Academic journal article Making Connections

In Search of Diversity: Dick and Jane and Their Black Playmates

Academic journal article Making Connections

In Search of Diversity: Dick and Jane and Their Black Playmates

Article excerpt

Toni Morrison opens her seminal text, The Bluest Eye, by first building a scene of visual images: "Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white-house. They are very happy" (1). She constructs and plays with the reader's preconceived ideas of a family's physical and building structure. Building upon the popular twentieth century children's series Dick and Jane, Morrison parodies a family that is happy and traditional - Mother, Father, Dick, Jane, cat, dog. The words are simple, just like the family. However, as the paragraphs progress, the story becomes less and less basic. The words become discombobulated and long, akin to Mary Poppins' complex phrase of "Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious." The simplicity is leaving, the divides are gone, and there is only one run-together, confused landscape of family into which the reader must enter. Morrison's deconstruction of the Dick and Jane family leads one to question the original intent of the children's series and its eventual inclusion of African American characters into its idealistic, American dreamscape. The later inclusion of black characters in the popular children's series was an attempt at diversity, yet assimilation was the result. The downfall of the Dick and Jane series stems from the lack of class realism for all readers and the jolt of minority inclusion for white readers.

The characters Dick and Jane, made famous in the Read with Dick and Jane readers, came into existence in 1927 as the brainchildren of Zerna Sharp, debuted in society in the Elson Basic Reader pre-primer in 1930, and grew in popularity in the subsequent years until their demise in the late 1960s. The series showcases the "traditional" view of family - white middle class status with a heterosexual parent base. The Dick and Jane family consists of Father, Mother, Dick, Jane, and Baby Sally, all very similar to the popular 1950s era television family shows Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver which continued the ideal on the television screen by romanticizing the stereotypical family unit. The popularity of the rare worlds of the literary Dick and Jane series and the family oriented comedies Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver support the idea that consumers clung to the ideal of the conventional family unit because it was consistently portrayed on screen and in books. Families do exist in the traditional sense as shown in the aforementioned media forms, yet there are numerous other concepts of family as explained in a discussion of domestic fiction in The Norton Anthology of Children's Literature: The Traditions in English: "Although the images of the family promoted by Western popular culture are powerful and narrowly defined-a loving domestic (white) mother and a stable providing (white) father, raising two children together in the suburbs-this single version is of course an illusion" (Zipes et al. 2077). The early Dick and Jane books perpetuate the traditional family unit, while the later Dick and Jane books attempt to challenge the traditional ideology of family life, without in fact challenging it all. This attempted challenge was exemplified in 1965 when in the midst of the period known as the Civil Rights Movement, the Dick and Jane books incorporated a black family into the neighborhood in an attempt to address the complexities of the American public's desire to idealize untrue family fantasies while also demanding a more diverse view of life. Yet, the diversity was one only of race and not of economic class, as well.

During the 1930s to the 1950s, the family structure was often romanticized in an effort to promote an ideal world. The concept of the "ideal world" gleaned from television, advertisements or books was and still is often used as the standard for real life. Michel Foucault attacks this concept in The Archaeology of Knowledge & the Discourse on Language, which points out that it is often necessary to "rid ourselves of a whole mass of notions" to approach a text properly (21). …

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