Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Oh No They Didn't

This morning I found Michael and Sierra gathered around my laptop with looks of horror on their faces. When I came closer they burst out laughing saying, “No way!”


It began with Sierra doing research on major innovations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She found several she was interested in and one of them was Jell-O. I don’t know how “major” that is but she had fun learning about the person who invented the fruit flavored stuff. She was amazed that this person’s name was Pearl B. Wait AND that Pearl was a man. He was a cough syrup manufacturer in Le Roy, New York with a not so great business. In 1897 he decided to try something new and decided on the food industry. People eat all the time, right? They only take medicine when they’re sick. So anyway, gelatin was a perennial problem for food manufacturers. It’s made from animal bones and it looks and tastes gross. Pearl had the idea of adding fruit syrup to it and violĂ ! there you have it. I wonder if he got that idea from his cough syrup?

As she researched more she came across old t.v. and print ads. Some were just what you’d think; There’s Always Room for Jell-O and Bill Cosby. Others were, shockingly, totally racist. Almost unbelievably racist. From there she found these types of ads for other products. The last one she showed us didn’t elicit any laughs at the absurdity of it. It was an ad for Fairy soap and it featured a little blonde white girl asking a little African-American girl why her mom didn’t wash her in Fairy soap. The kids just got real quiet and said, “Wow” and “That’s so mean”.

This may come out wrong but I’m glad these were still around for my kids to see. I think it’s fabulous that they can see them and recognize how awful they were. They can only imagine how difficult it would have been to see commercials like this long ago had they been Chinese or African-American. And is “African-American” the right term? I have no idea.

Right now I’m reading a book series to Kenny by Gerald W. Johnson. They’re a history of America written for his grandson Peter. I’m enjoying it so far because it’s written precisely for a child Kenny’s age and has a conversational tone to it. When I read, I point to different places on the large map of the United States on the wall and he gets a visual to tie it all together. It’s kind of nice. It’s not without problems though. This book was written in 1959 by a man who was something like 70 years old. The language can be, well, I guess antiquated is a gentle word for it. When he mentions “copper-colored men” and “savages with dark skin” I find myself verbally editing. Last night we ended with this paragraph

“Vast, dark, unknown, the land lay for thousands of years, hardly used at all by men and women, for the few Indians never knew how to use it and never cared to learn. The wolf, the bear, the panther, and the bison flourished and increased faster than people. The land waited for a master who did not come for a long, long time.”

It’s easy to get all hot under the collar reading that. I mean my degree is in Anthropology with an emphasis on Native Americans. I suppose I won’t throw the baby out with the bath water; I imagine if I didn’t edit what I was reading Kenny would find words such as “savage” kind of silly and not a modern take on these people. It’s not much different than the stupid ads they were looking at earlier. It’s good to know that they can see and hear this stuff, at this young age, and know it’s wrong.


  1. If you want to read something with reeealy thinly veiled racism, check out the original Dr. Doolittle book. Cringe factor 8, right behind the Office episode where Michael finds out Oscar is gay.
    And yes, African American is the right term. Everybody knows this.

  2. I'm not so sure about that. In fact I'm positive not everybody knows this.


So, what do you think?