Tag Archives: Dominican Republic

Yes, actually, they DO know it’s Christmas: Imperialism and the holidays

My least favorite Christmas songs involve people feeling sorry for other people.  There’s no better way to encourage smug self-satisfaction about your superior life than listening to songs where people buy shoes for little boys who have mothers with cancer.  At least the shoe song is about local, face-to-face charity.  The all-time most annoying Christmas song, in my opinion, is Bob Geldof’s 1984 “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, a world-wide smash hit and Christmas Number One in the UK.  I know that I am not supposed to hate this song, because all the profits went to help sick and starving children in Africa—not once, but three times (it was re-recorded in 2004 and 2014, both times as charity singles).  But this song embodies for me all that is wrong with formerly (?) imperial countries and the way that they understand the world.

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An image from Iceland’s banned Christmas advert–perhaps the orangutan isn’t starving enough?

First, there is the idea that white westerners must save the Africans.  This is problematic on two separate accounts.  One, it ignores the fact that white, western countries stripped African countries of people and resources for hundreds of years through colonialism, and continue to do so—just ask the UK supermarket chain Iceland, whose Christmas advert heralding their ban on palm oil, the harvesting of which destroys orangutan habitats, was banned for being “too political” (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/09/iceland-christmas-tv-ad-banned-political-greenpeace-orangutan).  Nowhere in Geldof’s song does it suggest that Britain might help Africa because Britain helped cause the problem in the first place.  Two, even if you quibble with the notion that European colonialism continues to affect African countries, the idea that Africans need pity (rather than, say, economic development, fair trading practices, or reparations) perpetuates a racial hierarchy that is often felt much closer to home in the UK or US.  Several children’s books written by people of colour detail the humiliation of being compared with “pitiable” Africans; Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s semi-autobiographical Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995), for example, includes a school lesson about the famine in Biafra (1967-1970).  After hearing from Sister Agnes tell the class that “We in the West are fortunate to have fertile land, enough food, water and wealth . . . We must help those who are less fortunate” (29), Hope watches the pictures of the Biafran famine with horror and shame.  “How could Grandpa be proud to be descended from Africans?” (29) she asks.  Then she realizes that the rest of her class associates the starving children with her, even though she is from Jamaica: “I was the only black girl in the class and everyone looked at me” (29).  Hope’s classmates learn the lesson that it is acceptable to be racist, as long as you are charitable while doing so.  As Bono famously sings in the Geldof song, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”

The linking of race and poverty (consciously or not) is the most egregious of problems with “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” but it is not the only one.  Simplistic attitudes toward “the world outside your window” range from the idea that “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” (it actually does snow in Ethiopia, although not in the plains); to the idea that all Africans would care if they knew it was Christmas (about a quarter of the population is Muslim, to say nothing of other non-Christian religions); to the idea that if people don’t have the consumer trappings of a Western-style Christmas, then they will not recognize the day as Christmas.  Rachel Isadora’s The Night Before Christmas (Putnam 2009) tries to counter some of the stereotypical attitudes toward Africa by resetting Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in Africa.  Her dreadlocked Santa visits a family in Africa, bringing snow in his wake and providing presents from his sack.  Isadora, who is white American, lived in Africa for ten years, and has redone a number of traditional European and American tales by placing them in African settings; and although I think they are designed more to counter those naïve stereotypes about people in Africa for white people than I think they are for Africans themselves, it is still nice to see a book with a Black Santa on the cover.

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There will be snow in Africa–and Santa Claus too.

I thought about imperialism and its continuing effects too when I saw the cover of Esmeralda Santiago’s A Doll for Navidades (Scholastic 2005), which shows two brown girls cuddling a white doll.  Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, and illustrator Enrique O. Sanchez, who is Dominican, did not accidentally depict a white, blonde, blue-eyed baby doll.  The story is based on an incident from Santiago’s own childhood, when she longed for a doll like her cousin had and specifically requested the blonde blue-eyed baby as a present.  This recalls Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s infamous 1950 “doll test” in which all children of any colour who were offered white dolls or black dolls chose the white dolls.  The experiment was used as evidence in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to demonstrate the effects of systemic racism on children’s self-image.  Two of my former students—one Puerto Rican and one Dominican, as it happens—are currently looking in to what it means to have “national” children’s literatures in places where the shadow of imperialism (economic, political and cultural) still affects people on a daily basis.  What is interesting to me about Santiago’s book is that, while she allowed the white baby doll to remain, and titled the book A Doll for Navidades (Christmas), the book itself focuses on the difference between an American concept of Christmas and the Puerto Rican traditions.

