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…

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