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Tolerating Intolerance

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In most of the western world, a book called “Ten Little Negro Boys” would not make it past the agent’s desk, let alone down onto the presses and onwards into most bookshops in the land. And once in the shops, this book would not usually go straight to the top of the best sellers list. But that is exactly what has happened in Iceland over the last week or two.

The book not only uses language that many find offensive, but is also illustrated with frankly disgraceful drawings of the “negro boys” that play on every Victorian stereotype—it is illustrated because it is a children’s book.

Modern children’s books usually try to push positive attitudes and try to break unfair stereotypes – but not this one. The simple reason for that is that it’s not a modern book; and therein lies the debate.

The book was first published in Icelandic in 1922, but is a translation of an even older English nursery rhyme. The “disgraceful drawings” (to quote myself) are nonetheless very accomplished and the work of one of Iceland’s most famous artists, Muggur (1891-1924).

Some argue that the excuses are irrelevant and that the book offends modern moral standards and therefore should not be reprinted under any circumstances. Other people argue that the book is as relevant a historical artefact as any other and that republishing it is an act of historical documentation and nothing at all to do with racism.

Those in the middle (presumably many of the people responsible for making it a bestseller) believe that it was an important book with important illustrations by an important artist. They believe that finding it morally objectionable should not stop you from buying a copy and keeping it out of reach of the kids.

Personally I believe there is a certain appeal to the idea of documenting and treasuring our history in all its glorious and shameful details; from witch hunts to workers’ rights and from vicious racism to the downfall of the Nazis. But far more importantly than that, I find the idea of a kids’ book that you need to shield your kids from to be utterly disturbing – almost scarily so.

I believe the book would not have made it to the bookstores in 2007 in most of Europe or North America, but I don’t believe it happened here because Iceland is particularly racist. On the contrary, I think it shows just how liberal this society is that the book was allowed to be reprinted.

I just wish that the backlash had been a little louder, that’s all.

AE – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.