The Problem with Picture Book Monkeys: Racist imagery associating simians with Black people has a long history

Black people have always been called monkeys, intentionally or not.

Edith Campbell

It seems that every other week there's another headline about a Black person being referred to as a monkey, ape, or gorilla, and associated racist imagery, causing an outcry. In May 2018, Roseanne Barr sent out a now-deleted Tweet equating Valerie Jarrett, a Black woman and former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, with an ape. After losing her role on a TV show, Barr apologized, calling the tweet a joke.

Later that year, Prada was forced to remove a $550 keychain from its global market amid cries of a boycott. The keychain contained the figure of a monkey with large lips suggesting blackface.

British radio show host Danny Baker was fired in 2019 after tweeting an image of a chimpanzee appearing to depart a hospital with the caption, "Royal baby leaves hospital." Offense was taken because the child’s mother, Duchess Meghan Markle, has mixed African American and Caucasian heritage.

Educators have also been included in these headlines. In January 2019, a Texas teacher was placed on administrative leave for calling students monkeys on Facebook. In 2018, teachers in Texas, New York, Florida, and Kentucky faced disciplinary action for referring to students as monkeys, apes, or gorillas. That same year, the organization Teaching Tolerance documented more than 20 instances of students using these words toward Black peers in its 2018 Hate At School report.

It makes you wonder: Why do so many people refer to Blacks in such a manner? Where did this false thinking originate, and how does it continue to spread?

In particular, I wonder about the role played by picture books with cartoon or anthropomorphic images of monkeys—that is, monkeys with human characteristics. At first glance, it looks like they’re just animals—no big deal. However, my research into the history surrounding these depictions reveals that there's much more to it.

Black people have always been called monkeys, intentionally or not. I taught in a K-8 Catholic school in Indianapolis where all the students were Black, but most of the teachers weren’t. Once a White teacher had her young students sing and perform "No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed." When I pointed out the racism embedded in this song, it was clear she had no idea of the dynamics she created by asking Black children to act like monkeys and sing a tune whose original lyrics can be traced back to “Five little [n-words] jumping on the bed."

Consider the ever-popular Dr. Seuss books, which in total contain only two Black characters, both of whom are depicted as monkeys. Then there's “Curious George,” H.A. Rey’s series about a monkey that has grown into a global franchise. As Maya Terhune wrote in a Boston College publication, "[T]he series’ celebration of the oppression of an abducted monkey parallels the oppression of black Americans.”

If children's books socialize young people and teach them cultural values, what role do they play in extending the false equation between people of African descent and monkeys?

An illustration from "Types of Mankind" (1854).

Monkey comparisons have been used to dehumanize people around the globe, but the comparison to people of African descent is the most enduring. I've been able to trace these ideas to antiquity, when Christian and Muslim scholars viewed apes as demons. This metanarrative brought a spiritual dimension to apes, and eventually those likened to them, by rendering them as soulless and demonic, as Charles Mills wrote in the anthology Simianization: Apes, Gender, Class and Race (LIT Verlag, 2015).

Many researchers trace beliefs that people of African descent were more ape than human to the late 17th century, the age of Enlightenment. However, there was so much prior contact between Black Africans and Europeans that the idea probably originated earlier. Enlightenment-era political and economic developments would have spurred more widespread adoption of this untruth.

European naturalists such as Carl Linnaeus developed taxonomies ordering the European's scientific world by classifying different species of humans. This converged with Peter Camper's work on physiognomy, a pseudoscience using the shape and size of the head, face, and brain to determine character and intelligence, and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

These theories developed while European imperial powers pursued global colonization and sought cheap, unlimited labor to fuel growing economies. Scientific racism, which viewed Indigenous people in Africa and in the Americas as non-humans void of souls and humanity because they were likened to apes, justified enslaving these people not for a period of servitude, but in perpetuity, as chattel.

Understanding this history is important, because it explains why and how anti-Blackness has come to be.

The European press popularized these ideas with editorial comics that represented groups of people as animals. And it's those monkeys that we now find in children's books, movies, and TV shows.

When we see a black gorilla in the 2018 children's movie Sing dressed like a rapper, or when Francine, the monkey friend in the TV cartoon Arthur (based on the books by Marc Brown), is voiced by a Black actor, I believe we're observing the perpetuation of that message. It’s dehumanizing to Blacks because it removes their essential human capacities, such as intelligence and emotion. It also relieves others of moral obligation toward Black people along with any social or emotional connection.

One would wonder how children’s books with such racialized images get published. Stanford University psychology professors Jennifer Ebehart and Aneeta Rattan found that non-Black people can have an inattentional blindness that prevents them from processing the racism in images that are in front of them. When the creators don't know the history, are unaware of their own bias, and have never had monkey-based insults hurled at them, it's easy for them not to see the anti-Blackness.

In the majority-White world of children's publishing, many people are still unaware of their own implicit bias. So when racist images are unwittingly created by one person or department, others may not see it.

I can tell you some of the things that I see. In The Gorilla Did It by Barbara Shook Hazen (Scholastic, 1974), there is a white-appearing child who cannot sleep, so he wakes the Gorilla to join him in a few late-night shenanigans. When mom finds them, the gorilla is blamed for making a mess, while the white-appearing child remains innocent. The gorilla also towers over the child, reflecting a common adultification of Black youth that implies reasons to fear them.

