no more monkeys

It started out innocently enough. But when they started reading Caps For Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business, my heart started to beat a little faster. A little boy was called up to be a “helper;” he played the part of the peddler. The peddler stacks felt pieces on his head: checkered, then gray, brown, blue, and finally red. He walks through town, and getting tired, stops to rest under a tree. He takes a nice long nap, only to awake and find only his checkered cap remains.

The children sitting on the circletime rug are spellbound. Stories being acted out are treats; usually the teacher is simply holding up a tiny little book that most of the kids cannot even see the pictures of. My two little ones are right in the middle; buttery brown faces waiting for the ball to drop – what happened to those caps?? My five year old calls out, for he’s heard the book before, “The monkey’s took them!,” a wide grin on his face.

The teacher assisting the reading teacher whispers, “Let’s give the kids the caps – they can be the monkeys.”

I’m sitting off to the side, taking pictures of this story-play. I stop.

No no no no no no no.

My stomach flops and I feel like my lunch is about to come up. But of course – it’s a story play, and all the parts have to be there. If the kids – including my kids – were not going to be the monkeys, who were?

The reading teacher says, “No, I don’t have enough for all of them.” I exhale. “But they can all just act like monkeys in their seats.” My chest constricts again.

When I see my beautiful brown son put his fingertips in his armpits, and flap his elbows to mimic a monkey, I thought I would lose my breakfast. All the other teachers and parents in the room were giddy – their faces lit up, laughing, joyous – while all I could do is stare, steely eyed, trying my damnedest not to yank my children from their seats and rush out the door.

Afterwards, I approached the head teacher and told her that if they were going to read this book again, that under no uncertain terms were my children to be monkeys in from of the class. Even if they choose it themselves? Absolutely not. I walked away from the conversation sure that the teacher had gotten my point, but not quite sure that she understood why.

But I’m sure I was right. This was all the news this weekend:

An email reportedly sent by party central committee member Marilyn Davenport shows an image, posed like a family portrait, of chimpanzee parents and child, with Obama’s face artificially superimposed on the child. Text beneath the photo reads, “Now you know why no birth certificate.”

Her explanation?
“I simply found it amusing regarding the character of Obama and all the questions surrounding his origin of birth,” Davenport wrote, according to the paper’s website. “In no way did I even consider the fact he’s half black when I sent out the email. In fact, the thought never entered my mind until one or two other people tried to make this about race. . .”

Tried to make it about race? Hmm. Right. Blacks have been compared to apes damn since the beginning of time; claiming ignorance about the connection makes one seem stupid, not colorblind. Even the head of the GOP saw the racism for what it was. Even so, read the newspaper online comments and people continue to defend her actions, saying that race had nothing to do with it, and this was simply a joke.

But why THIS joke, why this imagery over and over again? Type in “obama and ape” on google and see how many pictures come up, how many “innocent jokes” are associated with this rhetoric.  How can whites claim that they know nothing of the imagery associated with blacks and apes, chimps, monkeys, etc, yet use it so often to ridicule and dehumanize black folk?

No more monkeys in my house. No more monkeys for my kids.

5 thoughts on “no more monkeys

  1. I remember reading that book when I was a kid. In the situation with the teacher, I can see your logic behind it, but I do not think that it was intentionally racist because teachers use things like that all the time as a group activity.It would have been different if the teacher said “only the black ones are the monkeys”.

    The tea party lady is a different story entirely. They have been sending out overtly racist email like that before Obama got elected. Everything from brown white house pictures to watermelon patches on the white house lawn. They have been increasingly racist and inflammatory, and I know that there are even worse pictures that haven’t been circulating with the same frequency.

    The lesson in all of this is that you have to be able to filter out the racist stuff from the silly. The teacher was trying to do something silly with the class but may not thought of it as being racist. (then again it wouldn’t have hurt to ask) The tea bagger was just being racist simple and plain.

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  2. Funny–this was one of Kamal’s favorite books as a child, and we have a copy at home for our daughter. And I also read about Davenport. Ms. Davenport is racist, and although the librarian was not “intentionally racist,” she is just as responsible for her racially problematic behavior as Davenport is.

    At some point, “I didn’t know” is just not good enough. You have a responsibility–as a teacher, as an American adult, as a functioning member of society–to understand when and why your actions are offensive. The problem with so many white folks–and white privilege–is the refusal to look at the world from any perspective other than their white-centered one. What a luxury it must be to have never considered that having a group that includes children of color pretend to be monkeys is problematic for all of the children, but particularly the children of color. All the while, people of color are painfully aware of the historical beliefs that have likened them to animals, whether it be presented as “scientific,” “cultural,” or “comedic.” At some point, your responsibility is to open your eyes and see that the world is a very different place for marginalized people, and that you have an 0bligation to prevent any further the hurt and insult of marginalization.

    As soon as you brought it to her attention, she should have apologized profusely, and promised to never have it happen again. She then should have taken her sorry self straight home, and started reading up on subordination of black people, on how likening of black people to monkeys and apes have been tools of subordination–often used as justification for subordination–, and on how it has been one of the tools of choice for dismissing our current president. If she didn’t do any of that, she is just as racist as Ms. Davenport.

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  3. I would not have connected your children’s teacher’s actions with Ms. Davenport’s. A spontaneous moment of pretend seems so different from a planned action of ridicule, whether or not the ridicule has racist undertones. A monkey is one of the most fun animals to imitate. I wouldn’t limit my kids to pretend to be some animals and not others. As you said, stories being acted out are treats. I’d give them free reign of the animal kingdom.

    I feel for the teacher. Should she disallow the overweight kid from pretending to be an elephant or hippo? It seems a lot to ask of someone.

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  4. I didn’t make it a big deal with the teacher, because I understood her intentions weren’t racist. I know her and actually like her a lot, and knew she was aware of racial issues. This one just wasn’t on her radar, although it should have been. Although I agree with ORJ – intent is usually not relevant in situations like this, and it was only the fortuity of my being there at particular moment that I could educate her about the issue of black children being monkeys. I was annoyed, but the relationship I have with her made me less angry and more willing to talk about it, along with demand that my children never be monkeys or the like singled out in front of their peers.

    My point of linking this situation to the Davenport email was not to say that they both expressed racist intent, but to show why black children acting like monkeys in front of their peers is so problematic; the racist imagery is alive and well, and white folks acting surprised by it is extremely disingenuous. Again – I don’t think intent is that relevant – impact is much more the issue. The intent of the imagery is to degrade black people, and that has always been the intent. Child care workers need to be aware of that as much as politicos do, at least the child care workers who are working with my children. It reminds me of the teachers teaching slavery in the most egregious of ways, like making black children slaves, or holding auctions, or making runaway slave posters. Teachers don’t always THINK before they do a lesson on what the impact might be on specific students. And especially if I’m paying them, I think they should.

    I hear you, Khareen, that imitating monkeys is fun, but not when you are the only black kids in the room full of white kids. That’s not the image I want those kids, teachers, and parents, to have of my children. Their minds are already primed to see my kids this way – I do not want my children to reinforce it through their actions.

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