“But Pa” Laura began,
“It’s ok Half-Pint. Your ma and me, and Mr. Edwards we are all racist as f**k, and we believe this land that stretches from ocean to ocean has just been waiting here for us white people.”
No, that is not some secret chapter from “Little House, the privilege of the pioneers”. It’s just how it was. Post-Civil-War America was no less bigoted, stuffed full of privilege, and manifest destiny than before the 4-year cataclysm that set people “free”. Laura’s gauzy memories of settling the plains punctuated by pin dots of historical honesty (not truth, just her worldview) — the Native Americans weren’t people; they were only safe on a reservation or dead. Now Pa, Charles Ingalls, was a fair-minded man, who noted while they were savages and murderers, but there might be a few good people among them. Funny, yes?
In the ongoing discussions of the renaming of the Association for Library Service to Children “Laura Ingalls Wilder Award” to the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award”, it is important to note this isn’t about banning the books or removing them from the shelves. It just acknowledges that the systemic racism that pours casually from her pen is something both American society and librarians have been working to eradicate for over a century...
The books themselves need to be on the shelves — and in the classrooms as reflections of what was. Laura’s world. The world of westward expansion prospered on a notion that Europeans could clear Native Americans as they did brush, and bison — all were just obstacles to settlement. Much as Gone with the Wind represents a propagandized myth of Civil War history, echoing Birth of a Nation with its descriptions of the rapacious nature of both Yankees and free Black men.
Think about it — during the post-Civil war era until 1968 (!), over 4700 people were lynched, the majority African-Americans. Why?
Let’s add a few more numbers:
Hispaniola, the Caribbean island most linked to Columbus — in 1496, the native population numbered anywhere from 1.1 million to 3.7 million. That’s a lot of people, yes? By around 1540, only 250 original inhabitants were there
Further north in the US, estimates say that there were around 5 million natives in the 16th century. By 1800, there were 600,000. Contact could be deadly, yet not all saw it as a tragedy. Squanto, the Native American who saved the starving Pilgrims. He was the only survivor of a plague brought to the area by other ships, one of which took him back to England as a “treasure”. Yet, knowing his backstory, the Pilgrim leaders still thanked God for the plague that had “surely opened the land for them”. Summarizing, the wars, the diseases, the forced relocations — by the 1890 census, there were around 220,000 Native Americans in the United States. Why?
Now, understand I’m not blaming Ms. Wilder or Ms. Mitchell (Thomas Dixon, I do blame a lot; he wrote to be incendiary and truly believed his vile worldview- just not the point). The question remains. Why?
What made little children and southern women writers susceptible to this, how could families picnic at a lynching or rip children away from their mothers to make them “whiter”? We weep at the pictures of the babies at the border, yet Indian boarding schools of the late 19th-early 20th century did the same thing under the banner of “kill the Indian, save the child” With that logic, between 1879 and 1918, around 10,000 Native children passed through Carlisle Indian School. Shorn of their hair and their names, they learned that they were being “saved” from a despised culture.
Is that so different from now? “Vermin”, “animals” that’s what we call humans fleeing to our border. We hear daily that if “they” get in, we will be raped or murdered in our beds — horror movie style. We are so afraid, we put little children in cages and try them, yes try them in detainee hearings. An immigration lawyer in Texas tweeted today that his current client was a “four-year old” border crosser.
Really? Yet, are we really shocked? We’ve dehumanized and destroyed before. Watching Mr. Trump echo Pa Ingalls, “I guess there are some good ones” hurts. That’s why discussing the Little House books, Gone with the Wind and even Birth of a Nation is vital. When we talk about Huck Finn, we need to focus less of the language of the era (horrors, people used the “n” word in conversation in the 1800s) and much more on Twain’s desire to make us understand, as Huck comes to, that Jim’s skin doesn’t matter — a man just wants to be free.
My beloved Atticus Finch’s advice, “to climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it”, is even more important in this age of polarization. Having said that, it’s important to note that this is not one of those “both sides have good points” issues. Labelling people as non-human, ripping children from their parents, denying asylum for a battered woman, or someone who speaks against a regime or a gang is NEVER right. It leads to the excesses we see at the border, to confrontations at picnics even when both are citizens, to hitting 91 year old men with bricks… omg, there is no redeeming virtue in that.
I ask why a lot. When I was a baby, it was my 3rd word. I’ve asked why quite a few times in the preceding paragraphs — and if someone has a definitive answer, please share. For me, the closest I’ve come is believing that as a society we’re nutritionally deficient in empathy and education.
Slip into a mother’s skin, feel her fear that the next beating will take her away and her girls will have no safety. Where can she go? If the judicial, the legal, the societal systems tell her — he’s your boss, be a better wife…. She takes her courage and her daughters and flees to a safer life, where she will work hard to make sure that her little family will never be that scared again. Now imagine that you are the Attorney General of the United States of America, with a net worth of 7.5 million dollars. Your task is deciding what could qualify as an asylum worthy condition.
Reading about the mama, you can’t fathom why she doesn’t just do something without dramatically running away. As attorney general, you have neither the empathy with a situation such as hers or the education that 1 in 3 women worldwide have suffered sexual violence at some point, that ⅓ of women report violence in their intimate relationships and “as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by their male partners”.
The man screaming at the woman at a picnic for wearing a Puerto Rico tee — he doesn’t know that PR is a territory and its inhabitants are US citizens? Did he miss that day in geography? In addition, it’s an afternoon in the park — doesn’t everyone just want to enjoy his or her families and food?
Now, this could lead to an extended discussion on the plight of the modern educational system, which cannot be fixed by eliminating public schools (shhh, not calling on you Ms. DeVos). We can have that discussion over cocktails and coffee, because it might last for a while. There are probably a few basics that people should have roiling about in their brains — the people that constitute the country’s citizens; the fact there is no “space Isis”; that religions in and of themselves aren’t the problem, all of them have radical crazy people; really, no space Isis; how to register to vote; maybe short definitions of capitalism, socialism, communism and any other -ism that might be protested; again, space Isis, not a thing; and most of all, enough anatomy/biology to know that under that skin of pink, or brown, or black, or the million variations thereof — are bones and blood of remarkable similarity.
That similarity calls to mind what the philosopher’s call the ‘law of universal reciprocity’, or more familiarly the Golden Rule — finding empathy at the core of most world religions and cultures. Here’s a bit of example overkill:
- Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you. –> Confucianism
- The nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself. –>Zoroastrianism
- Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss. –> Taoism
- This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if it were done to you –> Hinduism
- Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. –>Buddhism
- What is hateful to thyself, do not do to another. —Judaism
- All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them –> Christianity
- No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. –> Islam
- We are as much alive as we keep the Earth alive. –> Aboriginal (US)
- Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself. –> Baha’i
- One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated. –> Jainism
- I am a stranger to no one and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all. –> Sikhism
- We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are apart. –> Unitarianism
Tell me then, where are the differences in humankind? We all want love, and safety, and food & shelter. We want our families to prosper and our lives to mean something. Can that only happen at the expense of another — think about it.
“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.” → George Washington Carver