edited 27 Apr
I’ve posted previously about concerns I’ve had regarding books with anthropomorphic monkeys and apes. What I want to do here today is contextualize this concern by presenting some of the history of Negroes, apes and monkeys in the United States. For the most part, I’m providing quotes and images, sticking with historical details. The last
quotes comes from a research study that questions the use of anthropomorphic beings to teach lessons to children. This is a first study on this type of representation in children’s literature which means more work needs to be done. Still, the study suggests children don’t learn from animals that have human characteristics.
But, not all books are meant to teach, you say? While books are often times fun and entertaining, they are still tools for socializing young people. They carry messages that indicate social status, uphold democratic values, enforce capitalistic ideals and value Whiteness. They teach us to order items from left to right, to be quiet, stand in line, how to speak to others, to collect things we value and to finish what we start. Books more often than not teach little girls and white, black and brown children their place and they value wealth, thinness, physically abled and heterosexual norms.
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 can be interpreted. And, when you know better, you have to do better.
In doing this research, there was so much I read that just made me sick, that made me so grateful that I and others African Americans have a sense of freedom in this country today. That we are still alive. And not just African Americans because Native Americans were often named in these writings as well as the Irish.
“The starling human appearance and movement of the “ape” – a generic term though often used as a synonym for the “orang outang” – aroused some curious speculations.
In large measure there speculations derived from traditions which have been accumulating in Western culture since ancient times. Medieval bestiaries contained rosters of strange creatures who in one way or another seemed disturbingly to resemble men. There were the simian and the cynocephali and the satyri and the others, all variously described and related to one another, all jumbled in a characteristic amalgam of ancient reports and medieval morality. The confusion was not easily nor rapidly dispelled, and many of the traditions established by this literature were very much alive during the seventeenth century.”
Winthrop, Jordan D. (1968), White over Black : American attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill, NC: Institute of Early American History and Culture.
“According to his theory – which is really not new, but newly fortified or demonstrated – mankind and the tree-climbers (monkey’s, chimpanzees, apes, etc.) have evolved independently of each other both orders having branched off separately from an original form not yet fully identified.
This theory completely disposed of the widely accepted corollary of the early theory that the white races evolved from the simian (monkey) family THROUGH [emphasis not mine] the Negro. That is, that the whites represent a later and higher, evolution.”
Murray, F.H.M. (11 Jan 1930) Theory of close relationship of Negro and monkey gets another set back. The Baltimore Afro American, p. 6.
“Hitler found quite a bit to admire about this country during its apartheid period. Writing in the early 1930’s, he attributed white domination of North American to the fact that the Germanic People’s here had resisted intermarriage with – and held themselves apart from – “inferior” peoples, including the Negroes, whom he describe as “half=apes”.
“He was not alone in these sentiments. The effort to dehumanize black people by characterizing them as apes is central to our national history. Thomas Jefferson made the connection in his notorious book “Notes on the State of Virginia,” in which he asserted fantastically that male orangutans were sexually drawn to Negro women.
By defining Negroes not as human beings but as beasts, the nation rationalized subjugation and cruelty – and justified laws that stripped them of basic human rights. The case of segregation itself rested heavily on the assertion that animal origins made Negroes feebleminded, smelly and intolerably offensive to white sensibilities.”
Staples, Brent. (28 Feb 2009) The ape in American bigotry, from Thomas Jefferson to 2009, New York Times, p A22.
“However, the type of story characters significantly affected whether children became more or less inclined to behave prosocially. After hearing the story containing real human characters, young children became more generous. In contrast, after hearing the same story but with anthropomorphized animals or a control story, children became more selfish.
Larson, Nicole E., Kang Lee and Patricia A. Ganea. (2017) “Do storybooks with anthropomorphized animal characters promote prosocial behaviors in young children?” Developmental Science. retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/desc.12590