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  • Mary Poppins:Two Points of View

A number of articles have appeared in the press in which writers quote librarians and specialists in race relations who feel that the book Mary Poppins depicts minorities in a way that might be damaging to the psyches of young readers.

For this reason, the editors of this annual thought it would be helpful to present the views on the subject both from a spokesman for the Council on Interracial Books for Children, Dr. Robert B. Moore, Director of the Racism/Sexism Resource Center for Education in New York City, and from the author, P. L. Travers.

The two points of view are expressed in the letters that follow. [End Page 210]

  • A Letter from a Critic
  • Robert B. Moore (bio)

Most children's literature in this country—whether created in the past or the present—has been written, published, and selected by white people. This literature projects a white view of the world, often including the biases and stereotypes used to justify the domination by whites of people of color.

The image of smiling, contented "darkies" has been much more comforting to whites than images of blacks struggling for freedom and dignity—and the former images predominated in children's books for decades. Images of wild, savage "injuns" were rarely challenged by authentic representations of the diverse native peoples and cultures. Asians, Chicanos, and Puerto Ricans were rarely visible and then primarily in stereotypic form. And what better imperialist primer extolling the white man's burden than the adventurous tales of Dr. Doolittle? From all of these, and many more, generations of children learned some basic lessons of white supremacy.

Mary Poppins (the book, not the movie) offers a case in point. In a 1974 interview in the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin (vol. 5, no. 3), the author, P. L. Travers, said, "Literature and imagination are my world. . . . Imagination is a pure thing . . . goes whither it will." But imagination is shaped by real-life experience and cultural background. Pure imagination surely would have produced passages relying less on such well-worn stereotypes as do the following two examples from the book:

Beneath the palm-tree sat a man and a woman, both quite black all over and with very few clothes on. . . . On the knee of the negro lady sat a tiny black piccaninny with nothing on at all. . . .

"Ah bin 'specting you a long time, Mar' Poppins," she said, smiling. "You bring dem chillun dere to ma li'l house for a slice of watermelon right now. My, but dem's very white babies. [End Page 211] You wan' use a li'l bit black boot polish on dem. Come 'long, now. You'se mighty welcome."

. . . There were four gigantic figures bearing down towards him—the Eskimo with a spear, the Negro Lady with her husband's huge club, the Mandarin with a great curved sword, and the Red Indian with a tomahawk. They were rushing upon him from all four quarters of the room with the weapons raised above their heads. . . . Threatening and full of revenge. They were almost on top of him, their huge, terrible, angry faces looming nearer and nearer. He felt their hot breath on his face and saw their weapons tremble in their hands. . . . "Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins—help me, help me!"

Although the above caricatures were already clichés in 1934, when the book was published, Travers claims: "I have no racism in me. . . . I was brought up in a family and in a world where there was no hint of racism of any kind." That is an incredibly naive and ahistorical depiction of Britain at a time when the sun still shone brightly on its colonial empire. By denying the impact of social conditioning, Travers—like so many of us-unfortunately ignores the potential of raising one's consciousness beyond those socially created bounds.

Most of us born on the privileged side of the color line tend to resist the awful truth—that, through no fault or choice of our own, we've been brainwashed with the myths, attitudes, and beliefs of white supremacy. To recognize that, to accept it without guilt, to acknowledge...