I am obviously appalled by these efforts to dishonor the written word - efforts motivated by xenophobia, hate, and fear. I blogged recently about the writer's responsibility to protest, stir up controversy and conversation, and challenge society to push itself in more just directions.
But what about written works that do the opposite? What about written works that promote stereotypes, prejudice and fear? As a rule, of course, I would say that freedom of speech means freedom of all speech. But, as a parent and pediatrician, what do I think about those works of classic literature which teach our children prejudice, racism, sexism or xenophobia?
I got thinking about this more deeply after reading Philip Nel's excellent blog post about Censorship of Children's Literature. In it, he discusses Roald Dahl's portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas as 'tribespeople' brought in small crates from the deepest jungles of a far away land. Although the original 1964 illustrations - in which the Oompa-Loompas were dark-skinned - changed by the 1973 edition - by which time they were white - the colonial implications remain. The Oompa-Loompas are a "primitive" people who don't mind - nay, even welcome - their status as chocolate factory slaves. As Nel discusses, the removal of explicit racial signifiers doesn't prevent this from being a racist gesture -- as it doesn't change a child's ability to assume that a non-Englishspeaking 'tribesperson' from a 'deep jungle' might very well be from Africa. His discussion of Dr. Doolittle is similarly nuanced.
In my household, it was my 8year old's recent fascination with the Little House on the Prairie series that raised my neck hairs. To be honest, I LOVED these books as a girl, and was looking forward to sharing them with my children. That is, until we started reading them out loud and I began skipping large sections - first about hunting, then about gun care, then skinning animals, and finally -- yikes -- all that stuff about the half naked, frightening, primitive, violent 'Indians.' (Had I forgotten all that?) And how much Ma Ingalls hates 'them'. Why? Because -- well, they're half-naked, frightening, primitive and violent. (Oh, yea, and mad that the white settlers are taking over their land - but we won't talk about that.) Even Pa Ingalls' semi-tolerance of 'Indians' is more a tribute to how cool Pa is than anything else.
I edited out passages in our read-alouds, but as my child began to read the books himself, how could I edit his reading? I certainly wasn't going to cut out or blacken pages, nor was I going to stop him from reading these classic texts - which have a great deal of good in them -- girl heroines, love of family and nature, wonderful writing. Even if I could have - as a publisher, say - edited out those explicitly racist chapters from the Little House series, should I? Would such a gesture remove the overall colonial and racist history of Westward migration in the U.S.? Would such a gesture not re-enact the book banning/burning urges of those who oppose freedom of speech?
The only thing I could do was to explicitly discuss with my child my feelings about those parts of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books. As well as to make sure his literary diet was varied, and consisted of plenty of other images of people of color -- of course the lack of multicultural children's books with multicultural protagonists out there (and their lack of humor and variety) is a whole other blog post.
Now, this doesn't mean I'm not squeamish regarding the unquestioning portrayal of racism. A few months ago, when my kids and I watched Disney's Peter Pan on DVD and the film got to that awful Native American village scene -- yea, I still fast forwarded over that.
When my 6 year old asked me why, my 8 year old (Little House reader) told her, "It's because it's promoting stereotypes. And stereotypes hurt people."
Well said, my boy. Well said.