What Makes a Book Untouchable?
Thousands of racist books are no longer in publication, let alone circulation. They became obsolete or deteriorated and were weeded from the shelves, probably by a librarian who found their contents humorous or horrifying or both. However, many remain based on popularity or awards. Such titles would never pass modern selection criteria, yet they remain untouched due to status.
There are three fundamental attributes that racist classics share. First, many of them sport shiny metallic stickers, awarded decades ago by librarian associations. Second, they hold nostalgic value. Grandparents, parents, and teachers who read them in their youth share them with the children in their life. Nostalgia perpetuates the third attribute: popularity.
Throughout the 20th century, librarian associations devoted to establishing children’s literature as a respectable genre have highlighted books deemed outstanding with awards and medals. Once a book receives recognition from an influential organization like the American Library Association, it becomes a classic – a story to be passed down from generation to generation.
Nostalgia and popularity operate in a cycle. Readers who grew up with certain beloved titles want to share these titles with their children. Often, children connect with books because their parents show a lasting fondness for them. The danger of nostalgia is that it causes a certain blindness toward culturally insensitive content. Often, bias is in the details, which are easily read with a blind eye and then forgotten. This is especially true when the book was written for a white audience at a time when racial slurs were the norm. Our nostalgia for the theme of the book leads to forgetting the details. However, as Chambers points out, “a ‘small detail’ may linger in some memories long after much of the book has been forgotten. This applies especially to children’s books portraying different cultures where attention to accuracy and authenticity is crucial” (1983).
The power of nostalgia is that it perpetuates the popularity of titles that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable. One such example is the Tin Tin series. Written in the 1930s by Belgian author George Prosper Remi (aka Herge), the books are full of colonialist propaganda and nationalistic patriotism. In Tin Tin is the Congo, Africans are drawn in blackface and made to seem grateful for Belgian colonization. These images are wildly racist yet the Tin Tin books are in constant circulation in libraries and are heavily reprinted.
Tin Tin in the Congo, 1931
The popularity of culturally insensitive titles like Tin Tin create an added dilemma for library selectors. A book that enjoyed popularity in its time, then was propagated out of its time on the basis of nostalgic value becomes a trend. When things are trendy, most people – children as well as adults – don’t question their context or content. When demand for a culturally insensitive item is high, librarians may need to indulge patrons' requests and include the book in the collection. But librarians can also use the book and books like it to create dialogue and a deeper interest in content. On using classics as vehicles for deeper understanding about our communities, Philip Nel, author of Is the Cat in the Hat Black? explains:
"I think that what we have to do is admit that our relationships with these books can be complicated. It's okay to think fondly of a beautiful story, but you need to also think about the way in which that beautiful story may also be racist. We can talk about what is masterful about it or what is artistic about it, but we also need to talk about some of the things in the book which are not, and if presented uncritically are simply transmitting these ideas to a new generation. I think adults need to recognize that their fondness for a book or a movie is not a defense of that. I think you would actually have a richer and more profound relationship with a work if you do think about it critically, and if we do acknowledge those mixed feelings" (Nel quoted by Fattal, 2017).