So we’re all sitting here in the backyard while the kids play around. Little Olivia is shouting at Arie to “get out of the tree!” Arie has, in fact, managed to get himself up in the tree, wedged between some of the Dalmatianesque limbs of the birch sprouting out of the earth. He’s all smiles as he dodges his head from side to side behind one of the limbs, teasing the poor girl. The protestation continues and brings on our full attention, but Arie’s lack of ascent (only a few inches off the ground) renders Olivia’s concerns absurd. Her father calls out: “Honey O, cool it with the screaming. Let’im play.” He’s got all kinds of neat appellations for his girl: Honey O, Little O, Baby O, O, and my personal favorite: Cheeri-O. “Arie,” (which is his nickname, phonetically based off the initials of his first name: Reginald-Ernst) his mother says, “you don’t go any higher than that, understood? And no teasing.” Arie seems not to listen, but he also isn’t climbing any higher, leaving me to infer he either got the message, or is already wise enough to know he can’t possibly climb any further without risk of injury.
Sick of Arie’s shit, Baby O picks up the toy lawnmower and walks off saying something to the effect of: “Fine, but you can’t mow the lawn then.” I’m not certain as she still mumbles a great deal of her words, much like her mother, and her knowledge of English syntax is still lacking, but that’s the gist. Arie watches her from the safety of the birch, clinging to the smooth trunk. The game is afoot, though it is still clear neither child is quite sure what the rules are. Olivia starts humming a nonsensical tune as she continues to pretend-cut the grass. This reminds me I have to pay my gas bill for some reason when Arie decides to dart for the toy. Little O spins to avoid his slow advance, his chubby legs and flat feet let him down in the chase, his sprint some form of unrefined motor skills. She makes an about-face and takes the offensive. The first rule becomes realized: whoever has the plastic mower has the power, and quickly the second: the tree is the only salvation. They chase, back and forth, expanding and creating new rules, evolving along the way.
Not sure how, but the conversation I return to involves what my friends are reading their respective toddlers. More precisely, the two are talking about their astonishment over just how horrifying older versions of the beloved children’s characters are.
“I was reading O one of the original stories of Bugs Bunny the other night. My mother dumped off a huge stack of my childhood books. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Oh I know—“
“Bugs Bunny is a real asshole.”
“Yeah, total bully.”
“They really altered his image when it came to the cartoons. But when I was sitting there reading that stuff to O, I was like: ‘Goddamn. What a fucking asshole.’ Without saying that of course. But the way he instigates and taunts Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig, I’m like: ‘Christ, someone please pistol whip this guy already. What a dick.'”
“And it doesn’t just stop there, you have all those horrible, racist cartoons through the 40s and 50s.”
“‘All This and Rabbit Stew'”
“Sure. Is that one?”
“Well, Bugs always seemed inspired by Br’er Rabbit to me. Which makes the appropriation of him into racist cartoons like that extra painful when you think about it… at least to me.”
“Yeah, all these children’s books are so troubling. I’m reading her these Disney works.”
“Oh don’t get me started on that.”
“I know, I know. But I’m reading her Snow White, right? The young, pretty chick gets slipped a rohypnol apple by the jealous older witch lady, who later turns into a fucking dragon, and has to be saved by the prince. She literally does nothing the whole story except run for her life and get knocked out, then everything turns out OK.”
“No. You missed her most important contribution to life: she stays home and cooks and cleans for the seven dwarfs. That makes her a compelling character, apart from also white and pretty. At least Cinderella was a sweatshop worker.”
“Little Mermaid. My girl loves that story. It’s a story about a girl who changes her body image in order to get a guy. What the fuck?”
“That’s why I can’t stand Disney. I mean that and the shameless marketing to children. “
“Yes, let’s not forget the shameless marketing.”
“It’s not like any of those other children’s stories out there are that much different.”
“I know. I’m reading Arie the story about Little Red Riding Hood. What I remember about the original story was the wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, and The Woodsman has to chop The Wolf to pieces before the two can be saved. Luckily, this book I’ve got for him tones that all down. The Woodsman ‘scolds’ The Wolf to spitting the two out. And then there’s Goldilocks and how she ‘forgets her manners’ when she is breaking and entering the Bears’ house.”
