I teach children’s literature, specifically Golden Age children’s literature (1865-1926), aka Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Winnie-the-Pooh), and you might notice that those dates in the parentheses coincide with the height of the power of the British Empire. So while students may register for the class expecting light reading about happy children, what they get is heavy reading and detailed discussions of racism and imperialism and its manifestations in the Empire’s children’s literature, including some of the classics we still read today.
One of the books we talk about is J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, originally published under the title Peter and Wendy in 1911. I loved this book as a child—I read my copy to shreds. I’m talking literally; my childhood copy is now held together with packing tape. I still love many things about it: the quality of the writing, many of the things it has to say about childhood and adulthood, the ambiguity of the narrative voice. And it is racist as fuck. And its racism is both unacceptable and inextricable from what it has to say about childhood and adulthood, and the racist ideology on which it rests is a large part of what justified—and continues to justify—the genocide of Native Americans. What is a Native American kid supposed to think about this book, about its status as a classic? When I was in sixth grade, my elementary school staged the 1950s musical as the school play, calling the Indians “Leaf People” in an absurd effort to mask the racism. What was a Native American kid supposed to think about that, that one of the best public schools in NYC would do that? And what did it teach the rest of us? It taught me that adults couldn’t actually address what was going on. Not once did any of the teachers try to engage us in any discussion about how the play portrayed Native Americans.
Questions of representation, particularly in children’s literature are never just academic. And one blogger I particularly admire who always maintains that thought front and center, is Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman, who is a founding member of the Native American House and American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois. She’s taught at public elementary and Indian schools and on the university level. She holds a PhD in education and has earned numerous honors for her publications, teaching, and other achievements, and is a consultant for groups that wish to improve their understanding of and approach to NA issues and texts. She runs the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, and is as kind as kind can be. On this blog, she specializes in promoting children’s and YA literature that has accurate, respectful, nuanced portrayals of Native Americans, often written by NA authors. She also engages in cultural criticism, discusses classics that are still read and recommended for children, like Little House on the Prairie, and critiques contemporary children’s and YA literature that perpetuates the harmful anti-NA stereotypes and ideology that justify genocide, that contribute to, well, let me give the floor to Debbie and quote from AICL:
I believe that these seemingly innocent books actually play a significant role in the lives of Native children. Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a research psychologist, has conducted studies of the effects of stereotypical images on the self-esteem and self-efficacy of Native students. She’s found that these images have a negative impact on Native students.Research studies on the graduation rates of Native students show that Native students drop out of school at greater rates—and increasingly greater rates—than other population groups. Dr. John Tippeconic and Dr. Susan Faircloth published a study in 2010 in which they state that over the course of their years in school, Native students gradually disengage from school. In their discussion, they suggest this happens because Native students do not see themselves reflected in the school curriculum. More recently, studies have shown that Native youth commit suicide at much higher rates than white students. As I write, many tribes are launching initiatives to address the sky high rate of suicide among Native students. Given these studies, I believe the books Native students read in school play a significant role in how Native students fare.
One of the things that has always struck me about Debbie’s site is how positive it is, and how she is always open to dialogue with the authors whose work she praises and/or criticizes. When authors respond, she always elevates their comments to the body of the blog post, so that the reader has immediate access to the author’s perspective. She is unfailingly generous of spirit, in my opinion, anyway.
But voicing objections to racism make you a target, and Debbie’s come in for her share of targeting. Authors in particular can be incredibly publicly defensive about their work, and she’s been called “too angry,” told she has “too much power.” Sound familiar? Any time a woman, a PoC, a Native American takes issue with white supremacist or patriarchal ideology, we’re “too angry.” Criticizing texts is read as “attacking.” And “too much power”—what power is that? The power to speak up and on occasion, be heard? Merely not being silent is too much power. This reads as projection to me, and always has: Disproportionate anger, attacks, unjust power—whom do these qualities really attach to? Who are the real aggressors here? The representatives of a settler state/way of life or the NA woman bearing witness to what is happening?
Here’s another example of a NA woman refusing to be silent about NA genocide. Despite her behaving like a model student: doing research, citing facts, and disagreeing intelligently, civilly, and firmly with what her professor had to say (I have no problem with a student disagreeing with me as long as they are doing so based on research and/or textual analysis rather than gut feelings), her professor found her voice so threatening that he dismissed the class, accused her of “making him look like a racist,” and tried to expel her from the course. What an embarrassment to a profession that is supposed to be about intelligent debate! I don’t say this often, but I hope he isn’t tenured, because there are any number of deserving scholars who don’t fear a smart, passionate student and who could make the most of that position. I daresay some of them are Native American.
So this is a post in support of all the NA women—and men, and children, and all NA people—who keep fighting the genocide of their people and the lies used to justify genocidal policies and actions. Even speaking up is hard.
I also admire Debbie’s teaching. You can read an article in which she and an equally excellent colleague, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, talk about ways of teaching problematic texts. I’m a very traditional teacher—it’s me, a blackboard, chalk, a book, and talking for an hour and fifteen minutes after I take attendance. I deeply admire teachers who are more inventive than that.
Me, I barrel ahead with the direct method. I assign a relevant chapter from Kate Flint’s The Transatlantic Indian, about Edwardian ideologies about Native Americans and how they dovetailed with the genocidal policies of the US, and we discuss the way those ideologies support Peter Pan’s narrative about childhood. And I try to always keep in mind whom I’m teaching for. I teach Peter Pan the way I do so that when the NA students Debbie is thinking of get to college, if any take my class, they’re not driven away from or alienated by the education they’re offered. And because the way I teach Peter Pan gets to an important truth of the text, too. There’s a hard truth in there about how our classics are often underpinned by the ugliest, the worst our society or culture or nation has done, and I don’t want to be one of those adults who can’t discuss it.