My youngest daughter is reading the Little House on the Prairie books, a series that I absolutely loved as a child. When I read the series over thirty years ago, I marveled at the charm and hardship of life as a pioneer.
I remembered how Pa and Ma had to make every last thing from scratch; how a corn husk served as Laura’s first doll, how Almanzo seemed to do nothing but eat, how Laura and Carrie were expected to play quietly for hours on Sundays and Laura hated the silence.
My daughter raced her way through the first book — Little House in the Big Woods – and I saw her own fascination with the “olden days.” We went to the library and picked up the next two books in the series – Little House on the Prairie, and Farmer Boy – and I smiled as I watched her pour through the details of each page.
Last weekend, I picked up the copy of Little House on the Prairie that was lying on the coffee table. My daughter prefers to read silently to herself, so I no longer get the pleasure of reading chapter books aloud with her. Missing the chance to relive a beloved childhood book, I decided to skim through it, preparing to enjoy the historical perspective.
It all came to a screeching halt as I realized that the books include a historical perspective that is, well, racist. Laura reflects her parents’ views and describes how the government should move the “Indians” west so that the white settlers can build homes and towns. The savage “Indians” are viewed with fear and distrust.
My first thought was not, “Oh, these books are bad and my daughter cannot read them.” Instead, I thought, “Wow, we need to talk about this. I’m so glad I picked up this book to reread it. Here is an opportunity to talk with my young daughter about how the Native Americans suffered terribly as a result of the ingrained racism of the settlers. Let’s discuss inequality and how children take on the beliefs of their parents, often without examining them. Let’s talk about how people change and learn.”
My second thought was shame. I felt ashamed that my prevailing memories of the series did not even include the mistreatment of the Native Americans. As a young girl, I took what I had read at face value and never even questioned it, let alone remembered it as egregious or offensive. It was a crystallizing moment for me in terms of recognizing my own bias and white privilege. History is written from the perspective of the white man, and I need to reinterpret much of the history I learned as a child. I can still love and appreciate the Little House books, but I need to reframe them for my kids and myself.
Racism and white privilege are big topics these days in America, due to the fact that our current President is choosing divisiveness, prejudice and conflict over unity, empathy and resolution.
These are uncomfortable topics. They make people squirm; they make people defensive; they make people angry and nervous and scared. Good. They should. It is in the uncomfortable place that we are most likely to change and grow, whether the catalyst of that change is a children’s book series, a football player taking a knee, or a national anthem.
Football has long been one of America’s favorite fall pastimes, and plenty of people want to just go on enjoying the game. But just as the Little House books do not exist in a cultural vacuum, neither does football.
The people who play for the NFL are not just public athletes. They are private citizens who deserve the right to express their Constitutional rights. Many of them are black men who live with the everyday burden of racism in America.
We as a country need to question an American president who describes white supremacists waving the confederate flag as “some very fine people” and degrades football players protesting racism by taking a knee during the national anthem as “sons of bitches.”
We need to talk about historical perspective and racism, starting at the earliest of ages, because it is so deeply rooted in our country’s history. We need to honor peaceful protest. It is because of peaceful protest that my daughters were born into an America where they have the right to vote, unlike the America into which young Laura Ingalls Wilder was born.
Teach your children. Read and write and talk and protest and draw and paint and sing your truth. Be not silenced.
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