American Library Association condemnation of "Little House" attacks everything the ALA should stand for
The American Library Association and its subsidiary, the Association for Library Service to Children, have voted unanimously to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder's name from an award given to children's book authors and illustrators for the past 64 years. They take pains to say they're only removing her name from the award, not trying to remove her books from libraries, but what they're really doing is far more fundamental: a leading organization is declaring a major children's author to be racist. And not just any major children's author, but one of the liberal heroes of the field, who obviously disapproved of the racist attitudes that were common during her childhood and even long after her death, who gave us strong, independent female main characters, and showed that the female perspective on life and on historical events was every bit as valid and important and compelling as the male. But the actual evidence they cite does not even purport to show that Wilder expressed or encouraged racism; it consists of subtle critiques that show how Wilder's racial liberalism could be improved upon; or that she is not where to go for a well-rounded, intensive, informed exploration of Indians' history and culture; or that any story told from the white settlers' perspective will include much that will irritate Native Americans.
Looking around the internet for Wilder's alleged racist passages, initially all I could find anyone complaining about are places where Wilder describes and portrays her parents' and other adults' varying attitudes. The whole point of these is that the author disagrees with those attitudes, and wants her readers to disagree with them, but wants them to know they existed and were predominant at the time. That, and the fact that some of the ALSC's statements seem to be specifically about those depictions, make it seem unlikely that there is anything actually racist about the books. That's also what I remember from reading them as a child and as a parent. The actual ALSC/ALA statements and background materials [links below] don't cite any particular racist messages in the books; they take for granted that Wilder's work has already been deemed racist, problematic, etc. One ALA memo says "her books reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments." The memo cites two academic articles on the subject:
One of the articles, Reese, Debbie. “Indigenizing children’s literature” (2008), Journal of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 4(2), 59-72, does not reference anything that you could call racist in Wilder; it criticizes what facts or memories about Indians Wilder chose to highlight, but can't even convincingly speculate that there were other stories she knew and could have included instead in a childhood memoir. It laments the inclusion of a home visit from Indians wearing skunk glands, but doesn't say that that event didn't happen. The article's actual, legitimate, point is that reading Wilder's books is not the best and most balanced way to learn all about Indians generally and the Osage in particular. Not that anyone ever said it was.
The other article, Kaye, Frances W., "Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve: Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Kansas Indians" (2000), Great Plains Quarterly, 23, finds Wilder to be racist only on the grounds that any story told from the white settlers' perspective is racist. It actually makes sound, admirable, resounding arguments for that view, but the arguments do not support the message that educators, librarians, students and the public will take away from the ALA's move, which is to single out Wilder as racist and inappropriate. Kaye's article admits that Wilder, and her character in the books, have advanced and humane views for her time. And in fact, that
"The reader of Little House on the Prairie does not identify with the unthinking dislike of Indians demonstrated by Caroline Ingalls or the family bulldog, Jack, nor with the 'only good Indian is a dead Indian' philosophy that Pa explicitly rejects."
Kaye argues that Wilder's very liberalism is what makes her view of Indians so "insidious": By portraying them as suffering victims, she makes their exclusion from the land seem inevitable, and tolerable --
"The myth of the necessary tragedy ... that arises when the determined farmer meets the nomadic wanderer, the tragedy played out in Judeo-Christian myth from the time of Jacob and Esau."
Wilder portrays "good Indians" and thus implies that they were better than "bad Indians" who fought back, Kaye argues. Pa's "good Indian" friend is like Uncle Tom, which makes Wilder as racist as Harriet Beecher Stowe. And that fighting back was justified by a long history of treaties that the settlers were breaking. Kaye provides much interesting history and subversive description of the Osages. She makes valid criticisms of little Laura's views of certain historical events and land-use questions -- she should not have considered farming superior to buffalo hunting, nor complained about the government removing her family and the other white settlers for having no legal right to settle there.
But those have very little to do with what children read the books for, or what they remember from them. Nobody reads these books to learn about Indians. In the 1930s, maybe the Little House books were how some kids got their impressions of Indians, but for at least two generations there have been books widely available that let us at least try to see native and white American history from the natives' side.
If the ALA is relying on Wilder's depictions of racist attitudes that she obviously disagrees with, that means that an organization devoted to popular literacy and critical thinking is endorsing blatant intellectual dishonesty, by willful, simplistic, misunderstanding, in order to be "doing something" about racism even against a victim who isn't guility of racism. Pretending that readers can't distinguish between portrayal and approval, and shouldn't have to learn to do so. (Meaning that obviously Huckleberry Finn will be back on the banned list, and Jack in the Beanstalk must be suppressed for saying giants should grind Englishmen's bones to make bread.) With the predictable result of toppling a literary giant just because she could not see quite as far as the Lilliputians who stand on her shoulders; and permanently shelving a set of books that really do turn kids on to reading, and to history, when there is no reason to believe that other books can do the job just as well.
If on the other hand they're relying on the subtler academic critiques cited in their memos, then they are calling Wilder's books racist based on completely misrepresenting their own evidence, unless they're actually saying that all stories from the pioneers' point of view are now inappropriate.
Dr. Seuss is next. I'm not making this up. See p. 2 of the "ALSC Awards Program/ Strategic Plan" memo
ALA statements and materials on Laura Ingalls Wilder:
- ALA/ALSC statement regarding the Wilder Medal Name Change
- About the Children's Literature Legacy Award
- ALSC Awards Program Review Task Force Recommendation: Laura Ingalls Wilder Award
- Background Document memo: "ALSC Awards Program in Context of Strategic Plan"