|Writing is a solitary occupation...|
Feedback from readers and other writers is valued.
It's summer and I thought of some fun things to write about, but a more serious topic kept demanding my attention...
Have you heard about the removal of “Laura Ingalls Wilder” from a book award that has long included her name? There have been a number of articles about it, including one that expressed the pained sentiments of one of her family members. They erased her name because her historical stories included characters who were racist against Native Americans and also because her father and other townspeople presented an entertainment in blackface. Many classic novels have elements that raise eyebrows today, but I’m sure there’s an even greater concern about Wilder’s stories because they are still widely read by children.
When writing a story, authors reflect the times in which our characters live. Laura composed novels that were inspired by her family’s early experiences as pioneers. I’ve always cringed over her mother's attitude toward Native Americans, although her father never seemed to be in concert with that, nor did I get the impression that Laura was herself. The blackface scene is also cringe-worthy. Wikipedia defines minstrel shows as entertainments that mocked people of African descent. They were controversial at the time, though seems to be no awareness of that in Wilder’s book. Sadly, to her family, they may simply have been a popular form of entertainment, with little understanding of the larger picture.
I read the Little House books many times as a child and have revisited them as an adult. They never influenced me to be racist. No doubt my parents’ guidance is largely responsible. Though they didn’t comment specifically on the Little House books, they taught their kids to be respectful and appreciative of the differences we see around us.
As an author, this issue hits home. Awareness and sensitivities change. We learn and grow. It’s also true that the way people perceive things differs from person to person. For example, a writer may use a name from one cultural group intending to honor them by showing how that character wins over the odds against them. Another person may see one aspect as a stereotype and reject the rest of the triumphal imagery in the story.
Our ideas about romance have also transformed through the decades. For example, we now have little tolerance for coercion or aggression from heroes. Heroines tend to be strong women who aren’t just waiting for someone to rescue them from either their dilemmas, or their singleness. That wasn’t always the case. A book or movie from an earlier decade can be a revealing window on the ideas and expectations of the era. As authors, I think we never know what aspects of our books will be dismissed or negatively critiqued in the future, including ourselves as we review what we have written.
I’m curious how readers feel about this. Also whether fellow authors have bumped up against these concerns and how you may have tried to address them.
How do you feel about an author of an earlier era having her accomplishments seemingly (in some opinions) diminished because of these issues? Does it make a difference that Laura's name was removed from an award, but not her books from the libraries? Are they trying to erase or rewrite history, or is this an acknowledgement, or even a celebration, that times have changed? Should there be a warning label on certain books to say they reflect prejudices or outdated ideas? Can these books be used as a teaching point for kids? Should they be abandoned altogether or is that more like refusing to acknowledge history and thus, as one thinker suggests, being condemned to repeat it? Is it possible to actually resolve this kind of question, or should this be a dynamic debate that continues as we strive for a better tomorrow?
Have a great summer, everyone!
Amazon Kindle: https://smile.amazon.com/Father-Twins-Emerald-City-Stories
Amazon Kindle: https://smile.amazon.com/Father-Twins-Emerald-City-Stories
|Book Two of the|
Emerald City Stories
|A picture from the Emerald City...|
Thank you for an insightful and well-written essay about a sensitive topic.ReplyDelete
Thanks. I couldn't seem to get away from this as I ran into articles or had it brought up around me.Delete
This year at National there were a lot of discussions about including diversity in books. It seemed from a couple of panels I went to that those authors, agents and editors thought today's stories should reflect towns and cities as they are today. I didn't hear anyone advocate to rewrite history. I did agree in the 60's when they removed "Little Black Sambo" books from libraries and made the pancake houses by the same name, change their names. I don't know how I feel about taking away an award. By the way, I really enjoyed your book about the twins.ReplyDelete
It's interesting to hear that they were talking about diversity at National. I keep thinking how future generations will view the books of today. Glad to hear you enjoyed the book with the twins. It was fun to write. That's the second set of twins I've written about--in that case, it was adult twins who were separated as babies & reunited as adults.Delete
