The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It WON’T Be Like!”: Part 10
Oh, look. See. : The Books of Dick and Jane Unveiled at Last!
This post is the tenth in a series. Each entry in the series will be building on
information and commentary in the earlier entries. So it would be best
to start reading with the Introduction to the series.
This series is addressing in particular the time period of the 1960s, and thus at times uses the common term at the time, “Negro,” as well as “black” and “African-American.”
Please note: Any bolding in quotations in this entry has been added
to call particular attention to some wording.
ALL CAPS or italics within quotations were present in the original quotations.
Like most people from my generation—post-war Baby Boomers—I first learned to read in the early 1950s from the iconic “Dick and Jane” reading textbooks.
As an aspiring grade school teacher myself, a decade or so later in the mid-1960s, I learned in my university teaching courses that Dick and Jane books were what are called “Basal Readers.” There are a number of approaches to teaching beginning reading. One main way is to take books that were originally written by fiction and non-fiction authors as actual “children’s literature” (such as Winnie the Pooh books) and help children learn to “decode” what is in them. The other main way is to take books that are written by “educational experts” specifically for the purpose of introducing an organized, scientific method of building a reading vocabulary. Such books are called “basal” (related to the word “basic”) readers.
In other words, in “children’s literature,” you might say “content is king.” What is important is capturing the interest of the reader, getting them to care about your characters and your plot. In “basal readers,” you might say “words are king.” You want to gradually introduce a collection of simple words, and use them to build little stories. To put it mildly, the content of Basal Readers has never been “highbrow” kiddy lit!
Not that the authors of Dick and Jane didn’t try. Why, how could you ever forget the amazing ensemble cast?
And who could ever forget the breathless dialogue and dynamic plots in those volumes?
Well, OK … I’ll admit it. I forgot pretty close to every adventure that took place during the two years or so of Dick and Jane books I plodded through.
But I say all that to say this…I also forgot…or, more honestly, never even noticed way back then, that there were “unspoken lessons” in the Dick and Jane Books.
Lesson One: The world inhabited by Dick and Jane is totally made up of white people. Very, very white people. Or, more accurately, very pale peachy-colored people. Mostly with blond or brown hair.
Lesson Two: Their world is made up of a homogenous group of pale-peachy people, who all live in spotless single family houses with picket-fenced back yards and perfectly groomed lawns. Except for grandparents. They live on farms. Father works at some mysterious job, but when he comes home he is always cheerful and ready to play with his respectful, happy, gently-mischievous-but-obedient children. On weekends he mows the meticulously groomed yard or builds something out of wood in his obsessive-compulsively organized work shop. Oh…and he wears his crisp white dress shirt and conservative tie to the dinner table every night. Mother works at home vacuuming and making cookies for the children, and preparing delicious, well-presented meals for Father and the children. And dresses around the home in a modest house dress and perky white apron, with sturdy, sensible–but high-heeled shoes. (I had a friend in 1959 whose mom dressed like that all the time around the house. My mom…not so much. She wore slacks or shorts at home all the time, and all year round, even in snowy winters, wore rubber flip flops on her feet. Even sometimes to go shopping. In the winter.)
Every day of the nine month school year, for almost two years, I spent time in this peachy world of Dick and Jane. And even after their characters were retired (in the second half of the second grade) and replaced by a more varied cast of characters and more complex stories for the upper grades…the cast was still all peachy.
As a matter of fact, this peachy world wasn’t a whole lot different than my “real world” at the time. I spent first through third grade living in Dayton, Ohio, a city with a population at the time of about 250,000. (It started to decline around 1980, and has less than 150,000 now.) I just looked up Dayton on Google, and have discovered that even today, Dayton is one of the most segregated cities in America. It certainly was during my years there. I do not ever remember seeing a person of color anywhere, including shopping in the metropolitan downtown area at Christmas time. As I understand it, Dayton is cut in two by the Miami River, and virtually all the folks living West of the river are people of color. And the majority of the people living East of the river, aren’t.
