Oompah-Loompahs, Railroads, and Racism

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August 10, 2020 by libroshombre

Perhaps the most important book I read in college was “James and the Giant Peach,” the first children’s novel written by Roald Dahl, who also wrote lurid adult fiction and won three Poe Awards for Mystery writing.   My college mentor had just read “James” to his children when I told him I felt my creativity was shriveling.  He suggested reading something non-college-related and loaned me his copy of “James.”  Reading Dahl’s unconventional tale was like water in the desert – in the second paragraph James’ parents are “suddenly eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.”

In paragraph four, seven-year-old James is living with his nasty relatives, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker (“really horrible people.  They were selfish and lazy and cruel, and right from the beginning they started beating poor James for almost no reason at all.”), until a “very small old man” with a “huge bald head” and a face of “bristly black whiskers” shows up to give him a packet of tiny green crystals that squirm made from “one thousand long, slimy crocodile tongues boiled up in the skull of a dead witch.”   Almost immediately my imagination revived.

The first children’s book my wife and I bought, while still in college, was James Marshall’s “The Stupids Die.”  The Stupid family decide they died when an electrical fuse blows.  When their cat fixes it, the Stupids believe they’ve gone to heaven, and it looks just like their house!  But I wonder how soon Dahl’s and Marshall’s humor will be considered offensive.  According to “The 10 Warped Lessons from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory,” a Forbes.com article by Rodd Wagner, there’s an Oompah-Loompah controversy, among others.  Wagner enumerates Dahl’s valuable life lessons woven throughout “Willy Wonka,” like “Luck is not a strategy,” “If you don’t know how it works, don’t touch it,” and “Smile and let stupid people engineer their own demise.”    However, “One of the more disturbing aspects of the movie is the Oompah-Loompahs, not because of their shortness, orange skin, and green hair, but because they’re treated as inferiors.  They’re minions … They live at the factory under Wonka’s protection, but it’s paternalistic, at best.”  Dahl’s Oompah-Loompah lesson, Wagner wrote, is “If you are invisible to those who give people important opportunities, get out.”

This brings us to racism, which I find difficult to write about.  Despite my family’s firm opposition to bigotry, I was raised in Texas where intolerance was pervasive.  Many atrocious things – segregated schools, pools and water fountains, etc. – were so prolific they seemed normal.  As poet Clint Smith wrote, “The reality of contemporary racism is that while it is ubiquitous, it is often invisible, subsequently making it more difficult to name and identify.”

For instance, we were taught in school to appreciate American folk music whose origins are steeped in darkest forms of prejudice that seemed entirely innocent to our young ears.  “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” originated at Princeton University in 1894 for a musical production and “was a mash-up of three different folk tunes.”  From the opening “I’ve been working” melody it jumps to “the languid ‘Dinah, blow your horn’ to the upbeat ‘Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah’.  It’s a transition reminiscent of stage productions rather than traditional folk songs.”

The “I’ve been working” part was originally “The Levee Song,” a work song sung by slave and convict laborers constructing Southern levees.  It was published in 1894, but the “in the kitchen with Dinah” refrain was called “Old Joe” or “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah.”  It’s been traced to 1830s London and 1840s Boston and included more salacious verses than taught in my school. The “Railroad” tune was transposed into “The Eyes of Texas” by a University of Texas yearbook editor around 1900 and performed by white students in blackface before UT President William Prather.  Prather was raised on a plantation near Waco and attended Washington and Lee University, whose president, the defeated General R.L. Lee, ended his speeches with, “The eyes of the South are upon you.”  Prather mimicked Lee, by always concluding speeches with “the eyes of Texas are upon you.”  That’s why UT’s African-American athletes are demanding their school song be changed.

Social change is certainly in the air, but at your public library presenting all points of view fairly is a guiding principle.  That inclusiveness means there should be something at the library that infuriates you, along with much that delights.  As Reverend King said, “ Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”


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