9-Year-Old Responds to Germany’s Row Over Racist Slurs in Children’s Books
January 23, 2013 Posted by: Derica Shields
Ishema Kane is one fierce nine (and a half) year old. Last week she penned a furious letter (interspersed with hand-drawn lightning bolts) schooling the editors of respected weekly German newspaper Die ZEIT on their defence of the derogatory word ‘Neger’ in children’s books. Ishema, whose dad is from Senegal, was responding to an article which argued that the slur, which translates roughly as Negro or the N-Word, should not be removed from children’s books like German classic Die Kleine Hexe. Apparently this is an opinion shared by 48% of Germans.
The row over removing racist language from books aimed at children is not new, and Europeans are particularly antsy about the idea. In 2007 Congolese campaigner Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo launched an ultimately unsuccessful bid to have the Tintin in the Congo books banned, and the debate spread from Belgium across Europe (see #tintingate). Change, where it happens, is often hard-won: people are still smarting after publishers turned Pippi Longstocking character ‘Negro King’ into the ‘South Sea King’, and Roald Dahl was irate about the NAACP ruckus that forced him to change Willy Wonka’s Oompa-Loompa’s from enslaved African ‘pygmies’ to green-haired imps.
Ishema suggests that instead of pontificating on artistic integrity or comparing redaction of racist words to book burning, white Germans should think about the effect such language has in today’s context “You cannot imagine how I feel when I have to read or hear that word. It is simply very, very terrible. My father is not a ‘Neger’ [lightning bolt sign] nor am I. This is also true for all other Africans.” Thanks to Afropean blog Stop! Talking for the translation and scan of the German original. Ishema deserves a Woman of the Year nomination for this one:
You’re in luck that I’m at least writing this letter to you in my best handwriting because I am very angry at you. Why should it not be prohibited to write ‘Neger’ in children’s books? One has to be able to put oneself in somebody else’s shoes. Because my father is Senegalese, and he is a very dark shade of brown; I am café-au-lait brown. Just imagine if you were Afro-German and lived in Germany. You’re a newspaper reader and unsuspectingly buy the ZEIT of January 17th 2013. Suddenly, you note the article ‘The Little Witch Hunt.’ This is when you read that the word ‘Neger’ is supposed to be deleted from children’s books, and that this would allegedly spoil the children’s books. I find it totally shit that this word would remain in children’s books if it were up to you. You cannot imagine how I feel when I have to read or hear that word. It is simply very, very terrible. My father is not a ‘Neger’ [lightning bolt sign] nor am I. This is also true for all other Africans. Right. That was my opinion. This word should be deleted from children’s books.
Ishema Kane, 9 1/2 years old
P.S.: You’re welcome to send me a response.
[more lightning bolt signs]“
Racist language in children’s books: In or out?
As a furious row in Germany over offensive language in a children’s book divides critics, Felicity Capon asks whether such books should be revised
By Felicity Capon11:41AM GMT
04 Feb 2013
The heated issue over racist language in children’s literature has once again made headlines across the continent.
One of Germany’s oldest children’s publishers, Thienemann, has decided to revise the text of Die Kleine Hexe (The Little Witch) after receiving a letter of complaint, the Guardian reported last week. A German father, Mekonnen Mesghena, wrote to the publishers explaining that the language was so offensive he could not continue reading it to his seven-year-old daughter.
The offending language was a passage in which two children dress up as “neger”, which can be translated from German as both “nigger” and “negro”. The book was first published in 1957 and has been a bestseller ever since. After the publishers consulted the book’s author, Otfried Preussler, who is 90, the language was edited to remove the offensive language.
But the decision has divided German opinion. Last Sunday the New Yorker reported that Denis Scheck, a German literary critic, appeared on TV with his face painted black to make the case that children’s books written in a different era should not be rewritten.
It is a sentiment that has been widely echoed, with much of the German press accusing the publishers of censorship. Die Zeit ran a front-page piece claiming that “a furore of political correctness is spreading over the land”. One German newspaper poll suggested that 48 per cent believed the text should not be altered.
But an upset letter from a nine-year-old girl, Ishema Kane, to Die Zeit, reveals the damage such language can cause.
“You cannot imagine how I feel when I have to read or hear that word,” she wrote. “It is simply very, very terrible. My father is not a ‘Neger’, nor am I.”
So should the language be revised or not?
It’s an argument that has been raised before, with mixed consequences. In 2007, a Congolese campaigner launched unsuccessful legal proceedings over a Tintin book, Tintin in the Congo, claiming it breached racism laws. Publishers came under pressure to change the Pippi Longstocking character “Negro King” to the “South Sea King” in 2011 and Roald Dahl’s Willie Wonka was revised when critics complained of racist overtones in the depiction of the Oompa Loompas. The title of Agatha Christie’s detective fiction novel And Then There Were None was originally published as Ten Little Niggers in 1939, and the novel’s setting on “Nigger Island” was later changed to “Indian Island”.
The arguments in favour of keeping the texts unchanged deserve consideration. Many argue that glossing over the past is counter-productive. “You can’t act like the past didn’t exist”, Gundel Mattenklott, a professor at the Free University of Berlin told the New Yorker. “Take the anti-Semitic children’s books of the Thirties,” she continued, “today we use those for scholarly research.”
But the fact is that children’s books like Die Kleine Hexe are primarily for children, not for scholarly research. Books should fill children with hope and assure them that they belong in a society which values them. Children don’t have developed critical faculties; they accept what their beloved books tell them. To come across exclusionary language that makes them feel inferior can only be damaging, as Ishema’s letter makes clear.
Encountering racist language in culture and arguing over its merits should come later in life. The furore over Quentin Tarantino’s new blockbuster, Django Unchained, has caused heightened controversy over its offensive language, yet this is a film directed at adults who can criticise, argue and evaluate whether such language offends, or serves to elucidate human experience.
Keeping original copies of the book for posterity to monitor how attitudes have changed is important. But language as upsetting as this has no place on a child’s bookcase.