Tuesday July 18, 2006

Little Black Sambo vs. Vamos A Cuba

Nazi book burning

Bill’s recent comment on the ‘Vamos a Cuba’ post offers an interestingperspective. He compares the book to Little Black Sambo, and claims that both books must remain available, not despite their inaccuracies, but because of them, as they are part of our history.

While the argument is powerful, and works very well for LBS, applying it to VaC is problematic. First of all, the alleged sins of VaC are sins of omission, not sins of commission. Whereas Sambo is wrong because it encourages thinking in terms of racial stereotypes, the most we can accuse Vamos of is of overlooking unpleseant truths.

Little Black Sambo does have a place in Americas history and, as such, should be presented for what it was/is therby assuring a thourghly educated populace. I would not want the book to come up in discusion, only to have my child ignorant of its meaning and its history.

LBS has a place in the history of racist portrayals of people of color, and it needs to be perserved for that reason. But the word “history” is carrying serious weight there: the book was published originally in 1899. The same does not apply to VaC, though, which dates back to 2000 – it’s not “historical” in a real sense. It is, rather, a product of the present. That is to say, LBS’s place in history is decided not so much by its publication, but by its acceptance for most of the 20th century. We have the opportunity to deny that acceptance to ‘Vamos a Cuba.’

In some sense, that’s what this fight is about – does our society tolerate accounts of totalitarian regimes that are incomplete in this fashion? Or do we hold them on par with racial stereotypes?

It’s interesting to note that VaC is not being condemned for expressing an undesirable perspective – it’s being condemned for not expressing a sufficiently negative perspective — of Communist Cuba. One could make a comparison to a textbook banned in Saudi Arabia for not expressing a sufficiently negative perspective of life in the United States. Or something. It’s also worth noting that ‘Vamos a Cuba’ is not nearly the sunny portrait of life in Cuba some believe. While the text omits mention of politics, its depiction of poverty is unmistakable.

What’s interesting about the VaC situation is that there is no reasonable compromise. Val groped around for it when he tounge-in-cheek (?) suggested placing the book in the fiction section. A more ‘reasonable’ compromise is the warning label approach (“This book presents a view of life in Communist Cuba which many find inaccurate and disagreeable . . .”), which is also so patently absurd that nobody I know of seriously advocates it. We are left with a simple leave it/remove it choice.

Blinded by passion, some folks have advocated the removal of this book. I understand their frustration. Were it up to me, I’d leave the book, but in fact it’s not up to anyone – the Schoolboard has made the decision to pull it. From a legal perspective at least, it seems pretty obvious that they fucked up royally.

Had ‘Vamos a Cuba’ stayed in our libraries, we, as a society, would have had the opportunity to condemn it as propaganda and distortion. We could have continued to discuss its failings, and let those discussions be the history of this book, not the acceptance that ‘Little Black Sambo’ enjoyed.

But there’s the rub: we still can. And we will. Despite the Schoolboard’s boneheaded move, the book is still widely availabe. And it seems pretty clear that the ACLU action will have ‘Vamos a Cuba’ back on the shelves sooner or later. Unlike the Nazis, we’re not actually burning books, and we’re not about to start.

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  1. Anon    Tue Jul 18, 09:45 AM #  

    VaC is still on the shelves. They can’t be removed until the outcome of the ACLU suit. So ordered by a judge.

  2. Steve Klotz    Tue Jul 18, 10:17 AM #  

    I wonder if I’m the only one who actually read Little Black Sambo (when I was about 10!), and finds a comparison between it and VAC almost as silly as comparing a Toyota to a grapefruit.

    For the record, here’s LBS.

    There was a big stink some years ago when a restaurant chain called Sambo’s was pressured into changing its name (it became “Sam’s,” but went out of business anyway). Sambo’s featured pancakes: read LBS for the connection. This, too, is insanity; misplaced sensitivity, focus on sizzle rather than steak, and doing absolutely nothing constructive about genuine concerns for civil rights, human dignity, and the defeat of racism. But it’s easier to huff and puff and strut your stuff than dedicate yourself to the hard work and long battles that achieve meaningful change.

    IHOP, anyone?

  3. Robert    Tue Jul 18, 10:52 AM #  

    Both the post and the comments make very good points about why VaC should be left alone. Alesh, you should be commended for not turning this into a Cuban- American or C-A politician-bashing fest. We can talk about the politics of this all day, but you’ve managed to do what very few have been able or willing to do…focus on the complexities of the issue.

