In June, a division of the American Library Association voted unanimously to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a major children’s book award because of the portrayals in her work of Black and Native Americans. It said that the author - best known for her “Little House on the Prairie” novels - “included expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with its core values.” The association added that while Wilder’s books continue to be published and read, her “legacy is complex” and “not universally embraced”.
By that standard, I could never have a book award named after me. I too, have been guilty of expressing “stereotypical attitudes” about Black and Native Americans during my life. Those attitudes were an accepted part of the almost exclusively white, rural culture I grew up in. In fact, when I was in high school I wrote a skit for a variety show that was a news broadcast based on the premise of Native Americans being in control of the country. It was meant as subversive satire, but looking back it was also clearly insensitive in a number of ways. And while I do not believe I continue to hold any of those stereotypical attitudes, I can’t say for sure that it doesn’t still happen in ways I am unaware of. I can only keep trying to pay close attention to my words and actions, and look to friends and other relationships I have with those who are Black or Native American for help in keeping me honest.
At the same time, my sense is that intent matters. If Wilder was fully aware of and purposely trying to demean and diminish Black and Native Americans, or did so in other aspects of her life, then it is understandable that a major children’s book award not carry her name. However, if she was only reflecting a time and culture, and/or she - like many of those who were white in the time she both wrote and wrote about - were (like me), ignorant and unaware, then that seems to be a different matter. I do not know which applies to Wilder. Perhaps the American Library Association does.
Let me be clear. I am in no way claiming that “inappropriate expressions of stereotypical attitudes” should be ignored, let alone condoned. And when it is clear that those of other races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations and expressions have been intentionally demeaned, diminished, and harmed by someone’s work, that work, nor its creator, merits honor. But when it is ignorance, miseducation, and lack of awareness that is in question, perhaps that warrants a different perspective.
For who among us could, without question, pass that “values test”, especially when judged by those who come generations after us? From the perspective of time and place - and from the eternal perspective of God - won’t all our legacies, like Wilder’s, be “complex” and “not universally embraced”?
I know mine will be.