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Incurious: George and the Postcolonialists

“Schwartz-DuPre is dedicated to putting an end to the idea that Curious George is nothing more than an amusing story.”

Four pages into reading her twin daughters H.A. and Margret Rey’s 1941 children’s classic Curious George, Rae Lynn Schwartz-DuPre determined the “overt racism insisted a public response [sic]” and characterized the book as a “didactic colonial narrative, the story of African capture.” Freakish as this train of thought may seem, Schwartz-DuPre, the author of the 2021 book Curious about George: Curious George, Cultural Icons, Colonialism, and US Exceptionalism, is hardly the first to develop it. June Cummins preceded her in a 1997 article titled “The Resisting Monkey: ‘Curious George,’ Slave Captivity Narratives, and The Postcolonial Condition.” Rivka Galchen, writing in The New Yorker, hears “resonances” with the Middle Passage in George’s ocean-liner crossing, even though—unlike the starved enslaved Africans crammed into ships’ holds—George enjoys warm dinners, complete with wine and cigars, a cozy bed and the run of the ship, where he gets into all kinds of trouble. But buyer beware! Both George and millions of enslaved Africans crossed the ocean on ships.

Most readers know the tale of the little monkey munching on a banana in a tree. Spotted by “the Man with the Yellow Hat,” who takes him back to the big city, George embarks on a series of charmingly chaotic adventures. If a clandestine narrative exists, it is that of an innocent bystander minding his own business until a talent scout discovers him, then turning him into a Hollywood star. Or it is the tale of an immigrant enjoying the American dream. After George’s initial sadness at leaving his jungle home, he sails over buildings with a purloined bunch of balloons, disrupts a circus, jumps into a pot of spaghetti, with which he decorates the kitchen, and flies a kite. Back home in the jungle, he did not get to do any of this.

However, according to Schwartz-DuPre, “Curious George fits neatly into the genre of colonial literature…The Man in [sic] the Yellow Hat upholds a colonial narrative by traveling to the ‘dark’ African continent, where he captures a brown figure.” Equating this small monkey with Africans seems predicated on a few notions. First of all, George is dark; black people are dark. Next, George lives in the jungle; black people live in the jungle. Then, George is taken from the jungle by a white man; black people were taken from the jungle by white men. And, finally, George is captured by a white man and crosses the ocean to live in America; this is what happened to black people. Schwartz-DuPre’s assumption that George the monkey stands for an African conforms to racist notions, to the history of black people being compared to monkeys by Europeans. If her theory is not absurd, it is actually “overt racism.”

Sometimes a little monkey is just a little monkey. H.A. Rey was fond of a chimpanzee friend. The Reys, who had Brazilian passports, kept marmoset monkeys, who are native to South America. What if they had decided to locate George in a South American jungle? Bye-bye enslavement narrative! Bye-Bye Middle Passage resonance! Bye-Bye colonialism! Besides, though George is typically seen as American, he is, in fact, French. (The entire original manuscript was completed before the Reys arrived in New York in October of 1940.) He was called “Fifi” until the Reys’ American publisher asked them to call him something less French.

It is fair to say that George’s displacement chimes with that of the Reys’. They were German Jews, and they fled Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940 on bicycles cobbled together from spare parts. Friendly strangers housed them in a barn and fed them. They were safe from Adolf Hitler and the Nazis after crossing the border, but their Brazilian passports took them through Spain and Portugal and back to Brazil. All the while, the Curious George manuscript helped to ease their passage through checkpoints, where they were assessed as writers and artists rather than spies. A few months later, they came to New York. As for the Man with the Yellow Hat—would it not have been delightful to enjoy a patron like him, always charging to their rescue? Would it not have been lovely if, instead of being forced to wear a yellow star, European Jews had been scooped up and saved, like George, by a Man with a Yellow Hat? And a big one in which one could safely hide, the way George does? Would it not have been nice if every dangerous, potentially life-threatening situation the Reys faced had ended with silliness and laughter, the way Curious George’s escapades invariably end? In the 1957 book Curious George Gets a Medal, for instance, George spills ink all over the floor, floods his home with soapy water, steals a pump, helps pigs stampede out of their pen, breaks a stuffed dinosaur in a museum, but also successfully pilots a spaceship. For this final feat, he wins a medal.

