St. Louis Artist Tackles Troubling Artifacts in Her Photography Project ‘R is for Racism’
The legacies of racism are encoded into the very DNA of the American experience, inflecting our daily lives in ways big and small. But what if we tried to reach back as far as possible to trace the precise moment when that DNA first expressed itself in our lives—even if that moment was before we even knew how to speak?
That spirit is the spark behind “R is for Racism: How ABC Books Taught Children to Hate,” a photo series and ongoing artistic project by St. Louis-based photographer Tasha Burton. That’s because when Burton was 8 years old, she encountered a racial epithet in what might seem like an unexpected place: a vintage alphabet book she had checked out from her local public library. “When I asked my father to explain to me the word I saw in the book, which was “nigger,” he took it away from me, and I never saw the book again,” Burton says.
Years later, that troubling memory inspired her to undertake an unusual quest to find other such books. And when a simple internet search yielded more than she bargained for, she was faced with a troubling choice: what to do with the racist artifacts she was quickly amassing in her apartment.
Guided: St. Louis sat down with Burton to talk about the “R is for Racism“ series, how insidious ideology can creep into seemingly innocent places and the challenges of contending with hatred through the lens of art.
Guided: Tell me about how your childhood memory of finding a racist epithet in a library book became the “R is for Racism” project.
Tasha Burton: When I first remembered that I’d seen this book, I asked several people if they’d ever seen a children’s book like this before. Many of them said, no, they definitely had not. And then I asked a few more people, gradually they were like, “Well, maybe I did see something like this as a kid, but it didn’t occur to me that it was something that may have been derogatory or racist.” And when I actually ordered the first few, I showed it to [the people I’d talked to], and they were all completely shocked.
I began thinking about the perspective of a child seeing these books as opposed to an adult like me, who could look at these images and see immediately that they were offensive. And then, of course, I started wondering about exactly where racism is learned, right? It’s mostly at home—as much as we want to say that outside factors are the biggest reason why racism is perpetuated, the root of the idea is almost always planted in the home by some type of figure who makes a great impression on a child.
A lot of people want to argue that they don’t say racist things, and definitely not around their kids. But even if you think you don’t do it at home, any little remark that you might make—like, kids are always listening. Even if it’s just some passing comment in your car, or at the grocery store, these are things that children hear, and they’re able to recognize who it’s being directed to.
So I just wanted to put it out there. And these books are a great example; racist things like this were put into children’s books, and kids read them at a time when their minds were like sponges.
Guided: Tell me about the process of collecting these books. I imagine you didn’t find a whole lot of them as easily as that one you happened upon in the public library, though I could be wrong.
My day job is in medical research, so being able to just sit down and find information—I can do that for hours on end. I spent a lot of time combing through Etsy; people tend to find [books like these] at estate sales and list them there. Sometimes I’ll find an old alphabet book and people will photograph just a few sample pages, and I’ll have to message the seller and say, “Hey, could you send me the page with the letter ‘N’?” [Laughs]. That’s always a little awkward.
But yeah, it can be a little challenging to find these books. AbeBooks has the more expensive ones; they specialize in children’s books that are extremely rare. The most expensive book I’ve bought so far was from there; it was a linen rag book, from way back in the day when that’s what they printed on.
Guided: Tell me about why you decided to approach this project as a photographer rather than an archivist. Why not just donate these books to a historical museum where people can remember this dark moment in our national history?
Well, my plan for the project is, ultimately, to burn these books. [Laugh.] And to film that. These books carry so much energy; while I don’t want to erase history, to have the actual physical book just hanging around on my shelf … it bothers me. I’d rather just have the photographs.
Guided: Interesting! So you view the project as partially about the destruction of these documents.
Yeah. [The next step is] to purchase more of the books that are still out there—as many as I can. They’re rare, so some of them are priced upwards of $400, $500, even as much as $1,000, and the more expensive they are, the more derogatory they get. I mean, there are people who collect these things—not because of the content, but just because they’re rare. And I just want to get [these books] off of the internet.
Another thing I’d like to do [with these books] is to sit people down and invite them to read some of the stories out loud and record that. One in particular is called the “Cornfield Lullaby”; it’s written in this broken English which was, I guess, the way they assumed black people talked back then. I can barely get through it; I know a kid couldn’t get through it. So I want to see people read it and try to comprehend what they even think the story is about. Just archiving these things, I don’t think, is enough to really get the point across about how ridiculous it was to put these things in children’s books.
Guided: It seems like you’re interested in the way people interact with these books as much as you are in the books themselves.
