Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

On Revisiting 'Tarzan Lives!'

A 1978 study of Susan J. Hall and its relevance for Tamils

by Sachi Sri Kantha, September 9, 2008

It is no secret that the images of Eelam Tamils have suffered during the past 25 years, especially due to the depictions of them in the print, visual and electronic media. Pejorative images such as refugees, asylum-seekers, drug traffickers, and “terrorists” are not uncommon. The ten serious flaws identified by Susan Hall in 1978, about the coverage of Africa in children books published by the major publishing houses fit aptly to the coverage of Eelam Tamils by the major media outlets of America (USA and Canada) and elsewhere

Now that Barack Obama has made history in race-sensitive American politics as the first nominee with a parent from Africa for the US presidency on the Democratic Party ticket, it is not irrelevant to bring to attention a 30 year-old study on “New Children’s Books about Africa” (Inter Racial Books for Children Bulletin, New York, 1978; vol.9, no.1, pp. 3-7), and its relevance for Tamils in 2008. This study was authored by Susan J. Hall, then an education consultant at the African-American Institute and a doctoral student at Columbia University.

In her study, Susan Hall examined 18 books that were published by major publishing houses in 1977 and found out that only two of the 18 books were “free from factual errors, patronizing vocabulary and/or the most blatant ethnocentrism and racism”. For period orientation, I remind the readers that when this report appeared, Jimmy Carter was the American President, Leonid Brezhnev was the Communist leader in charge in Soviet Union, and Nelson Mandela was languishing in apartheid jail. Susan Hall had annotated briefly “ten most serious flaws” found in the books she had studied. These ten flaws were as follows:

(1) Factual inaccuracies abound.

(2) Historical accounts are often distorted.

(3) Pejorative language reinforces stereotypes.

(4) Africans continue to be described in cold-war terms.

(5) Customs and beliefs are taken out of context and the unusual heightened.

(6) African languages are misused.

(7) The ‘exotic’ is emphasized.

(8) Children’s books concentrate too heavily on folktales.

(9) Too few books are published in the US about contemporary African children.

(10) By far the worst problem that continues to plague stories about Africa is racism.

In the 30 years between the findings of Susan Hall’s study and the nomination of Barack Obama as the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in USA, the following landmark steps could be noted.

(1) Americans of African descent have ascended the political ladder in relative terms, and thus expression of overt racism in popular media has become unacceptable.

(2) As overt racism has become passé, euphemistic descriptions have gained relevance within USA to describe the political activism of Blacks.

(3) The cold war between the USA and Soviet Union was purportedly ‘extinguished’ with the collapse of communism in late 1980s in Soviet Union. [But last month’s Georgia- South Ossetia flare up had glaringly rekindled the American-Russian cold war embers and suspicions.]

(4) Power-holding American politicians and media personnel who came to maturity during the peak of cold war were in need of ‘inventing’ an ‘adversary’ as replacement for 1990s.

(5) ‘Terrorism’ became this new devil. Especially, ‘terrorism’ by non-white ethnics (whether they are from the Middle East or Africa or Asia or Hispanic America) became the new mantra of racism.

(6) The media pundits of USA (the likes of CNN or the New York Times or the Time magazine) trawled the territories in which there were political conflicts whose origins pre-dated 20th century and came to describe these political conflicts in terms of ‘terrorism’.

(7) The mandarins of the US State Department and the designated Intelligence operatives (always with eyes toward turf battles for budget), assisted by the ‘sermonizers’ and the local relays in their ‘countries of interest’ came to monopolize the media on demarcating who are “terrorists” and who are not.

(8) The expansion of internet from mid-1990s and its bells and whistles like the Wikipedia and its clones have come to jam the senses of fair description.

It is no secret that the images of Eelam Tamils have suffered during the past 25 years, especially due to the depictions of them in the print, visual and electronic media. Pejorative images such as refugees, asylum-seekers, drug traffickers, and “terrorists” are not uncommon. The ten serious flaws identified by Susan Hall in 1978, about the coverage of Africa in children books published by the major publishing houses fit aptly to the coverage of Eelam Tamils by the major media outlets of America (USA and Canada) and elsewhere, owned and operated by the moguls of Anglo-Saxon heritage. With marginal revision for geography, one can conveniently borrow/paraphrase the ten serious flaws reported by Susan Hall to the depiction of African Blacks, in describing the contemporary news coverage on the Eelam Tamils.