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Giving the readers what they expect? Santiago doesn’t get the doll, and she doesn’t get anything for Christmas, because gift-giving in her Puerto Rican childhood happened in January.

The main character does not ask Santa for the doll, nor does she get gifts at Christmas.  The family go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and eat traditional dishes on Christmas Day, but the gift-givers are the Three Kings, and the gift-receiving day is January 6th (their feast day).  Again, these are, I believe, deliberate choices.  Santiago, writing for an American audience, allows readers to think they are getting a story that mimics American stories of writing to Santa with demands—but then, without fuss, gives a story that introduces other customs.  Further, the main character does not get the doll because her family cannot afford it; but this is not a story of wretched poverty and reluctant self-sacrifice.  Her sister gets the doll, and—seeing the protagonist’s disappointment—asks her to be godmother to the doll.  The children had learned to desire the consumer object made in a white western mode, but tradition and familial love made Christmas (and Three Kings’ Day) a memorable feast.

Playing Statues: Monuments, Racism, and Children’s Geography Texts

Do you remember playing a game, maybe at a birthday party, called Statues?  You took a statue pose and had to be the last one remaining still.  You often got a prize for not moving.  I had this image in mind over the last few days, as the events in Charlottesville had people all over the world focused on the way that statues can take us back in history and hold us in a place of racism, division, and oppression.

I’m not the only one who has been thinking about this.  London’s Black History Walks group (http://www.blackhistorywalks.co.uk/) has a list of eight statues and buildings with racist histories in the UK (you can sign up for their email newsletter even if you are outside the UK to get this and other stories, but if you can get to one of their history walks, I can personally recommend that you do so).  And of course there is the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which began in South Africa in 2015 and expanded to Oxford in 2016; this week the global editor of the Huffington Post, Lydia Polgreen, commented on Rhodes Must Fall as a model for Americans who want to remove confederate statues, although she added, “changes to monuments will only be enough once economic justice is included in the redress of South Africa’s socio-economic crisis” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2017/08/14/rhodes-must-fall-campaign-could-help-charlottesville_a_23076674/). There have been many critics of the idea of statue removal as well. I doubt I need to tell you who was “sad” this week “to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” but he is not alone in this sentiment.  Many have suggested that statues of racist and imperialist figures in statues and monuments remind us of humanity’s troubled past, and help keep us from repeating mistakes (although the logic of this when examined in light of this week’s events is somewhat questionable).

But surely, even if you believe that statues can tell a sobering history of human inhumanity, that story must be put into context; otherwise, viewers draw their own conclusions.  Many towns, for example, have statues of generals in full battle gear in triumphant poses, but only simple pillars or crosses to the many ordinary soldiers that died in the battle or war.  To me as a child, that always suggested that generals were heroic and important, but you should definitely try not to be an ordinary soldier, since their lives clearly did not matter as much.  There was no context to tell me anything different, especially before I could read.  Image was everything.

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CW Airne’s Our Empire’s Story shows a triumphant statue of Rhodes. Note that even in the depiction of the Last Stand of [white British] Captain Wilson, it appears the Matabili are losing.

