Vulnerability, Ontological, and Epistemological Assault

Confronting Award-Winning Children's Literature
children’s literaturePrizingBlackface Minstrelsy
Motivated by the desire to advance dignified representation and social justice in education via children’s literature, the author draws from the rich database of S-STEP studies (Kitchen et al., 2020) in conjunction with powerful critical discourses (Feagin, 2013; St Pierre, 2000), to illustrate how children’s texts are used as part of whiteness as a technology affect (Leonardo & Zembylas, 2016). Such technology is deployed via literary texts used in reading programs of schools in sites of settler colonialism, to ideologically conscript children and youth in maintaining domination and subordination of minorities through the promulgation of white supremacy and its psychosocial consequences. Drawing on the work of Serafini (2010), this study calls for greater pedagogical focus on “visual images and visual systems of meaning” in engagements with children’s texts given the growing importance of images (p. 86) and visual culture in the lives of children. Also, this study signals urgent need for harm repair; democratization, informed participation, inclusion, diversity, transparency, and greater polyvocality on adjudication committees and in prizing and reviewing institutions of children’s literature.


Having recently completed Michelle Obama’s (2018) racially nurturing memoir, Becoming, and a subscriber to poststructural feminist theories (St. Pierre, 2000) where the subject is “agentic,” not fixed but opened to “possibilities of continual reconstruction and reconfiguration” (p. 502)—always on thresholds of becoming—I was drawn to the 2023 Self-Study in Teacher Education Practices (S-STEP) conference. It is an opportunity to pause-reflect on the contributions of this research community to my practices as a teacher-educator through their enabling of: courage to name and tease out vexations (Samaras, 2011), to be humble and vulnerable (Berry & Russel, 2016; Knowles, 2014), puzzle and wrestle with complexities associated with being a racialized educator in a settler colonial state (McNeil, 2011; Taylor & Diamond, 2020); in pursuit of social justice education (Sowa & Schmidt, 2020) therein. Canada for instance, is on thresholds of inclusive, sociological, and political change, as citizens, due especially to Indigenous activism, begin acknowledging the enormous suffering colonial schools and education (e.g., Residential Schools), (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015), misrepresentation of the colonized, and colonialism itself have caused its victims. Such acts are now being acknowledged, through the inaugural, National Truth and Reconciliation Day (September 30, 2021). One, that “honours the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families and communities” (Government of Canada, 2021).

 In view of the foregoing, self-study (Mena & Russel, 2017) is the research methodology I embrace, to understand my teaching practices and effectuate change. As a Black teacher educator, whose body, spirit, and mind socio-historically, carry lacerations of suffering, I am committed to naming social injustices in the interest of working for humane, nuanced, and textured social justice in my intersecting worlds (parent, teacher educator, and citizen-subject).  For example, in my roles as selector, evaluator, and mediator of children’s literature, I am accountable for the literature I use and recommend to teacher-candidates for diverse children in a society where oppressed and subordinated groups call for justice, insist on dignified inclusion, truth, and reconciliation (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). This is a substantial responsibility because research by children’s literature scholars (Broderick, 1973; Bishop, 2007; Bradford, 2007; Brown 1933; Harris, 1990, 1999, 2012; Leu, 2001; Stivers, 2015) documents the corrosive, toxic marks, and sting white supremacy—colonialism—have left on cultural production in which, racialized peoples (e.g., Asians, Blacks, Indigenous peoples) have been dehumanized, stereotyped, ridiculed, mocked, belittled and misrepresented by dominant White groups in locations of colonial domination through its racialized ontologies and epistemologies.

 I witnessed such misrepresentation when I read an award-winning Canadian picture book—The Red Scarf (2010)/L’écharpe Rouge (Villeneuve, 1999) which, produced in me, feelings of vulnerability, ontological, and epistemological assault (Mdingi, 2016). Hence, I reached for self-study—a methodology ideal for one interested in underlining that “it is essential that prospective teachers (and teacher educators too) be sensitized to, and challenged by, the demands of teaching for social justice if the hope for schooling as truly an educative experience for all is to be seriously pursued” (Kitchen et al., vii, 2020). Therefore, this is a self-study of my engagement, critical response, and activism provoked by an award-winning picture book (Canada and Belgium (2000, Prix Québec/Wallonie-Bruxelles de littérature de jeunesse ( despite its flagrant deployment of black-face minstrelsy, conflating Blacks with simians—monkeys.  

