San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Books

'Cocorí,' a racism debate, and a brief history of controversial children’s lit

Not long ago, legislator Epsy Campbell Barr took issue with one of the most famous works in Costa Rican literature, “Cocorí.” Written in 1947 by Joaquín Gutiérrez, the book is required reading in public schools. But Campbell objects to this requirement, because she says the book has racist content. She also objected to a new musical adaptation by the National Music Center, which led to a freezing of the project.

The book concerns an Afro-Caribbean boy who stumbles into a blonde girl from a distant land. She gives him a rose, then asks Cocorí to find her a monkey as a gift. He spends most of this book embarking on this quest, interacting with talking turtles, crocodiles and snakes. He narrowly avoids getting eaten in the jungle, and meanwhile contemplates the fleeting nature of happiness.

Whether you find “Cocorí” racist may depend on how you perceive the image above. Since its publication, Cocorí has become a beloved classic of Costa Rican literature. There is a Cocorí bookstore in Escazú, a Hotel Cocorí, and cocori.com, a tourism information site.

An English-language version of the book presents a more stylized illustration, reminescent of artist Romare Bearden.

Courtesy of Goodreads

 

 

But you might also look at a large-lipped, wide-eyed, kinky-haired boy with an unbuttoned shirt searching for a monkey and feel uncomfortable – or even horrified – by the caricature. Many different artists have illustrated their version of Cocorí, and in many different styles. Yet “Cocorí” has enflamed debate since at least the 1990s. An art exhibit last year at TEOR/éTica gallery took its inspiration from “Cocorí” and the ways that Afro-Caribbeans are represented in Costa Rican media.

Predictably, the disagreement has become a polarizing debate about racism versus censorship, and everyone from Facebook users to the president have weighed in. Children’s books are always a sticky issue, because they are often the first stories a child ever encounters. The literature we read in youth, say critics, might impact our worldview for years to come. Throughout the world, concerned parents and politicians have disputed the appropriateness of certain works, duking out their philosophical differences in newspapers and courtrooms.

In honor of this ongoing debate, here are some examples of beloved children’s books that have caused controversy or fallen completely out of favor. Most of these authors probably did not consider their depictions racist, but their words and illustrations have become more controversial over time.

‘Uncle Remus’

When the first “Uncle Remus” book was published in 1881, people loved it. Like Costa Rica’s own Tío Conejo, Br’er Rabbit was a wacky bumpkin who liked to play jokes on his fellow mammals. The idea of publishing African-American folktales might have seemed progressive for the time, considering lynching was a routine pastime in the U.S. South during Reconstruction, and phrenologists viewed African-Americans as an inferior species. (Even Mark Twain allegedly read “Uncle Remus” tales to his children.) The stories were so beloved that Walt Disney Studios produced its film adaptation, “Song of the South,” in 1946. Today, the movie is widely viewed as unwatchably offensive – so much so that Disney no longer distributes the film in the United States. You can easily find the book, but it isn’t read in your standard U.S. kindergarten.

‘Peter Pan’

In many ways, “Peter Pan” both celebrates and critiques the nature of youth: A boy who never grows up is always vibrant and fun, but he remains immature his entire life. Neverland is exciting and full of adventure, but the “Red Indians” of J.M. Barrie’s novel don’t sit well with a modern adult. Concerned parents might accept an 8-year-old pretending to beat a tom-tom, speaking in broken English and claiming to be of the “Piccaninny tribe,” but they might object to this portrayal of Native Americans in a public school classroom. And in case you aren’t current on your Edwardian slurs, “Piccaninny” was not a flattering word, even in 1911.

‘Tintin’

Overall, the Belgian journalist Tintin is a globetrotting do-gooder, and he interacts with all kinds of different people. He’s a brave and accepting little rascal, and his natural curiosity makes him a worthy hero – until he arrives in the Congo. Tintin’s African adventure is one of the most infamous episodes in popular comics, and Tintin’s creator Hergé later expressed regret over his embarrassing portrayal of Congolese people. As expected, Cracked.com provides a hilarious, NSFW analysis of exactly what’s wrong with “Tintin in the Congo.” The not-funny part of this story is how thoroughly the Congolese suffered at the hands of the Belgians.

‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’

Like most of Rudyard Kipling’s books, there are at least two ways of looking at the children’s story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”: On the one hand, it’s the tale of a heroic mongoose who dutifully protects his home from venomous snakes. He cares about his adoptive human family, and he fearlessly fights off the home invaders. On the other hand, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is a nonsense name for an animal that could easily represent the loyal Indian servant. Just as British imperialists invaded India and violently subjugated its people, the English family builds a house and must fend off “natives,” here represented as conniving serpents.

‘Little Black Sambo’

Much like “Uncle Tom” and “Mammy,” the very name has become a synonym for racism. In the United States, even uttering the phrase “Little Black Sambo” is to invite a long and passionate argument about race relations. But it’s safe to say that most people have never even read “Little Black Sambo,” the original book by Helen Bannerman. The plot itself is harmless, even a little trippy, with talking tigers that turn into butter. (No, really.) If the protagonist’s name were changed to “Eustace,” it might not receive a second glance. Weirder still, the story takes place in southern India, and Bannerman was Scottish. In this case, the name has become far more significant than the original text.

How will “Cocorí” seem to Costa Rican readers in 60 more years? Only time will tell.

