Friday, September 10, 2010

The Darker Corners of Children's Songs

There are some things that just catch you off guard at the times you least suspect it. A little background first. Some relatives visited India earlier this year and brought back for my daughter some "educational" DVDs containing nursery rhymes that were sung by an adult Indian female vocalist and danced to by young Indian children. The DVD in question was "Preeti Sagar's Nursery Rhymes: 69 All Time Favourite Rhymes." The DVD includes a number of well-known songs like Jack & Jill. But it was the inclusion of one other particular song that left my wife and I speechless and has me writing now.

The song in question is called "Ten Little Nigger Boys." No, I didn't misspell it and your eyes are reading this correctly. Furthermore, I confess I have never heard of this song before it appeared on one of the menu screens for the DVD. The experience becomes even more surreal and jarring when you see the singer (Purbi Joshi) sing (or perhaps lip "sync") the song with a big silly grin, as though the words being sung/mimed (and one in particular) are vocalized without a hint of discomfort or shame - apparently the experience was reserved for my spouse and I, and I imagine anyone else who might have found this somewhat disconcerting. At worst, the inclusion of the song smacks of blatant racism and the propagation of a derogatory slur that has no historically positive meaning, particularly when used by non-Blacks to refer to Black people. At best, it demonstrates a stunning lack of judgment about the appropriateness of teaching such words to young children.

In trying to look up the history of this song, I discovered that it was the original title of an Agatha Christie novel published in 1939. In subsequent editions, the novel was renamed Ten Little Indians and subsequently And Then There Were None. The adoption of the final title reflects normative changes in the acceptability of using terms like the n-word or Indians, in the manner in which they were used. However, the history appears to go back even further. According to an article written by Tiffany M.B. Anderson, the song in question has its roots in the American south near the end or after the Civil War. The song was used both in minstrel shows for White adult audiences and as a song for White children (the lyrics can be found in the link to Anderson's article above). As she explains:
When performed as a minstrel song, Ten Little Niggers serves as entertainment; when used as a nursery rhyme, Ten Little Niggers operates as education. Ten Little Niggers not only taught a child to count down from ten, it also presented the racial construction of the black population as ‘niggers’ with equal importance. Caricatures accompanied the reprinting of the song in the nursery rhyme books.
I highly recommend Anderson's article to get a sense of how the song was constructed and was intended to demonize and portray African-American males in particular as designated social and personal threats.[1] But more disconcerting is the inclusion of this song over a century later in a new format being sung to children all the while perpetuating a recognized racial term as acceptable.

Despite the existence of the freedom of expression, various societies, operating through political and legal branches of government have put into place particular liabilities and punishments for engaging in certain types of speech - e.g. hate speech, defamation, sedition, incitement to commit a crime. Concurrent with the norms of the state are the many socio-legal norms that govern or influence individual conduct and interpersonal relations. Even where state norms may not prohibit the utterance of certain words, the norms or rules of everyday life and society may strongly discourage it. A breach of such norms may result in economic and/or social repercussions (although sometimes only temporarily) for the individuals who speak them.

Within North American culture and others situated in the Global North, the utterance of the n-word is considered (more often than not) to be taboo, particularly amongst those who are not Black and if used in public and to refer to someone of African descent (although some non-African-Americans clearly have few inhibitions about this). [2] Although the word has been appropriated by many African-Americans, there is considerable debate about the advisability of even their using the word - ranging from comedian Chris Rock who has deployed the word extensively in his repertoire (as with other African-American comics like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor), to the NAACP holding a funeral to scholars such as Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy. Yet, notwithstanding the appropriation by some, if not many African-Americans of the word at one time or another, it is widely accepted that the use of the n-word in public by non-African-Americans breaches widely accepted socio-legal norms against openly uttering the word. Some might describe these particular socio-legal norms as mere political correctness.

I'll refrain from attempting to extrapolate or generalize anything about Indian society as a whole, based solely on Sagar's or the production company's decision to include the song. There is clearly a different normative vision reflected here about deploying a song with a racially-charged history which uses such a patently loaded and derogatory term. The producers of the DVD have issued a product into the children's market that includes a song which effectively legitimizes and celebrates (through joyful singing) the use of an unquestionably offensive word associated with a substantial segment of the world's ethnic population. This is particularly so when used by those who do not belong to that group that the term has been applied. It also suggests an assumption, on the part of the producers, at least, that there is or will be an acceptability by consumers of this product about hearing and digesting this song for consumption - an assumption which is also troubling.

It was in 1969 that the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination entered into force. Amongst its many pertinent provisions, Article 7 has something particularly relevant to add to our discussion here. Namely,
States Parties undertake to adopt immediate and effective measures, particularly in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information, with a view to combating prejudices which lead to racial discrimination and to promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship among nations and racial or ethnical [sic] groups, as well as to propagating the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and this Convention.
The DVD in question is at the very least, a potential source of education, culture and information for the children who view it, both in India and abroad. The song in question here however doesn't combat prejudices but merely fuels them and indeed propagates and perpetuates a racially discriminatory term while happily introducing it to small children. While the DVD is produced by a private company and not a government, the principles articulated in the Convention ought to be internalized by members of civil society if it is to have its desired effect. The interpretation and enforcement of legal norms relies in many ways on civil society's participation and compliance with such norms as the power of states extends only so far. Significant power lies in the everyday citizen, musician and/or corporate leader to act responsibly.

[1] Such demonization has also transpired within films like Birth of a Nation.
[2) There are of course the notable examples of Michael Richards (who played Kramer on Seinfeld) who exploded into an n-word laced tirade against some hecklers at a comedy club; Dr. Laura Schlesinger repeating the word on her syndicated radio program while trying to make a philosophical point about the double standards surrounding the use of the n-word; or an Australian magistrate who expounded that the n-word amongst other derogatory terms was not offensive to reasonable people.