Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hidden meaning

The story which my son read to me today was fairly shocking. I suppose it wouldn’t have been shocking in 1923, which is when it was written, by a man called James H Fassett. The forty-eighth edition of the reader, called “Briar Rose” was the edition my son was reading from.
I started feeling a bit uneasy with the title – “Escape from Red Indians” and my alarm grew as the story unfolded.

“Many years ago”, it began, “two boys lived on a farm in America. It was so long ago”, the story continued, “that there were very few white people in that country”.

“Indians” lived very far away in the woods, but occasionally, they would “come down to where the white people lived and capture any white person whom they could find”.
It went further in setting the scene. “White prisoners would be taken to the Indian villages and would be held there as captives”.

The story is about how one child, "John" – a white innocent of course, was captured by savage Indians. He had his skates with him at the time of capture. The Indians thought the skates “must be some of the white man’s magic”, so they ignored them.

There are then descriptions of the savage conditions in which the Indians lived and John was given to an Indian mother, who treated him “as if he was her own son”.

John was of course very brave and astonished his savage peers with his bravery, even in stick fighting and the use of bow and arrow. However, because he was white, the Indians made him go with the women “squaws” to hoe. John had learned from his Indian peers that hoeing was for squaws and not for warriors and so he quickly rebelled. He had learned to “speak their tongue” but they nevertheless did not trust him.

On the day of his escape, the river had frozen over and so he brought out his skates and put them on one of his peers, who fell about on the ice, much to the merriment of everyone. There was much hilarity and mirth. When John put the skates on, he too fell about, pretending to do the same as all the other non-skaters.

Then, when he was far enough away from everyone, he skated off into the sunset down the river, towards the sea (because he knew the white people lived near the sea), found his parents again and lived happily ever after.

Now, besides the fact that this story belongs to a completely different time, I ask myself, is it appropriate in the South Africa of the 21st Century, for our children to be reading such stuff? There are all the usual facets of colonial writing in it: the glorification of whites and the demonization and idiot-ization of everyone else. More than that, the sexism of the time is simply assumed along with the unquestioned fact that we all belong with “our own” and should stay with “our own”. Indeed, we are safe with “our own”, happy with “our own”, and constantly in danger of being attacked and abducted by “them”. It is typical frontier storyline. But is it appropriate for children who are trans-racially adopted, in a country whose constitution guarantees the rights of everyone to live in dignity and peace – such as mine are? More than that, is it appropriate for any children for that matter, transracially adopted or not?

It is in these standard ways, where stories are told without questioning their content, that prejudice gets passed on down the line. I can only conclude that it is either laziness on the part of the school, or a simple lack of the most basic content interrogation, which allows this kind of story to be amongst the instruments of learning in a school, in Africa, some 88 years later?

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