January 26, 2017


Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out! Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood. By Patricia C. McKissack. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Schwartz & Wade. $24.99.

     The way to perpetuate racism is to insist, repeatedly and at every turn, that the first thing people should notice and pay attention to is the color of someone’s skin. It helps to dress the concept up in flowery language when possible: “affirmative action” rather than “preference based on skin color” is a popular example. But the underlying idea is the same: skin color comes first and everything else comes later. There is certainly justification for Americans of African descent to believe they are entitled to redress longstanding societal imbalances by showing the many highly positive accomplishments of people with darker skin – but even that notion, fraught with the slippery concept of “entitlement,” is a less-than-forthright one. By definition, and often by design, race-based labeling is exclusionary, creating a them-vs.-us world in which any possibility that we are all “us” remains remote and sometimes becomes increasingly so. Thus, for example, museums dedicated to the African American experience are intended as uplift for African Americans but, despite any politically motivated rhetoric to the contrary, are not intended or expected to draw crowds of people of other races, ethnicities and skin colors.

     Missed opportunities to produce a more colorblind world for our children are particularly sad, because even if we accept the notion that our current world remains hopelessly mired in racial identification despite the enormous (although scarcely complete) progress of recent times, there is always the hope that things may be better for the next generation – if, ideally, there is willingness to hold one’s long-held resentment in check for the sake of trying to improve the future. And this is the reason that the new book by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, is at the same time so wonderful and so disappointing. The contents – games, rhymes, songs, folk sayings and folk tales, and much more – are often wonderful; but the way they are presented, the unending emphasis on looking at this material first and foremost through the lens of skin color, is a deeply disheartening way of guiding today’s young children to a future filled with feelings of victimization rather than hope.

     Take, for example, the presentation of The Ballad of John Henry. Imagine the effect on two children of different races hearing this story, becoming involved in the man-against-the-machine narrative (which still has great resonance today), and learning at the end of John Henry’s tragic but noble death in representing humanity against the soulless power of machinery – and then learning that John Henry was black. That would be a marvelous teachable moment for both children, because the focus would be on John Henry’s humanity, the way he stands for all people in a time of job loss and automation, the way he stands up for what it means to be human – not black, pink or purple with polka dots, but human. However, that is not what McKissack offers. “John Henry is an African American folk hero,” she states at the start of the first paragraph of her introduction. And: “An African American railroad worker named John Henry actually lived,” she says at the start of the second. So for African American children, we now have a meaningful story – but for others, either nothing or a story about someone “not like me.” That is how racism flourishes.

     Or take McKissack’s retelling of a story of Br’er Rabbit. McKissack trots out the old canard that Joel Chandler Harris, the journalist who brought these stories to widespread attention, was merely a white man perpetuating stereotypes by using “historically inaccurate language patterns” for the characters. McKissack deliberately ignores the fact that Harris lived on a plantation for four years during and after the Civil War, spending much of his time with the slaves because he felt like an outcast himself, being red-headed and Irish at a time when there was considerable discrimination against the Irish and their Catholic religion. Harris specifically named several slaves who told him the Br’er Rabbit stories, and said that he wrote down the tales as they were told to him. Certainly it is possible that Harris was misstating or misremembering in later years, but that is by no means certain. But McKissack does not want to accept the Harris stories, and prefers to rewrite her Br’er Rabbit tale as if told by someone with very good vocabulary and standard-English expressiveness: “They slipped under the fence and proceeded to fill their bellies full of the vegetables.” The rewriting is certainly her prerogative, and she is scarcely the first to do so; but her main objection, that the stories were popularized by someone with the “wrong” skin color, is racist. Nor does she mention Harris only in this connection. In discussing Paul Laurence Dunbar, McKissack mentions that Dunbar not only wrote in standard English but also used dialect, which “was authentic” rather than “stereotypical” like that employed by Harris. So a line such as “Bees gwine to ketch you an’ eat you up yit” is fine when written by Dunbar, but virtually identical lines by Harris are unacceptable because Harris was white. That is racist.

     McKissack is a first-rate writer and recounter of stories. She is also mired and enmeshed in a time far distant from that in which today’s children, of any color, are growing up, and her perceptions are shaped by the fact that when she “was growing up in the 1950s, the southern United States was mostly segregated.” That was an absolute fact of life 60-plus years ago. And the trials and troubles faced by African Americans even today – and not only in the southern United States – are also a fact of life. But the desire to perpetuate resentment of a society that no longer exists is a deeply unfortunate one; the wish to have young children today see marvelous cross-cultural and cross-racial stories, songs, rhymes and fables only or primarily through the lens of skin color, is a deeply distressing one. The items in this book are stated to be “from an African American childhood,” which specifically means from McKissack’s childhood; and as formative bits of nostalgia, they certainly have their place in her life. But our children’s lives can be better than McKissack’s, no matter what color our children’s skins may be, and that is an attitude wholly missing in this skin-color-first collection. Hopefully McKissack does not really believe that today’s children live in a world like the one in which she grew up. It is depressing that she wants to perpetuate that world rather than put it behind her and help give today’s young people a better one.

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