Old Or New, Here’s Why We Need To Always Critique Problematic Texts
"History is not erased when we critique the past. History is not changed when we change the name of an award."
July 06, 2018 at 3:18 pm
In 1954, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) created an award for authors and illustrators whose books had made a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children. The first prize went to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the award was subsequently named after its first recipient. However, in June 2018, the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award changed to the Children's Literature Legacy Award. Why? Because Wilder's books contained anti-Native and anti-black sentiments. They included images of minstrelsy (see above) and statements like this:
"… she opened her eyes and saw a big, black face close above her face. It was coal-black and shiny. Its eyes were black and soft. Its teeth shone white in a thick, big mouth."
"She did not know why the government made treaties with Indians. The only good Indian was a dead Indian. The very thought of Indians made her blood run cold."
The use of 'it' to refer to the black doctor who saved the main character's life and the descriptions of the minstrel show that everyone enjoyed are dehumanizing and anti-black. The statement that is used to show one character's feelings about Native people is another example of dehumanization and an overt promotion of violence.
Essentially, Wilder's stories perpetuated harmful stereotypes through words and images, and it was time for those facts to be acknowledged. Still, many people lost their minds over the change. Articles appeared on NPR, The Washington Post, BBC and many other platforms. Opinion pieces were plastered across every blog site. Yet, even though scholars have given much of their precious time to explain the reasoning behind the change in ways that most people should be able to understand (thank you, Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Dr. Debbie Reese, Dr. Laura Jiminez, Dr. Brigitte Fielder and many others), people refuse to get it. Their reasoning? We can't criticize works from the past by present standards.
The problem with this statement is that it assumes people can only comment about racism in artistic works right after the book is published, the show airs or the movie premieres. If this is the case, then people are saying that it is OK to include racist, stereotypical and harmful content in any artistic medium as long as racism exists when the art is created. It means that oppression is fine and should never be scrutinized because, at the moment, it is a product of its time.
This is the problem with privileged points of view. There is this assumption that before June 2018, no one was critiquing Wilder. It assumes that everyone who read her novels loved them and saw them as great works of historical fiction. This isn't true, of course, as there were people who critiqued her representations well before this millennium. To assume that people sat idly by as racist and stereotypical portrayals were perpetuated in her stories erases the works of the many people who fought for justice well before Wilder's name was used for the award. It erases the struggle of everyone who spoke out after the first award was given.
People are not using modern standards to critique the past. They are rehashing the same arguments over and over again because people still refuse to listen.
If it still doesn't resonate, think about it this way: Since Mark Twain wrote in the 1800s, can we scrutinize his copious use of the N-word? Because we liked the songs of many Disney films, should we just ignore some of the racism? Birth of a Nation premiered over a century ago, should we now applaud it because it was a groundbreaking blockbuster at the time? Should we overlook the history of violence against IPOC because it happened so long ago, and we're past that now?
If your response is, "No! We should look at these instances as products of their time because … history!" Then you are part of the problem.
If your response is, "Yes! We should critique those examples, but some racism is not as bad as other racism." Then you are part of the problem.
The thing is, the opposition against the award's name change is a facade for a larger argument that people have been having for quite some time. Some people would prefer us not to critique the past because doing so makes them look bad. If we examine Wilder, whose fictional account portrayed a white family settling on stolen Native land, then we have to address the violence that real settlers enacted against Native people. If we critique Wilder's use of racist and stereotypical language in her book, then we have to address the prevalence of such language and how it has impacted modern society's views of IPOC.
What I'm saying is this: We must critique the past and seriously analyze the idyllic images we have of problematic texts. We must listen to the voices of people who do this work and support them, especially since many people in the world vilify them for telling the truth. History is not erased when we critique the past. History is not changed when we change the name of an award. The only reason why people like this argument is because it allows them to sit comfortably in their bubbles and overlook the truths that IPOC tell. It's time for some of those bubbles to burst, but I doubt that many bubbles will pop any time soon. After all, racism is still a product of our time.