This was no doubt true in the early 1950s when I lived there. Oh, my parents and I didn’t have a single family house. We shared an old-fashioned two story duplex house with the landlord’s family. Going up the front steps, our front door was the one on the right, their front door was the one on the left. And it’s still there! I hadn’t ever thought of looking it up on Google Maps Street View until yesterday. Here it is, 606 and 608 West Fairview Avenue, Dayton (Zone) 5, Ohio. (That’s the old-style address. Back when you had “zones” in cities, and ZIP codes hadn’t yet been invented.) It took me a while to find it, as Google had mis-labeled this as 730, but the actual addresses are very clear in big black numbers on the posts of the porch.
We had a duplex, but the neighborhood was primarily large single family homes, some of them pretty nice. With carefully-mowed lawns and clipped hedges and fenced back yards. And almost all the people I ever saw in my little world around 606 W. Fairview Avenue in Dayton were peachy pink. Definitely none of them were any shade of brown. As you can see from my Third Grade class from 1955. (That’s me with the bangs and long hair, third row back, third from the left.)
Yes, the Dick and Jane books pretty much reflected my little world.
In fourth grade, I moved to an even more segregated place, the small far northern Michigan town of Traverse City. Traverse City didn’t have segregated black neighborhoods, though. It just plain didn’t have any black people at all. I don’t think this had anything to do with “redlining,” where realtors refuse to sell to blacks. Nor was it a “sundown town,” where prejudiced whites threaten any blacks that they’d better stay away, although I don’t doubt some of the folks in town were prejudiced. It was just so far north, with no real industrial jobs for anyone that would draw new people to the area, that the “Great Migration” of blacks from the South just never got there by the 1950s.
And although my family’s lifestyle wasn’t precisely the perfect, suburban American Dream ideal of Dick and Jane’s family (I was an “only child,” my Mother did get a job outside the home as a telephone operator when I was in fifth grade, my dad didn’t wear a tie to dinner…and we had no patio and barbecue grill…) it was still solidly lower middle class. (My dad was a postman.)
So in all those years it certainly never occurred to me to question the little vignettes portrayed in the plots of the Dick and Jane books. I could easily imagine putting myself in the picture, such as playing like Sally with this drinking fountain.
Or playing with the kids on the slide at this playground.
Or bringing my own trike or wagon or simple kiddy car to join their fun
No, I had no clue that many children across the USA who read about these little adventures had no way to “connect” with them. I had no concept of “segregated drinking fountains”…
And segregated playgrounds.
I saw my very first segregated drinking fountain at a dime store somewhere in the Deep South…Birmingham, Alabama, I think…on the way from Michigan to Florida for a vacation when I was about 12. It boggled my young mind. And yet…I still didn’t have a clue of the depths of what segregation meant. The drinking fountain issue was totally isolated in my mind, an oddity, but an isolated oddity.
It was many years later before I came to understand that it wasn’t just drinking fountains—or even schools—that were segregated in “Jim Crow” areas. I had no idea that black people couldn’t rent a motel room where whites stayed in most of the south—as well as many other parts of the country. I had no idea that in the Deep South–as well as many other parts of the country—they couldn’t eat at many restaurants or lunch counters, or use a toilet at most gas stations, or even go in the front door of a movie theater and take a seat. They often had to creep up a long stairway back in an alley behind the theater, and go sit in the balcony.
IF there were allowed in the theater at all.
They even had to use a “separate window” at DairyQueen type stands just to get an ice cream cone! Like at this one in Shady Grove, Alabama, in 1956.
Looking back now, I wonder what it would have been like to spend my grade school years, day in and out at school, immersed in books that represented an environment totally foreign to my own. Let’s say, for instance, that the book publishers decided to depict Dick and Jane as members of the Upper Class.
They’d live in a mansion…
Strangely enough, their world wouldn’t be all peachy. They’d see people of color every day… because they would have African-American household servants such as a nanny…
(Baby Sally might have even had a wet nurse early on!)
