Tuesday, July 14, 2020 -
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What’s changed in 40 years?

With the library still closed, my evenings continue to be filled with nostalgic childhood re-reads. As I finished the latest one, I said to myself: “This could never be published today.”

Published in 1979, Sport, by Louise Fitzhugh, is the third in the Harriet the Spy series and exists in that unique Manhattan “melting pot” environment where people of different races and classes interact daily. The eponymous Sport is a WASP. His two best friends are black and Irish-Jewish, respectively. Another friend is, like Sport, white Protestant. A Puerto Rican friend introduced later in the book plays a pivotal role in the custody drama that centers the book.

It seems like a cast of characters built for today’s sensibilities; but whereas now these differences would be celebrated, in Sport they are presented matter-of-factly, and the author doesn’t shy away from attendant stereotypes and racism.

Reasons why this book would probably never be published today: It uses the “n” word, it is misogynistic (or, if you’re generous, old fashioned), it contains anti-Semitism and racial profiling. As much as I loved re-reading the book, these instances did make me feel uncomfortable.

But here’s what’s interesting. In each of these cases, the person exhibiting the bad behavior is perceived poorly by Sport and his friends. The casual and ingrained racism is by turns confusing or offensive to the children, and the whole book culminates in an instructive scene where Sport’s father rails against the police’s propensity to automatically side with a wealthy white woman rather than a racially diverse group of kids.

Within his tirade he touches on tainted cops and the “pipeline” — how merely being in a police database, even if you’ve done nothing wrong, can be used against you at a later point.

The whole episode could have been written today.

Indeed, another reaction I had was amazement and sadness at how the same issues persist.

What has changed is that I don’t think discriminatory language — even if ultimately instructive — would be considered appropriate for a children’s book.

That’s probably a good thing.

Shana Goldberg may be reached at shana@ijn.com

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Shana Goldberg

IJN Assistant Publisher | shana@ijn.com

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