Why a Book About Two Bunnies Marrying Was Banned in 1959Breaking News
tags: racism, Jim Crow, segregation, Book Bans
In May 1959, the former Alabama schoolteacher Dora Haynes Parker mused about the sexual habits and matrimonial customs of rabbits in a letter to her hometown newspaper, The Montgomery Advertiser. After sharing her bona fides — college graduate, respectable matriarch, savant about educational illustrations — Parker wrote: “Now rabbits as I know rabbits may have some problems, but not the problem of marriage. Indeed, of all the animals perhaps this family is among the most ardent practitioners of free love.”
It was an odd but not random set of observations. Her letter, topped by the headline “Tell It to Old Grandma,” was both book review and pointed defense of the white South. She was adding her two cents to a nasty national argument about a 1958 children’s book, “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” by the celebrated illustrator Garth Williams.
Williams’s drawings had enlivened E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series and Little Golden Book titles, among many other beloved classics. But this slender picture book was his own. And it featured a cute, furry couple: a male black rabbit and his white female playmate, who becomes, over the course of the 32-page book, his bride.
The rabbits’ “interracial” union had inflamed Montgomery's chapter of the White Citizens’ Council, whose members argued that the book amounted to grooming by literary means, conditioning preschoolers to cross the color line. Essentially a white-supremacist chamber of commerce, with a fast-growing network across the South in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision in 1954, the council used its dollars and clout to stoke economic intimidation and violence against the burgeoning civil rights movement. These segregationists were ideological ancestors of today’s book challengers, such as those in a Florida school district that recently banned “And Tango Makes Three,” about two male chinstrap penguins who create a family. Across time, those who ban books have shared a deep aversion to anything that promotes changing definitions of marriage and family. (Indeed, “And Tango Makes Three” has been challenged many times before.)
Ridiculous as it may sound, the brouhaha over “The Rabbits’ Wedding” made a perverse kind of sense. Children’s books often traffic in anthropomorphism, using other species to highlight human fancies and foibles: a spider crusading for a pig’s survival, that pig fretting he will become pork on a dinner table. The power of storytelling by animal wasn’t lost on the White Citizens’ Council, which roused its foot soldiers with this newsletter headline: “What’s Good Enough for Rabbits Should Do for Mere Humans.”
While Williams claimed obliviousness, others perceived the potential for trouble almost instantly. Soon after the book’s publication, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books commented carefully, “While the book gives a very simple concept of love and marriage, confusion could arise about marital practices in the human and animal worlds.”
Sharon Patricia Holland, a University of North Carolina professor who studies animal-human relationships and is the author of “The Erotic Life of Racism,” doubts Williams’s avowed cluelessness.
The book doesn’t even try to explain why the rabbits’ relationship is a nonstarter because, she said in an interview, there was an obvious answer. “Why is the black rabbit in such trepidation about the ask? I mean, bunnies living in the wild: Who cares? The tension in this story is the tension supplied by race.”
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