“Can the Ethiopian change his skin/ Or the leopard his spots?/ Then you also can do good/ Who are accustomed to doing evil.” – Jeremiah 13:23
There’s a reference to Jeremiah’s harsh Biblical pronouncement in Hugh Lofting’s otherwise light-hearted “The Story of Doctor Dolittle,” from 1920. The reference is made during the central episode of this children’s classic: a daring trip to the heart of African darkness to save monkeys from a cholera outbreak or something of the kind. That’s generous enough, until it all devolves into a bizarre act of colonial racial cleansing. Yes, Hugh Lofting was Joseph Conrad for the kids.
Let’s set that up.
Our main character, as you might have heard, is a penniless doctor who lives with his long-suffering “sister” Sarah in a town called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. John Dolittle gets clued in to the animal alphabet and becomes a veterinarian because he has so little interest in human beings that he hardly shrugs when his “sister” virtually dumps him and his menagerie in her frustration (a crocodile breaks the camel’s back, so to speak.) She walks out the door, off to find a man with money, and never gets mentioned again. (Adult readers can’t help but see Sarah as the prototype of the shrewish wife/girlfriend who just doesn’t get a man’s vocation; she might as well be played in some thankless role by Sarah Silverman. The only reason Sarah is a “sister” and not otherwise is because it wouldn’t do for the hero of a children’s franchise to be shown dealing with a traumatic divorce or debilitating break-up.)
Since England isn’t doing much for him, Doctor Dolittle sets off for the promising African shores with his babbling zoo of acolytes: Polynesia the parrot, Jip the dog, Chee-Chee the monkey, and a cluster of talking animals so sparsely characterized that at some point Lofting gives up on naming them evocatively and they just become things like Beep-Beep the Aardvark, Boop-Boop the Mongoose and Baap-Baap the Whatever. The one stroke of naming genius comes with the Pushmipullyu, a sort of unicorn/llama that nods to Lewis Carroll, (twice, since has two-heads.)
Here’s where things get (unintentionally?) racist:
Doctor Dolittle runs afoul of the black King of Jolliginki. Relax, that’s not the racist part. I mean, decoding that semi-anagram suggests a JOLLY king, no? (or is it a Jogging Kill?) The King is cool. He never threatens to resort to cannibalism. He looks positively dignified compared to, say, the king in Herge’s “Tintin Au Congo.” Not only that, Lofting is on the side of the King’s rational anger: a previous white man has come around and exploited the kingdom. We UNDERSTAND why H.R.H. is not rolling out the welcome mat for Doctor Whitey.
The racism comes in the story of the King’s son, Prince Bumpo.
Despite his name, Prince Bumpo is far from some primitive Sambo. Listen to the first line we get from him:
“What is this I hear?” he cried. “Methought the sweet music of a fairy’s silver voice rang from yonder bower! Strange!”
That’s the poetry of a higher consciousness- even the Doctor is never half as eloquent. How did Bumpo become such a precious speaker? Well, he was educated at OXFORD! He’s into LITERATURE and loves nothing more than to read under the palm trees. Bumpo is not a savage, Bumpo is a sensitive soul, so sensitive in fact…
… that he wants to transform into a White Man.
See, Bumpo once fell in love with a beautiful girl of the Caucasian persuasion, but she was the kind who would have wholeheartedly approved of segregated water fountains in the 1950s, if you know what I mean. So the heart-broken Bumpo betrays his father, and offers to help Dolittle in exchange for a transformation into the higher state of WHITENESS, which Dolittle attempts by covering the poor boy with some kind of toxic bleaching agent, in a clear violation of the Hippocratic Oath. All the animals are astonished at the change “for the Prince’s face had turned as white as snow, and his eyes, which had been mud-colored, were a manly gray!” Now, I’ve heard my share of racial myths, but it’s the first time I was notified that brown eyes= girly, gray eyes= manly. (I’ve heard “steely” and “icy”, sure, but “MANLY”?)
“Can a black man ever be (as good as) a white man?” Is the question the doctor poses himself, in his re-enactment of Jeremiah, and he has the Biblical quote to back up his hesitation. Maybe this isn’t racism, but reportage. Maybe the temporary, possibly poisonous transformation of Prince Bumpo into a different race could be Lofting’s subtle topical commentary on what he saw as the betrayal of their ancestry by a generation of colonized African children, dying to conform to Western standards of beauty. Maybe?
(I kind of like Bumpo, by the way. He’s a sweet kid. I would like to point out he’s much more fully realized than the white child who appears on the final third of the book, a character so character-less that Lofting forgets to name him AT ALL. Not even “Burp-Burp” or “Plot-Point Boy.” Nothing.)
Modern editions have softened the controversial bits. I hear one bizarre bowdlerization has Bumpo express his desire to be a LION. Yes, it IS undeniably cooler to be a lion than a white guy, but how exactly did Bumpo expect a vet to transform him into a LION? In the attempt to make Dolittle less racist, they managed to make the African kid look way more idiotic.
RATING: GOOD ENOUGH. “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” is still a fine children’s book, and if the kids have questions about some parts, just tell them the truth:
“It’s unfair to judge past cultures by modern standards. Long ago, people used to be stupidly racist. Now people are STILL stupidly racist, but they know to shut up about it in mixed company.”
Like a perfect bedtime tale, “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” begins with “Once upon a time…” and ends with a crocodile shouting: “GO TO SLEEP!”
I’ve always wondered about the Irish/English surname Dolittle (or its Doolittle variant.) It must have been popular enough at one point. The good doctor is quite industrious, despite his disdain for capitalist acquisition. (Similarly, George Bernard Shaw isn’t mocking poor Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion”- unless selling flowers is supposed to be a sign of laziness and not just Cockney-ness.) But it’s amusing to think that at some definite historical moment, when names were being passed around, the Smiths and Carpenters and Millers of the world turned to some unpopular bloke in their midst and went like: “Let’s face it, you can be either Dolittle or Arseface. You get to pick.“