Books such as Voices in the Park (DK, 1998) and Monkey Not Ready for Kindergarten (Dragon Fly, 2016) offer anthropomorphic images requiring a second, or third, look to determine whether a creature is human or simian.

Another critique of the racism seen in the “Curious George” books is that while George imitates humans, he never wears clothes or speaks, suggesting the victimization of Blacks. His curiosity is expressed as disobedience, which gets him into situations requiring the Man in the Yellow Hat to save him.

Often, a simian's behavior portrays popular negative stereotypes of Blacks that inadvertently reinforce the association between monkeys and Black people. The animals are lazy and avoid work, have super strength, are good dancers, jokesters, and are not very intelligent. Julia Ostertag, a doctoral student in Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, noticed when researching animals in children's picture books that cultural stereotypes and prejudices "often are more hidden when they’re inserted into a story about animals or animal form.”

Educators and librarians can't afford the privilege of inattentional blindness with regard to picture books, particularly if they're striving to educate young people in an atmosphere of equality and social justice. Those who produce books, teach children, or work in libraries need training to consciously push past their own biases so that they don't perpetuate anti-Blackness myths.

Take a second look at Grumpy Monkey (Random House, 2018), where Jim the chimpanzee is always thought to be angry, and think about the stereotype of the angry Black man. Consider the buffoonery in any of the recently published “Mr. Monkey” books (S. & S.). Look to see what too many others have missed. And think about what all children are being taught on an implicit level.

If we're reading these books to children or are placing them on shelves, we're complicit in the racism they promote unless we actively engage with the text through a lens of critical literacy addressing the representations of power. Children as young as four can perceive people as "other" and can discriminate based on that perception. This behavior is malleable in young children, but not so easily in adults. If we can reduce the sources of prejudice, we can participate in bringing about a more just society.

Educators should continually question the representations in books that are put in front of children. Although Walter Dean Myers wrote most of his books for teenagers, he understood the weight he carried in his writing. In his New York Times op-ed, Myers explained that "I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to do when I wrote about poor inner-city children—to make them human in the eyes of readers and, especially, in their own eyes. I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country."

This is weight we all share.

Edith Campbell is an associate education librarian in the Cunningham Memorial Library at Indiana State University. She is a founding member of the We Are Kidlit Collective and See What We See. She serves on the advisory board for the Research on Diversity in Youth Literature journal. In 2016, she served as a faculty fellow to the ISU Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence’s Multicultural Curriculum Learning Community. Edith is a member of the 2019 Robert F. Sibert Medal Selection Committee. She blogs to promote literacy and social justice in YA literature at CrazyQuiltsEdi.

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Tanya Cook

The Reys were of Jewish descent, who escaped from Paris on bicycles as Hitler's Nazi army was invading France. Their original book included a menagerie of animals, one of whom was a curious monkey. George appears to be a modeled off of a very curious 2 to 4 year old while the man in the yellow hat is a very patient "parent" who understands the nature of children and wants to encourage him in his discovery of the world around him. I would never have considered for a moment that this Jewish couple would be encouraging racism of any sort, particularly since they barely escaped the horror of the Holocaust themselves.

Posted : Apr 03, 2020 07:17

Fred Victor

This is a long winded article. People compare us to monkeys because we have flat noses and big lips like monkeys. Done in 2 sentences.

Posted : Feb 07, 2020 05:55


I am looking for ideas or lessons on how to teach this idea to students. If students can recognize the sense of other at 4 years, how and when do we teach it?

Posted : Jan 14, 2020 01:51

Erin Silva

I was privileged to hear you speak at the ALSC conference in Cincinnati and read your work on Reading While White. I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable and critical person, yet I am still surprised by my own "inattentional bias." I appreciate the work you do, and hope that more publishers, authors, editors, writers, book selectors, teachers, and librarians learn to value these conversations as we strive for change and equality. The work is hard, but not impossible. Thank you.

Posted : Dec 16, 2019 04:45

K-Fai Steele

Thanks Edi; your writing on this is clear and deeply important. One other piece of history that connects/helps to communicate why picture book monkeys are problematic is that just over 100 years ago (in 1906) the Bronx Zoo put Ota Benga, a Mbuti (Congo Pygmy) black man on display in the Ape House, where "huge crowds came to stare and jeer". A group of black Baptist ministers, led by the Reverend James H Gordon, demanded his release and wrote, "We are frank enough to say we do not like this exhibition of one of our own race with the monkeys... Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.” It's shameful, and of course not surprising, that this legacy of equating black people with monkeys endures quietly in children's literature and illustration, and I'm hoping that your writing on it adds to the movement of other illustrators and writers to be more thoughtful about the characters they develop and put on the page.

Posted : Dec 09, 2019 07:21

Tandy Scott

I appreciate this detailed history. Thank you.For clarity, Francine in ARTHUR is quite definitely a Jewish character, and the Brain (a bear) is the one whose family, while not identified as black or of African descent, celebrates Kwanzaa.

Posted : Dec 06, 2019 01:12

Sarah Wicks

I wrote about the problematic use of gorillas in Voices in the Park & Willy the Wimp for my MA.'ve given me a lot more food for thought, thank you.

Posted : Dec 05, 2019 11:01



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