This is a bit off topic but I want to know how other parents deal with explaining racism. I fondly remember reading Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back by P. L Travers as a child with my parents. However, now that I am reading it with my children, I realize that I forgot quite a bit detail within the story.
My Memories of Mary Poppins
I still have the original version that my parents read to me 20+ years ago. It’s a little bit faded and my siblings and I scribbled on a few pages. Needless to say, it was with very nostalgic feelings that I started to read it to my children. This book has been sitting on my bookshelf just waiting for the right time to share with the kids.
However, as I started reading the book out loud, my first surprise was to realize how vain and condescending Mary Poppins is as a character. I remembered Mary Poppins as a wonderful nanny who shared amazing adventures with her charges. I did not remember that she was constantly annoyed or that she had a vain tendency to gaze at her reflection in mirrors and windows.
Of course, after talking to my kids, they think this is just how weird adults act, so it did not surprise them at all. We laughed about how adults can act and forged forward.
Racist Caricatures while Reading
Then, last week, we read the Chapter “Bad Tuesday”. This is where I almost stopped reading. However, we persevered because if we cannot deal with this inside a family there is no way that we can deal with it as a society. So, we read the chapter together and talked about some of the content and why it was upsetting to me.
North was not too bad. They met some Eskimos that offered fur coats. However, the conversation was fast and generic.
Then, we got to South. The setting was in Africa with a man and a woman “both quite black all over and with very few clothes.” Okay… got it, Africa, we kept going. Then the author decided to have the Africans talk with an accent that harkens back to old school racist. “Ah bin ‘specting you a long time Mar’ Poppins.” Just because, we then read about the “tiny black pickaninny” referred to as an “it” and and invitation to share “a slice of watermelon.”
What!? The kids were reading over my shoulder and wanted to know the meaning of the words and why the text was written so strangely. We discussed writing an accent and how it can dip into disrespectful very fast. We talked about how the origins of the caricature and why it upset me. We spent a solid 10 minutes talking about the world and racism in general.
The caricatures of Mandarin to the East and Native American to the West were straight forward. No strange accents as if they could not speak normally, at least. Recognizable, generic descriptions of places the author probably never visited and just wanted readers to visualize as exotic. It was a good conversation about the power of words.
For my kids the best part was when Michael tries to take the compass and is attacked by the formerly friendly compass points. One son proclaimed “That’s what he gets for stealing and making fun of people!”
Probably More Shocks to Come
We have not finished reading the book yet. Last night, the biggest surprise was when Mrs. Corry broke off her fingers to give to the children as candy. My kids were both a bit shocked at that bit of fantasy. I did not realize that they both already knew the word “cannibal”.
At 5-8 pages a night, it is going to take awhile but we shall continue through it and discuss anything else as it comes up.
My Advice for Talking about Racism
My parents never shied away from conversation on controversial topics and I don’t plan to either. I want the world to be without this type of caricature. However, I grew up in Alabama. I know racism still exists. My hope is that presenting these things to my children in an open environment will prepare them for the world they live. I want them to be as upset as I when they run across casual caricature.
Even if it did not start on purpose, the book provides the fodder for meaningful family conversation about the world we want to have, because it is not quite there yet.