Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The New Family in the Neighborhood

Frank Boles 

America has a long history of segregated housing. Whether accomplished by law, social custom, or economic factors, America’s neighborhoods were, in the past, and often remain today homogeneous. Despite these persistent patterns, Americans have slowly come to accept first the possibility and then the reality of multi-racial communities. One of the landmark moments in this transformation that most people do not know about was when a minority family moved into the book that taught first grade children to read. 

Ask anyone of “a certain age” who Dick and Jane are and they will tell you. They were two extraordinary well-behaved children who lived with their baby sister Sally and their two parents, and who were described in grade school reading books used across the nation. The children first appeared in print in 1930 and, although the books are still widely available in reprints today, the final “new” edition featuring the children appeared in 1965. In the 1950s, at the height of their popularity, approximately 80 percent of America’s first graders learned to read from these books. Some 
85 million grade school children are estimated to have used the book to learn reading between 1930 and 1970. Small wonder everybody “of a certain age” know these children. 

In the 1950s and early 1960s, critics of the Dick and Jane readers began to point out the volume’s many stereotypes and biases. Critics had many objections but one of them was that many first graders who lived in the United States could not relate to a white, nuclear family with two parents, three children, a dog named Spot, and a cat named Puff, and who enjoyed life in a house located in a prosperous and apparently all-white suburb.  

Responding to various criticisms, in the 1960s, publisher Scott Foresman heavily revised the book, and the series of readers for older children that built upon it. One of the biggest changes? In 1965, Scott Foresman became the first publisher to introduce a Black family as characters in a first-grade reader. The new family included two parents and their three children, Mike, and his twin sisters, Pam, and Penny. 

From the perspective of a half century later, this change might appear little more than tokenism, mixed with savvy marketing on the part of the publisher to retain a lucrative book market. But perhaps it would be wiser to view this change through the lens proposed by Ibram X. Kendi and his definition of antiracist 

One who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity. 

Using Kendi’s definition, Scott Foresman decision to place a Black family in their first-grade reader was anti-racist. The new family in the book certainly appears equal and has no need to “develop.” Mike, Pam, and Penny dressed as did Dick, Jane, and Sally. The parents of both families wore similar clothes and, as far as one can tell from a first-grade reader, enjoyed a similar income and a similar lifestyle. Furthermore, Scott Foresman’s change introduced into the perspective of every first grader who picked up the volume the anti-racist policy that people of every color could live anywhere and be welcomed everywhere, for example in Dick and Jane’s neighborhood.  

Mike, Pam, and Penny did not end racism in America, but they did represent a notable contribution toward changing attitudes about race in the United States. 

The Clarke Historical Library includes the Lucile Clarke Memorial Children’s Library, in which is found a large collection of historical K-6 textbooks. From this collection of books, insights about the values one generation has shared with the next can be learned. The collection includes Scott Foresman’s ubiquitous Dick and Jane volumes.