Doctor Dolittle is a racist?

I was very sad to discover that one of my favorite books from my childhood has been cuffed by the PC police.

I hate to think that anyone would be made to feel inferior or bad about themselves because of this book. I have so many fond memories of it. But I just don’t think it’s true. Tell me I’m wrong.

Doctor Dolittle, in the book, started out as a people doctor, but he loved animals. Eventually, his parrot taught him parrot language and other animal languages. He had so many adventures and interesting things happen to him.

In the first book of what became a series, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, the Doctor wants to meet the greatest naturalist the world has ever known.

His parrot scoffs at the idea that any naturalist could be better than Doctor Dolittle, but even she admits that this naturalist is a pretty good one.

He is an old old native american, an Indian who has spent his life learning about plants and animals. Doctor Dolittle is sure they would have a lot to teach each other.

On the way to finding the Indian man, Doctor Dolittle has to go to African countries. The king and his people have been mistreated by the white people that came before, and are not welcoming. But the doctor is clever, and he has a lot of help from the animals. He makes it through and escapes for the African king.

The book was written in 1920, and the illustrations are typically racist in the way of that era. The inhuman caricature of the African peoples, with the big lips and strange hair are not realistic or appropriate.

I would be happier if they were not part of the books, even though i really love the artistic style of all the other illustrations.

In fact, I remember as a child wondering about those pictures. I was confused, I thought that the illustrator had suddenly lost his skill. I asked my mom whey they looked so funny. She said that people used to draw black people like that, and that I was right, it was silly.

The characters, the africans in the story, are not treated in a racist way. In fact, the Doctor defends the Africans’ suspicion of him as a white person, saying it was understandable since they had been mistreated. The Africans are a little silly, but no sillier than any of the other characters in the book (the pirates, the cat’s meat man at Puddleby).

I am disappointed that they have “improved” upon Hugh Lofting’s original work. I think it is fine the way it was written.

I know that I, my brothers, and all our friends would discuss at length the Doctor Dolittle books. We wondered what the Solid gold collar would look like, and I am now very aware of the different smells of water.

All of us became fascinated with ship’s biscuit, and forced our mothers to buy it for it.

I still like hard tack (aka ship’s biscuit)

Oedipus’s eyes

I like Dr. Phil. He’s not as judgemental as Dr. Laura, but they both have this get-it-done attitude. They both say, Why you do what you do may be interesting and important, but How to do what you wish you would do is way more important. So if you can skip the ‘why’ and go straight to the ‘how’, you should.

I remember Dr. Phil was giving this one woman advice, I forget about what, but he handed her what I assume to be a well-worn platitude:
You did the best that you knew how to do. When you know better, you do better. Now you know better.

I think he was right. I think the woman was trying to do the right thing.

But at the same time…
“best” is a squishy word. How do you know if you’ve done your best?

Doing your best…That would be when you stop and carefully think about something, judiciously decide on the correct course of action, and then put forth strong and consistent effort to take that course of action.

Boy, that sure would be doing your best. Gosh, i wish I did that every time I had a goal to accomplish.

But what if you did that–did your best–and you were wrong?

There are all kinds of ways that can happen.

Like, what if you did your best to keep your car in good shape. You noticed that the brakes were soft, you took it in to be checked. The mechanics looked at it, and said it was fixed. What if you drove that car, the brakes failed, and a child died in a car accident?

You did your best!
And the child remains dead.

What if
You choose to become involved in a relationship with someone, and because of what you know of that person, fall in love and get married. You tie your life and your future to that person.
What if that person had lied to you about who they were and misrepresented thier life?
You would remain tied to them.

What about this?
What if you looked at the world around you, saw suffering, injustice and poverty and decided you had to step in and help. What if you thought long and hard, and discussed with your friends, the wisest ones you could find, and read and studied books to find a solution. What if you came upon a plan to stop that suffering injustice and poverty, and you worked hard to put into place that plan. What if you were able to do it?

And then…
What if you were completely wrong? What if your cherished, well-thought-out plan did not end poverty, suffering and injustice? What if, instead, it brought on an inhumane system that was far worse than the previous situation? What if those same wise friends you talked with were persecuted, tortured, and killed? What if discussion were outlawed, and poverty increased?

And your plan, the one you worked hard for, had been the cause of this tragedy.

This is what the character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being contemplates. He is caught in the middle of the communist revolution in Czechoslovakia, as an intellectual, and he sees what was done in the name of communism.

He is shredded by what has happened in his country; and he remembers the story of Oedipus.