And there’d be a maid…
And a butler…
Daddy would have a chauffeur, although he would likely be white.
And the kids wouldn’t be stuck riding tricycles or cheap kiddy cars.
I can’t even imagine the “simple” basal reader vocabulary that would be needed to talk about chauffeurs and butlers!
But you get the point: How ridiculous would it have been for me…or you…to learn to read by being immersed in an environment so totally unrelated to our own daily experiences?
Yet…at the same time…how sad was it for children such as myself to be SO immersed in a clone of our own daily experiences that we were never exposed at all to “how the other half lives”? How was I to develop empathy for others different from myself…if I didn’t really even know they existed?
There was, of course, Amos ‘n’ Andy. Which had been a long-running radio hit, about blacks. HERE are the actors from that show, in 1929. Freeman Gosden (Amos…and “the Kingfish”) and Charles Correll (Andy).
Yes, at times even iconic black people…weren’t black!
There was an A&A movie in 1930, which starred Gosden and Correll…in “blackface”!
Even though the radio program was long a smash hit, the movie did poorly. So when there was a very short run of an Amos ‘n’ Andy TV show, from 1951 to 1953, the stars realized they needed to let black men play the parts. Although…early plans were to have the black actors lip-synch to recorded dialogue by Gosden and Correll. Mercifully, they abandoned that plan.
Still, the A&A show was only on for less than two years, and I was only six years old when it ended. (And we didn’t own a TV until 1952.) I don’t remember watching it, but even if I did, it certainly made no lasting impression on me regarding “Negro life in America.”
No, my early grade school career gave me absolutely no hint of what the US was like outside my own little neighborhood. Ah! But then came fourth grade. In fourth grade I was to be introduced finally to people unlike myself in Social Studies class, with the exciting textbook, “Exploring Near and Far.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to explore the real world of the average US city or town. No, for starters I got to meet… Pimwe, Boy of the Jungle.
When looking back on my memories of Pimwe in recent years (how do you forget that name?), the story was so vague in my mind that I was absolutely convinced Pimwe had been from Darkest Africa. But vague memories have no hold on us any longer. We have Google. I was able to find all sorts of references to Pimwe, and some pictures, on the Web from other Baby Boomers who were sharing their childhood school memories. Because they couldn’t forget that name either.
Turns out Pimwe was actually a child of the South American Jungle, from somewhere along the Amazon River. Probably Columbia. In fact, I found out more details than I expected. Someone had put up a PDF of a November 1, 1951 edition of the Rhinesbeck, New York newspaper that included “School Bulletin” news. And included was a report from Miss Pells’ Fourth Grade class about their project making booklets about Pimwe! And the article notes that he is a “little Boro [newspaper typo…should be Bora] Indian boy who lives in the Amazon rain forest.” Wikipedia notes that “The Bora are an indigenous tribe of the Peruvian, Colombian and Brazilian Amazon, located between the Putumayo and Napo rivers.”
One little tidbit that wasn’t included in Pimwe’s story in my textbook… “Many tourists visit them and see them dance in their traditional attire (topless), but few get to really know the Boras and their culture.” (Source) But evidently that’s just a tourist draw. “Traditionally, the Boras Indians do not dance nude (topless) as they do for tourists in Iquitos. Instead they use large batons that they pound in unison on the ground.”
And then there is this… I am sure that my Social Studies book never went into these sad details.
Around 1900, the Amazon rubber boom changed the ways of the Boras forever. This period was disastrous for the Bora communities of the Putumayo as the Peruvian rubber corporations enslaved the Boras and forced them to harvest the latex from wild stands of rubber trees. Large numbers of Boras were wiped out during this period. Before the rubber boom, the Bora indigenous population was estimated as over 15,000 individuals. Some years later, following Peru’s disastrous loss of the border war with Colombia in the 1930’s and the ceding of territory north of the Putumayo, many Boras were evacuated to their present communities near Iquitos. By the 1940’s the total population of Bora natives had dwindled to fewer than 450 people. [ibid]
How or why the Exploring Near and Far author Malcolm Collier chose to focus on this obscure, almost extinct tribe to give us American children a “feel” for how other people live was not at all clear to me. Until I googled some more. Turns out Malcolm was a “she,” and was the wife of Donald Collier, “curator of South and Central American archaeology and ethnology from 1941 to 1976 and chief curator of anthropology from 1964 to 1970” at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.” And his wife was an anthropologist too: “Dr. Collier’s late wife, Malcolm Carr Collier, was an anthropologist who studied the Navajo and was director of the anthropology curriculum study project of the American Anthropological Association.”
