Last week, at its convention in New Orleans, the American Library Association announced that it was dropping Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from the prestigious children’s literature award that was created in her honor in 1954, three years before her death. The award “recognizes authors and illustrators whose books have created a lasting contribution to children’s literature” and has been given to only 23 people over the past 60 years.
The reason the ALA gave for erasing Wilder’s name from the award is that “although (her) work holds a significant place in the history of children’s literature and continues to be read today, (we) had to grapple with the inconsistency between (the author’s) legacy and (our) core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect. Wilder’s books reflect dated cultural attitudes toward indigenous people and people of color ..."
Translation: Laura’s mother, Ma Ingalls, didn’t like “the Indians,” and at some places in the six-book arc there were characters who called them “wild animals” or otherwise showed a lack of respect for their plight.
While it’s nice to pretend in 2018 that the Indians (am I even allowed to use that term today?) were all peaceful and accommodating, that’s not the case.
It’s fine to look into — and sympathize with — the roots of their aggression, and it’s legitimate to place it in the context of the usurpation of their land and the elimination of their way of life, but to blame Laura Ingalls Wilder for writing about the conflicts from her own 1940s perspective is a bit much. It is, in fact, completely unreasonable.
In 2010, a school district in Virginia tried to remove the 50th anniversary edition of “The Diary of Anne Frank” from its curriculum. That same year, “Brave New World” was slated to be removed from a school in Maryland for overt sexual content, and the following year it was again challenged by parents and teachers in Washington state because of “racially derogatory” imagery about Native Americans. “The Catcher in the Rye,” the classic coming-of-age tale, has been the frequent target of censors.
Even Harry Potter has been attacked by fundamentalist Christians because it depicts “black magic.” There have been moves to eliminate “Huckleberry Finn” from libraries and reading lists because the runaway slave Jim is called the N-word, and there was a recent attempt to get rid of “To Kill a Mockingbird” because of what an NAACP official called its “oppressive language.”
Let’s get real, folks. Language is not oppressive. Censoring language is oppressive to all, and infantilizing to the people who are allegedly protected from its harsh sounds.
How disrespectful to assume that members of the African-American community can’t deal with hearing the N-word set in the context of time and place.
How foolish to think that Native Americans will be mortally wounded by passages describing an era when indigenous people and the “white man” (gosh, are we offended by that?) were natural enemies.
More important, how dangerous it is to acquiesce in the misguided opinion (shared by pretentious intellectuals and narrow-minded demagogues alike) that children should be bubble-wrapped in a cocoon of multicultural, pure and unadulterated, and hopelessly sterile “sensitivity.”
What’s next? Can we next expect that the Bible will be edited so that Delilah’s cutting of Samson’s hair is reframed as the #MeToo moment of a woman taking her life into her own hands?
The ALA insists that “updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship.”
That’s a bunch of Sitting Bull on the Prairie, if you ask me.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.