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23 Mar
2018
Posted in: Diversity
By    5 Comments

Racism in the “Little House” Books?

Plains Indian, Buffalo Hunt painting John Stanley

Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the book news again.  There are calls to remove her books from children’s libraries!

The American Library Association (ALA) is considering removing her name from their life-time achievement in children’s literature award. The librarians are re-considering the name of the medal based on the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans in the Little House books. Their concern is the conflict of the ALA vision to “respect and honor children’s families’ history” with the values of respect, inclusiveness and integrity with the racism depicted in the books.

Caroline Fraser, author of Wilder’s historical biography, Prairie Fires writes in an article in the March 14 issue of the Washington Post, that “no book, including the Bible, has ever been ‘universally embraced.'” Those who have decried the white supremacy which lies at the heart of so many children’s books, have demanded that the books be removed from school libraries. Some have been motivated by a story Fraser reports of an 8-year old Native American girl came home in tears after hearing the story read in school. Others have admonished publishers to address the racial imbalance in children’s literature by publishing more stories about Native Americans or African Americans.

Indeed, Wilder’s most famous novel, “Little House on the Prairie” (1935) has inspired both disapproval and devotion. Many of us grew up enamored by the sentimental description of family values in the Little House stories, but not all of us are white. Fraser tells about an immigrant girl born in Saigon attracted to the story and how Hmong families from Laos living in Walnut Grove were drawn by one girl’s devotion to the television show. The town features a public mural with a smiling Laura alongside a Hmong woman in traditional dress.

African American family, historic photo c. 1930's, packing car to leave

Publishing more books and stories for children with Native American, Hispanic, African American or other ethnic perspectives is incredibly important to understand today’s diverse world. But, should the name of the medal be changed or the books removed from school libraries because they are racist? Perhaps changing the name of the medal is not wrong. It certainly is not censorship. It might be argued that it is acknowledging the cultural shift that no longer recognizes or rewards books with such blatant racism.

In contrast, removing the books from libraries or refusing to read them to elementary school children is not only censorship but denies all children the opportunity to learn through story the history of homesteading as well as the promotion of white settlement which violently took over Native American lands. I agree with Fraser that the answer to the racism of Wilder’s books is not to ban them but to provide the opportunity to learn that history is interpreted from cultural definitions and perspective. How exciting it would be to have the opportunity to learn about the white cultural perspective current during Wilder’s life. Imagine adding to the conversation, with alternative cultural viewpoints from the Native Americans who were losing their traditional lands or the African Americans who were just freed from slavery.

What is your opinion?

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5 Comments

  • no… fhink if should be kept. We learn about our history through our literature.

  • I’m with you, Bev. Education is pitiful if all it can provide is sanitized and “correct” content that needs no discussion, no counterpoint with other voices.

  • One would hope that as a story is being read, or assigned, that there is a discussion of a view that is now understood to be harmful and/or racist. There was a time when a lot of people (me) believed and didn’t question conventional historical accounts.

    I would hope that a teacher could read a controversial story and note that it’s not how we think anymore. and then find an updated, countervailing story that is honoring.

    But the thought of a child going home crying because s/he is demeaned in a story or assignment really hurts.

  • Thank you for your comments. So far your comments tend to agree with what I suggested. I am aware that the issue is complex and teachers who don’t take the time to include the important historical and cultural perspective of the tie time, may leave children only with the story as it is and its racist perspective. It is important to push our local school districts to be sure to include the emphasis on the historical and cultural perspective and to include diverse stories of other cultural perspectives.. .

  • Thank you for your thoughts, Bev. I agree with Patricia, and you, that we cannot, and should not remove books from the shelfs or reading of children, but that there be a thoughtful conversation and opportunity to learn about how people lived (including their racist vantage points) and that it is not the way we live or strive to live now.

So, what do you think?

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