Yeah, I am. [When I started this project], I had this thought process like, “What could it have been like to be a child who wants this bedtime story read to them by their parents, and their parent gets to this page that says some highly offensive word, like ‘pickaninny?'” Would the parent just say that word and go on and read this story? If they did, would the child at some point say, “Hey, what is a pickanninny? What does this mean? Why does that character talk like that?” I wondered, was there ever an educational moment [inspired by these books]? I feel like, nine times out of 10, there probably wasn’t one. But it’s adults who are tasked with the responsibility to make sure that their child understands what’s being read to them and shown to them—and because we know that children are highly inquisitive, we know that, at some point, some children are going to ask. How were adults who bought these books prepared to answer those questions? And if the adult did indeed have their head on their shoulders, did they give proper context?
And then you have the other end of the spectrum, where the parent is racist; then they could pretty much make up anything they wanted.
Guided: So you’ve talked about whether or not parents who bought these books intended to expose their children to these racist ideas, imagery and language. What do you know about the authors and illustrators who created them? What do you think their intent was in writing these stories?
One of the illustrators [I researched] was named Florence Kate Upton, and the woman writer she worked with named Enid Blyton. Florence in particular is popular for creating the character of the Golliwog. She was, I believe, born in New York and then later moved to London. Florence said that for her, the Golliwog character was similar to a garden gnome. But looking at it today, it has the same costume of the traditional white American minstrel entertainer who wore blackface—the vest, the suit jacket with the tails, the bowtie, all of that stuff. [Upton] said this was just a character she came up with, and it was supposed to be this little cute thing that kids loved and adored—but considering that she had ties to the United States, I can’t really put it past this woman to say that she didn’t call on the minstrel character for reference. You’d have to be on some weird universe-synchronicity type stuff to come up with that image in England at exactly the same time [that the minstrel character was so visible in the U.S.]. I just don’t see that as a possibility. [Laughs.]
… So through these books, the Golliwog character became popular enough that it was turned into a very popular doll. And people still buy and cherish these dolls to this day. If you Google the word “Golliwog,” you see people holding these dolls and talking about how much they love them, how it wasn’t about race, [how] they didn’t care about what color their dolls were, and that it doesn’t make them racist to own them … and in one sense, that might be true! But also, we know there are people on the other side of that who are very offended by this image.
So I do feel, absolutely, that a lot of these authors who created these racist characters, even if they also intended them to be funny and cute, they did intentionally show these characters as low status. They did think that the only thing you really need to know about them is that N is for Negro.
In contrast in the books, you have, say, Bobby and Susie, and Susie is playing dress-up as a nurse. Bobby is up in the back, chopping up wood with this dad …
Guided: Bobby has interests and a personality; he’s a person with a unique personality beyond his race.
Yeah. People of color don’t have that; they’re not doing anything that humanizes them. They’re not doing anything of benefit to society.
Guided: You’re pretty open about how painful it was for you to interact with these images as a woman of color. Do you present the project differently to other people of color?
On Instagram, for a minute, I was posting a lot of the Princeton archive images. And I would literally be like, “OK, I’m about to post this stuff, guys, so if you don’t want to look at this, if it’s your self-care time, just be aware. And if you just can’t look at it, tell me; I will remove it, I will take it down.” I’m trying to be really sensitive to the public being able to view these materials and see it.
It took me a year to get around to photographing these images. And someone [I know] was like, “Well, it’s probably just because it’s so heavy.” I think that’s right. Initially, I was probably taking on more than I had the capacity to handle, and then one day I just said, “Let’s do this.” I just knocked it out and started photographing everything that I had.
Guided: What do you hope your audience will take away from this project?
That children are taking in everything that happens in their environment—what they see on television, what they see in books, what they hear their parents say. And that without having a way to process that information, they will take it as-is, as fact, especially when the person providing the context for that information is an authority figure. [I want to] make everyone aware of how we frame things, how we speak to each other—to be better about those things in general. Being cognizant of the language that we’re using and how we talk about people in other situations, especially other cultures. We think we’re hyper-aware of that these days, but things sneak by.
Guided: Do you ever plan to exhibit this series publicly, or will it live online in perpetuity?
I’m not going to bother proposing this to a gallery here. I’m not sure how it’d be promoted, or how it would be cared for. I mean, these photographs, if they were ever to be exhibited, they’re not going to be available for sale; you’re not going to be able to buy the books themselves. I want these things to remain as visible as possible, but at the same time, I want people to have access to them in some form. If I did show them, I’d have to be pretty meticulous about it.
Guided: What about current children’s literature? If the “R is for Racism” continued and documented instances of racist language and messaging, however coded, in children’s materials today, what do you think would be included?
There are things that may be a little difficult to find, but they’re out there. And they’re not necessarily in children’s books. They’re in educational materials; I remember seeing a history class quiz that asked students to list the “pros” and “cons” of slavery. And this is an assignment in an elementary school! And of course we’re all familiar with H&M and Prada, [both of which had scandals around racist imaging in their clothing lines]. It still gets in there—it’s not always in a children’s book, but it’s always out there, and we can’t forget.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Images courtesy of Tasha Burton.