An act of forgetting?

I had lots of material to write about from the weekend, but it’s overshadowed by my reception of several tweets, messages and emails about the vote by the Association for Library Service to Children board to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

The reason cited by the ALSC’s web site was that Wilder’s legacy “includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”

I’m concerned by the move for a number of reasons, but ultimately, it’s the board’s decision. As I am neither a librarian or a children’s book author, I don’t actually have a voice in that particular discussion. The position of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association about the subject most accurately reflects my personal thoughts.

I am, however, an historian, and in that light, I’m troubled by the reasoning behind the decision, and what appears to be a rejection of Wilder’s personal history and story. After all, it is a shared history. I fear some might think a rejection of Wilder’s history is a personal rejection, and that perception contributes to the divisiveness already pervasive in U.S. culture today. It is tied into a troubling rupture in civility and a cognitive dissonance that prevents people on both sides of the divide from understanding the others’ perspectives.

This is not a new division. I documented that such a division existed as early as 1960, between a proud rural culture and an increasingly vibrant and diverse urban culture, masked under a presumption of common shared knowledge that quite literally did not–and I dare say still does not–exist. The rural experience is strikingly different from the urban experience, and while members of both cultures presume they are speaking the same language and understanding each other, the truth is they are not. Nor are they likely to, given the current cultural climate.

Wilder’s stories share her personal history with manifest destiny and the pioneer experience, which were obviously and overtly racist. Poor white Americans were actively encouraged with promises of “free” land to displace American Indians from their ancestral homes and steal them. Wilder’s telling of that history, through the lens of a white female child of that time, therefore is also, obviously, racist. But does that mean it’s worth rejecting? Because rejecting that history means leaving a generation in ignorance of a troubled past that we as a culture should actively be investigating, discussing, and where appropriate, making amends for.

Philosopher George Santayana once said, in a oft-repeated and mangled quote, “Those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” Pulitzer Prize winner and commentator Leonard Pitts, Jr., has said, and repeats, that we are all racist. And they’re both right.

It’s a shame the ASLC’s standard of inclusiveness doesn’t include Wilder. Forgetting that history may well doom us to repeat it.


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