Is “Epaminondas And His Auntie” Really A Good Learning Tool For Children?


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img008 Looking through some things of my mother’s that I have not looked at since her passing some 10 years ago, I happened upon a book that was written by Sara Cone Bryant and illustrated by Inez Hogan back in the early 1900’s, called, Epaminondas And His Auntie. Right from the first page I knew that I was probably not going to enjoy this book, because the first illustration in the book showed a young black child looking like a black pickaninny of the old south. I was getting upset and I was yet to read one word of the story, so I put the book down and decided to get someone else’s opinion on the book, before reading even one page. I wanted to understand how people who knew of this book and who have read the book perceived it, because when I Googled Sara Cone Bryant she was described as a writer of children’s books, but more importantly her books were used as learning tools, much the same way The story of  Little Black Sambo was in schools. When I googled the title of the book itself I was directed to a site where I could buy a copy of the book and view comments and reviews of the book.  I was surprised to find out that:

  • Both white and black adults who grew up having this book read to them without seeing the illustrations and who took the time to comment were shocked that this book could be considered racist by anyone and in fact not only praised this book as being funny and entertaining, but also credited it with teaching them how to think fast and make good decisions and thought that it was a great learning tool.
  • Both white and black people who read this book later in life after having it read to them as children and seeing the illustrations and understanding what they were reading and who took the time to comment, thought that those who saw the book as racist were overreacting and making much to do about nothing and not understanding that this book was not really racist, because that is just how the blacks looked and acted back then.

img009It was time now to read the book for myself and see if my instincts were correct, or was this just an innocent children’s book, a simple learning tool taken way out of context by oversensitive people with no tolerance for racial humor, for whom time is no justification for racism and for those who believe that a lot of the reasoning for many of the racial untruths throughout history are often taught to children in subtle, seemingly innocent ways.  I remember being taught the story of,  “Bunga The Little Jungle Boy” from my school geography text-book titled, “Visits in Other Lands”. This was a text-book used to teach my mother and her siblings who were 9 in total and us her children. The text-book was used in elementary schools across North America from the 40’s into the 70’s. At 1st glance the book looked innocent enough, because many parents and students never traveled to these far away lands and so believed that the book was accurate when they depicted all Malaysian people as  backward living in tribes in the jungle, when in fact the people for the most part lived in cities, large beautiful and prosperous, like the city of  that of Kuala Lumpur. I now understand that the Visits in Other Lands Geography book focused solely on aboriginals of other countries and made the people appear to be tribal, childlike, backward and anything, but of the modern world, thus adding to the superiority of the coloniser  and the need to rule over the colonies, by the Brits and the other colonial empires of the time.   It was time for me to find out :

  • If the author was taking a shot at black people in general insinuating that mentally inferior black children grow up to be adult blacks who are  mentally inferior  by virtue of being born black, or was the making of  the characters black in Epaminondas And His Auntie really an innocent choice?
  • If not for racist reasons, why did the author not make the characters in this story white, like in Dick and Jane?
  • Should this book be banned as is the story written and illustrated by, Helen Bannerman, The Story of Little Black Sambo?
  • Is this the type of story I would read to my child, or grandchildren? Would  I want this story read to them in school? Is this book something that I  would give to my grandchildren to read?
  • Is the story saying, “Use the brain God gave you and do not be stupid like those poor darkies who do not know any better”, or perhaps, “No matter how hard you try to teach them the simplest of things, children like Epaminondas cannot be expected to do things right and are incapable as adults to explain what it is that they want?

img001It did not take a long to read the book, because it has only 16 pages, with more space devoted to the illustrations than to the words. In all of the 16 pages there are a total of 5 different things that a normal child of Epaminondas’s age should have known and been able to figure out, unless he or she was mentally challenged, but not once does Epaminondas get it right and not once is his mother, or his auntie given the ability to be able to teach him anything. Epaminondas in this story is made to look as if he should be smart enough and old enough to be sent on errands alone, but proves over and over again that he does not possess the intelligence to understand the simplest things like:

  • If you hold cake tightly in your fist it will crumble to bits, or even that there is something wrong once it happens.
  • That if he did not keep the butter cool and protected from the heat of the sun on the way home it would melt, or that once he noticed that it was melting to do something about it, because it would be useless if he let it continue to melt.
  • That as he held a puppy by its tail and repeatedly dunked the puppy under the water that he was hurting the puppy and so continued to do it until the puppy was almost dead.
  • That if he tied a sting to a loaf of bread and dragged it along the ground until he reached his home, that he was ruining the bread.
  • That when his mother said to him, “Be careful how you step on those pies”, he thought that she meant for him to step on them literally and did so.

The worst of it though for me is that the adults in this book were portrayed as:

  • Not being capable of teaching Epaminondas how to pick up and deliver a package.
  • Not having the intelligence to explain themselves to Epaminondas in a fashion that he could learn from them.

 My Review:

  • I found the book Epaminondas And His Auntie about as funny as watching a minstrel, or blackface performance. I guess I just do not find anything that can remotely considered racial humor funny, because someone somewhere is guaranteed to get hurt, or offended and that for me is enough to feel that it should not be encouraged.
  • I found that this book does reflect the thinking of the times in which it was written and whether it was, or not intended as a slight to black people, the illustrations and the accent applied to the language does smack of the stereotypical racist opinion of that time. A time when most people thought that blacks were inferior in all ways to most people, but especially in their ability to learn and therefore rationalised that teaching them was a waste of time and caused both the blacks and those trying to teach them great stress and mental anguish and so the practiced of educating blacks to do more than menial things should be discouraged for the good of all.
  • I know that this is not the type of story that I would have read to my children, or to my grandchildren, because intentional or not, whether they realised it or not the message of black people being inferior to everyone else and not being too bright resonates through the whole story; where even at the very end the adults are unable to teach Epaminondas anything and he is proven incapable of learning anything.

