Pa and Ma and Me

I probably shouldn't start this with, "What is revisionist history?" or, "Whose 'truth' is more true?" or, "Does deleting all mention of something mean it didn't happen?"

These are just some of the questions that have been passing through my mind over the past 48 hours or so, since I learned that the Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, has renamed the 64-year-old Wilder Medal. It shall henceforth be called the Children's Literature Legacy Award. 

Now, let me be clear about something. Until Monday, I couldn't have told you there was a Wilder Medal. I don't have kids, nor siblings, nor nieces or nephews. I do come from a family full of readers and I have an aunt who somewhat recently retired from a career as a librarian. Needless to say, my own childhood bookshelves were filled with loads of European and American classics. And I still have some of them.

Among those are most of the tomes from the series of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books. Every Christmas season, I revisit the arrival of Pa and Mr. Edwards with the sticks of candy and small sugar cakes and the shiny tin cups and the pennies and the tale spun about meeting Santa Claus. Cap Garland is still, in my mind's eye, the handsomest town rescuer there ever was. Handsomer, even, than Almanzo Wilder. 

I vaguely remember that there was some interaction with the original residents of the Plains, but I couldn't have told you off the top of my head what the author's lexicon was in those scenes. I could tell you that my recollection was that the appearance of the locals made the Ingalls characters feel either curious or scared, and ultimately turned out to be fairly benign. I pictured it as somewhat akin to my feeling that there might be folks around the corners during my family's long-ago visits to gold-rush and silver-rush ghost towns.

My parents (christened "Pa" and "Ma" around the same time we read the Little House series) and I spent lots of times at historic sites and in the woods and at museums learning "stuff" when I was a kid. I wasn't reading the books in a vacuum that assumed they were my only exposure to "frontier" history or to history in general. Which, I think, is likely why the specific terminology Wilder used only added to my picture of a complex interaction among people. Over time, I would learn about the nuances of those interactions and the actual historical context for Wilder's mostly autobiographical work of fiction.

It also helped that I was raised as a Baha'i, so Ma and Pa worked hard to be sure that I understood that all people are one. That viewpoint is central, but not unique, to Baha'is and it certainly colored how I absorbed information about different cultural groups, including stories, from a very young age. 

All of that being said, when I initially saw the Wilder Award name change announcement, I was annoyed. That is, in part, because the ALSC also awards the Carnegie Medal. Wilder's name was removed from her medal because the language she used in a work about her family's experiences is no longer considered acceptable in literature. Shouldn't Carnegie's name be removed from his medal because his company manufactured something like 90 percent of the steel rails that facilitated the rapid and total disenfranchisement of the very people Wilder described?

But that won't happen. Because Carnegie was male. And rich. And because when he'd used every possible robber-baron trick in the book to gain more money than he could spend in a lifetime, he endowed libraries. So that people could read about the people who no longer lived where his rails ran, I imagine.

In other words, seek a reason why someone's work is inadequate and ye shall find.

After I calmed down, I remembered a conversation I had last summer with the education director of one of the pre-eminent native culture museums in the country. He was hard at work with a team of brilliant specialists developing a completely revamped way of incorporating a balanced history of the continent's indigenous population and European interactions into school curriculum. The concern he raised about the status quo is that American Indian children, both on reservations and integrated into the general population, learn from the same curriculum, use the same library books, and observe the same stereotypes as every other American kid. 

What does that mean? Well, for one, it means that the narrative typically relates how hostile indigenous groups for no reason at all attacked nice white folks who were just minding their own business and building this fort, or house, or what-have-you on this prime stretch of river. Flip the script and you have this nice group of indigenous residents who went out to the grocery store, came back to find an armed gang piling up a bunch of logs in their living room, and took steps to remove the gang forthwith. Both behaved in ways that made sense from their own perspective. But the group with the written language got to perpetuate their side of the story.

Can you imagine? Generations of kids being told in classrooms that Columbus discovered America ...

"But we were already here."

"No, you weren't. I mean, you were. But you didn't matter."

"What?"

Or, you know, what do you do when the cowboys always win in the movies and the Indians have to be stoic? Yes, I am citing Smoke Signals

So, doing my best to look at the situation from that perspective, I considered how Wilder's words might strike the impressionable mind of a young Osage kid. If Laura and her family were on the prairie, then I imagine the Osage on whose land they were illegally living probably had a family, too. (Now that would be a fascinating book.) Despite the nuances that I may find in Wilder's depictions, because of my own background and exposure to critical sources, I get the problem. 

Then I read up on the longstanding concerns about this literary classic (yes) also being considered a historically accurate record (no). 

Still, though, something about changing the award name irritated me. So I went to see what the ALSC had to say. I found the wording of the newly renamed award's criteria suspect. It sounded a bit too au courant to have been in place when the award was first presented to Wilder (and named after her) in 1954. So I read into the organization's task force recommendation regarding the name change.

And I was right. The criteria statement was amended when the name was changed, to reflect the organization's values in 2018, as opposed to its values in 1954 when it created the original award. What I find interesting about this is that the ALSC, by changing the name, condemns the author for deviating from the ALSC's current norms ... but by changing the criteria, avoids drawing attention to itself for having held those norms. In other words, if Wilder's work contains "racist" and "derogatory" language (which, it does, by today's standards of speech) and the ALSC awarded it the medal in 1954, then the ALSC by its own definition was racist in 1954.

Needless to say, I have a problem with the picking and choosing and revising of the past. Apparently, the ALSC had to decide between renaming the Wilder Medal or ending it and introducing a new award in its place. In my opinion, they made the wrong choice because, by renaming it and changing the criteria, the organization makes it appear that Wilder never deserved the award for her work. By ending the award and creating a new one, the organization could have taken responsibility for its own role in mid-century America's racial and ethnic struggles, while recognizing its evolving knowledge.