Contact Robert Isenberg at risenberg@ticotimes.net

Log in to comment

peacenik

My mother, whose roots were in Central Europe, a hodge podge of nationalities, wanted us to see the world as full of different kinds of people. She took us to see Song of the South and we had Little Black Sambo among our books. I thought he was from India with all those tigers. We also had the nationality dolls from the UN and library books about children in other countries. (I remember especially the Hungarian girls with all the petticoats)
We learned to accept everyone and not look at color or nationality.

Cocori is not a racist book just becuase the character is from Limon. Years ago in the states some people claimed that Huckleberry Finn was a racist book when it was an anti racist book written when slavery was still around.

0 0
Ken Morris

I’m a lifelong fan of Br’er Rabbit, plus know a little something about it and the historical context out of which it emerged.

Br’er Rabbit was not a “whacky bumpkin,” as this article claims, but a clever trickster. The tales can be traced to West Africa, where the trickster was often a spider rather than a rabbit, and the stories were both repeated and embellished many times during slavery, where the trickster was often a slave outwitting the master. As such, the stories display the cleverness and even the heroism of the slaves and are a proud part of African American history.

Where things went afoul was when, sure enough, it was a white guy who compiled the stories and presumably made money off them. However, it’s not clear to me whether the compiler of folk tales is guilty of racism or anything else. If this is the criterion, Alan Lomax is guilty of having recorded some of the early blues musicians, even though most people today regard his work as having been crucial to the preservation of this largely black musical genre.

Where things went further afoul was when critics pounced on Harris for having used phonetic spellings to capture the Southern black dialect of the time. Of course, Mark Twain and zillions of others did the same thing (while William Faulkner did the same for white dialects), but the argument is that (a) all spoken speech is at odds with written words, so (b) singling out a black dialect for phonetic spellling implies that blacks uniquely speak in slang and is therefore intrinsically prejudicial.

People can make up their own minds about whether as presented the Br’er Rabbit stories are demeaning to African Americans. My own opinion is that is that they aren’t, and it takes small-minded people to read prejudice into a literature of which all Americans, especially African Americans, ought to be proud. However, given that the world is full of small-minded people, prudence probably dictates that the Br’er Rabbit stories not be assigned in elementary schools. Fortunately, there are other versions of the same African American trickster stories that can be assigned with less risk of offending anyone–and they definitely should be assigned while Br’er Rabbit schould be available in the school libraries.

Meanwhile, the Tico Times might want to take more care in its summary description of Southern culture historically. Reconstruction ended four years before the Br’er Rabbit stories were published, and lynching was hardly a “routine passtime in the US South during Reconstruction.” Actually, blacks did fairly well comparatively during Reconstruction, with the tide turning against them in the 1890s and early 20th century. I think you’d find that the rates at which blacks were lynched in the South peaked a generation after the Br’er Rabbit stories were published, and the causes are much more complex than merely the alleged perpetuation of supposed Southern racism. In Georgia, where the Br’er Rabbit stories were compiled (the same town that was later the setting for “The Color Purple”) the tide seemed to turn with fracturing of the populist farmers’ movement around the turn of the 20th century coupled with the harsh economic times almost all Georgians experienced as a consequence of their economic exploitation by the North (which generally produced so-called “scientific racism” too). The notion that all or even most Southern whites were rabid racists lynching blacks as a “passtime” is an offensive prejudice of Northerners, who to this day ignorantly repeat it is fact.

Come on, the South is way more complex and diverse than these caricatures of it suggest, as also are the Br’er Rabbit stories.

0 0
Robert Isenberg

Ken: Many thanks for your comment — and your wealth of information about the Br’er Rabbit stories. I appreciate your historical clarifications. It is typical for Northerners to downplay or simplify the complexities of Southern life, and it’s important for people like you to step up and not let writers like me gloss over these facts. I think this kind of discussion is exactly what is needed to figure out Cocorí’s role in modern Costa Rican culture.

And for what it’s worth, I loved Br’er Rabbit as a kid, and I was a raging Anansi fan. “Trickster” is the better word.

1 0
MikeCrump

This is a thoughtful and timely article. Our diminutive views of classes of “other” people reflects the mores of the culture in which we are raised. We don’t even see it therefore we cannot choose to not act in a racist manner. I grew up in the usual unconscious conditions of all children to the racism in my own part of the U.S. But once I became aware, I lost my “immunity,” so to speak. I am now accountable for whether I’m racist or not.

I think this makes children’s literature especially critical. Children cannot read Uncle Remus stories and simply think of them as reflecting a quaint attitude from a by-gone era. For that matter, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe falls into the same category. I don’t think that Costa Rica manifests the degree of racism found in the Southern U.S., but it is racist.

Costa Rica shares the same Euro-centric attitudes that European adventurers of the 16th through the 20th centuries brought with them. It is not a matter of laying blame on the colonists for their unconsciousness. It is a matter of owning our own attitudes, however innocently acquired, and acting to change ourselves and to prevent those attitudes from being re-transmitted. To my mind, freedom of speech means one can say or write what one thinks. It doesn’t mean that we must teach from materials that reflect earlier attitudes even if they have acquired the attributes of “classic” or “beloved.”

Mike Crump

0 0
David Boddiger

Very interesting comment. Thanks, Mike!

0 0