    I realize that it’s impossible to please everyone, and that “anything” is bound to offend someone out there. There’s no doubt that the availability of VaC in our public schools offends many Cuban-Americans, and based solely on the cover, rightfully so.

    Does being offended have to immediately lead to removing or banning the offending item? That’s the central issue here.

    Should we as a community tell the pro-removal folks to “suck it up and ignore the book”? These are people that suffered first-hand under Castro, not some 15 year-old US born third generation grandson of Cuban immigrants.

    Alesh, I have to disagree with you on one thing you said:

    “Had ‘Vamos a Cuba’ stayed in our libraries, we, as a society, would have had the opportunity to condemn it as propaganda and distortion. We could have continued to discuss its failings, and let those discussions be the history of this book, not the acceptance that ‘Little Black Sambo’ enjoyed.”

    I think the Cuban-American community would be the only ones solidly condemning. Sure, you’ll have a few non-Cubans such as yourself joining in, but based on the reactions I’ve noticed from many non-Cubans, all you would get from them is “what’s the big deal about a book for 5 to 7 year olds that shows Cuban kids smiling on the cover.” No condemnation whatsoever.

    Finally, I need to point out that there have not been any book burnings for VaC that have been reported, and those who made comments previously suggesting that it would happen must still be holding their breath in anticipation.

  4. Manola Blablablanik    Tue Jul 18, 12:45 PM #  

    Alesh, you make some excellent points, especially the one about history. In the time that LBS has been around, hundreds and hundreds of writers of different colors have written books to ‘counteract’ such racism.

    I’m sorry, folks … while I understand how Cubans would be offended and no bones about that … But in spite of the cover, VAC does not paint a pretty picture of Cuba really, which is perfectly ‘not pretty’ enough for the limited scope of an American 5 to 7 year-old.

    (And heck, it’s the Europeans who are taking idyllic vacations in Cuba, painting pretty brochure pictures for themselves. Talk about offensive!)

    I think awareness of Cuba’s reality is pretty damned heightened in our town (understatement of the year) ... you’d have to be a retarded moron to read this book in a vacuum.

    What other books about Cuba intended for kids are in the libraries? Why don’t we have access to this list? How come no one’s talking about the other books about other countries that are also subject to removal?

    VAC is a piece of crap, naive book but it is what it is. It should stay, not set a precedent for removal but for respect to our constitution, stir controversy, be discussed between children, parents and teachers as to what is missing … IF.

    To tell the truth, if no one would’ve raised the issue, that thing would be collecting dust in obscurity. Come on, realistically, how much damage can this thing possibly do?

    In some ways, removing the book in the hotbed of the exile community even seems ridiculous. Of all places to remove the book! I mean, who isn’t going to know, growing up down here, that it’s not telling the whole truth?

    Parents and teachers of Miami-Dade county: what are YOU doing to teach your children about the realities of Cuba in a way that is appropriate for their age groups? YOU are the ones who should be doing the work of filling in the gaps on what your kids are reading and not wasting tax payer dollars fighting the ACLU. Your children are immune to violence. They see it everyday on TV, in the news, in the video games they play. How are YOU going to explain to them the difference between the horrors of history and the stuff that goes down on the streets everyday?

    But getting back to my point, all this energy is being wasted instead of being productive in highlighting the five gazillion other library tomes for children and adults that could be truly enlightening.

    Just look at the Cuban literary scene: why isn’t anyone focusing on the all the great writing to come out of the island and to have been produced by second-generation writers? Why? Would that be too progressive, intellectual and positive? (I know the folks at UM are, but that’s an academic vacuum.)

    Look, if you’re going to remove VAC, you might as well get rid of the whole lot: Cristina Garcia, Alejo Carpentier … heck, just get rid of the whole freakin’ library. Kids don’t like to read anyway. That’s what video games are for.

  5. circuitmouse    Tue Jul 18, 05:39 PM #  

    Passions, passions. No, Little Black Sambo is probably not the best comparision for Vamos A Cuba. Ironically, however, in banning the book, the Cuban-American community will succeed in being as tyrannical or moreso than the dictatorship which they fled. I still believe there is a huge vacuum in the written account—for children, young adults AND grown-ups—of the exile experience of Cuban-Americans. Would that those who feel so strongly on this commit theier memories to paper before we lose their first-person eyewitness accounts forever.
    I remember a time when Miami Beach was filled with elderly people who had a mysterious tattoo on their arms—and a reticence to talk about their experiences. My great-grandfather, who lost his newspaper, his home and everything he owned lived his entire life unable to talk about his experiences when he fled north. I will never forget the pain in my great-aunt’s voice, when she would change the subject. There are many stories to tell. Not all of them we may wish to hear, but future generations will judge us, perhaps unfairly, for whatever effort we put into preserving as complete an account of our times. There may be some hard truths for us to look at about how we live, here, today, in these stories.
    But that’s the ugly reality behind the America we want to pretend we live in.