Because of my own childhood experience of statues, I wanted to examine how children’s literature, particularly geography texts, considered statues.  The books I discuss here are from my own collection, which largely contains British empire and post-empire examples (it would be very interesting to look at similar geography books about the US).  Early examples often mentioned statues and memorials.  George Dickson’s A Nursery Geography (Thomas Nelson, ca. 1920) has two children traveling the world on a magic carpet; coming into London, “The first thing we saw was a tall column, the Nelson Monument.  We had heard of Nelson, the greatest admiral that ever lived, who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar” (131).  There is nothing here (or on the statue itself) to suggest that less than six months before his death, Nelson was vowing to fight “that damnable and cursed doctrine” of abolitionist William Wilberforce (http://blog.soton.ac.uk/slaveryandrevolution/tag/horatio-nelson/); in fact, most adults today are not even aware of Nelson’s pro-slavery stance.  C. W. Airne’s Our Empire’s Story told in pictures (Thomas Hope, ca. 1944) has drawings of several statues around the British empire; perhaps the most pertinent page to current events is the page on Rhodesia, which begins with a statue of Cecil Rhodes—contrasted with an “Ancient conical Tower in the mysterious ruins of Zimbabwe” (41)—and several pictures that show Rhodes’s influence (positive, of course).

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Taking a stand against imperialism and slavery; Morrison’s Guyana celebrates Cuffy rather than Victoria.

I was therefore quite surprised to examine more modern examples of geography texts and see how other histories often take pride of place.  My collection only includes a small sampling of geography texts about the West Indies (my particular area of interest) but the books I do have either ignore statues and monuments altogether, or highlight anti-colonial histories through their statues.  Marion Morrison’s Guyana (Children’s Press, 2003), part of the Enchantment of the World series, does not mention the famous statue of Queen Victoria, erected in 1887, dynamited in anti-colonial protests in 1954, and finally permanently removed in 1970 upon declaration of the Guyanese republic (http://interactive.britishart.yale.edu/victoria-monuments/210/statue-of-queen-victoria-), but has a photograph of a statue of the Berbice Rebellion leader, Cuffy (48).

Martin Hintz’s Haiti (Children’s Press, 1998) in the same series, not only has a picture of the statue of King Henri Christophe (22), but also includes an undated historical drawing of “A temple honoring the end of slavery at Le Cap” (85).

Sarah De Capua’s Dominican Republic (Marshall Cavendish, 2004) is perhaps the most disappointing of the books I found with statues.  Part of the “Discovering Cultures” series, the book not only elides Columbus’s connection with the slave trade on the page that shows his statue (11), it fails to discuss the front cover statue, the Monument of the Heroes.  Originally a statue to the dictator Trujillo, the statue was repurposed to depict heroes of the war of independence from Spain in 1961.  But nothing about the statue is mentioned in the text, while Columbus is depicted as the founder of the first permanent colony in the island.

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Malcolm Frederick’s Kamal Goes to Trinidad (Frances Lincoln, 2008), with its pictures by Prodeepta Das, could also have included a photo of the statue of Columbus that stands in Port of Spain, but instead, he chose a statue that acts as a reminder of both the British Empire and a time more than a thousand years’ previous (when Britain itself was a tiny outpost of the Roman Empire).  The inclusion of the statue of Hanuman, the Hindu deity, points out Trinidad’s multiculturalism that resulted from British imperialism—but the religion itself came before and outlasted that empire.

Statues depict a moment in time to remind people of historical events.  They can act as a way to glorify a less-than-glorious history, especially when viewed without a context (or with a one-sided context).  But as some of these examples from children’s geography show, statues can, paradoxically, show us a way to move away from histories of racism and imperialism, and toward one of ordinary people’s struggle against that oppression.

Fit for a King: Traditional tales and Revision

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The Oxford Reading Tree version of the Dominican tale, “The King who wanted to Touch the Moon.”

Since the referendum on Brexit, many of the British political parties have been in turmoil; I was camping along Hadrian’s Wall for a few days this week and came back to find that the UK had a new prime minister. The Labour party is also mulling over changes: should Jeremy Corbyn remain the head of the party? The thing that struck me most about all of the changes and potential changes is that they largely are being discussed at the top. Whereas Brexit was a straight majority-rules vote about remaining in the European Union, Theresa May became prime minister without an election, and the Labour Party is arguing over whether the “three pound” Labour Party members (who joined during the last Labour leadership campaign, and mostly supported Corbyn) should be allowed to have a say in the next leadership vote. This all, of course, complies with British political party policy—but many ordinary British voters might well begin to suspect that the leaders of the major parties do not really want to know what they think.

