Growing up, many poured over the tales and adventures of Babar the elephant. Young adult readers the world over thrilled to the story of a young elephant escaping the jungle and becoming civilized in the big city, only to return to his community to help run it with his new knowledge. But the story’s origins are much darker than most people realize. Many have argued that the early Babar stories - originally written by Jean De Brunhoff in the mid-20th century - are an allegory for French colonialism in Africa. Reading through the history, it's shocking to see all the examples of colonialism in Babar. But is Babar racist?
A lot of hidden symbolism seems to point in that direction. Some argue that Brunhoff meant it as satire. But, the way Africans – both people and animals – are portrayed makes you wonder if the subject matter is comedic in any way.
After a young Babar’s mother is killed by a cruel hunter, he leaves Africa for Paris and is taken under the wing of the nameless rich “Old Lady.” She promptly begins to civilize him, and Babar goes from walking on all fours to wearing a snazzy green suit and walking upright. After a while in the city, Babar realizes he misses the jungle and returns to Africa, just as the king of the elephants dies from eating a poisonous mushroom.
Upon seeing Babar in all his cosmopolitan bipedal glory, the other elephants immediately decide that Babar should take the throne. The titular character's ability to walk on two legs made him more "civilized" while the elephants walking on all fours appeared "primitive." Some argue that this implies the idea that only a European and civilized person should be given dominion over the lesser and unsophisticated jungle beasts.
Jean De Brunhoff died when he was only 37 years old. But, his son Laurent continued his legacy and published over 45 Babar books after his father’s passing. He realized that some of his early Babar books contained racist overtures.
Laurent's second book, Babar’s Picnic, used racist caricatures to depict black Africans - based on the drawings of “savages” his father illustrated in Babar’s Travels. The Africans were shown carrying spears and had overblown lips and elongated limbs. Brunhoff realized the grave error he made with this book and personally withdrew it after a racially sensitive version of Babar’s Travels was reissued in 1991.
The way that Jean De Brunhoff illustrated Africans in his Babar series reflected his bigoted outlook on the continent. They are drawn as spear-wielding barbarians with exaggerated red lips. In Babar’s Travels, they are referred to as “savages.” In the book, the caricatured Africans strip Babar of his clothes and put it on themselves in absurd ways – like putting their bodies through the sleeves of the jacket – to show how "uncivilized" they are. After all, they don't even know how to put on clothes!" The images were so offensive that the book was banned in libraries in East Sussex, UK.
The Old Lady in the Babar story takes it upon herself to clothe and civilize Babar when he come comes to the city out of the jungle. She acts as a white savior to the lost African child. Like a colonial-era missionary, the Old Lady saves Babar and the other elephants when she moves to the jungle.
She is like the snake in the garden, in that she gives Babar the knowledge of Western civilization, and then he feels the shame of his nakedness. She is the reason he eventually dons his signature suit. In fact, “clothing the natives” was a primary goal for early colonial missionaries. After being clothed, Babar walks upright, feels superior, and rules over the naked creatures in the forest.