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Racism, Representation, and Children’s Literature

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.

17 thoughts on Racism, Representation, and Children’s Literature

  1. I suggest, without any sarcasm whatever, that the momentous movie moment, where that Native declares “White man speaks with forked tongue”, be taught universally in lit, history, poli sci, and sociology courses.
    A dissertation on the effects of children’s lit at pumping the white male ego full of hot mercaptan-infused air is long overdue.

  2. I particularly like this and can empathize with it as I am a librarian by training, and a lot of my childhood favorites fall into the “super racist” and “super problematic” camp. Peter Pan, Five Children and It, Tin Tin, Little House on the Prairie, Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn, Pippi Longstocking, Kim, etc etc. I know that they have issues, and I still love them and love re-reading them as “comfort reads” when I am feeling sick or down.

    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

    I am curious to hear how you manage to reconcile these two – the knowledge that it is super racist with the acknowledgement that you love it none the less, as this is something that I struggle with myself.

    1. I too read Nesbit and Barrie and Travers etc. over again not infrequently, and reading them as an adult allows me both a new appreciation of elements or jokes I missed as a kid and a new understanding of some of the racist or patriarchal ideology on which they’re based. And that’s a gift, I think, to be able to understand texts more thoroughly upon rereading.

      The love I have for PP is based on many things–my childhood memories and what it meant for me then, as well as my current recognition of its depth and the beauty of some of the writing, for instance. But none of those things change the fact that it’s racist. But neither can the racism undo my memories or the complexity of the narrative voice, either. So those two realities–that I love the book and that it’s racist–are not in conflict. There’s nothing there to reconcile because they’re both true.

      This is something every feminist, I think, has to reckon with eventually. Either you accept that many if not most of the things you love are flawed–patriarchal, racist, whatever the case may be–and live with it, or you seal yourself off from the world. A racist, misogynist society will create racist, misogynist culture; there’s no real way to purify your reading material, for example, and still engage with the real world in a meaningful way through reading. And what would you have achieved if you did purify your reading like that? It wouldn’t change the state of things in the world; you’d just be confusing personal purity with activism, one of my pet peeves. Loving something racist and misogynist doesn’t make you a bad person, in my opinion, unless what you love about it is the racism or misogyny.

      It’s an easier thing for me than for you, though. When you’re a librarian, you have to decide what books to keep on the shelves. And on the one hand, you don’t want to promote racism; on the other hand, what kind of a children’s/YA section isn’t going to stock classics. And because a library is a government agency, the specter of censorship looms (though I would argue libraries pull or don’t stock books for many reasons, and not every instance is censorship).

      I just have to make my internal peace with the reality of the text, teach it as responsibly as I can, and decide whether or not to give it to my own children. For that last, I’ve decided not to. I won’t snatch it out of their hands if they bring it home from the library or find my childhood copy or something like that, but I would make sure to tell them that the book is racist, explain how in an age-appropriate way, and together we would also seek out better representations of Native American peoples.

      1. Here’s an option for what-to-do:

        Get a used copy of whatever book you’re pondering. After talking with your children/students about the subject you’re examining, walk them through an editing exercise where you make changes to the book–where you actually WRITE in the book. That does two things. First, it demonstrates that books are not sacred. We can write in them. Second, it teaches critical thinking. I talked about doing that yesterday, here:

      2. Well, there’s the issue of whether or not you want to support the new sales of a book that may have racist representations in it.

  3. Never been a big fan of many of these classics, for this exact reason. Imagine people making fun of a beloved grandparent, to your face. That’s kind of how it felt for me. I don’t think children are equipped yet to deal with that kind of seething anger and hurt. So we turn it inwards, like most kids tend to do. I was fortunate, because I had family members who could explain these things to me in ways a child could grasp and in a way that prevented me from turning that anger inward. Not every native kid has that. Their parents turned that anger inwards, their grandparents did etc. Shame and and hurt don’t usually mix well or have positive results on a person. These books have effectively taught people how to feel how one feels when they want to die. From an early age.

    And yeah, mentioning it gets you ” you’re making a big deal out of nothing” or ” don’t you understand that’s just how “they” thought a long time ago” ” it’s just a book” etc etc.

    I have reached the point though when anyone accuses me of being too angry to basically tell them to fuck off if they don’t like it. I – am- angry, so kiss my ass.

  4. That being said, while I wouldn’t cry over these books disappearing forever, I wouldn’t advocate for their banning, either. It would be nice if an awareness raising quiz like booklet came along with them, but I doubt that will ever happen.

    1. That would be great, like those readers’ guides that come in the back of some books. I agree with you, though, that it’s pretty unlikely.

  5. Seems to me books like these can be used to demonstrate how discriminatory attitudes can be prettied up so as to promote them seamlessly. Peter Pan was always one of my favorite reads as a child. Born in 1940, I never caught on to the racism, sexism & ageism in it until I grew older with the result that I was hog-tied with some attitudes for many years.

    1. I personally would disagree that it’s ageist. It’s a book that valorizes childhood as opposed to adulthood, true, but it’s not as if adults are a group oppressed or marginalized by children, and it doesn’t differentiate between ages of adults–Barrie couldn’t care less whether you’re 27 or 75. It buys whole-heartedly into the Romantic/Victorian notions of childhood innocence and adulthood as a fallen state, but again, it’s not like those notions are part of institutionalized harm to adults. (Also “Two is the beginning of the end” is hard to take seriously, even, if memory serves, as a kid!)

      Why am I awake at this hour? Why?

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