(1) Factual inaccuracies abound.

(2) Historical accounts are often distorted.

(3) Pejorative language reinforces stereotypes.

(4) Tamils continue to be described in cold war (or in ‘terrorism-tinged’) terms.

(5) Customs and beliefs are taken out of context and the unusual heightened.

(6) Tamil language is misused selectively to stress the ‘negatives.’

(7) The ‘exotic’ is emphasized.

(8) Academic papers and books concentrate too heavily on terrorism imagery.

(9) Too few books are published in the US about contemporary plight of Tamil children.

(10) By far the worst problem that continues to plague newsreports/stories penned by marquee journalists about Tamils is crypto-racism.

Among the above-listed ten flaws, I’d note that flaws from No.1 to No.4 prevail in the coverage of marquee Western journalists like Barbara Crossette and John F. Burns. Flaws No.5, No.7 and No.8 are accentuated in the writings of academics like Bryan Pfaffenberger (an American), Michael Roberts (a Sri Lankan emigrant to Australia) and Bruce Matthews (a Canadian).

Here is a classic example from Bryan Pfaffenberger’s description about LTTE in 1995, that incorporates the first 7 (but excluding 6) of the above-listed flaws, within 86 words and two sentences!

“With origins in the Karaiyar community of Jaffna’s northern coast, where significant smuggling had long occurred, the LTTE drew from this community’s long-standing familiarity with firearms, fast boats, and a disdain for laws regarded to be cynically pro-Sinhalese in nature; they found many comrades from other respectable castes as well, young men with no hope for their futures. The LTTE’s ideology amounted to a confused blend of ethnic nationalism and Marxism, but most Tamils had little doubt that the nationalism came first and the Marxism second.” [‘The Structure of Protracted Conflict – the Case of Sri Lanka’, Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 1995, vol.20(2), pp. 121-147].

I should note that flaw No.6 is a monopoly for some of the diaspora Sri Lanka watchers, who use Tamil words/phrases as ornaments for bragging attention as knowledgeable commentators on Tamil society, religion and anthropology. These scribes also feed distorted information to a few agencies with a penchant for releasing publicity-seeking proclamations as arbiters of the Sri Lanka civil war. Though I wish to refrain from naming names, I cannot omit two names; D.B.S. Jeyaraj and H.L.D. Mahindapala. In quite a number of their anti-LTTE polemics that I have read, both Jeyaraj and Mahindapala have sprinkled their English texts with clipped Tamil quotes from LTTE leaders (expecially Pirabhakaran and Balasingham), other Tamil politicians from earlier generations as well as Tamil Nadu leaders, but twisting the original contexts and time frames.

An in-depth study (along the lines of what Susan J Hall did in 1978 for American Blacks) on stereotypical images of Sri Lankan Tamils (including Tamil Tigers) prevailing in the mainstream print media in USA and Canada is a need of the moment. The available material is abundant. As such, one can focus on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and National Post (Toronto) to begin with. Negative portrayals of Tamil Tigers and their fans by marquee reporters like Barbara Crossette, John F. Burns and Stewart Bell (all with their inherent Tamil inadequacy and bias) deserve expose.

Just to mention an example, I sent the following email to Barbara Crossette on Aug.3, 2007, requesting a response.

“Dear Ms.Barabara Crossette:

Greetings from Japan. I'm a Sri Lankan Tamil, and have been reading your frequent journalistic contributions on Sri Lankan ethnic war since early 1980s. This is because, for the past 30 years I also have been contributing commentaries on Sri Lankan culture, but not as a paid journalist. My day job has been teaching and research, since I graduated from University of Colombo in 1976. Sometimes, I am puzzled by your observations and inferences. I'm a scientist, and we are trained to cite the sources. But, journalists like you are trained to hide the sources. This may partly explain my dilemma in deciphering your messages.