I hated the story of Oedipus when I first read it. He killed his father and married his mother. In a nutshell.

But the gripping drama is not in a nutshell. It doesn’t tell the story.

The story tells that Oedipus did everything he knew how to do. He really did his best. He didn’t want to kill his father; he ran away so that he wouldn’t.

but he did kill his father.

And do you remember his response? His wife and mother hung herself. Jocaste figured it out a split second before he did.

Oedipus put his eyes out.

And when I was a teenager, I was so upset by this! What else could he have done? He did the best he could! There was no way out for him, he tried his best.

But the consequences of his actions remained.

And what about the communist activists in Czechoslovakia? They were, perhaps, doing the best they could.

But the consequences remain.

Here is my story:
A married couple, tired of the middle class stifling morality and hypocrisy of suburbia go looking for sincerity and being REAL. They try the usual 60s things, talking, reading and thinking about new ideas. This path eventually takes them to becoming involved in community. They want to help build community in a church. They really join in.
They stop being around their old friends, and some family members. Those folks drink, and the church members don’t do that.
The woman gives up her feminist magazines. Church women aren’t feminists.
They dive in, work for the church even.
Then, the pastor of that church wants to move on. “God is calling me to leave the pastorate”
So a new pastor comes in. He’s dicey, because he is hyper-opinionated and has been insensitive to other people’s needs in previous situations.
But the couple wants to preserve the community. They think, we should be a loving and accepting community. Let’s work with this new pastor; we want our community to be healthy and intact.
And so they tolerate some things; it’s a transition period.
This dicey pastor moves in. He demands respect for his God-given opinion. And they aquiesce.

as time goes by, more and more toleration occurs. This man twists words, and pietizes all his actions. As time goes by, they learn to consult him in any major and many minor decisions, since he claims to have the special ordainment of God.

Their youngest child looks at them and says “Who are you? What do you really think? What is YOUR opinion?”
And her father says: “I sincerely believe what the pastor tells me.”

As time goes by, the pastor is not satisfied with his control. He decides to flex futher power. The youngest son, upon reaching adulthood, is instructed to shun his oldest brother. “Your brother is the enemy of Christ” the man says.
and the son says: “my heart is black with sin. I cannot trust my own judgement. I must always consult the pastor before I make a decision.”

The family is sick and wounded. The community is betrayed and sincerity is a word without meaning.

But the couple did the best they could.

Thomas, in Unbearable Lightness, was angry with the communist revolutionaries. He wanted them to understand that they had done something wrong.

Like Oedipus.

They were busy crying “We are innocent! In our hearts, we know we did the best we could!”

And what about the consequences? The consequences, the pain caused by their innocent best–what about them?

What about that poor dead child from the bad brake job?
What about that spouse, lied to?
What about the family, the church, the children that were part of the community?

Actions have consequences.

Bad things can come from good motives.

The greeks knew that. LONG ago. We know that still, even though it makes us profoundly uncomfortable.

“The Human Condition”

I heard a guy tell me once, and who knows? He was always spouting crap…
But he said he had done a study of lots of religions, and the difference between Christianity and the rest of them was that Christianity offered forgiveness.


Jesus said it: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

Like I said before, I don’t always do my best.

But sometimes, even when I do, even when everybody does their best, the consequences accuse.

THomas said, “You are responsible, you czech revolutionaries! This did not come out of nowhere! What intentions you had, good, bad, rose-colored from the past, these heinous consequences remain.”

What shall they, what shall we, what shall _I_ do with these consequences?

Oedipus put his eyes out.

I believe that Oedipus was a better human being than I am.

But what shall we do?

That is what haunts me, that is what made me pace up and down when I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Tomas did not want the communists to put their eyes out. He wanted acknowledgement.

Because how do you move on, unless you acknowledge where you are?

I could stand and accuse. I could point my finger. The dicey pastor taught me that.

Or maybe I learned it before.

Or maybe I was born with it.

Or maybe it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference when I learned it. Maybe it is important to move on.

To open the hand, and give a hand out to others to move on.

Like Dr. Phil, who says it doesn’t matter why, only how to get to where you need to go.

I don’t think that covering up pain has to be part of the forgiveness.

Shame, judgement, accusations–guilt or innocence–these are not relevant.

We all have tried and we have all had the best of intentions. And we have all had not so good intentions at times.

That just doesn’t matter.

What if we could make forgiveness so much a part of life, that it is a given, just the way that we get by?

Just help each other move on, keep going and keep trying to do better.