"His first Charlie that he wrote about was a little black boy." That's what Roald Dahl's widow, Liccy, told BBC Radio 4's Today on Wednesday, revealing that the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory hero was originally a black character. Dahl's biographer, Donald Sturrock, supplied listeners with the information that the author's agent talked him out of writing a book with a protagonist of color by saying that "people w[ill] ask 'Why?'"
Liccy Dahl's revelation comes as a bit of a shock to those of us who know how racist the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory novel was. Although modern-day readers know the Oompa-Loompas as golden-haired dwarfs from Loompaland, the original version was much more problematic. As Dahl wrote them in 1964, Willy Wonka's workers are presented as "pygmies" from "the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle." If that's not cringey enough, you should also remember that Wonka pays his workforce in chocolate, for which his Oompa-Loompas have willingly, cheerfully enslaved themselves.
To Dahl's credit, when the Gene Wilder-headed film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, was in production, and the NAACP and other groups pointed out just how awful the book's portrayal of Central Africans was, the author amended the second U.S. edition to make the Oompa-Loompas a race of white, blond, hippie-like dwarfs. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory famously forged its own path by giving the Oompa-Loompas orange skin and green hair.
In light of the fact that Dahl's book came under fire for its racist depiction of the Oompa-Loompas, it's difficult to say how a black Charlie Bucket would have changed our reading of the story. One thing's for certain: Liccy Dahl has given readers plenty to think about.