In your recent contribution to the World Policy Journal ('When violence is an end in itself', Spring 2007, vol.24(1): 57), you mention a quote from late Anton Balasingham, the LTTE ideologue, quipping, ‘We don't want tourists, we don't want outsiders' he said.’ Can you quote me a reference, whether this quip has appeared in print already. Can you also let me know, when and where did you ask this question from Balasingham? When you contribute opinionated, volatile statements from those who are not amongst us now, you should provide the context. Also, I like to know that you have been described in the blurbs as one who has covered Sri Lanka for two decades. Have you learnt to read and speak either Sinhala or Tamil languages? If your answer to this last question is in the negative, then don't you think that you may be missing some vital elements about the centuries old antagonism between the Sinhalese and Tamils? And also that your dark portrayal of LTTE may be incomplete and biased. I'd appreciate hearing from you. Thanks for your attention.”

Needless to note, I have yet to hear from her!

A google search for any reference to the thought-provoking 1978 paper by Susan Hall, elicited one citation to it by Nancy Schmidt in 1980, in her paper ‘Criteria for evaluating precollegiate teaching materials on Africa’, published in the Issue: A Journal of Opinion (vol.10, no.3/4, 58-61). Since I have preserved a photocopy of the Susan Hall report, I provide the complete transcript below for information and study. It is worth a look. Please note that the words in bold font and italics are as in the original. Though the statistics cited in this study and personality details relating to the assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat are period-specific and may appear dated, its main message on the dominant problem faced by the non-White cultures has not lost its relevance. Majority of the Asian cultures do suffer (like African cultures) in the mass media of America due to insensitive contributions from quite a number of empathy-challenged marquee reporters and writers.

Tarzan Lives! A Study of the New Children’s Books about Africa

by Susan J. Hall

[courtesy: Inter Racial Books for Children Bulletin, New York, 1978, vol.9(1), pp. 3-7]

For more than 12 years now I have worked with schools and libraries on a variety of projects evaluating educational materials about Africa. Most recently, I have been with the African-American Institute (AAI) where I undertook a study of US teaching materials about that continent. Our objective was to alert those responsible for creating, buying and using such materials to the common stereotypes of Africa that still prevail in US materials.

Last year AAI published the findings of this study, ‘Africa in US Educational Materials’. What the analysis demonstrates is that the content of textbooks and supplementary print materials has improved little over the past decade. Since I had already studied the depiction of Africa in textbooks, the Council on Interracial Books for Children asked me to analyze new trade books and apply to them the insights gained in evaluating text-books. I examined all children’s books on Africa published in the US last year. Although I knew that there had been a rather precipitous drop in the number of books about Africa since the late 1960s, I was distressed that I could locate only 18 titles released by major publishing houses in 1977.

Of the 18 books examined, only 2 books were free from factual errors, patronizing vocabulary and/or the most blatant ethnocentrism and racism. Listed below are the ten most serious flaws I found in these books. (Although 16 of the 18 books manifested one or more of the problems discussed in this article, I quote only the most striking examples in each category.)

(1) Factual inaccuracies abound. Statistics and similar data are often misreported or misinterpreted. A non-fiction book, Lila Perl’s Egypt (Morrow Junior Books), claims that the country’s ‘population is currently at 37 million, making Egypt the most populous country in Africa’ (p.133). Thirty-seven million is an accurate enough figure. But what about Nigeria with its 68-80 million people? A mistake like this is inexcusable. It could have been so easily avoided had the author or the editor referred to current United Nations figures, an up-to-date almanac or a recent atlas. Such an error alerts one to scrutinize carefully the rest of the books’s ‘facts’.

(2) Historical accounts are often distorted. The African history in children’s books is too often based on the impressions of travelers, not on solid research. In Jeremy and the Gorillas by Lillian Gould (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard) the reader finds the following about Uganda.