Malcolm wrote several short children’s books about anthropology, which were turned into sections of the fourth grade Exploring social studies book. In addition to Pimwe, Boy of the Jungle; the story of our friends who live in hot, wet lands, there was Joseph Manygoats: The story of our friends who live in dry lands. Joseph, a young Navajo boy, makes more sense, now that I know that Malcolm did professional research regarding the Navajo.
In December 1953, Miss Hewitt’s fourth grade class in Naples, New York, was obviously using Exploring too according to the archived newspaper from there on the Web: “In our social studies we are studying about Joe Manygoats. Joe lives on a desert in Arizona.” And Joe got around … and had staying power…over a decade later, in November 1964, a fourth grade teacher in Fayette, Iowa, was reporting in the School News in the Fayette newspaper that her class was getting ready to study about Navajo Joe.
I’m not sure who authored the other sections of Exploring, but they included Chris of Courage Cove; the story of our friends who live near the sea and Nancy’s Adventures in Eskimo land: The story of our friends who live in cold lands of the far North. (Nancy was not an Eskimo—she was a WASP child visiting Alaska.)
I remember Pimwe and Joe the most—Pimwe because our class got to create a large jungle diorama on a big “sand table” at the back of our classroom related to the customs of his tribe. And Joe because at the end of the year the class presented a major Social Studies extravaganza and invited all our parents. And I was chosen to do a presentation about Joe, complete with a big illustrative poster I had drawn and colored about Navajo customs. Now that I think about it, that was my first foray into public speaking! Only in recent years, sixty years after the fact, did my mother get around to telling me that she was mortified by my presentation. Not because I had gotten tongue tied or did a bad job—but because I really got into my topic and talked on and on!
Yes, I broadened my little WASP perspective on what “life” is like elsewhere with Pimwe and Joe and the Eskimos. But there was absolutely nothing in my grade school education, or life experience as a child, that actually gave me a hint of what life was like for other ethnic or racial or social class groups that weren’t considered “quaint primitives” such as Native Americans of the Southwest. We didn’t explore the Jim Crow south, or urban ghettos…or even the Mexican migrant work camps that set up outside the town of Traverse City every summer, inhabited by the folks who literally came from Mexico (under temporary permits back then) to harvest the crop of cherries in the orchards around “The Cherry Capital of the World.” I think they must have had a “company store” on the grounds of the camps or something. I never saw any of the people “in town” doing any shopping or the like, only saw them from a distance from the road in the orchards.
Well, actually I did get close to a few only once a week…there was a run-down movie theater in town that didn’t play first-run movies like the two sparkling “movie palaces” we also had. It played double-features of B-Western movies—starring the likes of Johnny Mack Brown and Lash Larue—and lots of cartoons. Tickets and popcorn were cheap, and thus the migrant families spent their meager “entertainment” budgets there. And it just so happened that my grandpa was a Cowboy Movie fan, so we went there a lot. But I don’t remember ever even “bumping into” a Mexican child in the ticket or popcorn stand line, much less saying “Hola” to one.
What point am I aiming at?
Not that the Basal readers and the Social Studies books of my childhood should have necessarily been different. They were products of the time, and eventually they were changed. By 1965, Dick and Jane’s neighborhood became integrated with a single Negro (middle class, of course) family, and they played with little Negro friends, Mike and his younger twin sisters, Pam and Penny!
