Simianizations

I did a search for ‘monkey’ using the search tool for copyright free images on WordPress and these image came up amidst hundreds of monkey images.

 

 

Yesterday I had an article about blacks, monkeys, history and implicit bias in School Library journal.

I am continuing to research on this topic. There are so many ways to expand it, but what’s really important to me is that we move the talk forward. Instead of asking ‘when is it OK to have a monkey in a picture book, let’s ask ‘how do we stop the dehumanization of Black people, particularly through the association with simians?’ That’s the type of ‘diversity’ work the field of children’s literature should undertake rather than checking boxes and counting books. Let’s acknowledge that while one worldview dominates youth literature, it’s not the only one.

It perplexes me that there’s been so little written on these representations, so little on dehumanization in picture books in general. One thing I believe we can all agree on regardless of any affiliation or identity we maintain: children’s books are meant to spread US culture and value to our children.

What is it that we value?

I’ve notice wiggling among people who have been involved in creating books with monkeys and apes, claims of ‘it is just a monkey’.

It was to you.

To me, it isn’t.

I think we have to step away from binary thinking of who is right and who is wrong and consider the real possibility that anthropomorphic monkeys can be damaging. I can, and have, provided a multitude of correlating data but I cannot do the research that will verify what is my lived experience. There are social psychologists, anthropologists, and perhaps even linguists who can do that. Whiteness needs verifiable, quantifiable evidence, it doesn’t always appreciate ethnographic evidence.

Don’t artists already know that a critique of your work isn’t a critque of you? Examining these monkeys has nothing to do with creator’s intention. Rather, it considers how they are being read. It considers how the messages they convey are interpreted in the world.

There’s a very popular series in the UK called Noddy. It doesn’t seem to be too popular in the US, not many libraries carry it. The Guardian states that ” More than 200 million copies of his books have been sold in 40 languages since English children’s writer Enid Blyton snapped up the watercolour drawings by Dutch illustrator Harmsen Van der Beek of the perky elf with the tinkling bell hat.” I mention it here because for about 40 of those years, one of the popular characters in the book was Gilbert the Golliwog.  If you don’t know golliwogs, hit the link. They are still popular in Europe, despite the fact that Black people see them as antiblack, racist minstrels. When Gilbert was removed from the book, you know what replace him? Martha Monkey.

There will always be those who don’t care or who will rush out and purchase these books in solidarity to their own nostalgia. I do hope that when you do rush out, you take the time to read the books. I do hope that if you’re an educator with an inking of concern for the children in your care, you stop using these books in your curriculum.

Readers know YA is my lane, and it’s one I’m relatively new to. I don’t have a long history with Curious George. I remember him more from the TV show than the books. I can tell you that back when I first started this research, when I was critiquing Voices in the Park and Monkey Not Ready for Kindergarten, that I rejected the notion that Curious George fit this mold. I’d read a few articles and had an idea what to look for in the books, and then I picked up the very first Curious George book in the series. Here’s a Youtube video of the book.

When I looked inside, I was appalled at blatant imperialism in that book.

Even if you agree with some or most of what I’m saying, pick up the books I’ve mentioned and read them for yourself. Don’t just reTweet or re-post my work, but engage with it. It’s lonely out here on this ledge.

8 thoughts on “Simianizations

  1. Thank you for doing this work. I have a 2-year and am reading these books now and had been wondering about this but didn’t really know what to think about these books (5 little monkeys jumping on the bed, Grumpy Monkey, Voices in the Park). I’ll be reading more of your work. My parents emigrated from India in the late 60s, and I was called “Motu Ram” as a child as a term of endearment which translates to Fat Little Monkey. Monkeys seem to play a different role in Indian culture, but as an American I cannot ignore what you’re saying.

  2. Thank you for your article. I recall seeing another article about the topic some time ago; I am not sure if it was also yours. As an illustrator is does concern me, and I think it should for most of my peers. I do think most of us want to make things better, or at least, not make things worse. But considering the scale of the issue, and the lack of discussion of what to do, it well be that many illustrators don’t know how to start.

    Perhaps this would be a great topic for discussion at Kweli – Is there any way to depict monkeys in children’s media without perpetuating the harmful stereotypes they have come to portray? Can anything be done other that avoiding monkeys in children’s stories?

    It’s also sad that monkeys have been made to seem lazy and dim in US/UK stories; in other cultures monkeys can have positive associations (hard working, intelligent) , and some are even deities.

    1. I do think this is something illustrators are wrestling with in a unique way. I think the only question to ask is how do we end the perception that people of African descent are simians.

      1. Thank you for the reply. I do agree and think illustrators generally do want to help end that negative visual stereotype. It’s tricky though, as visual literacy takes time to build and change – we can help move it into a new direction, but it would be better if it were a combined effort between creators and affected communities. I think right now illustrators are left to figure it out on our own. So it tend to comes down to avoiding monkeys altogether, or making a best-guess efforts.

        Are there any picture books with monkey characters that don’t appear offensive or perpetuating the negative stereotype? Perhaps we can use those as a starting point or reference, as far as understanding what could work visually?

        1. It really sounds that you’re more concerned with keeping monkeys in books than with the dehumanization they bring to Black people.

          I was married to a Black man who wouldn’t take bananas in his lunch because of the “teasing” he would get from his white co-workers. But, illustrators want to know when it’s OK to keep monkeys in books? I recently had a teacher tweet me that while she was reading Grumpy Monkey to her class, one of the young black boys said out loud “I’m not a monkey”. The problem is larger than images in the books and trying to adjust the images won’t make them more palatable.

          I’d say it could be acceptable if the monkeys are not humanized. If they’re living in the forest with other animals and exhibiting authentic monkey behavior. There are some folktales that have monkey characters that don’t represent marginalized groups of people, however we’ve been using animals to diminish the humanity of outgroups for centuries. Perhaps artists could examine that history.

          But really, these anthropomorphic monkeys are going to be problematic until we as a society have stopped equating Blacks with monkeys and it no longer feels like these books are continuing this message.

          1. I apologize if my comments offended; I am not trying to discount your points at all.

            As picture books are, these days, viewed as a co-authorship between author and illustrator, I just feel illustrators should be part of the discussion to try and change things for the better. If the best thing to do is to simply not depict simians, then perhaps that’s the best we can do on our own. Certainly in stories where it is left to the illustrator to suggest the character, illustrators could be encouraged to not suggest monkey characters.

            The problem is bigger than illustration, and cannot be solved by illustrators efforts alone. I was hoping we could have more engagement to see what we could do with our skillset. Again, I apologize if my intentions came off wrong, and thank you again for your thoughts on the matter.

          2. I completely agree that this problem is bigger than illustration. I have for a while felt that illustrators have a peculiar role in this but the blame is not their burden to bear. And, I also completely agree that there needs to be a more engagement. This is an issue that concerns children’s books as a whole and the community should be discussing it and not looking at one person to dictate an agenda. If you reach out to Kweli, perhaps they’d be interested in facilitating something.

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