‘Because Uganda had been a British protectorate since the 1890s the official language of the country was English, which most of the natives had learned from the missionaries. But Jeremy found it easier to converse with them in Swahili, that mixture of Bantu and Arabic. After Kenya, Uganda was wonderfully peaceful. Its British administrators had never permitted Europeans to own the land; no one but the native Ugandans could farm it. (pp. 69-70)’

Criticism of the word ‘natives’ aside for the moment, most Ugandans did not learn English from the missionaries. Quite the contrary. Most missionaries in Uganda learned African languages and proselytized in them. The teaching of English, moreover, was not widespread in the country during the 1950s when the story of Jeremy is set.

In addition, there is no language called Bantu. The word is one that linguists use to classify tongues in much the same way they use the word Romance. It would have been more correct to say that Swahili is a Bantu language with some Arabic vocabulary just as French is a Romance language with some Germanic vocabulary. Finally, Europeans most certainly did own land and farm in Uganda. What makes the country different from Kenya on this count is that the Europeans did not own land on the same scale as in Kenya and by the 1950s many had abandoned their farms.

(3) Pejorative language reinforces stereotypes. Africans are still referred to as ‘natives’ or, worse, ‘savages’; their ways of life are described as ‘primitive’. In addition, they live in ‘huts’, not houses, and wear ‘costumes’, not clothes. Their religions are classified as ‘witchcraft’, their priests as ‘witchdoctors’ who use ‘magical potions’. These are only a few of the objectionable words I came across in the books.

If you are unsure as to why these terms are pejorative, ask yourself how often you use them to describe yourself or people perceived to be like you. Also, check the dictionary definitions of these words. You may be surprised to see how offensive their meanings are. Take the word ‘native’. The 1976 World Book Dictionary, a Thorndike Barnhart reference widely used in schools, defines ‘native’ as ‘a member of a less civilized people, usually not white (now often used in an unfriendly way).’ And consider the old movie cliché, ‘The natives are restless tonight.’ Neither picture is complimentary. Can we blame Africans for taking offence at the word?

‘Primitive’ is another commonly used term, as in the following from Egypt.

‘Today 57 percent of all Egyptians live strung out along the Nile and its canal networks in some 400 primitive villages. Most are without electricity, running water, sanitary facilities, paved roads, or telephones. (p. 135)’

What makes the villages ‘primitive’ is that they lack amenities we consider essential. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting for our children to have read what Egyptians have and value rather than just learning what they don’t have? Perhaps Egyptians and others do not value material developments in the same way we do. Not long ago an anthropologist did a study of an Egyptian village, focusing on the changes taking place there after the building of an industrial complex nearby. One of the spill-over effects from the new industrial site was that the villagers’ homes got piped-in water. Despite this new convenience women continued to congregate daily at the village level. It had always been the local gathering spot where women exchanged news with others in the village. The well had served a social as well as an economic function, and the women apparently valued the former more than they valued the convenience of running water. It is very possible that the people from the ‘primitive’ villages mentioned above would share this feeling. Children reading this book will have no way of finding out.

In the introduction to Who’s in Rabbit’s House? Bey Verna Aardema (Dial) we learn that Leo and Diane Dillon have used ‘typical’ Masai ‘hairstyles, costumes, jewelry, housing and general terrain’ in their illustrations. It is doubtful that the Masai think of their everyday apparel as ‘costumes’. Why is it that this word is used almost exclusively in descriptions of people whose clothing is ‘different’?

An Oba of Benin by Carol Baker (Addison-Wesley) tells how the Portuguese helped the Bini in a war. One bit of narrative says: ‘The Bini painted their bodies with magical potions for protection.’ Juxtaposed to this text is a picture of Portuguese in war regalia carrying a banner with a madonna in it; there is no corresponding narration describing their preparations or the significance of the banner. Yet both the narration about the Bini and the picture of the Portuguese are manifestations of the same phenomenon – peoples’ faith that a force stronger than they would help them win. Why then are the Bini presented as relying on ‘magical potions’? Were they not – like the Portuguese – simply following a religious practice?

It is a depressing fact that the authors of children’s books are still dismissing African belief systems as ‘witchcraft’ and dubbing their ‘holy water’ a ‘magical potion.’ Phrases such as these reveal more about a writer’s perspective and lack of knowledge than they do about the religious practices of Africans.

