Reading “Babar” in Roxbury
What does it mean for the white head of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to read “Babar” to black public school kindergartners in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood? I kept thinking about this when I saw photos of MFA Director Malcolm Rogers, with State Street Corporation’s Hannah Grove, reading “Babar’s Museum of Art” at Roxbury’s Maurice J. Tobin School to promote tomorrow’s free community day at the MFA, sponsored by State Street.
Jean de Brunhoff’s original 1931 children’s book “The Story of Babar” is a metaphor for French colonialism in black Africa, with the story’s cultured white folks portraying the French and Babar and the other wild animals as the Africans.
The story begins with a white hunter shooting dead young Babar’s mother. He flees into a French town, where all is new and strange and attractive to him. “A very rich Old Lady who has always been fond of little elephants understands right away that he is longing for a fine suit.” She civilizes him – giving him money for clothes, takes him in, teaches him to bathe and exercise, lends him her car from drives in the country. He gets educated and impresses the Old Lady’s friends with tales of his life in the forest.
When two elephant cousins arrive in town, he becomes like a rich Old Lady to them – buying them cake and fine clothes. Then he returns home with them to the forest. Note how the clothed elephants ride home in a car while the cousins’ unclothed – i.e. uncivilized – mothers “run behind, and lift up their trunks to avoid breathing the dust.”
Back home, the elephant king suddenly dies from eating a toxic mushroom. So the village elders appoint Babar king because “he has learned so much living among men.” It ends with Babar marrying one of his cousins who had come to the city, and then a party.
“Babar’s Museum of Art” is a 2003 tale about a tour through the museum King Babar and his queen build to house their art collection, which mimics various Western masterpieces but featuring elephants.
So what does it mean when Rogers and Grove, as moneyed envoys from civilizing white culture, read Babar in Roxbury? Is it just a delightful children’s story? Is it a colonial enterprise? Is it an invitation into the world of “fine” culture and money that are key steps to rising in America’s attempt at a meritocracy?