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Many voted for Brexit because they said they didn’t like the “elites” telling them what to do.

The upheaval in Britain made me think of a story that will be familiar to many Americans, at least those born in my era, Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle (1958). The story concerns a turtle king who wants to have complete power over all that he sees; once he does, he climbs higher to find more to conquer. Seuss has King Yertle climb on the backs of his citizen turtles to get higher; the lowest on the stack, a turtle named Mack, constantly complains but Yertle ignores him. The story comes to a climax when Yertle wants to be ruler of the moon and Mack, in protest, burps, bringing down the turtle stack and dumping Yertle in the pond.

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Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle has Yertle governing without regard to his people’s needs.

Somewhere along the line—I can’t remember when, but we came from a household where political messages in texts would have been suggested to us—I learned that this story was written with Adolf Hitler’s then-recent attempts to conquer Europe (and beyond) in mind. This is one of the now-accepted interpretations of the book: the author of the blog, The Children’s War, for example, writes, “Now, I am sure you can see the resemblance to Hitler and his quest for more and more Lebensraum in Yertle.  And it isn’t hard to figure out that the turtles are the German people under Hitler’s dictatorship” (https://thechildrenswar.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/yertle-turtle-by-dr-seuss.html). Seuss was certainly political; there’s even an American public television programme, Indpendent Lens, which has done an entire episode about “The Political Dr. Seuss” (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/politicaldrseuss/); the web page about this episode also mention the link between Hitler and Yertle the Turtle.

But Seuss’s story—though certainly originally presented—is not an original story. I recently came across a Dominican folk tale strikingly similar to Seuss’s story. Like Seuss’s story, it is set on an island. The island is ruled by a king, who has a wish for power, and makes his people serve his every desire. The Dominican story is entitled “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon.” In the Dominican story, the king gets his carpenter to tell him how to build a tall tower to touch the moon. Even though the carpenter knows that it is not possible to touch the moon, he and the villagers obey the king’s wishes and stack up all the chests and boxes in the kingdom. When it still does not reach the moon, the king insists that the people send up the bottom chest. They take it out, and the tower—and the king—fall down.

Seuss’s story and the Dominican folktale are similar in most ways. The differences are significant as well, however. In the Dominican story, people are the main characters. Even though readers/listeners would know that it is a folktale setting—the Dominican Republic was never ruled by a king, unless you go back to its Spanish colonial days—the use of humans connects the story directly to the readers. This is particularly important when versions of the story are published outside of the Dominican Republic. Oxford Reading Tree, for example, published a very simple version of the story entitled The King and His Wish (2011), authored and illustrated by Alison Hawes and Kate Slater. Although only the teacher notes indicate the story’s origins, the pictures of people of various shades who can see the foolishness of the king serve to underline the idea that wisdom (and foolishness, for that matter) is not just the purview of white, western people. Given the white, western publishing world’s tendency to place non-white people only in supporting roles, the message in The King and His Wish is not insignificant.

 

Another difference between the Dominican tale and Dr. Seuss is the ending. Seuss has Yertle become “King of the mud” while the other turtles become a free people. The Dominican tale, on the other hand, ends with a humble king who is better able to rule and will take the advice of his people. The distinction between a specifically (white) American individualism and the more communitarian approach of the Dominican tale reflect different approaches to government. Interestingly, the Oxford Reading Tree version has an open ending, with the king on the ground and the people standing round him with varying attitudes toward his demise. It would be interesting to hear kids from different countries and/or backgrounds discussing what happened next in the story.

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The Oxford version has an open ending; these are the last pages of the text.

 

Kings—and governments—fall when they don’t listen to their people. This is a lesson that both Yertle the Turtle and “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon” teach, and a pertinent one for our times. But the folktale version also reminds readers that the community has a role to play, not just in deposing government, but in making it better. And this too is a lesson fit for our times.