There are, of course, other loaded words in these stories. We have not yet examined ‘savage’, ‘hut’ or others. The point has been made, however. When we select children’s books about Africans and other Third World people we should be especially sensitive to the language used to describe the people and their ways of life. If the vocabulary is not that which we use to describe ourselves, we should check it carefully to make sure it does not conjure up negative images and reinforce damaging stereotypes.

(4) Africans continue to be described in cold-war terms. Governments are judged to be either ‘pro-Cpommunist’ or ‘pro-West’. Once more, Egypt offers an example. It gives a somewhat puzzling explanation of why and how the Soviets were expelled from that country, ending with:

‘This stunning move clearly indicated a further turning away from the Soviets to the Western and neutralist countries, as Sadat intensified his search for technology, military supplies, and economic aid in Western Europe, the United States, and China. (p.131)’

Perhaps more than any other African leader, Sadat has confounded US politicians and analysts. Does a statement like the one above provide any insight into his policies? Indeed not; in fact, such an explanation confuses his moves even further. For example, does the statement above indicate that we are to classify China as ‘western’ or ‘neutralist’? Couching descriptions of Third World countries’politics in cold-war terms is never helpful when one is trying to understand the meaning of events.

(5) Customs and beliefs are taken out of context and the unusual heightened. This practice gives aspects of African cultures more importance than they have to Africans themselves. Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove (Dial) abounds with examples of this practice. In a vignette of the Sotho people in southern Africa, the book tells how a bride carries a beaded doll instead of a bouquet at her wedding. The Sotho bride gives the doll the name she hopes to give her first child. This is all we are told about the Sotho. Now turn the vignette around. Suppose a southern African wrote  a book in which she included one tidbit about the US – ‘A US bride carries a bouquet of flowers. After the ceremony, she tosses it among the unmarried women guests. The people believe that the woman who catches the bouquet will be the next married.’ How quaint and strange we would appear! Moreover, the custom really tells very little about us. Why, then, do we stress such trivia about Africans?

The same books tells us that ‘A wealthy Quimbande man can have many wives.’ While it is true in many cultures that men are allowed by law to have more than one wife, reliable anthropologists and sociologists tell us that there are few cultures where the majority of men are polygynous. They estimate, in fact, that less than 10 percent of African men are polygynous. Why highlight the practice of a minority? The idea of multiple spouses seems to be a US preoccupation, judging from how often references to polygyny appear in our books about Africans. To take this one step further, turn the statement around. How would we react to reading in a book published in Africa about ourselves that ‘A wealthy US man can have as many wives as he can afford divorces.’ This statement has about as much validity to it as the statement about the Quimbande.

Perhaps the most blatant example of this practice can be found in Who’s in Rabbit’s House? Again the introduction gives the clue; it notes that the masks which make the actors use to tell their story are ‘the Dillons’ (the illustrators) own artistic invention.’ If Masai do not use such masks to tell their tale, why bother putting Masai in the story at all? The answer seems to me pretty obvious. The Masai are, in many people’s eyes, a romantic and exotic people. They are fascinating because they appear to be so different from ourselves. Masai are not seen as people worthy of our interest, understanding and respect; instead, they are perceived as objects of our curiosity. In Who’s in Rabbit’s House? They add ‘color’ to the tale, thereby increasing its appeal. But does the story tell us anything about the Masai? Nothing at all; in fact, it creates a false impression by imposing a foreign technique on their story.

(6) African languages are misused. Apparently attempting to bolster their own seeming authenticity, texts often intersperse their narrative with words from African languages when perfectly legitimate English equivalents are available. Frequently the result is that the Africans’ ability to master English therefore becomes questionable or the actual meanings of the words become distorted. In Jeremy and the Gorillas we read that the ‘Mau Mau’ came to kill ‘the bwana Jenkins and the kidogo bwana’ (p. 56). Interestingly, ‘Mau Mau’ is not even an African expression. It must have sounded like one, however, to the British who used it to designate those Kenyans who fought for independence in the 1950s. An author writing about that period of history should have known this.

