From Iceland — Ten Little Who?

Ten Little Who?

Published November 8, 2007

Ten Little Who?

When you dig up the past, you are bound to see some of the dirt. Unfortunately, this dirt is in the form of Icelandic artist Guðmundur Thorsteinsson’s depiction of black people illustrated in the children’s book, ‘Tíu Litlir Negrastrákar,’ first published in 1922.

Skrudda Ehf., an Icelandic publishing company recently republished ‘Tíu Litlir Negrastrákar’ (translated as ‘Ten Little Black Boys’ or ‘Ten Little Negro Boys’ depending on whom you’re asking) to an overabundance of mixed reviews. The story is inspired by a song entitled “Ten Little Indians,” written by American musician Septimus Winner in 1868. The frenzy and controversy surrounding this republication has raised several issues regarding freedom of speech, race relations and cultural sensitivity. The beauty of controversy is that it prompts discussion and provides an opportunity for understanding and discernment. However, we have yet to hear from the voice of those actually being depicted in the book… that is until now.

As an African American living in Iceland, how do you feel about the republication of Tíu Litlir Negrastrákar?
This “children’s” book is yet another confirmation of how some people in Iceland refuse to believe that the world is changing and that the population is evolving. It’s extremely disappointing that a publishing company would go to so much trouble to revive an “old classic” and yet not thoroughly think about the consequences of their actions. Did they think about how Iceland would look to the rest of the world? When a book like this goes public, it doesn’t sit in a box. The rest of the world is going to see this mistake and immediately form a lasting impression.

What exactly offends you about the book?
From the early 1800s to about 1910 white Americans, commonly known as minstrels, used burnt cork to mask their faces in black paint, coat their mouths with bright red lipstick and dance around on stage impersonating what they perceived as, “the happy nigger.” It was their way of representing what all black people were and should be like –lazy, shiftless and humorous baboons. When viewing Thorsteinsson’s illustrations for this book, those same racist images came back ever so hauntingly. It doesn’t compare to hanging a noose on my door as the racist incidents currently happening in New York City, but it hits another nerve of bigotry that runs a little deeper. The images so innocently framed in this book were specifically designed to dehumanize and mock black people for over a hundred years. Why would anyone want to recapture the ignorant and grotesque images that have oppressed an entire race of people for so long for the sake of celebration? Did Thorsteinsson produce any other material that did not include such racist ideologies? Why this specific story? Was republishing this particular story so important that it surpassed all judgment of racial awareness?

What would you say to parents who want to purchase this book for their children?
If you plan on adding this book to your children’s library, I’m assuming that your children know of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Miles Davis, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Dubois, Harriet Tubman, Barbara Jordan and other prominent black individuals. I’m assuming that this isn’t the only depiction of black people that your children will come to know and understand and that they have a myriad of other books to choose from that represent black individuals in a positive and uplifting light. If you plan to read and share this “old classic” with the kids at Christmas time, I’m certain you’ve explained and taught them about the racist history of the deplorable depictions of those ten little black boys in the story.

Do you honestly think that this book will do more harm than good to children?
First impressions make a monumental impact in our minds as individuals. If a child sees these particular images at a cognitive age, then yes, this book is doing more harm than good. As a child living in Iceland there are a limited number of ways for children to learn about black people, so shouldn’t we make the few images that they do see accurate and constructive? Why take them back to a time when black men and women were disrespected and ignorantly stereotyped as buffoons and demeaning punch lines?

So what’s the solution?
In my opinion all the books need to be recalled. According to Einar Skúlason, Director of the Intercultural Centre, after a public meeting about speaking freely, with a panel of professionals including a specialist in Icelandic language, a Doctor of Anthropology and the President of the Society of Publishing, it was unanimously agreed that this book was completely inappropriate to republish at this point in time. Although this book is a classic and traditional story, the images portrayed in the book promote the wrong images for children. Skúlason also added, “if a book was written 80 years ago about ten little [Icelandic] housewives, each dying from ironing or cooking, there would be women marching in the street right now.” I hear you loud and clear.

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