Why not see the book as the Reys’ wishful version of their own displacement? If only they had had George’s experiences. Unlike his creators, George enjoyed a pleasant journey in first class, good food, and entertaining adventures. If only some kind man with a yellow hat had offered them the pipe, the good meal, and the glass of wine enjoyed by lucky George! That man with the yellow hat, they would say, always had their back. Imagine also if they had remained, throughout their ordeal, as naïve as George did. What a blessing it might have been not to have felt weighed down by knowledge of the dangers, the betrayals, the exterminations, the death camps. Consider how much better it would have been to return to the innocence of childhood, when games and tricks are not the necessary means of survival but rather mere enjoyable play.

Incidentally, Schwartz-DuPre consistently refers to George’s captor and companion, “the Man with the Yellow Hat” as the man “in” the Yellow Hat. From George’s childlike point of view, the hat is not an article of clothing. The hat is a toy, one the man brings with him so George can play with it. This is not behavior I would associate with a slaver.

Schwartz-DuPre faults her “failure to read with diligence every story that made its way into my daughters’ first library,” imagining that her children would be “tainted by the racism in Curious George,” and that this harmless, delightful story will “position” them to “embrace imperialism.” The University Press of Mississippi, which published Curious about George, chimes in: “…[previous] discourses about George provide[d] a rich training ground for children to…become innocent supporters of colonial American exceptionalism.” Schwartz-DuPre is dedicated to putting an end to the idea that Curious George is nothing more than an amusing story for children to enjoy.

In her March, 2023 UnHerd essay “Stop Trying to Indoctrinate Kids,” the feminist philosopher Kathleen Stock defines the best children’s stories as those saying “something about being a child,” talking “first and most directly to the child, and only second to the adults eavesdropping.” Postcolonial critics of Curious George and other classic children’s tales like Babar and Pippi Longstocking miss this point or perhaps, more accurately, remain ideologically opposed to it. “Children’s books,” Schwartz-DuPre argues, “play a significant role in interpolating young citizens into the world in which they live.” In other words, she thinks “racist books” like Curious George should be kept in circulation as teaching tools. Children should not enjoy this tale of a monkey who, like them, gets into difficulties without knowing why yet, unlike them, somehow rights every wrong. Instead, they should be asked leading questions: “Where do you think monkeys might want to live? What are the traits of a good father?” The correct answers are: Monkeys, or dark-skinned people, like to live in Africa, which bad white men should not take them away from. And that guy with the yellow hat, he is a “deadbeat fatherly character.” The book becomes a tool of indoctrination, inadvertently promoting racism.

Curious George’s popularity has created an industry. At last count, there were more than 200 titles featuring George (including the Reys’ original seven) and 75 million total copies sold. And, further, there are television cartoons, computer games, and, of course, stuffed animals. From 2012 until the Coronavirus pandemic, a Curious George bookshop stood on a corner in Harvard Square. There is even a biography of the Reys for children: Louise W. Borden’s 2005 The Journey that Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey. The monkey has become a teaching tool, promoting curiosity about math, science and reading.

Schwartz-DuPre’s argument leads to a conclusion so bizarre that it is worth quoting: George becomes important “as a cute dark infantilized STEM educator, or as a historical marker of US heroism through which audiences can engage the dark Holocaust in a digestible ‘feel-good’ way.” Or as the University of Mississippi Press puts it, an “essential STEM ambassador at a time when science and technology is central to global competitiveness and…a World War II refugee who offers a ‘deficient’ version of the Holocaust while performing [sic] model US immigrant.” These roles “highlight racist science and an Americanized Holocaust narrative” since George represents “enslaved Africans and Holocaust refugees.” The Holocaust narrative is apparently “deficient” since it does not cover the genocide.

Even stranger is the notion that reading Curious George—or any—book to a child potentially sets that child on a road to racism—or “anti-racism,” as the unpoetic rhymes of Ibram X. Kendi promise to do. A mother reading a child a book conveys, more than anything, her own moods, her own beliefs. If she is calm, the child is calm. If she is anxious so is the child. If she sees racism everywhere, the child is likely to do the same.

The title of Schwartz-DuPre’s volume is a misnomer. This author is not curious about George, the monkey hero of H.A. and Margret Rey’s beloved children’s series. She is instead projecting her own peculiar fears onto a story that has nothing to do with the slave trade or colonialism. Her reaction, which seems allergic to the comic antics involved in George’s capture and subsequent adventures, speaks to the current trend of “demonstrating” racism in a number of children’s classics. Schwartz-DuPre, to this point, alludes to the work of Philip Nel, who is known for isolating what he deems racist in Dr. Seuss’s children’s classics. It is indeed possible to “demonstrate” racism if one declines to distinguish between stereotype and caricature, between either of these and folk art. But that is another story.

Melissa Knox is a writer and educator living in Germany. 

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