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The Real Story Behind Roald Dahl’s ‘Black Charlie’

When you started your research, had anyone else ever written about “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy”?

No. It was mentioned by Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock, and it was mentioned in Lucy Mangan’s popular book “Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.” But it had never been looked at in great textual detail.

Dahl has a reputation of being very offensive at times when it comes to race. How do you think this version would have changed the way we view race in his books?

As far as this version goes, I think it is a really powerful racial allegory that might seem very surprising coming from Dahl. I think the mold in the shape of a chocolate boy is a metaphor for racial stereotype. In the early 20th century, chocolate marketing in both the U.S. and England was very tied up in imperialist fantasies and in connecting brown skin with brown chocolate. In one British ad for chocolate, for example, you had a black figure holding a cocoa bean and happily bestowing it on white children.

Photo

The first edition of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and the original Golden Egg from the film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Credit
Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

So I think it’s neat that in this midcentury moment Dahl has this black boy get stuck inside a mold that fits him perfectly — he emphasizes that — everything about the mold fits Charlie, except once the chocolate inside the mold hardens, it’s uncomfortable! So what better symbol of what it’s like to be turned into a racial stereotype than a black boy who gets stuck inside a life-size chocolate mold and can’t be seen or heard through this chocolate coating.

So you’re saying this draft was antiracist, but then in the published book, the Oompa Loompas appeared, which made it into one of the most racially stereotyping books of its era.

Right. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is published in the U.S. in 1964, amid the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and race riots in England. Dahl should have been aware that the “happy slave” was not a permissible stereotype. And yet in the original edition Oompa Loompas were a tribe of African pygmies. I think this arc — from what I find to be a fairly antiracist novel to the novel that has been rightly criticized for its racist and imperialist politics — what it really shows is Dahl’s ambivalence. I think we’re in the right cultural moment to understand that. Like Claudia Rankine has said, we need to understand how white people imagine race. And so I think it’s really telling that Dahl seems to identify with this vulnerable character. I mean, he himself was the son of Norwegian immigrants, and was bullied at British boarding schools. I think Dahl always felt like an outsider who was bullied into Britishness.

Yet he was someone often accused of anti-Semitic nastiness, and worse.

Yes! I think that’s the power of racism — to make someone able to hold these contradictory views at once. To both identify with the underdog and seem to understand the pain of stereotype, but then be completely flummoxed that anyone finds the Oompa Loompas offensive. He was genuinely surprised and very annoyed. So I don’t mean for this to whitewash Dahl’s racial politics. I just really love the vulnerability and the potential in this first draft.

Why did he change the story and make Charlie white?

He sent it to his literary agent and friend, Sheila St. Lawrence, and she immediately wrote back, Please don’t make Charlie black.

The depressing thing about all of this is that the whole message of “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy” seems to be how painful it is for a black person to be reduced to an object and treated with violence, and then the Oompa Loompas are all objects. Wonka tests his candies on them as though they were expendable.

It’s almost as if he transferred the original Charlie’s blackness onto the Oompa Loompas, to much worse effect.

That’s the other thing about this book — it ends up being about the virtuous white factory boy. Isn’t that where we’ve ended up now, as a society? We hear so much about the virtuous white workers, and it often seems to be taking black people out of the story. Charlie and the Oompa Loompas are very similar, both starving. All the other children are bad consumers because they eat without pleasure. So it’s really interesting to think about the book’s trajectory — Charlie becomes white, and he ultimately ascends in the Great Glass Elevator, the best metaphor for white privilege I’ve ever seen! And all the Oompa Loompas are back in the factory serving Wonka.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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