 I began to understand a little why children who grew up having Epaminondas And His Auntie  read to them before they were old enough to read, or understand what the accents and illustrations  implied were not offended as children, or now as adults.  I think that it had to do with the fact that:

  • If you were a little child having the book read to you most likely you were not seeing the illustrations that put the racial spin to the rather innocent, funny mistakes of this child and his mother’s and aunt’s failure to make herself clear to little Epaminondas.
  • If you were a little child who grew up having the book read to you, you probably were not hearing it in the black pickaninny dialect that the writing shows, further reducing the racial impact of the story and making it seem like they author could be talking about any child and any auntie, regardless of race and social standing.
  • As an adult you have been conditioned to think that there is nothing wrong with the book and find nothing wrong with racial slurs and racial humor and so remain a fan of this book. I think that those who still claim that this book is okay for children to listen to or read are the perfect example of why the book should not be read to young children.

img002This author is touted as being a writer of children’s books and this story of hers in particular is considered a learning tool and was used to teach children within the school system. What author, Sara Cone Bryant’s, or the illustrator, Inez Hogan’s   intent was when they got together on this book  no one can say, because none of us were there. I do know how it made me feel and how it would have made me feel if a teacher had made me read any part of this book out loud in class, knowing that all of the other children were looking at those illustrations and making the connection between those black pickaninny illustrations and me.

img006I think that we as a society and a people know when something is not right to do, or say, but too often choose to ignore the feelings of others and cling to the right of freedom of expression in order to be able to justify the hurt that we are causing with our insensitivity, when dealing with race related issues especially the ones concerning black people. I think at the very least this book allows for racist thinking and whether intentionally or not this book promotes it. This book could be used by racists to infer that all blacks are backward and find it hard to learn anything because they can not grasp problem solving on even the most basic level and I find it appalling that it would be read in public schools.

Story_of_Little_Black_Sambo bI grew up in a time when the story of Little Black Sambo was read to us in school and we had to stand up in class and read it out loud in front of the rest of an integrated class; listening to the other children’s snickers at the name of Sambo coming out of my mouth.  I remember the fights I got into when they tried to call me Sambo as well as being forced by the teacher to sing the Little Black Sambo Song. It was so embarrassing, humiliating and demeaning and yes at that age I did know without being taught by anyone that it was not okay and that it was not funny and that it hurt. Did I know that it was racism, or prejudice then no, but I will tell you this,” Not knowing did not make it hurt any less.”

002I do not think that any books should be banned, burned, or otherwise destroyed, (Not even this one), but I do think that we as people as a society, that we should be very careful what it is we put into our school curriculum for young children to learn and what we choose as learning tools.  Young children are like sponges and they soak it all in, impressions, prejudices and right from wrong are instilled in children in the first few years of their lives.  No child is born a racist, an angry activist, or with the feeling of racial superiority, or inferiority, those are taught to them by adults and passed from child to child and generation to generation.

Food For Thought:

This is part of an interview I read online titled, “Ethnic Notions Transcript”

NARRATOR: The mammy … the pickaninny … the coon … the Sambo … the uncle: Well into the middle of the twentieth century , these were some of the most popular depictions of black Americans. By 1941, when this cartoon was made, images like these permeated American culture.  These were the images that decorated our homes, that served and amused and made us laugh.  Taken for granted, they worked their way into the mainstream of American life. Of ethnic caricatures in America, these have been the most enduring.  Today there’s little doubt that they shaped the most gut-level feelings about race.

LEVINE: When you see hundreds of them, uh in all parts of the country persisting over a very long period of time, they have to have meaning. They obviously appeal to people. They appeal to the creator, but they appeal also to the consumers, those who read the car – look at the cartoons, or read the novels, or buy the artifacts.

CHRISTIAN: It is not just that it’s in the figurines, and the uhn coffee pots and so on, it is that we are seen that way, perceived that way, even in terms of public policy. And that our lives are lived under that shadow, and sometimes we then, even become to believe it ourselves.

LEVINE: Blacks don’t really look like that. So why is it so appealing to people to think they look like that, and pretend they look like that, and to like to look at icons that look like that. You look at them often enough and black people begin to look like that, even though they don’t. Um, so that they’ve had a great impact in our society.  They therefore tell us both about the inner desires of the people who create and consume them, and also they tell us about some of the forces that shape reality, for large portions of our population.

Credit to Dorothy Nixon for her blog post, I Found Bunga .  While writing this post I had the pleasure of reading her story and it helped me to articulate how I have always thought about the geography and social studies of those times I was in school and why the world sees most people of color as backward and in need of some sort of never-ending paternal guidance, which  in the end usually means their  subjugation.

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About archemdis

I try to say what is on my mind and not hurt others, but some things need to be said whether they hurt or not and I do just that. I try to listen as well as talk, but my opinion is just that mine. You need not take it as your own, just respect the fact that I am entitled to it, as you are yours. I do read all comments, but will only answer, or allow to be displayed those which adress me by name, refer to the post by name in the comment, or that have been sent through the proper channels. In this manner I can tell whether the comment was meant for me and that it is not just spam.
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