Laura Ingalls Wilder and Racism

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Last week the American Library Association (ALA) announced that the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, a prestigious children’s literature prize, would henceforth be called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. You can read the announcement on the award’s website and dig into the rationale as deeply as you want by clicking on the site’s links.

The Story Behind the Change

While the association’s press release and other documents present the decision as civilized, sensitive, inclusive, and compelling, in my opinion, the name change represents taking an eraser to our country’s history. By way of background, the award initially was named after Wilder for her significant contribution to children’s literature.

Many a young girl still falls in love with reading because of Wilder’s books. And many a young reader still cozies up to the charming Ingalls family as they settled into their soddie and made do with whatever was at hand through each season of the year. The three sisters fell into a deep slumber each night to the sound of Pa’s fiddle playing. Young readers see what a happy, resilient family looks like, even though the girls themselves might well experience something far less wholesome in their own families.

The Rationale for the Change

All of the love, warmth, and sweetness remain even today in those novelized stories of Wilder’s own pioneering childhood. And ALA carefully writes that the name change is not intended to censor the books themselves. The organization believes removing Wilder’s name from the award makes sense because Ms. Wilder, who wrote the books in the 1930s and 1940s, depicted those lovable people as what we today would label racists. A variety of characters in The Little House on the Prairie utter the sentiment that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” That probably was considered sage and true advice in the late 1800s, when Laura grew up in a land where settlers were sparse and Native Americans could kill you. After all, the pioneers and Native Americans were at war.

Another offensive passage occurs when Laura attends a minstrel show and refers to the  African Americans as “five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms.”

Why Readers Should Care

Stripping Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from the award is to post-posthumously dishonor  a writer for portraying commonly-held views from the era in which she grew up. It’s also a subtle form of denial that a shameful time in our history occurred. We must remember who we were so we all can strive to be better versions of ourselves. Whites’ treatment of Native Americans constituted an egregious time that all whites need to acknowledge really happened. Wilder’s books for the most part showcase the beauty of a family loving its members well. But they also highlight the shadow side of some of those people. Isn’t that part of a good story’s job? Not to create caricatures of settlers but multi-dimensional characters.

Why Writers Should Care

Sometimes being politically correct isn’t correct at all. I think the ALA’s decision is a case in point. As a writer, you work hard to accurately depict a person, a time period, and the attitudes that prevailed. This does not lessen the quality of what you write but enhances it. Even if you hold beliefs that society eventually comes to disagree with, don’t you expect to have the right to communicate those beliefs without future generations berating your contribution to the public discourse? What if, a generation or two from now, it’s not politic to write about one’s personal belief in Jesus? It’s such an excluding worldview, after all.

Are we so unsettled by people’s past behaviors that we feel compelled to step away from important voices from those times?

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
~ George Orwell, 1984

Who Else Belongs in the Pantheon of Infamous Authors?

What other authors do we want to distance ourselves from? Mark Twain? Now, there was an opinionated man who held forth many a thought that we would condemn today if it were uttered in our hearing.And yet, how much delight do we experience when we read a humorous piece of his? Or gain insight into life from Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn?

What about Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, which was written in the 1930s, as were many of Wilder’s books? Mammy is a winsome character. No wait, maybe she is a caricature…

How Far Will We Go?

I didn’t intend to write a blog post about the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award until I read an article in the June 11 of Publishers Weekly. The magazine always concludes on the last page with an opinion piece sent in by one of Publishers Weekly’s readers.

In this issue, an author writes an essay entitled “Cover Bias.” She argues that fiction covers shouldn’t employ full-face images but should leave what the character looks like to the reader’s imagination. That way the book will appeal to a broader swath of readers–in terms of readers’ age, ethnicity, and imperfect bodies that compare poorly to the models on many a cover.

The writer suggests: “Finding agnostic cover art isn’t easy, but there are a few tricks:…think twice about showing faces; maintain a sense of possibility by using ambiguous models; and avoid ethnic anchoring by converting images to grayscale, sepia, or alternative color scales.”

As I read the essay, I thought to myself, I don’t think I would relate to a cover model with gray skin. How far will we go to pretend we aren’t different from one another?

Your Turn

So now I ask you,

Are these authors and their works of less value to us because of their flaws? Or of greater value because of them?

P.S. Now that I’ve thrown this hot potato at you, let me add that I’ll be traveling when this article posts so I won’t be able to join you in the conversation.

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