  6. Robert    Tue Jul 18, 06:58 PM #  

    Circuitmouse said:

    “Ironically, however, in banning the book, the Cuban-American community will succeed in being as tyrannical or moreso than the dictatorship which they fled.”

    Wow, having a book removed from a public school library ranks right up there or even exceeds the tyrannical deeds committed by the castro dictatorship. Talk about lack of perspective!

    Let’s hope future books written about the Cuban-American experience show a little better perspective than the above quote.

  7. Anon    Tue Jul 18, 08:03 PM #  

    Robert, I sure hope you were being facetious, because you know very well that it’s a common practice in Cuba to ban any book that’s deemed “counterrevolutionary.” There’s a price to be paid for reading those books. Hence the emergence of independent libraries, and hence some of the founders of those libraries having no choice but to seek asylum here.

    Is banning a book the most tyrannical thing one can do? Obviously not, but it’s a manifestation of tyranny. And whether we Cuban-Americans want to admit it or not, it takes a lot of hypocricy and gall to leave one country for repressing the freedom to read, say and think whatever one chooses, to go to another and try to tell others (and their kids) what they can and can’t read, and what they should think of the contents of that book.

    Saddest in all this is the misguided notion so many in the community have that Frank Bolanos actually gives a fuck about the book and people’s sensitivity to it. We’re being played by a hack who needed something emotional and controversial to tack his campaign on. Has anyone actually heard him discuss any other topic of interest? Does he have any plans or ideas besides the ones Arza tells him to have? Please. If Bolanos hadn’t taken this as his key to the election, I can bet you anything that no one would have ever heard of this complaint, and life would have gone on as usual, with that book collecting dust on the shelves.

    Under different circumstances, this issue would have been handled differently. But like everything around here, it’s being taken as The Cause by dirty politicians who use people’s sensitivity and memories and emotions to rile them up and play them for votes. And that deligitimizes it for me.

  8. Elian Gonzalez    Tue Jul 18, 08:03 PM #  

    Looks like this time it’s CircuitMouse’s turn. Once again the whole Cuban community gets tarred in its entirety as though it is of one mind, one thought, one voice.

    Maybe by this action, regarding this narrow issue, certain forces in Miami’s diverse and complex C-A community appear as totalitarian as the regime they despise. And maybe there’s all the rest who don’t.

    Tell Me C-Mouse, when it comes to politics, cultural issues, and morality, are you exactly the same as your ethnic brethren, whoever they are? Then why stereotype C-A’s that way?

  9. alesh    Tue Jul 18, 08:10 PM #  

    Thank you, as always, for your kind words, Robert. I feel, however, that in this case you are overreacting to one particular aspect of circutmouse’s comment, while disregarding the spirit of his message.

    Whether I was fully conscious of it or not, there’s a reason I started this post with a picture of Nazi book burning.

    “Having a book removed from a public school library ranks right up there or even exceeds the tyrannical deeds committed by the castro dictatorship.”

    Maybe it doesn’t, and maybe it does. But you’re way off if you believe that a small wrong is righted by a preceding larger wrong.

    The Cuban-American community is in a very difficult position. On the balance, I believe it is handling the position remarkably well. We have one rather extreme guy going after the latest book, and the rest of the Cuban-American community watching in what I presume is a sort of silent displeasure.

    If circuitmouse is wrong, though, it is in his attribution of the actions to “the Cuban-American community,” not in his characterization of the actions as tyranical.

    Neither is Izquierdo tyrannical. But his actions, along with those of the schoolboard, along with a select small few others, when added up, do start to resemble tyranny.

    And of that they ought to be aware.

    Furthermore, I second what I take to be circuitmouse’s call for first-generation Cuban-American literature.

  10. Manola Blablablanik    Tue Jul 18, 09:49 PM #  

    Ladies and germs, here’s a start.