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was given to recipients of all ethnic backgrounds, which shows that the award itself was not racially-based. Her books were and are widely read, and teach much about pioneer life from how to plant corn to how to obtain a school education to how best to survive a winter. To strip her name from an award because she faithfully recorded attitudes of the people she associated with is to unnecessarily demean her contribution as a whole. Thanks for the courage, Callie, to open this conversation. As authors and for all of us as readers, it touches on a vital issue.ReplyDelete
Thanks. The article that talked about one of Laura's family members was a sobering reminder that things like this can impact people in many ways.Delete
Thanks for a thoughtful post. I loved the Little House books as a child, but haven't reread them in decades. Attitudes change. I've been noticing even sitcom episodes from ten or fifteen years ago that wouldn't be made today. We've made great strides in overcoming prejudice, but sometimes it seems we just invent different prejudices and stereotypes to keep ourselves divided. I'm sad to see the reward name change, but it's Laura's stories that matter most.ReplyDelete
It's also interesting to see a spoof of those older pieces. One I saw fairly recently was Down With Love, which looked like a loving spoof of films such as the Doris Day-Rock Hudson films. Those really show the change in attitude toward women and romance.Delete
I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was a child, so this makes me really sad. But it does bring up a good question. How do we honor and respect the past and still be respectful of the cultural sensitivities of today? I don't know the answer. But if we wipe out all references to anything that makes us uncomfortable, how will we learn from it.ReplyDelete
I agree that we can't ignore the mistakes of the past. if we ignore it then we're in danger of regressing to it.Delete
Even as a little girl, I saw Ma's racism in the Little House books, as I'm sure others did. My mother, a librarian, agreed that was a problem, but she also talked about context and how we changed our thinking and do better as we open our minds and hearts. Later in her life, my mother and I talked about how basically no books with women characters written before the 1970s or 80s would meet the standards of women's freedom today in our society. But we wouldn't ban them, and in fact use them to contrast what realities were and how we've changed. I always thought of using Mark Twain and Wilder, and so many others, as chances for teaching moments. I have a multiracial, multi-ethnic family, and that's how we've handled those cringe-worthy places in otherwise good books depicting the past. If someone were to write a book today and advocate for these awful values of the past, that's different from depicting the past realistically in books. I don't like the idea of textbooks defining slavery as "uncompensated labor," or some such euphemism either, as has been proposed Better to face this stuff head on. Thanks for bringing up this issue. It's critical in our times.ReplyDelete
Love what your mother said. I have mixed feelings about the removal of Laura's name from the award. On no level do I want to endorse racism or, in other books, a denigrating view of women. My family is also multi-ethnic and I enjoy the possibility it may become even more so. Most women I know in and out of my family still wrestle with traditional expectations versus their own vision of what being a woman means. Yet here is Laura who stepped out of a traditional role of "housewife" to write not only these books but, as I understand it, for the newspaper. Now it seems as if we're rejecting her for not having the awareness of people 70 years in her future. Perhaps I'm all too aware that future generations may look at us in 2018 and wonder how on earth we could have failed to realize how wrong we were.Delete
I have to admit, I didn't even remember Ma's dislike for Indians until the subject of the award came up. Maybe because I was just another little white girl, it never "clicked" with me as racism. Although I never want racism to be seen as all right, I don't like the idea of getting rid of everything in the past that included it. Cultures change, not fast enough sometimes, but they were what they were and to try to obliterate the bad also takes out the good--and there was a lot of that, too.ReplyDelete
An excellent and thoughtful post. Thank you so much for sharing it.
I think I especially noticed "Ma's" attitude as a kid because my own grandmother seemed to share similar views, which I thought was ironic because she had some Native American heritage. I truly believe we should learn from the past and we can't do that if we ignore it or pretend it was as correct as we like to believe we are today. Yet, as Virginia pointed out, ideas of correctness have changed even in the last fifteen years.Delete
We can't change history, but we can certainly learn from it. If we try to erase it, we're doomed to repeat it. It was wrong to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder's name from the book award.ReplyDelete
I really resonated with her family member's pain over it. He saw how many good messages there were in her books, messages that helped him through his own hard times. Liz pointed out the danger in all this is that we might end up discarding the good along with the bad.Delete