Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rare and Racist American Books For Children

by Stephen J. Gertz

Ten Little Niggers. New York: McLoughlin Brothers, n.d. (c. 1895).
There is a world that many Americans would like to return to. It was, theoretically, a simpler time, of simple, straightforward values, simple government, simple freedoms.

These are yearnings we can all share, as mythical as they may be. What we cannot share is all that went along with it, including a brutally ugly streak of overt racism; it is completely and utterly indivisible from those halcyon days of yesteryear.
Nine Niggers More. London and New York: Frederick Warne & Co., n.d. (c. 1896).
Yup, those were the good ol' days, when you could call a black person a nigger without castigation. You could use the word on radio without fear of losing your broadcast because some people are too sensitive and need to get with the program; it's the audience's fault, not the broadcaster's.

Yes, those were less sensitive times. If you had cement between your ears, no problem; everybody did. Nuance, who needs it?

MONTGOMERY, Frances Trego. Billy Whiskers in the South. Akron: Saalfield, 1917
Now, of course, you can't call a black man a nigger without being armed against reprisal. You'd think black people would be over it by now but no, they keep clinging to offenses hundreds of years old. It's time to take back America from those who won't allow us to say or do what we want without punishment.
BAILEY, Carolyn Sherwin. Lil' Hannibal. New York: Platt and Munk, 1936.
The word and all it represents is anathema to all thinking people.

Is there any time a white person can use the word?

Years ago, when I fought in the amateurs, my stablemates and I called each other every racist epithet in the book. Blacks were niggers, Mexicans were beaners, and I, the only one in the joint, was a kike. No one was offended. We were friends; the words were thrown around easily and, dare I say it, with affection and respect. The words were not meant to hurt and were never taken as such.
PHIPPS, Mary. Liza Jane and the Kinkies. New York: Sears, 1929.
Outside the gym, with strangers, another story; never in a million years. Context is everything, which is something that many don't get. Only a supremely stupid person would use the word and think it casual and inoffensive.

My mother was raised in a small town in Texas whose black population literally lived on the other side of the tracks. I was taught that the N-word - never uttered in her home when she was growing up - was never, ever, to be used; it was deeply offensive and demonstrated a profound lack of respect. There is great irony here: My maternal grandfather was a member of the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan. And here is the greater irony: For many at the time (the 1920s-early 1930s), including my grandfather (who died before I was born), enlisting in the Klan was akin to joining the Rotary Club, a local booster organization. You joined not because you believed in the ugliness but, rather, accepted it as a go along to get along means to maintaining business relationships. Bigotry? You took the bad with the good. If you were a cracker it was a non-issue; what's wrong with hating blacks?
Pantomine and Minstrel Scenes.: A Picture Carnival for the Young.
London and New York: George Routledge & Sons, 1883.
It is this sort of passive racism that lies at the bottom of much of the contemporary American political scene. It is deniable yet not believable. Many otherwise good people remain blind to the racism that virtually every American possesses, to one degree or another.
Ten Little Colored Boys. New York: Howell Soskins, 1942.
Featuring die-cut heads.
When you are raised with books such as these to provide the only models of Black Americans that white American children will likely see, you will grow up a racist, no matter how "charming" the books may be. And the children of those children, though once removed, will be heirs to that tradition. And if your life is not going the way you believe it should you will find a reason. It is not Black Americans, American Muslims, Jews, Hispanics - name your ethnic or religious group - that are to blame. it is the white person staring you in the face as you wash your face and hands that is responsible for your woe.
BAKER, Josephine. La Tribu Arc-en-Ciel. Netherlands: Mulder and Zoon, 1957.
It is inconceivable that an American publisher would have issued Josephine Baker's La Tribu Arc-En-Ciel, featuring her "rainbow" of children of all races, in 1957, the year it was published in Europe. Now, no problem; we've come so far. Yet remain so firmly in place.

It may come as a surprise that these books are avidly collected, not by racists, but by Black Americans. Same story with anti-Semitic literature; collected by Jews.
Take back America to the good old days? No. Never again.
All images courtesy of Aleph-Bet Books.


  1. A wonderful post. I stood stunned when a lovely client showed me a very old copy of Little black Sambo she had been searching for as a gift to her grandchild. Yes, it is deep seeded and as a born in the South someone, I still see the lines sharply drawn. I do believe the colors are hazier, more mellow -even here-with the younger generation. The Josephine book seems to be something worth reissue-though it may already be so.

  2. Excellent post, Steve. It's nice to see those old racist images again. Over the years, I've talked to Black clients who simply felt this stuff should be burned, but the smarter ones know we need to preserve it to remind future generations of our ignominious past, and to insure that attitudes like this don't start cropping up again. Much like the attitude of Jews never wanting to forget the holocaust so that it never happens in the future. I concur.

  3. Thank you, Steve, I really appreciate this post, especially your comment on passive racism. A shrew and canny observation.

  4. As a black man, reading your post I have two concerns. First, these types of books have no place in literature, they should NOT be saved or preserved. I don't want or need future generations of black men and women to see these images. They have enough to deal with in the images and stereotypes that are shown in the present day. Second, why would you post this garbage and you and I both know that is what it is! You said yourself it promotes a negative view of black people, so again why would you post it? You know my grandmother used to say actions speak louder than words. So I've learned to watch what people do (like this racist post, which you'll more than likely have an indepth and very detailed reason for posting it)more so than watch what they say.

  5. Sir:

    No need for an in-depth, detailed reason for this post. Booktryst is devoted to the world of rare books - whatever the book. These books exist, and they are collected by many in the Black community for the same compelling reason that we Jews collect anti-Semitic literature: As a reminder and spur: Never again.

    We cannot deny the past no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. As William Faulkner so wisely observed:

    "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

    I'm quite sure, based upon your comment, that there is disagreement within the community about this. The great Magnificent Montague (who coined the expression, "Burn, Baby, Burn" as a DJ here in L.A. during the 60s) is an avid collector of Black Americana in all its forms, w/o apology. We've talked about this on many occasions.

    As for your concerns - which I take very seriously - we can run from these books but we can't hide from them (apologies to Joe Louis).

    It is unfortunate that a post about racism is considered to be racist itself. How can the subject be seriously discussed if it is so fraught that reasonable and sincere people cannot even broach it w/o fear of backlash?


  6. "Context is everything, which is something that many don't get. Only a supremely stupid person would use the word and think it casual and inoffensive."

    I couldn't agree more.

    Excellent post!

  7. My ex-wife is jewish and yes (since we love books) i remember looking in a lot of old bookstores for third reich books. Same with a friend from my childhood. I guess they wanna know more.

  8. This is the funniest shit my eyes have ever witnessed. Call it immature, I don't care.


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