reviewing, selecting, and reading books with or for young people. This might mean acknowledging when we see yet another anthropomorphic monkey, even if it is in a book by a favorite author. It might mean making tough decisions about what we read and how we discuss it with kids. It might mean having that awkward, uncomfortable conversation with your colleague—and also working to listen and check your defenses and cut the crap when you are the one getting called in. We need to acknowledge and understand that we are part of a system, and work to hear and listen to the people who challenge our lenses. Because of the lives we live, the lessons we’re taught, and the experiences we have, we will all have unique ways of seeing and understanding the world— but this seeing is not completely static. Or rather, it does not have to be. Campbell’s words (as well as the words of Maya Angelou) again come to mind: “when you know better, you have to do better.” We can do better—and we must.