At the first look, it seems like a story about tolerance where three boys get punished for making fun of a dark-skinned child (the coal-tar-raven-black moor in the german original). As such, the story seems more liberal than the other stories from the book Struwwelpeter.

Looking closely, however, the story reveals the morals of the 19th century, where the poor darkie can't help his poor fate of being black, and therefore different from the other children. It is not a Don't make fun of others because of their differences-story, but a Don't make fun of that poor moor, who can't help being black-story.

This is even made clearer when being black is shown as a punishment, a bad thing. The boys making fun of "the moor" are dunked in a barrel of black ink, becoming "moors" themselves, in fact blacker then the original moor, a fact that pleases him immensely.

Concluding: This is not a story to teach children not to be racist, and is revealed to be captured in racist thinking itself, depicting having a different color as a bad thing. A bit of the old white man's burden ideology....

A story from Heinrich Hoffman's Struwwelpeter that is now somewhat controversial. In it, three boys are following a "black-a-moor" and taunting him because of his colour. To punish them, Agrippa (in some versions, Saint Nicholas) dips them into his giant inkwell. Transformed to pitch-black silhouettes, they most now follow the black-a-moor like grotesque shadows.

For obvious reasons, the modern Dover edition of Struwwelpeter comes with a publisher's note acknowledging the potential offensiveness of the text, but arguing that it should be judged in the context of its time. While the characterisation of the black-a-moor as "harmless" - and Agrippa's argument that he "cannot change from black to white" - do little to endear Hoffman to the politically correct, he is at least on the right track, and in attempting to tackle the subject matter pulls ahead of his contemporaries (he really has no peers).

The punishment of the boys is often targeted for attack, but I think it's clear from the illustrations that they are not being turned into moors themselves, but into horrific living silhouettes. They march behind the black-a-moor stiffly, posed like paper cut-outs, and unlike the moor they are not shaded or given any depth; they are 2D and pure black. This is a fitting punishment for their taunt of "Blacky, you're as black as ink", for they are now as black as ink, and as any child can see, quite different from the moor. There is, of course, a separate argument to me made regarding the use of black as a "negative" colour (no pun intended), but to me the ending is simply an ironic twist that William M. Gaines or Rod Serling would have been proud of over a century later (in fact, the tale could have been adapted by EC Comics without any great effort on their part). Again, the boys are not turned black in the same way the moor is black; they are made truly black, and the difference is clearly demonstrated.

In their musical adaptation, Shock-Headed Peter, The Tiger Lillies rename the story Bully Boys, and remove any racial connotations. The villains in their piece are punished in a more physical fashion, but Hoffman's original punishment remains the most chilling.

Links (with original illustrations):

  • Original text (German):
  • English translation:

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