‘Bwana’ and ‘kidogo bwana’ mean ‘mister’ and the ‘young master’. When I was in East Africa in 1962, Africans objected to the use of these words in an English sentence. If the expressions were considered derisive that long ago, why are they appearing in a 1977 book? What they imply is that Africans did not know words such as ‘mister’. Worse, they also make it seem as if the author is conversant with Swahili. Since ‘kidogo’ (The correct form would have been ‘bwana ndogo’. I am indebted to Sharifa Zawawi, my Swahili teacher, for making this point when I was learning the language.) is not correct grammatically in this context, the idea that the author has any knowledge at all of Swahili is highly questionable.

There is another example of this practice in Ashanti to Zulu. About the Hausa, the book says: ‘Allah is their god, and Islam is their religion.’ ‘Allah’ is the Arabic word for god. The way the word is used here would make the reader think the Hausa worship a different god from the being we call by that name.

Rafiki by Nola Langner (Viking) provides yet another illustration. It tells us that ‘In Africa Jambo means hello.’ Other Swahili and corrupted Swahili words in the text are also described as being ‘African’. But Swahili words in the text are also described as being ‘African’. But Swahili is not spoken all over the continent. West Africans do not greet each other with ‘Jambo’; nor do the majority of Northern, Southern and Central Africans. In fact, the majority of Africans do not speak Swahili. Why generalize, sacrificing accuracy, when it is not necessary? We already have so many false ideas about the continent it is disturbing to find new ones being invented and perpetuated.

Rafiki has another language-related problems. At the story’s opening, we read that ‘Rafiki walked into the jungle.’ Since a jungle is ‘an impenetrable thicket or tangled mass of tropical vegetation’ – according to Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary – one can only wonder how the little girl could manage to walk into it. ‘Jungle’ is, in addition, one those buzz words so often wrongly associated with Africa, conjuring up visions of an ‘impenetrable continent’. Yet only about 7 percent of the continent is even forest, with what little ‘jungle’ there is existing on the banks of rivers winding through the forests. When will authors and publishers realize that obviously inappropriate words, such as ‘jungle’, detract rather than add to the authenticity of a story’s African setting?

(7) The ‘exotic’ is emphasized. ‘The Dogon people,’ Ashanti to Zulu tells us, ‘are farmers. They live in Mali, where they carve their fields into the rugged mountains like wide, flat stairsteps.’ There is nothing wrong with this text. The mischief is caused by the accompanying picture which prominently features Dogon dancers wearing tall, carved wooden masks. Children examining this illustration might well wonder how the Dogon people can perform arduous farming tasks wearing such encumbrances. Dogon carving and dancing are sophisticated art forms with significance to the Dogon people. Portraying them in this out-of-context manner caricatures these arts. It also subtly underscores one of the most objectionable stereotypes we have of Africans: they sing and dance a lot.

Charles Bible’s Hamdaani: A Traditional Tale from Zanzibar (Holt, Rinehart and Winston) is another picture book with problems. The adults are realistically drawn, but the children are not; they look like miniature adults. The effect of this is that, once again, Africans appear to be strange looking people.

Professor Coconut and the Thief by Rita Golden Gelman and Joan Richter (Holt, Rinehart and Winston) is a story of two eight year-old boys – one African, one American – who solve a rather humorous mystery in an anthropologists’ camp. Sipo, the African boy, ‘lives with his grandmother and his monkey, Kima’ (p.10). While I suspect that there are African children who have pet monkeys that are allowed in the home, these households would be highly unusual. What is common is that most African eight year-olds have never seen a monkey; those who have probably saw the animal in a zoo or game park. What this ‘cute’ arrangement does, unfortunately, is to reinforce US views of Africans as ‘quaint’ people.

By way of contrast, a 1977 children’s book that eschews the exotic is Eloise Greenfield’s Africa Dream (John Day). The book is, however, not precisely about the continent but about a child’s dream of it. As she sleeps, a little girl imagines that she visits Africa. The device is a clever one for it allows the author to leap from place to place, back and forth in time. Children reading Africa Dream might well be stimulated to take imaginary trips on their own to the inviting continent they have encountered in its pages.

