Racist but not horribly racist books (if that’s possible…)

A library school student emailed me recently asking what my thoughts were on books that aren’t overtly racist (i.e. Little Black Sambo) and have been almost universally black balled, but books which have some racism in them although they may be “classics” (i.e. Little House on the Prairie).  A related issue that was currently a hot-topic was the re-writing of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where they replaced the n-word with “slave” (which, is that really any better? but whatever) and I think these things kind of go hand in hand.

I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about it.  Some people, like Debbie Reese, say that the books should be pulled.  That people will continue to perpetuate these prejudices and stereotypes and consistently think incorrectly about minorities.  Some people say that these books are good for teaching moments.  That this is the time to look at the child and say, “Is it okay that Pa and Ma think the only good Indian is a dead Indian?”  How do you feel about that?  All those teaching moment kinds of questions.  And then there is the camp that doesn’t care at all, and says leave it be.

From an ALA standpoint, Censorship is a very very bad thing.  And by pulling these items, are we censoring?  Are we putting our own opinions and beliefs and feelings before our patrons?  What about those patrons who are Native American or are African American.  I’m sure reading those things doesn’t make them feel good.  I know as a Hawaiian I don’t want to hear people say All Hawaiians are Dead.  That Native Hawaiian is a relative term.  That its not a real group of people. (which they do.  all the time.)

But, as a child who loved the Little House books and wanted to be Laura and roam the frontier, I am hesitant to say that all of these books should be pulled off of the shelves.  That experience – although I don’t remember them as vividly as some people I talk to, or some people who write about their obsession – helped, I feel, to make me well-rounded.  It got me interested in history.  It made those cross-country vacations feel like I was following in the pioneers’ footsteps.  And at what point do we say pull that book but not that book?  Do characters have to verbalize racism or are racist pictures enough?  How many racist pictures?  Is someone wearing a headdress a racist picture?  Is someone wearing an ikaika helmet a racist picture?

And when do we get to show children how far we’ve come.  Oh, silly Pa and Ma.  They were racist, but in this house we’re not racist.  We’re respectful.  And we learned from the mistakes of our ancestors that racism is wrong.  That miscegenation should not be outlawed.  Because if it was, how many of us wouldn’t be here today?  But Pa and Ma had a frontier spirit.  A spirit of looking towards the future and trying new things (displacement of Native Americans and all that is a separate albeit important issue).  There are important historical things that we can get out of these books.  We can show the progress we’ve made, the progress we haven’t made, and how things have changed.  I am on the teaching moment side for sure.  Maybe because I’m multiracial I can’t say that these people and their beliefs have no place in the world.  Because I am part of both worlds, and both worlds have come together to make me and so far its working out pretty well being me.

I want to make a clear caveat though.  I am primarily discussing historical fiction.  Or, what we consider historical fiction, which might have been contemporary fiction back then.  Books, which are contemporary and which promote stereotypes in any way, shape, or form are unacceptable.  People should no longer be playing cowboys and indians (honestly, who does that anymore?) or selling cowboys and indians game sets or any other shit like that.  Especially for children.  No one should be wearing a headdress to represent a native american.  We should not be relying on stereotypes to sell shit anymore (even though it seems thats practically all we do).  All Hawaiians don’t walk around wearing leis or grass skirts all the damn time.  I consider Little House Historical Fiction.  I consider Huckleberry Finn Historical Fiction.  Regardless of when they were written, they are now historical fiction.  And if anyone is dumb enough to publish racist stuff today (which I know they are because there is some appalling stuff out there), then those books deserve to not be purchased and not even come into the consciousness of the public.  End caveat.

But then, the next part is, at what age do we give these books?  What limitations do we put on them?  Special collections?  Is this just another form of censorship?  I’m going to contemplate this a little more and blog a little more as I sort out my feelings…

What are your thoughts and impressions?


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