“It’s nice that they tone them down. All these ones I have from when I was a kid are terrible. What’s the name of that collection?”
“You had Disney princess books as a little boy?”
“Oh I don’t know. I’ll find out and text you.”
The conversation turns as my friends start to converse over the silly idiosyncrasies of their kids—at which point I tune them out and start thinking about an article I read not too long ago. The report concerned a series of psychological studies that used false images of Bugs Bunny mascots in Disneyland. The psychologists showed these doctored photos to test patients (them with the rabbit), who upon seeing the photos, claimed they remembered meeting the costumed Bugs in the land of the Mouse—which never happened. This idea of false memories was particularly intriguing to me when placed in the context of these fairy tales. Was this revisionist approach to these children’s tales in a sense providing a cultural false memory for the next generation, and was that a good thing? What would their kids’ futures look like if they never learned their beloved Bugs Bunny, or Mickey Mouse, or other earlier cartoon hero was once a proxy for an entire group of people who were trying to indoctrinate their younglings into a vast racist narrative of superiority and minority debasement? Would it be better? Or, in another case, is it possible that Little O and Arie’s generation will thrive in a community that never grew up listening to the time-honored tales of little children being massacred, or doing the butchering, that they never had to learn these were all narratives told at their outset by a much larger, impalpable hegemonic force we commonly refer to as CULTURE to help ease them into their quotidian existence with relative ease and acceptance. How best to teach them all this? I imagine Cheeri-O’s dad might say: “They’re just too young to learn that. They’re three for Chrissake. Now’s not the time.” Fair enough. No need to expose them to all these matters we adults regularly avoid with boldfaced ignorance verging on beast-like stupidity, let alone actually comprehending what any of this bullshit means. But I can’t help but wonder what implications lurk behind these signs of progression. Do my friends’ children no longer become educable to these pasts, or just as bad: do these histories become a novelty, something reduced to a trivial level? What happens to our futures when we occlude the understanding of our lineage?
I’m not sure. But, being both black and a Jew, I can’t stop myself from thinking about American slavery, and the Holocaust while my friends continue some impassioned conversation of whether or not Tupperware is still a valuable appliance for housing leftovers. I think about the totems to white supremacy. The ones that have vanished, and the ones that remain. I think of the celebration of “Dixie” at high school and collegiate sporting events, etchings on the side of Stone Mountain, the doubly offensive statue of Nathan Bedford Forest overlooking I-65, and the statues and engravings and names that behave as emblems to this country’s known, yet mute identity. Then I think of the only remnants left throughout Germany, Poland, Austria, and other formerly-occupied territories are the ashes. Grim sepulchers that set inside the bucolic countryside, left to help bridge the gap between what was and is. No horrid tokens of the apparatus that conceived, implemented, and executed such doom. Instead, back home, we’ve buried the ashes and obfuscated why the relics remain. Heroes everywhere, and God on everyone’s side. No wrong. No shame. Nothing.
I remember reading about some American taking a selfie at Auschwitz, her face beaming with joy as she stood on the path to the gas chambers. About a year later, people are raising holy hell, crying about “Heritage. Heritage!” as Confederate flags are removed from state grounds.
The meanings behind these symbols have become so recondite they have lost their focus, allowing new narratives to claim authority. I think of this type of revisionism; I think of the Southern apologists, and how few shits Lynne Cheney gave about this type of storytelling influencing the American mind, what the impact this kind of inculcation might wreak on the social fabric.
So why even keep these tombs if we don’t care to acknowledge what lies within?
Then Arie and Little O call out to their parents: “Come play, play!” And Little O’s dad gets up out of his chair and starts to pretend he is a big bull chasing after them, and Arie’s mom tells them to: “Run, run!” The two children dart off with the 40 year old man-bull charging after them. They keep twisting their bulbous heads back to see which one of them he is chasing as their untoned legs move with all the gaucheries of young speed. And I start to get it—I see the danger implicit within its wordless rhetoric, but I understand its necessity. It’s the same that propels me and mine from a separate view.
All these ghosts, arms out-stretched, dying to be remembered, and we in turn look back while lunging forward, wondering if we too have some connection with the intangible, something other than ourselves to tell us to go on, to tell us we are good, and we belong, and are worthy of not being forgotten.