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Is Little House on the Prairie Racist?

June 29, 2018

(image via wikimedia)

This is one of those topics where it’s not really necessary to have an opinion, but people will anyway.  Last week the American Library Association changed the name of its children’s literature award from the Laura Ingalls Wilder award to the Children’s Literature Legacy award.  That by itself might not seem like a big deal.  I read a lot of books, and I had never heard of (or don’t remember hearing about) the Laura Ingalls Wilder award before. Under most circumstances, most people wouldn’t care what the name of the award is.

Then people found out that the award name was changed because of some stuff in the Little House on the Prairie books that is considered racist.

RACIST?

Did you say RACIST?

Did you say The Little House on the Prairie books are RACIST?

AW, CRAP!!  That means everybody has to have an opinion!!  Look out!!!!

Before everybody starts taking their predictable sides, let’s try to get some of the facts… and then we can take our predictable sides.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder award was first given out in 1954 to Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is kind of cool, I guess, to win an award that was named after you.  This also shows that in 1954 the Little House on the Prairie books weren’t considered racist.  Or it might mean that racism wasn’t an issue that the ALA paid attention to.  Or it might mean that the ALA was an organization filled with racist librarians.  Racist librarians are the most dangerous racists because they control the books.  Plus, I always hear that it’s those quiet people you have to watch out for, and that includes quiet librarian racists.

The ALA thought about changing the name last year, but didn’t actually do it until last week.  That means the ALA wasn’t concerned about racism until last year, which means they… Okay, I’m kidding.  It might mean nothing.  It might mean they had other stuff to worry about.  It might mean that standards have changed since the books were originally published.  Ugh, this could go on forever.

Anyway, here are some of the controversial quotes.  I should mention that I found these quotes and commentary from this article .  I didn’t read a bunch of Little House on the Prairie books to find them myself:

The phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”, is repeated three times in Little House on the Prairie,

Well.. that expression isn’t nice, but it’s a common expression that’s not used exclusively about Native Americans.  A Native American (or any demographic) can say the exact same thing about white people (and probably has).

In On the Banks of Plum Creek, Mary tells Laura: “You’ll be brown as an Indian, and what will the town girls think of us?”

Comparing skin tone isn’t necessarily racist, but the character makes a disparaging remark about darker complexions, so that’s problematic (I hope I’m using the term problematic correctly).

 In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura’s father takes part in a minstrel show, while Laura’s mother’s dislike of Native Americans is made clear: “She looked as if she were smelling the smell of an Indian whenever she said the word. Ma despised Indians. She was afraid of them, too.”

Okay, those characters would definitely be racist by today’s standards, but you can have racist characters without the author or the book being racist.  A few years ago, talking about this topic would have been considered a “teachable moment” (which is a term I despise because it’s often used in a condescending way).   Literature is supposed to deal with difficult issues and give us those “teachable moments.”  Bad literature runs away from difficult issues.  I didn’t live on the United States prairie in the 1800’s like Laura Ingalls Wilder did, but I bet settlers thought and talked like that.

Personally, I don’t think it’s right to apply today’s standards to people living in the past.  Settlers on the frontier (and pretty much everyone in existence) had to deal with the everyday possibilities of starvation and being murdered.  When those are your two main worries, gentle language is not a priority.   Being a settler was a brutal life by our standards.  We’re privileged to live in a time where starvation and being murdered aren’t quite as high on our daily list of worries.

Having said that, I’m a believer that people can name their awards whatever they want to name their awards.  If librarians want to change the name of their award, why should I care?  They’re not trying to ban the books.  They’re not discouraging anybody from reading the books.  I might question their logic (especially since Laura Ingalls Wilder was such a prolific female writer during The Great Depression and people still read her books almost 100 years later), but I’m not part of the ALA, so I’m not going to get overly-opinionated about it.

I’ll say one thing.  I’m glad the ALA finally got rid of all those racist librarians.  They used to make me really uncomfortable.

*****

What do you think?  How much should we judge people from the past by today’s standards?  How strong should people’s opinions about this be if they have nothing to do with the ALA?

15 Comments
  1. i think we should keep these works exactly as they were written. good lessons to be taught about the state of mind of the country, the author, the location, the time. go from there –

    • I agree that the books shouldn’t be changed. One of the articles said that Wilder herself changed one line from Little House on the Prairie. It was originally (and I’m paraphrasing) -Kansas had no people, only Indians- and she changed it to something like- Kansas had no settlers, only Indians.-

      Even the original line doesn’t seem THAT bad. But Wilder still regretted it and changed it.

  2. Liberalism’s proponents are on a witch hunt. We can’t allow this to go on. They’re acting upon the assumption that they get to decide what is and isn’t worthy of being seen, heard, read, etc.

  3. Why do people keep trying to rewrite history?? You could look at every book or manuscript written before, say, 1940 and there would be an element of racism in them so we should just rewrite them or burn them?? The only thing that this kind of action will stir up is resentment; we should learn from history and the mistakes made, not try to erase them. Excellent post on a tricky subject :O)

  4. Yes, by today’s standards, the attitudes of people back then WERE horribly racist. I remember reading those books as a child and feeling annoyed at how the Native Americans were described. I didn’t like it, I felt, at eight years old, that they were demonised. But my indignation turned to understanding when my mother explained the story, the time in which it was set, and the real issues behind it. We are much better, now, she said. From a historical standpoint, both sides hated the other. I just take issue because white settlers called themselves settlers when they had no right to be settling in the first place. But again, that is an opinion and it happened so long ago and now we have America. From a literary standpoint, I think it is so important to read things AS THEY WERE THOUGHT AND WRITTEN, back then. So we KNOW how we have progressed, so we can assess properly how attitudes where, so we learn both historically and literarily how times have changed. To take offence and to take something away just because it is the modern times, is in my opinion, a bit snowflakey. We knew they were racist back then, look at how Gone with the Wind, in the 1930s, described black people in the 1800s. If a book like that, with those attitudes, was written today, it would be attacked by the modern mob. But it’s refreshing to read how it was back then, because we aren’t like that anymore, or at least a lot of us aren’t, and it helps us, as the commenter above said, ‘learn from history’. If we erase it, it will be like it never happened, and if it never happened, what is to stop it happening again? Or not again, but for the ‘first time’? This world is so confusing.

    • “…look at how Gone with the Wind, in the 1930s, described black people in the 1800s. If a book like that, with those attitudes, was written today, it would be attacked by the modern mob.”-

      I think some movie theaters and cable stations have stopped showing the movie Gone with the Wind because of these issues too.

  5. It’s ridiculous. All this revision of the past will lead to bad things. I read the whole series of books to my kids and I have six kids, so I read that whole series many times. Mrs. Wilder was no racist. She reported honestly on her mother’s very rare negative view in that one instance; she clearly did not endorse that attitude. Their interaction with Native Americans was sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always quite honest. It was what it was.

    • The books are important because they are a witness to real history. It wasn’t always pretty. Was she to censor her experience so that people 100 years later might not feel uncomfortable with the past?

  6. It’s called temporal chauvinism. Judging people of the past by the standards of today. Not considered a good thing in history circles.
    This kind of breaks my heart.

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