“I don’t know why (it was changed). It’s a great pity.” Liccy Dahl, Roald Dahl’s widow
There is so much about children’s literature that we love. We identify with the characters and sometimes even take on some of their traits. We look at how they solve the problems in their lives and much of how we respond to challenge is based off those characters. Even with all the videos and other media that children consume, there’s still nothing that holds the impact of children’s literature.
Every once in a while, though, we discover something new about a book or a character or an author that has the ability to fundamentally change how we view a book and/or that character. One of those discoveries happened yesterday, August 13, on what would have been Roald Dahl’s 101st birthday. In an interview with BBC radio, Liccy Dahl, the author’s widow, just casually dropped a bomb that seems to have caught the entire literary world off guard.
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) September 13, 2017
Now, let’s get real for a moment. Does the color of Charlie’s skin really matter?
I’m going to argue that yes, it does, for a number of different reasons.
First, there are precious few heroes in children’s lit that are people of color, and when it has happened there are often derogatory labels attached that make us, at the very least, uncomfortable. We don’t like having to deal with the fact that we have a severely racist history, both in the United States and Western Europe. A prime example is the frequency with which Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is banned from school libraries in large part because adults don’t know how, or don’t want to take the time, to explain the character of Nigger Jim to their children. We don’t like having those conversations.
Had Charlie been black, it would have provided children of color a hero with whom they could relate at a time when racism was rampant. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964, just as the Civil Rights movement was a force of reality. Sure, Dr. King was a fantastic role model in the real world, but to have a literary character like Charlie, finding the Golden Ticket in a world where all odds and circumstances were stacked against him, could have given children of color a hero with whom they could have more readily identified. Charlie was just like so many of them, growing up in poverty, living with extended family, the roof over their heads literally crumbling around them. Charlie’s reality was one that children of color on both sides of the Atlantic identified with well.
If Charlie were portrayed as black, perhaps our parents and grandparents, the ones who were feeding us such wonderful books, would not have been so slow to view people of color in light of their humanity rather than only seeing them as protesters. The 60s were racially volatile and for the majority of white America, the only perception they had of people of color was what they saw on the evening news with Walter Cronkite. All they saw were people marching, people protesting, and in extreme cases, people rioting. Neither television nor newspapers of the time did anything to balance the perception. A black Charlie would not have been the cure, of course, but it certainly could have helped. If we look at Charlie, and presumably his extended family, as a snapshot of reality for many people of color during the 60s, perhaps we would see them more as people struggling against an oppressive system that prevented them from succeeding.
I also wonder how a black Charlie might change our perception of the Oompa-Loompas. If like me, you’re old enough to have read Dahl’s 1864 edition, you know that their appearance in the movies is not true to the book. Dahl originally portrayed the diminutive factory workers as black pygmies from Africa. He changed the description to small white people with golden hair, natives of Loompaland, in 1973 after conversations with members of the NAACP convinced him that the original depiction was too close to that of slaves. The orange-toned skin with green hair was strictly a product of the movie adaptation. Would a black Charlie have balanced in any way black Oompa-Loompas? Perhaps, or perhaps it would have sharpened Dahl’s original intent, that it was the white children who were “most … unpleasant.”
That this conversation would come up now, when we are once again challenged by the emboldened presence of white supremacists spreading hate through society, gives us an opportunity to not only examine who we are, but who we want to be. Can we, who grew up thinking that Charlie was a cute, blonde-haired white child, accept a Charlie of a different color? Does that change our appreciation of the book? If so, we need to confront directly and honestly how and why that change exists. Only when we are honest with ourselves as individuals can we begin to deal honestly with the challenges of our society.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about the apparent need in society, and especially in Hollywood, to whitewash everything. Even if Dahl had been able to convince his publisher to accept Charlie as a black child, the reality is still that the movie would have almost certainly cast someone white in the role. For all the talk about diversity and equality coming from actors and actresses, the fact remains that Hollywood producers, to this day, prefer a white male lead over a person of color. Sure, opportunities for people of diverse cultures have improved, but much of that comes only as people of color have risen to the position of being able to produce those movies themselves.
Let’s take, for example, our beloved Coen Brothers. Their movies are so very white that people have noticed. The folks at Funny or Die were sort of trying to be funny when they put the following video together, but they raise an important question as to why we don’t create strong characters for people of color. Why must they all be white? Watch the video:
Let’s get painfully real for a moment, dudes. Racism isn’t cool. Racists are not chill. Discrimination against anyone because of the pigmentation of their skin is a transgression we cannot allow to stand.
In the conversation with Mrs. Dahl, she intimates that this revelation regarding Charlie and her late husband’s original intent might be a good reason for a new treatment of the book. While there are always plenty of people who don’t like having their particular point of view disrupted, I think that, in this case, it could actually be a good thing. In fact, I would support a whole new edition of the book that is in line with how Dahl originally wrote it, social sins and all.
Our world is not whitewashed. We are past the time when we should stop trying to make everything look like middle-class white Europe or America. One cannot abide with racism.
Let’s fix this problem.
Abide in Peace,
the Old Man