    Shameless plug (yours truly contributed)—

    ReMembering Cuba, Editor Andrea Herrera O’ Riley (University of Austin Press)


    Another shameless plug, being produced by some friends of yours truly:


    A not so shameless plug:

    Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban
    Alejo Carpentier, In the Kingdom of this World
    Maryse Conde, I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (not Cuban, but an ‘answer’ to Sambo)

  11. Robert    Tue Jul 18, 10:12 PM #  

    Perhaps I misinterpreted Circuitmouse’s comment. Perhaps he meant to say that banning/removing a book “resembles SOME of the actions of a tyrannical regime”.

    However, that’s what you said, Alesh, and that’s what Circuitmouse SHOULD have said. His choice of words, taken at face value, was very poor, IMO.

    I’m sorry if I take very seriously any general comparisons drawn between the Cuban-American community and castro, because my parents’ generation worked too damned hard to make a decent life here and to contribute positively to this community and this country. I don’t condone actions by anyone in the Cuban-American community that undermines this hard work, nor do I condone any baseless comments made against the Cuban-American community at large.

    I’ve just about had it with this whole issue. Can someone please make it go away?

  12. gansibele    Wed Jul 19, 12:10 AM #  

    Sure. How about Bolaños? Izquierdo? And the others after them who are just salivating for their 15 minutes of fame?

    It’s not just one rather extreme guy, Alesh. Unfortunately there are many of them, they are vocal and loud, and they are too used to act like their actions and opinions represent the whole community. And I’m afraid the rest of the community, or at least the simple majority, watches with tacit approval. Or let’s wait and see if Bolaños gets elected or not.

    Stereotypes don’t come out of nowhere guys. Put down the rosy paintbrushes. It may be unfair, it may not be real and it may not be current, but there’s a reason for CA’s reputation

  13. mkh    Wed Jul 19, 05:49 AM #  

    When an American politician gets media time and makes patently false blanket statements—“All Americans support the War in Iraq”—often someone from the other party makes an effort to dispel the myth of unity. When a Cuban-American makes a similar gross generalization, claiming to speak for the entire community, seldom is there an opposing person on-air to contradict them. This reinforces the appearance that all Cuban-Americans speak with one voice.

    Perhaps this is the fault of the media. It certainly makes good television to have some blustering fool spraying spittle into a microphone in front of Versailles, and the producers don’t care if the truth is martyred for a soundbite. After all, no-one in the Cuban-American commmunity seems to be willing to publicly (and dramatically) denounce these alleged leaders.

    Gansibele, Manola, and others “out of step” in the Cuban-American community: have you written letters to the editor on this issue? Have you contacted local news stations to complain about their one-sided coverage of controversial Cuban-American stories? At the least, are you supporting Cuban-American candidates who aren’t afraid to break ranks with the self-appointed community representatives? It is up to you to dispel the stereotypes, because the people in power want to maintain the illusion that Cuban-Americans are simple people who vote as they are told.

  14. gansibele    Wed Jul 19, 07:30 AM #  

    Yes, yes and yes; even helped some campaigns. But I’d rather back horses with a chance of winning. In local politics I want to elect the candidate that’ll be better for the community, not the one that maybe will change the perceptions about CAs. Wherever you stand on Castro and Cuba should have no bearing in local politics. For example, right now I like Regalado; he may be a kook but it’s the only dissenting voice in the city comission.

    Let me tell you something, there are some pretty well known CA politicians that privately will tell you they don’t agree with the prevailing thinking, but saying it in public will be political suicide in Miami -and not because the voters will reject them per se, but because it gives opponents ammo to smear and misrepresent them.

  15. Steve Klotz    Wed Jul 19, 09:11 AM #  

    And there’s the RealWorld problem, gensibele: in Miami C-A politics, the truth don’t set you free, it buries you. Even so, one would need to be deafer blinder and dumber than Tommy himself not to realize exactly what you mention: there are plenty of people—leaders, laypersons, ordinary Joses—who have neither the patience nor the stomach for this idiocy.

    It’s morphing nicely, though, I bet another few years is all it takes for the tipping point, when some CA political leader tosses it aside. advocates positions that right now remain under wraps, and not only lives to tell the tale but gets hailed by all sides as a courageous visionary with a fresh perspective. Might even be yourself. Keep us informed!

    (That’s my storybook ending. For extra credit, compare and contrast with LBS.)

  16. nonee moose    Wed Jul 19, 05:42 PM #  

    Let’s recalibrate this for a moment… So the C-A political community is somehow MORE jaded, MORE opportunistic, nay, MORE hypocritical… and the silent C-A majority sits in quiet acquiesence? Hmmm. Sounds alot like that U.S. History I heard so much about. So, the non C-A’s are, calling bullshit, and accurately so. Thank you so much. Are there any panes left in this glass house? The art of “blustering and spraying spittle into a microphone” has no racial, ethnic or cultural origin.