Aims and Objectives

Colonial ideologies are dangerous to harmonious social relations in settler societies and are with us still. As concerns children’s literature, Bradford (2001) posits, that “to read children's books of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is to read texts produced within a pattern of imperial culture” and “[w]orks of the past, such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays, The Water-Babies, and The Secret Garden, readily disclose the imperial ideologies that inform them” (p. 196). Such ideologies for instance, rank(ed) and ordered humanity in self-serving ways beneficial to maintaining the influence, power, and prestige of those atop the ladder of humanity in settler colonial states like Canada, and are carried into the twenty-first century in spite of international legislation (Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations (1948); the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1995) and national human rights charters and codes (e. g., Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Government of Canada, 1982) and related discourses.

Influenced by Bradford’s (2007) Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children’s Literature, the purpose of this self-study is to make visible and challenge the ongoing impact of colonial ideologies related to caste (Wilkerson, 2020)—to race—in a children’s book –L’écharpe rouge. First published in 1999 and nationally prized in 2000, in Canada, I draw attention to the book’s actual and potential harm to children and the development of harmonious social relations in and out of classroom spaces because of its use of simians in blackface minstrelsy as surrogates for Black people. I seek nothing less than to challenge the prizing of this flawed book in light of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1995) and to, as Capshaw (2018) suggests, interrogate “the lack of concrete aesthetic criteria determining many of the awards that grant a long life to texts (both in libraries and academia) ... [and] to also make plain the invisible but formative influence of whiteness in determining legitimacy…” (p. 391) through social positionalities and rankings of worth.

Through this action-research self-study (Shivers, Disney & Porath, 2020; Samaras, 2011), I investigate my reader responses (Rosenblatt, 1978) to a specific text at a particular moment in time. Thus, my self-study is, as Czarniawska (2011) suggested of some “close readings” of narrative texts, an “explicative” (what the text/picture book says), “interpretive” (what the picture book means) and “interruptive” (limiting damage of a White female-authored visual narrative engaging in racial mockery at the expense of Blacks) for the delight of her assumed White readers—illustrating that close readings cannot be “devoid of history and contemporary realities” (Harris, 1999, p. 152). Through this self-study, I represent myself as a “self-interpreting” (Taylor, 1985, cited in Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2016, p. 210) reader engaged in critical acts of meaning-making of the lived social world via use of self-selected complementary theoretical frameworks. I am interested in pursuing dignified, non-oppressive, non-demeaning representation of Black people in children’s literature by explicitly naming and exposing powerful colonial relations of power and their concomitant and endemic racial hierarchies, that enable untroubled prizing of an explicitly racializing text aimed at children in contemporary Canada by one of its institutions: The Canada Council for the Arts, through the Governor General's Literary Awards (Canada Council, 2000).

Method(s): Data Collection

Data for this self-study comprised repeated close-readings (Brookman & Horn, 2016) of the text, content analysis (Shivers, Disney & Porath, 2020) of visual narrative, and critical analysis of the images (Cotton & Daly, 2015), visual meaning-making systems (Serafini, 2010)— in this mostly wordless book (there are only eight words). I also consulted reviews (e.g., Donaldson, 2010). Furthermore, to capture my emotions/ feelings, reactions, reflections, and ideas, I wrote in a research journal (Makaiau, Leung & Fukui, 2019). Additionally, as “researcher and participant,” in the study, it was incumbent to operationalize a key practice of self-study—enlisting the support of a critical friend (Hamilton, Hutchinson & Pinnegar, 2020; Samaras, 2011, Smith & Bradbury, 2019) to establish trustworthiness. Hence, I asked a knowledgeable White colleague, a critical friend, to closely examine L’écharpe Rouge/The Red Scarf to ascertain the reasonableness and credibility of my hypothesis and critical assertions about its shameless deployment of blackface minstrelsy in this Governor General award-winning monograph for children.


Citing Mishler (1990), Tidwell, Heston, and Fitzgerald (2009), argue that “[s]elf-study as inquiry-guided research, must be trustworthy enough for “others to be able to find that research both meaningful and potentially generative in relationship to the readers’ own teacher education practices” (p. xiii). With commitments to trustworthiness and visibility, data analysis for this study was recursive and iterative— spanning over a year, while I lived in it via use of Iterative Categorization (IC), (Neale, 2020). IC “is a systematic and transparent technique for analysing qualitative textual data” (p. 668) because it can be used with “studies of any size” such as mine Typically, IC involves the following stages: ‘transcription’, ‘familiarisation’, ‘anonymisation’, ‘logging’, ‘coding, ‘analyses preparation’, ‘descriptive analyses’ and ‘interpretive analyses’ (Neale). For this study, I chiefly utilized IC for the “interpretative stage.” According to Neale, “interpretation is essential because it raises the findings of a qualitative study from a simple, local ‘story’ to an account that has potential relevance to other settings and audience” (p. 668).  Also, essential, was communication with and from my critical friend (Samaras, 2011) who, referencing L’echarpe Rouge, explained: “And it isn’t “offense” that we’re talking about, it is the harmful and reductive stereotypical representation of Black folx that has led to their dehumanization and threatens the lives of Black people in Canada, the US, and around the world” (S. S. personal communication, April 11, 2021).

Hence, during the ‘interpretative stage’, I repeatedly returned to the monograph of focus, and deeply personal and reflective notes recorded in my research journal, and communication with my critical friend to sift through observations, emotions, feelings, ideas, interpretations, and responses to its visual images in light of my identities: Black citizen, mother, and teacher educator with strong affinities for Critical Race Theory (CRT), Ladson-Billings (); Gillborn, 2006), the Black Lives Movement surging around me (Holt & Sweitzer, 2020; Oborne & Miller, 2020), and the theoretical frameworks selected for the study (e. g. Fanon, 1963, Leonardo & Zembylas, 2013). Data analysis also involved percolation (Romano, 1987)—lots of thinking as I went about my daily activities. Additionally, I engaged in self-talk and dialogues with family and colleagues (Coia & Taylor, 2009) while grappling with data. This is because the “aim of the final interpretive process is to identify patterns, associations, and explanations within the data” to question them and “…finally, ascertaining how the findings complement or contradict previously published literature, theories, policies or practices” (Neale, 2020, p. 670) and also to highlight fresh insights and contributions offered by the study—thereby “externalizing” my findings as indicated in Neale’s model of IC and as exhibited herein.  


The presence of blackface minstrelsy in a picture book (L’Echarpe Rouge/The Red Scarf) that attracted the most, prestigious prize for illustration in Canada ($10,000, Canada Council, 2000), highlights the power and entrenchment of white racial framing (Feagin, 2013) in national and other institutions that prize children’s literature.  The study reveals that whiteness, as a technology of affect (Leonardo & Zembylas, 2013) if left untroubled, works to recruit and conscript children perceptually and ideologically in the promulgation of white supremacy through children’s literature in states marked by settler colonialism. This menaces national goals for harmonious/equitable social relations of power. Additionally, the study reveals that adjudication boards/bodies responsible for prizing, should not be solely entrusted to dominant groups. Rather, they should be positioned to operate democratically, polyvocally, and transparently; comprising of knowledgeable, critical, heterogenous individuals, committed to dignified representation for all populations given the damaging, ideological power of multimodal texts for children, youth, and adults. Also, this self-study illuminates Kress’ (2003) view (cited in Serafini) that the “world shown is different from the world told” (p. 86), and self-study’s nimbleness to make this known to those in and outside the community of such researchers. Finally, the study suggests we can move beyond thresholds of calling out injustices toward engaging authors and illustrators of picturebooks, in harm repair through epistemologies of restorative justice (Asadullah & Morrison, 2021; Minifie, 2017), and truth and reconciliation.

Implications for Practice

This self-study has significant implications for the evaluation and selection of children’s literature in culturally and racially diverse, but White-controlled societies in post-colonial settings because children’s literature is an aperture for understanding cultures and societies—the universe of our teaching practices and has lessons to share about ethical book selection. English (2005) for instance, in The Economy of Prestige, underlines the intersection of market and cultural forces in prizing, stating that, “prizes obviously are bound up in varying degree with the business end of art, with the actual funding of cultural production and the traffic in cultural products …” (p. 3). He further argues that prizing is also associated “…with the specifically cultural economics of prizes and awards—with what may be called the economics of cultural prestige” (p. 3).

Therefore, I assert that in postcolonial settler states such as Canada, literary prizing such as the Governor General’s Literary Awards, a state-sponsored prize (English (2005), cited in Kidd (p. 202)), (e. g., awarded to L’écharpe rouge for illustration), can be construed as an important aspect of the prestige of nation building. That is, of nurturing/developing/promoting homegrown, post-colonial literature—nationally, regionally, and locally. As Kidd (2007), a notable scholar on prizing posits, to “prize a book ostensibly is to value it, to mark it out as distinguished…” (p. 197), and is aimed at shoring “up the fortunes of a given text, author, or genre…” (p. 4).

Given the economic value of prizing, librarians, educators, and parents, for instance, need to be thoughtful/careful, and ethical in their selection. Though a book has attracted an important national and international prize, this distinction should not guarantee it a place in our libraries if it enlists racist tropes such as blackface minstrelsy in its storytelling—comedic or not. Therefore, selectors need to pay attention to the potential harm to Black and other children’s self-worth and positive identity formation when selecting children’s literature. Black and other children need to be shielded from suffering ignited by toxic—racist—literature such as the lauded (Publisher’s Weekly, 2010) and prized L’écharpe Rouge (Canada Council).

Often entrusted to elites, prizing becomes institutionalized as part of the national and regional purview of dominant White groups. It can trigger intense emotions (e.g., pride, esteem, accomplishment; loyalty, reverence to the nation state). Hence prizing is partisan. State prizing often promotes the ideologies, proclivities, and interests (conscious and unconscious) of dominant White groups—especially for the juries/committees/boards selected to do so. Hence prizing can be framed as part of the “white racial frame” (Feagin, 2013) on which the Americas is built. It becomes a part of whiteness as a technology of affect (Leonardo & Zembylas)—mirroring/reflecting, enacting, and perpetuating dominant and still pervasive ideologies, epistemologies, and ontologies of colonialism which, was and is built on racial hierarchy, the superiority of the white race over all others, and contributes to maintaining that legacy.

The nationally, and internationally prized L’écharpe Rouge (Prix Québec-Wallonie-Bruxelles de littérature de jeunesse, Belgium, 2000), illustrates that it is still possible to behold in a children’s book, a visual representation of black inferiority on the anthropological ladder engineered by colonial expansionism (albeit through anthropomorphism). As metaphorical fantasy (Connor, 2014), this monograph reproduces and serves up unconscionably, past racist tropes (blackface minstrelsy on monkeys) and the unashamed ridiculing of Black physical features to young people for enjoyment, adoption, and future circulation and reproduction.

Hence, in schools, it is necessary to contemplate the history of oppression, current and future needs of Black readers, and other groups scarred by colonialism in the selection of, and their transactions with children’s literature in settler states because of the ideologies, signals, and messages they send to children about their worth, value and overall framing and positioning in society.  In particular, this study informs practice by drawing attention to possible impacts of visual-narrative representation in toxic-racist literature on the emotional, and affective domains of children’s lives.

L’écharpe Rouge is no benign monograph and “no accident” (S. S. personal communication, April 11, 2021). Sadly, it subtly offers up for consumption on the national and international stages, images that are morally and ethically questionable—indicating some global appetite/affect for this literature. Also, the book leaves untroubled ownership of the circus animals, depicting them, including the monkeys in blackface, as contented, satisfied property of their White human masters/employers/owners. With regard to its affective reach in pedagogical sites and influencing pedagogical relations (Forster-Roy-Morrison, 2014, p. 169), here is a Canadian literary text, globally contributing to racist cultural enculturation and ideological socialization (Moruzi, Smith, & Bullen 2019) in children.

Thus, teacher-educators and teacher-candidates engaged in “literary vetting” (Kidd, 2007, p. 202) need to be aware of the possibilities of still encountering (via images/illustrations and text), storytelling informed by colonial legacies of racialization, harmful to all—children, teachers, and the socially just society we wish to build—and are further encouraged to reject such literary production as quality children’s literature for all, whether prized or not. Prizing is not always a guarantor of quality. Rather it is a set of geopolitical, sociopolitical, cultural, and economic (English, 2005) acts reflecting the particular aesthetics of the people/groups responsible for the awards/prizes, criteria established and used, and the juries responsible for decision-making. They are fallible and so while treading lightly, I argue for parents, teachers, teacher-candidates, and librarians to employ the (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989) to guide their selections based on the best interest of s child. As well, I ask selectors of children’s literature to consider using what Kidd identifies as “progressive censorship, the censorship of materials that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise out of line with contemporary social and ethical mores'' (p. 200) to limit children’s exposure to such texts and finally to adopt “critical approaches” such as critical pedagogy (Freire, 1970; McLaren, 2017), critical race theory (CRT) (Ladson-Billings; Solorzano), postcolonial theory (Fanon, 1963) Black feminist theories (Hill Collins (1999); hooks; (2000) to “see” as Jones (2006) suggests, “what they reveal about the genre and its body of criticism” (p. 288). Employment of the preceding theories can equip librarians, parents, teachers, and other selectors to make careful and well-reasoned decisions about the children’s literature they select and use and strengthen their resolve to agentically refuse that which is culturally and politically prized. In effect withholding their cultural capital from cultural texts sanctioned by the prizing economy.


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