(8) Children’s books concentrate too heavily on folk tales. Given this concentration, US children have little access to the richness and variety of the more complete body of African literature. Worse, they are likely to have little knowledge of its existence. Of the 18 books examined for this article, 6 were folk tales. No other genre was represented by so many offerings.

A couple of the folk tales have already been alluded to here as displaying stereotypes; only one of the others is outstanding enough to deserve mention, Lise Manniche’s How Djadja-emankh Saved the Day (T.Y.Crowell). It is an ancient Egyptian tale that has been reproduced on one side of a scroll made to look like papyrus, with the story moving from right to left in the manner of hieratics from which it was taken. The story is also accompanied by notes on its origin and background. It is a rare find. (One caveat. The words ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ are both used to refer to a queen in this work. The two words are not synonymous. Since the queen, Hetepheres, was the ‘most important’ female in the palace and the mother of a king, ‘woman’ seems the more appropriate term.)

The other folktales I looked at are generally told out of context, thereby depriving the reader of insights into the cultures from which they were taken. They also give few clues about other forms of African literature. What of African proverbs, which in some societies form the underpinnings of the legal system? Why are there not books of African poetry and plays for children? Is there no interest in books written by Africans for childen? By ignoring this wealth of literature we shortchange Africans, our children and ourselves.

Another serious consequence of this infatuation with folktales is that there are few books reflecting Africans’ interests and concerns. For example, 1977 produced no trade books for youngsters dealing with southern Africa. Yet our media frequently carry stories about the Black African struggle against minority rule there, indicating that both Africans and Americans are affected by current events in that area. Stories about this struggle for liberation could go a long way toward helping children understand and interpret the world in which they are living and growing up.

(9) Two few books are published in the US about contemporary African children. In part, this is a reflection of the problem mentioned above – the publishers’ preoccupation with folktales. Of the books surveyed, only one had a contemporary African child in a major role. Even he, however, had an American counterpart who also served as the story’s narrator. An Oba of Benin is purported to be the story of a fifteenth century prince, Ewedo. Yet Ewedo turns out to be of secondary importance to the information given about the times. And Jeremy, in Jeremy and the Gorillas, is the son of white settlers who in the 1950s probably carried British passports. Are we to assume that African children’s lives are not interesting enough to be subjects of US children’s books? Do we know so little about African life and values that we cannot create imaginative novels about the continent’s children? Youngsters are naturally curious. It is time we capitalized on this by giving them books about their contemporaries in places about which they know little, books which can validly expand their enjoyment and knowledge of their world and themselves.

(10) By far the worst problem that continues to plague stories about Africa is racism. Of course, all the flaws mentioned above could be described as manifestations of racist and ethnocentric attitudes and practices. However, in some cases the racism is more overt. This is best excemplified in Jeremy and the Gorillas. After Jeremy’s family dies tragically, the boy flees Kenya and ends up living near the Uganda border with a gorilla band. One day while the animals are off foraging for food, the gorilla leader is speared by several Africans. Jeremy finds them eventually – four Africans with hunting dogs – as they are standing over their prey. He shrieks at them to leave. Terrified, the Africans run off – leaving the gorilla dead, the rest of the band bewildered, and Jeremy to ponder and finally to proclaim loudly that he has ‘proven his manhood’ by the incident. The young, defenseless, white boy has come to adulthood by frightening four Africans with weapons! Besides being somewhat difficult to believe, the incident is reminiscent of the attitudes and incidents that occurred in Tarzan stories. What makes it even more offensive, however, is that it is found in a book published in 1977.

The year 1978 is now upon us. Perhaps it will bring some new children’s books about Africa that will make us forget last year’s poor crop. Perhaps. I am not hopeful. I keep thinking that Tarzan is alive, well and actively at work still forming US attitudes about Africa. Until we adults are able to lay his myth to rest, it is unlikely that the books we produce for our children will be free of the Tarzan image.

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