By Joyce Ashuntantang
I have never been one for pets. I did not grow up with a dog or cat. Truth be told: I am scared of dogs. I have actually been bitten a couple of times by dogs. No pun intended. I am equally uncomfortable around cats; they leave me with an eerie feeling. If I have to own a a pet it would be a bird, but the whole idea of caging a bird traumatizes me; to ask me why is to start a whole different story.
Well, one day, while watching a national geographic documentary on primates, my four year old son told me he loved gorillas. Of course, as a vigilant mother I had noticed this. He was very excited to see one when we visited the zoo. He also wanted to read any book that had gorillas or monkeys in them. I was frightened out of my wits. We were not in Cameroon or any other African country for that matter; we were living in the United States of America where the connotation between blacks and primates is alive and raw. And this was well before Phillip Atiba Goff’s research which proved that “white supremacist assumptions that black people are related to apes and monkeys is not just history… those racist associations remain embedded within the minds of most white people, affecting their opinions and their behavior”. This was also a couple of years before the New York Times published a cartoon of an assassinated monkey signing a bill after Barack Obama signed the stimulus bill.
Well, I imagined my son in the predominantly white school library, picking up a book with monkeys or gorillas….that in itself could be turned into a scientific explanation of why blacks are considered apes. How does one tell a 4 year old about racism and stop him on his tracks from loving an animal he genuinely admires. I went on a mission NOT to bring him near books with pictures of primates of any sort. Then, he started pre-kindergarten and a week later, a teacher called him “Curious George” and I was on my toes. He was an intelligent boy, very curious and his name was George, so why did this make me uncomfortable? Well, the book character "Curious George" is a monkey! True, he loved monkeys and gorillas but he was not one! That day I had to tell myself over and over that the teacher did not mean any harm. A year later my son turned five and I gave him a birthday party; as we unwrapped the gifts, one stood out… a book on gorillas. My son jumped up excitedly and started flipping the pages. I did not know that his love for gorillas was known to his friends. He was the only black kid in his class. I was on the edge of my sit: a white family giving my black son a book on gorillas. I had no reason to doubt that it was a genuine gift, but the flood of history drowned me. I reviewed the racist premise of the last 400 years from Hegel’s “scientific” race theories to New Jersey cops’ racial profiling case.