Well, at least they did in the Dick and Jane books in some states. The publisher made available two separate editions of the same readers, one with integrated illustrations, the other still totally peachy…for the sake of the Southern Textbook Market.
But being honest, I don’t really think it would have been practical to focus too much in text books for the 9-year-old crowd of the 1950s on the cultural realities of segregation and poverty and such, including what life was like in the migrant work camps. Or on Indian reservations.
And there’s nothing “wrong” with learning about primitive jungle tribes.
Here’s the problem…I am convinced that there are huge numbers of adults now, from senior citizens on down to 20-somethings, whose don’t know much more about the history and the present of whole segments of American Society different from themselves than they perceived in grade school. They soak in a constant stream of news about current societal problems related to interactions between races, ethnic groups, cultures, and classes of people—and they have no context within which to evaluate what they are seeing.
Maybe the fourth grade wasn’t the best time and place to learn about migrant camps and reservations and Jim Crow…but there really should be some place and time! I would think high school, in American history or civics classes or whatever. But I’m quite sure the “average” American history curriculum in states throughout the land just doesn’t take the time to focus these days on “controversial” parts of American history any more than they did in my years in High School. In fact, there is a real “push back” by some politicians any time material is added to some curriculum that addresses less-than-flattering parts of American history. It is “unpatriotic,” some of them will insist. Children and teens need to be “indoctrinated,” they will insist, with a conviction that America has always lived by the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
But people who have had that kind of education have no basis for understanding cause and effect, no way to understand how events and conditions of the past have contributed to the present. They are reduced, all too often, to knee-jerk reactions to problems…and to having their knees jerked by pundits with their own agendas. Pundits who want to manipulate them with slogans and memes on social media, and in speeches that do little more than “push hot buttons” in the audience.
This is all a shame. There are many sources of information on these matters that would improve this situation. I’m convinced that even making the 1961 book Black Like Me widely publicized to a new generation of readers would be a great help in raising the empathy level of the average American.
And there is a lot of fresh, effective historical fiction and non-fiction out there aimed at young people too. Fourth grade really isn’t too young to learn what it would have been like to be a black family living or traveling in the South in the Jim Crow Era. Ruth and The Green Book, written for that age and even younger would be a wonderful start.
And in the past four decades or so, a very large amount of fresh research into the American past has been done by historians. There is now information and documentation, including photographs and first person accounts, in print that can bring to life a wide variety of aspects of daily life in all eras of our history. And these results have been made available in fascinating and palatable packages in documentaries such as those on PBS. You can also find them in popular non-fiction books that aren’t written in boring, scholarly fashion but in the common language of the everyday reader. It IS possible for the average citizen to be well-informed about “how we got where we are” in many aspects of American society. Being a part of disseminating such information, documentation, photos, and first-person accounts, is the primary purpose of this blog. I attempt to at least distill down my own research results to bite-sized pieces to share.
But when you don’t know that your personal exposure to many aspects of history is painfully shallow, you don’t know that you don’t know. And thus you don’t go looking to fix that situation. I confess that was true of me in 1965!
And in 2015, too many Americans with a shallow perception of actual history are comfortable just getting on a bandwagon with other Americans who look like themselves and think like themselves about “what’s wrong with America.” These crowds can then be manipulated by the loudest and pushiest gurus to accept solutions that are not based at all on true understanding of history, on sound principles of logic, and on empathy for others.
What’s even sadder in many cases is that those who claim to embrace Christianity, will follow off after men or women with agendas that are not based on the Bible, on wholesome and godly Christian living principles, or on the teachings and example of Jesus! As it turned out in later years, I discovered that I had let that happen to me in 1965. I joined a crowd of tens of thousands of people following off after an organization that dispensed dogmatic pronouncements which were not based on the Bible or Christian living principles or the teachings and example of Jesus. They were based on the idiosyncratic theories, opinions, and prejudices of one very carnal man…who had a lot of charisma.
Which brings us full circle back to the main topic of this series—”The Wonderful World Tomorrow, What It WON’T Be Like!” And to the conclusion of the matter, which is in the final entry in this series: