On Considering Race and Laura Ingalls Wilder

I’ve been thinking deeply about race as it relates to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her works, lately, and I’ve made some observations that I’d like to share.

For those who don’t know, Wilder wrote the wildly popular Little House series of children’s books upon which the television show, Little House on the Prairie, was based. Recently, PBS aired a new documentary biography about Wilder, and I was pleased to see that it paid attention to the controversy surrounding the books, which have episodes of racism. In fact, the argument could be made that the entire series is racist, though it’s most evident and apparent in Little House on the Prairie, the book that tells the story of the Ingalls’ squatting on land in the Osage Diminished Reserve in Kansas and their subsequent departure from it.

However, the rest of the series isn’t exempt; negative references to Native Americans as well as the story of a performance in blackface by characters in the books also highlight the problematic nature of the works, which led to the American Library Association removing Wilder’s name from one of its major awards in 2018.

As an historian, I have said, and I will continue to say, that I think it’s important that the books continue to be studied and discussed, despite their flaws, and the discussion does need to be more encompassing than race. These books remain one of the few series that provides historians and others a feminine perspective on the pioneers’ movement West in the nineteenth century. Wilder gives women and girls in that story voice, and suppressing her work would also wrongly suppress that voice.

The challenge, of course, is that many want to suppress the painful truths of history. As someone put it to me recently, “Why can’t we just ‘get over it’?” My answer then, as now, is that we can’t just “get over” trauma, either personal or collective. The collective trauma of Native Americans being driven away from their homes and forced in many cases to suppress their cultural identities by white authority isn’t something the people are going to get over. The collective trauma of being dehumanized, thought “other,” enslaved, and demonized in popular culture isn’t something any Black person is likely to get over.

These peoples still deal with the remnants and ripple effects of these traumas every day.

When PBS aired the Wilder special, I Tweeted as I watched. At one point, someone on air said the books provided “emotional comfort food.” I retweeted the statement because that’s what the books are for me, too: emotional comfort food that reminded me as a girl that I had value and that my story and my voice meant something. Yet, not all responded positively to my retweet. One clearly said, “Not for me.” And that’s not only valid, it’s worth broader discussion.

My last observation is this: As a girl, I never noticed the books had racist overtones, and that is, in part, because I was a regular and avid watcher of the Little House on the Prairie television series, which expanded on the fictional Laura’s story. In that series, a number of respected African-American characters dealt with a variety of issues on race; the disability of Mary Ingalls was highlighted, and the show paid special attention to inclusion and diversity. I think my perceptions of how the books treated race was softened by simultaneous viewing of the television show.

We have a long ways to go in these discussions. I think it’s more than OK for those of us to have enjoyed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s works as “emotional comfort food” to continue to do so. But we need to remember, too, that her works aren’t inclusive, and for some, could be outright damaging. Don’t expect anyone to “get over it.”

See me discussing Laura: https://youtu.be/va03L58fA28

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