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Rolla Peace News

March 23, 2021
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In this newsletter is:

2. THE MISFIT MATHEMATICIAN (Tom's column, http://tomsager.org)
          From Our Readers: More on Dr. Seuss and Racism



We vigil for peace in front of the Rolla Post Office, THIS THURSDAY, MARCH 25, FROM NOON TO 1:00 PM (and most subsequent Thursdays until Peace is established). Please join us this Thursday in saying NO WAR AGAINST IRAN or any other country. The temperature is predicted to be in the 50s. If you do not feel comfortable standing with us in front of the Post Office, please consider driving by and showing your support for our message by honking your horn and flashing a peace sign.

Note 1: Since there are so few of us, generally 2 or 3, no need to cancel; but let's maintain social distancing.

Note 2: In case of inclement weather, vigils may be canceled or terminated early.

2. THE MISFIT MATHEMATICIAN (Tom's column, http://tomsager.org)

From Our Readers: More on Dr. Seuss and Racism

Several readers wrote in to say they approved of my defense of Dr. Seuss last week.

One reader writes:
“I agree wholeheartedly with your defense of Dr Seuss. What are we doing right now that future generations may one day condemn and insist our whole culture must be cast in the river? I can hear it now: Do you know what these ignorant ancestors did? They raised animals, fed them and cared for them, and then--brace yourself--ATE THEM. Don't shake your head in disbelief, look it up!”
My response: Here's another example:
“Do you know what these ignorant ancestors did? They made bombs that could destroy all human life on Earth. And then they threatened each other that if they didn't get their way they would explode them!! Don't shake your head in disbelief, look it up! It's a miracle that any of us are still alive today.”
Another reader wonders if the reasons for censoring the Dr. Seuss books were all like the examples I gave last week [the word “Eskimo” in McElligot's Pool and the image of a “Chinese boy who eats with sticks” in And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street] or were any more serious.

My response: Most were similar. However, I found this image from “If I Ran the Zoo” extremely offensive. I would not show this image to young children.

I've given considerable thought to this question since then. I am in no position to decide for anyone else what they should or should not find hurtful. The last thing I would want to do is hurt any of the children I read to, or their teachers, parents or caregivers; so I try to be attuned to what might be hurtful and try to be proactive. I don't always succeed. Here's an example.

I used to read a book entitled Moe Q. McGlutch, He Smoked Too Much — about a wealthy donkey who chain-smoked and his non-smoking zebra cousins. One day, I looked at a girl whose clothes smelled strongly of second-hand smoke and wondered how the book made her feel. I decided to stop reading it.

How would it feel to have your parents characterized as donkeys in front of the whole class? There must be better ways to teach children not to take up harmful habits than to be hurtful to children of heavy smokers. It's not their fault. They didn't ask to be born into a family of smokers.

Is this censorship? I don't think so. There are thousands of stories. We story-tellers choose which ones we tell; and, unlike the act of reading, the telling of a story is personal — it becomes ones own. So changing the words or the images are more acts of personalization than of censorship. I feel under no obligation to the author to tell the story the way it was written. Among pre-literate cultures, story-tellers were among the most revered members of the tribe.

An Example: Sam and the Tigers (aka The Story of Little Black Sambo)

I love this story. I use very little of the original Helen Bannerman (1899) book except the story itself. The images I use are from Christopher Bing's 2003 book that retains Bannerman's words. The name is from Julius Lester's 1996 retelling of the story. The telling is mostly my own.
Sam is on his way to school. It's his first day of kindergarten and he's dressed in his new clothes. He meets four tigers. Each one growls, “Grrrr, Sam I'm going to eat you for breakfast.” Sam gives each tiger an article of clothing and exclaims, “Oh, Mr. Tiger, you're the best dressed tiger in the whole jungle.” The tiger is proud of his new clothes and doesn't eat Sam. (By time we get to the third tiger, most of the class has these two lines down pat.)

The tigers get to fighting over who's the best dressed tiger in the jungle. They take Sam's clothes off the better to fight. Sam puts on his clothes and goes to school. The tigers get overheated fighting each other and melt into a pool of butter. Sam loves school. He's the best dressed kid in his class. Dad finds the pool of butter and takes it home. Mom makes pancakes that come out golden brown with black stripes, just like the tigers. Sam is never bothered by tigers again.
Nice story. And it has a moral. Diplomacy works where brute force fails. And you're never too young to be a diplomat. Nothing offensive here, unless you're a tiger. Hard to remember that the original book was branded as racist and censored.

Racism is a difficult subject. So much is subjective and has to do with intent and perception rather than outward form. Objective forms of racism are much easier to deal with; but subjective forms are far more insidious. I think choosing stories that give a positive image of unfamiliar peoples and cultures are far more effective than censorship.

Here's my favorite book with a Chinese theme: Dragon Soup by Arlene Williams and Sally J. Smith
Tonlu works the family farm with father, mother and her five younger siblings. The farm is on the side of a steep mountain. At the top of the mountain live the immensely wealthy cloud dragons. When Tonlu finds out the merchant will foreclose on their farm unless she marries him, she decides to steal treasure from the cloud dragons to pay the merchant.

Two cloud dragons are squabbling over who makes the best soup and Tonlu shows them how mixed together their two soups are even better than either one separately. The dragons are so thankful they give her treasure to pay father's debt and fly her around the world.
Perhaps, if we had been reading children books like this instead of focusing on an image in a Dr. Seuss story, the eight who died in the recent Asian massage parlors shootings would still be alive.

And my favorite book about Arctic peoples is Lydia Dabcovich's The Polar Bear Son.
An old woman with no children to care for her adopts a young polar bear. The polar bear grows up quickly and becomes the best provider of fish and seal meat in the village. Even after the villagers drive the bear out, the polar bear son continues to catch fish and seal for his mother.
There are so many different cultures from which I'd like to have good stories. I'm always looking for new books. It makes me sad that I have so few.

These days, when we must all work together in the face of so many threats, from militarism to climate change to emergent diseases, positive stories like these send a powerful message of cooperation and understanding.


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Wage peace,

yushasager (at) yahoo.com