Nursery Rhymes

Got inspired by my buddies over at Anti-Racist Parent with this one about nursery rhymes and the racial undertones (and overt messages) of many of them. I realized I had a post in "draft" form about my family's visit to Storyland. In all honesty, we did have a very fun time and will absolutely return there at some point (when gas prices go down, perhaps?).

But, imagine our surprise when one of the first exhibits we saw was this:

 Funny.. this isn't how I imagined "Little Miss Muffett's" spider when I read that story.



Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, we went to the next exhibit and saw this:

I had never ever heard of this nursery rhyme, but apparently there is one about a young Indian boy named "Sambo". What was most disturbing interesting was when a white mother was reading the nursery rhyme (posted next to the cut out figure with brown hands) and the words "Sambo" just floated off her lips effortlessly. From Wikipedia:

The Story of Little Black Sambo, a children's book by Helen Bannerman, a Scot living in India, was first published in London in 1899. In the tale, an Indian boy named Sambo prevails over a group of hungry tigers. The little boy has to give his colorful new clothes, shoes, and umbrella to four tigers so they will not eat him. Sambo recovers the clothes when the jealous, conceited tigers chase each other around a tree until they are reduced to a pool of delicious melted butter. The story was a children's favorite for half a century, but then became controversial due to the use of the word sambo, a racial slur in some countries.[1].

My husband and I are pretty good-humored anti-racists, so we went on a quest to find ANY positive images of people of color at Storyland. Here's what we found:

That's right. The only dark skinned positive character is a guard .. and you really had to look to find him!

So, back to nursery rhymes ... we routinely change the words to nursery rhymes with our kids. We won't sing that "Rock-a-bye-baby" song, instead opting to create individual songs for each of our children. Even, "Ring around the Rosie" gets some lyric changes, too.

It's amazing how much violence, racism and sexism is ingrained in these songs that we have memorized and then teach our own children. Now, not to be mistaken - we don't totally innoculate our children just for the sake of doing so. And, yes, "we turned out fine."

When my kids were born, we asked that people not give us toys but rather books. Naturally, we received a number of "Children's First Nursery Rhymes" type books. I had put them away until recently when I started working with my 4-year old on reading skills. Well, I found that we had to get rid of the books because *I* (not she) was freaked out by the messages. How many more times did some one have to get eaten by a random wild animal? How many times did we have to read about bullying and manipulating others?

We do read the stories but process them a little differently.

  • "So, kids, how do you think that wolf felt when no one wanted to let him in?"
  • "Why do you think that 'troll' under the bridge won't let the goats pass?" "
  • "If the wolf wanted that little girl's basket of cookies, do you think she would have given it to him if he asked nicely?"
  • "If you are sitting and eating your cereal, and along came a spider, would you be scared?"

We recently bought the Jump at the Sun series books that have African American lead characters, and those are pretty much the only ones we'll read at our house. We also have other neat books like "Dim Sum for Everyone". Drop me a note if you have some well-written multicultural children's books, will ya?