Harry Golden was a Jew who grew up on the Lower East Side a century ago. In the early 1940s he moved to North Carolina, where he published a newspaper full of reminiscence and commentary called The Carolina Israelite. Pieces from the paper were collected in a series of books, most notably Only in America.
In one item from the Israelite, he describes how Southern racism extended into even the most seemingly innocent areas. A children’s picture book called The Rabbits’ Wedding created controversy in an Alabama town because it showed a black rabbit marrying a white one. After considerable hand-wringing, the local library decided against removing it, but it did take the book from the open shelves and put it on reserve, with borrowers required to request it from the librarian and give their names. In Florida, meanwhile, a legislator tried to ban an edition of The Three Little Pigs because of “brainwashing” in the illustrations: “The big bad wolf eats the white pig and the dappled pig but cannot contend with the brick house the black pig has built.”
Golden describes these incidents and then concludes: “In Savannah, Georgia, I watched a game in which I saw a black knight take a white queen. I can only imagine what these fellows will do when they discover chess.”
The spirit of projecting racial obsessions onto illustrations lives on in the letters column of this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, where a reader complains about a previous issue:
Brian Stauffer’s illustration for the review of “Winners Take All” has it all wrong. The man sitting on top clearly has brown hands while most of those struggling beneath his weight are light-colored. Historically, it’s the people of color who are burdened with numerous inequities while “non-coloreds” enjoy the fruits of their labor.
This reader would probably approve of chess, because it accurately reflects our privileged society by letting white move first.