    The fact is that the C-A community pretty much resembles any other group of people in America. They quietly wave off their respective political hacks that masquerade as righteous, indignant, and “moral” majorities (Revs Jackson, Sharpton, Falwell… Bill Bennett, Frank Bolaños, Nick Navarro, “Bulldog” Jenne, etc.), and we go merrily on our way, skipping to gomorrah. Because we all got better things to do. Call it apathy, or to borrow from Mr. Klotz, call it RealWorld. Lemme ask you something, folks, aside from its platitudinal value, what truth has set anybody free, lately? red-baiting? Vietnam? Watergate? Iraq? the blue Gap dress? Enron? Vamos a Cuba?

    Yes, the tipping point is near. Why? Because C-A’s testicles are dropping—politically speaking (ladies, substitute pithy female equivalent here). Allow for the man/woman-child to grow into their skin. Or perhaps in 232 uninterrupted years of democracy in action, somebody around here has it figured out? Do share, please…

    If there is justice, then patience is all anybody needs. Sit back and watch it in wonder. It is not everyone that gets to witness the process of political maturation up close and personal, and recognize each subtle shift. It’s almost like stop-action. These are interesting times, indeed.

    I felt ashamed, as a Cuban-American, as an AMERICAN, that the Constitution that I have personally sworn to uphold and defend, was cheapened the day that vote was taken by the school board. I was angered over the ease with which the C-A members forgot who they were in favor of what they are. But on that score they are no different than the first pandering caveman, decrying the drawings in Altamira as some kind of demon-worship, just so he could continue to get dibs on the white meat from the wooly mammoth. Moreover, I had to laugh at the predictability of the response from “you people”, well-founded as it may have been. And then something shiny caught my eye…

  17. circuitmouse    Wed Jul 19, 08:33 PM #  

    Robert was correct in pointing out I should have qualified that statement as ‘some’ of the actions. I know better than to try to organize thoughts after a double cafe cubano. NO community is monolithic in their thinking, although we do acknowledge certain generational patterns as we assilmilate. I enjoy ‘passing’ as American-born sometimes, to get to hear what people would say not knowing I came to America soon after the tanks rolled into La Habana. And having a Heinz 57 mix of a family means that we sometimes have polite conversations about such issues, and other things are best not brought up at all. I was taught that it was a far better thing to write and talk about and explain the issues around a controversy than to ban it outright… and to never take that right for granted. We, and future generations, would be better served by recording our objections, and writing accurate accounts, as we see them, so that we may be assured that our view is represented. It may be naive of me to believe that the truth will be always be obvious and win out when people read the opposing views side by side. I have learned that sometimes there is more than one right answer… not in the case of VaC, though. Well meaning people try to bridge gaps of understanding by portraying things they know nothing about… how will children learn what life is like for others if they don’t have something to learn from? I remember all too well the bombs and vitriole in Miami not so long ago that attempted to silence any dissenting view. America is supposed to be a place where we can put anything no matter how stupid into print. But if we don’t offer an alternatve as we see appropriate, the truth (as we know it) won’t get taught. I wonder what it’s like for those of you who have a birth certificate sometimes instead of a form from the State Department. There are a lot of Americans who don’t have a clue how lucky they are to be here where a free exchange of ideas can take place without people looking over their shoulder worriedly. Given the stuff I helped smuggle onto the island, I know that I’ve pretty much screwed up any chance of returning again until there is a democratic government installed …by the people, of the people, for the people. I also don’t want to forget that while some of my mother’s family were patrician and privileged, my father’s family was anything but. There is so much we take for granted. EVEN in Miami, there’s hope that, like Langston Hughes poem, “Let America be America Again” says, that good will triumph after all. And I’ll end with a plug for Eduardo Santiago’s new book, “Tomorrow They Will Kiss,” that is, as they said in the 60s, part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

  18. Rodney King    Wed Jul 19, 09:30 PM #  

    Much better. Mo’ much better. Why can’t we all just get along?

  19. dig    Tue Jul 25, 08:48 AM #  

    I am amazed as to what kind of inane ‘issues’ Miami politicians love to go out on a limb for. And they still get reelected.
    I am willing to bet that there are textbooks, in use here in Miami-Dade Public Schools, with all sort of egregious errors and inaccuracies.
    I would love for someone to verify this.