Hold on to your hats people because this is going to get complicated. I want to preface this with saying that as a child I was very fond of Curious George, I had the original books and a large stuffed monkey who sat on a rocking chair in a little walk in closet where I had tea parties. Despite that Nostalgia, I think we need to look at this critically.
“Curious George” (1941) by Margaret Ray and H. Ray is about a monkey (with no tail) named George who is kidnapped from his home in Africa by a white man in a yellow hat. He is told he must be a good little monkey and accept his fate and promptly jumps off the ship, almost drowns and is fished back in. Once they get to the man’s home, George accidentally calls the fire department and is thrown in jail. He escapes and eventually is “saved” by the man in the yellow hat and then promptly thrown in the zoo.
So this seems like an open and shut case of some seriously messed up allegory of racial power dynamics, pro colonialist imperialist bull crap. Right? The white man is the saviour who must impose his values and will on George, and George is expected to not only be complicit and obedient but to love and be thankful for the man. Awful right? Just bloody grotesque.
Okay but here is where it gets a little more complicated. The authors, the Rays were a married Jewish couple who wrote “Curious George” while fleeing the Nazis. They fled Paris on bicycles with nothing but the drawings and a few belongings. They went to New York where they, like George, had to navigate a frightening new world having been forced by a threat of racist, antisemitic evil to abandon their home. On top of all of this, they had no children, but instead owned pet monkeys. Does this negate our initial assessment? Or does it simply complicate it?
So how do we untangle this? June Cummins in her compelling article, you can find the link to below, argues that despite their experiences, the Rays are writing with the voice of authority. They are functioning as The Man in the Yellow Hat, who they have portrayed as a force of goodness and rightness. But who is George in all of this?
George, symbolizes a human child, the decision to depict him with no tail is a pretty big indicator of that. They owned monkeys, they would have been aware that monkeys have tails. Given their relationship with monkeys it seems natural that they would select a monkey as the animal symbol for a cheeky human child in their story.
So what about the racial connection, was it intentional? They clearly had their own personal reasons to choose a monkey. But, the Ray’s would have been aware of the plethora of pre-existing media that drew comparisons between Black people and monkeys. That was a pretty commonly used symbol by this time. Add to that the entire narrative of the white man in the colonial safari outfit kidnapping and enslaving George (who is representing a human child) from Africa, this is not something we can dismiss. The level of intention on the part of the author in making a statement about race is unclear. However, I don’t think it is possible to fully remove the story of Curious George from its ties to the enslavement narrative and colonialist values.
At the end of the day, does it matter if they intended it? Curious George is certainly a book that supports unjust power dynamics, obedience in the face of subjugation, and kidnapping. It also exists in the context of a time when art, writing, propaganda had been making these symbolic connections between Race and monkeys/apes. You cannot remove a piece of art from the context it was created even though yes, clearly there are many layers here.
No, It isn’t as clear cut as I had initially thought when I began researching this but I do not think that the personal experiences and trials of the authors can erase the obvious context and implications that Curious George and his captivity has in terms of messaging about racial power dynamics, and pro colonial attitudes.
I do not think “Curious George” belongs on a child’s bookshelf after having researched it and it’s context and implications. However I encourage you to do the research yourself, and consider it. I have linked some articles below for your consideration.
Cummins, June. “The Resisting Monkey: ‘Curious George,’ Slave Captivity Narratives, and the Postcolonial Condition.” A Review of International English Literature 28.1 (1997): 69–83. ARIEL. Web. 12 April 2015.
“The Unexpected Profundity of Curious George” Galchen, Rivka. The New Yorker. June 3, 2019.
“A Good Little Monkey: Curious George’s Undercurrent of White Dominance and the Series’ Continued Popularity” Terhune, Maya. Boston University WR: Journal of the CAS Writing program