“My Country”: The Creation of a White Aesthetic in American Children’s Books and Curtis Mayfield’s Response

Much controversy has been raised over the recent decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to discontinue publishing 6 of its books due to racist representations. I applaud their reevaluation of the content and commend them for taking action. Some however feel that this a part of an overblown “cancel culture” or obsession with race. I reflected on this while I was rummaging through my parent’s basement and discovered an old children’s book that likely belonged to one of my older siblings. The book is called This is My Country by Jene Barr. First published in 1959 by Albert Whitman and Company in Chicago, the book’s cover depicts a 1950’s brand middle-class White family standing on a precipice looking out over a great mountainous American vista. Lawn chairs are positioned down slope near a towering American flag. The picture, along with the title, paints an American aesthetic with a clear underlying message — this is a great country, a beautiful country, a White country. The title is in all caps and the “My Country” is a clear statement to young White Americans — this land is yours and you are entitled to it. It also sends a message to non-White people as well — this land is theirs; this land belongs to them and not you. For someone who might say that I’m reaching and that this is an innocent children’s book devoid of racial under and overtones, let’s not judge it by its cover, or even take my word for it — let’s open it up for ourselves and see if there’s more evidence.

Cover and opening page of This Is My Country

The book is written in a narrator-voice through the eyes of a young boy discovering America and what it means to be American. The narrator acts as his guide along his American adventure and offers him helpful tips and historical context along the way. The boy explores and observes the vastness of the American countryside while considering the many people and buildings in the big cities with childlike serendipity. The narrative vacillates between broad and sweeping minute tours of iconic American scenes to parochial neighborhood excursions. Along the way we learn the boy has an aunt and uncle living in a small town with a garden resembling a typical American suburb. We also learn that his father has a good factory job and the boy is surrounded by middle-class professionals — doctors, lawyers, and teachers. For a young boy about to find his place in America, this seems like a pretty good foundation. Needless to say, every character in This Is My Country is White, including every person walking down the street or stationed in the background.

Next, the author creates an origin story for how his dad, uncle, and aunts came to enjoy America. “But, America was not always so big and busy. Long ago, Indians were the only people who lived here. Then, little by little, people came here from all over the world. They came across the ocean in boats. They came because they were not happy in their own country. These people built houses and schools. They made this their home, and America grew”.

In a quick glossy history distilled for White American kids, the book explains Native Americans lived in the country before White people arrived but makes clear that back then the country wasn’t great yet. Native Americans are introduced with no explanation of the devastation that happened to their people and the violence and murder required to make America great. The picture owns every Native American stereotype with a barely dressed predator with bow and arrow stalking prey in the landscape. It seems that it would have been better to not even reference Native Americans at all with such cursory treatment but every tale of greatness must have a noble origin story. When it comes to the origins of African-Americans, the author decides to not reveal the people who actually built the houses and schools of this country. The soul artist, Curtis Mayfield would later imagine his own interpretation of the title of the book for that (stay tuned to the end).

The book goes on to be an ad for the greatness of America as the boy explores zoos, museums, local libraries, playgrounds, and forests in a minute-tour of the best of America. Of course, he takes a trip to Washington DC to visit monuments to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln before a stop at the White House.

The last third of the book is a public service announcement, call to action, and how-to manual for taking ownership of this country. Before the boy is handed the keys to his country, he must understand the rules. The boy must assume his responsibility for his country by doing simple things like being polite, obeying the rules, picking up litter, and finally voting. Here the graphic is of a White man placing a paper ballot in a box as a White woman behind him enters a voting booth with hers. This is what a responsible American does. The irony of this message does not go unnoticed when juxtaposed against the voter suppression tactics of Republicans in places like Georgia today who feel threatened and outnumbered by people of color voting. The message to the young boy in the book is that you must use your power to vote to keep this country yours or it might be taken away from you.

Although it might be uncomfortable to digest that racism has been a part of our lives from the moment we were given our first books as children, we must accept that this is exactly the case. A desire to “whitewash” American history didn’t just start when This Is Our Country was written in the 1950s. Numerous school books and accompanying statues were erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy and their Historical Sins of Omissions Commission right after the Civil War. This group called themselves the “official textbook watchdog [of America]” and established guidelines for book selection in schools to ensure they were favorable to White Southerners. Although, numerous anti-racist children’s books have emerged in recent years and projects like the 1619 Project have made their way into numerous curriculums to reframe the racist history more accurately from the standpoint of the oppressed, children’s books like This is My Country reveal the often simple ways racism can be an invisible cancer.

I can’t help but look at books like This Is My Country in the context of the resurgence of White supremacist hate ideology today. Often this rhetoric is couched in “Make America Great Again” nostalgia straight out of children’s books. I wonder if the people who stormed the American capital with confederate flags on Jan. 6, 2021 read these books when they were young. Did books like This Is My Country foment their sense of entitlement and righteous indignation to the point that they felt they could violently overthrow the government for what they considered more important — the preservation of “their country”. Were books like this one on their local library shelves or in their book-bags as they conceptualized the kind of world they would fight for. Do they feel that this is “their country” now and will they fight to keep it the way it’s always been told to them from day one?

NOW ABOUT CURTIS MAYFIELD

Perhaps as a rejoinder to books like This Is My Country and countless other implicit and explicit content that signaled to people of color that this country wasn’t fully theirs, Curtis Mayfield’s group, The Impressions, released their soulful version of This Is My Country on an album of the same title in 1968–9 years after the children’s book was written. On the album cover, the group stands well-dressed in the rubble of a burned-out building that could be in any American inner-city — not at all like the fairy-tale imagery of America in the children’s book and a counterpoint to the book’s cover of the White family standing on “their” mountain vista. Despite their surroundings the men boldly stand distinguished on their American ground. Some of the lyrics state, “Some people think we don’t have the right to say it’s my country…I’ve paid three hundred years or more of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back — This is my country”.

Album cover of “This Is My Country” by The Impressions

Full Lyrics:

Some people think we don’t have the right
To say it’s my country
Before they give in, they’d rather fuss and fight
Than say it’s my country
I’ve paid three hundred years or more
Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back
This is my country
(Do-do-do)
Too many have died in protecting my pride
For me to go second class
We’ve survived a hard blow and I want you to know
That you must face us at last
And I know you will give consideration
Shall we perish unjust or live equal as a nation
This is my country
(Do-do-do)
And I know you will give consideration
Shall we perish unjust or live equal as a nation
This is my country
(Do-do-do)

~ The Impressions “This is My Country”

Published by Kelwin Harris

Kelwin Harris is a public speaker, city planner and public engagement professional who focuses on creating equitable communities, empowering people that have been historically excluded from connectivity, and dismantling inequity in Chicago.

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