“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process continuing day by day and minute by minute.
“History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” — from “1984,” by George Orwell
Since Orwell published his dystopian masterpiece, most readers have related his warnings to the rise of the radical authoritarian right. In the Age of Trump, such comparisons are elementary. Our president is such an unprecedented disaster, it’s hard to focus on anything else.
But it’s worth doing when allegedly enlightened minds rally against the late Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House on the Prairie” books that have entertained and enlightened American children for nearly a century.
On Tuesday, the American Library Association announced it is dropping Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s literature award over things she dared to write as a reflection of her time. The first books in the series were published in the 1930s, and contain derogatory characterizations of Native Americans and blacks.
These characterizations are racist and repugnant, but also historically accurate. Wilder wrote in the vernacular of her rime. So did Mark Twain, whose most sympathetic character was a poor black man called “N—– Jim.” Twain didn’t name Jim, contemporary society did.
The ALA said its decision was intended to reflect the organization’s values of “inclusiveness, integrity and respect.” Sounds good, but doesn’t address the violence the ALA is choosing to do to history. Here’s a chunk of the organization’s official statement:
“Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.”
Of course they do. That’s why Wilder’s words are invaluable in understanding not only what prairie life was like for white settlers, but for the red, black and brown folks in the background. History is often ugly. That’s no excuse to hide it.
The ALA should reverse its ill-considered decision, and rededicate itself to promoting truth over comfort, history over revision. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her books in a different time, about a different world. That world is gone, and acknowledging its worst elements is the best way to keep history from repeating.