How Does Audience Play Into Our Decisions about Writing that is Politically Correct?

 

Because it seems to be insensitive about the pioneer’s mismanagement of Native American lands, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s third book, Little House on the Prairie is considered to be her most controversial book.

A Very Brief Summary of the Situation:

When the Ingalls family moved westward and settled in Kansas, Pa elected for them to settle 3 miles inside land that had been granted to the Osage Indians, and the reader is allowed to believe that Pa did not feel that he should have been held accountable for having done so. To make matters worse, everyone’s favorite mother MA makes derisive comments about the Indians, saying that she simply didn’t like them.

Although the Laura Ingalls Wilder books have sold over 60 million copies in over 100 countries, there are some who feel that this specific book should be either banned or that its content should be censored. Although I do not agree with Pa’s flippant attitude about illegal squatting in an area that belonged to the Native Americans and although I do not agree with or appreciate Ma’s denigrating comments, I also do not believe that publishers or even librarians should even consider withholding anything that Wilder wrote in her book.

audience

I believe that it might help  if we pause and consider Laura Ingalls Wilder’s audiences

On an obvious level, Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie was intended for a juvenile market, and her audience still is juvenile. On another level, however, Wilder’s book was published in 1935,  and the youth particular to 1935 were her specific intended audience.

I was born in 1950, and I grew up in the South not long after Wilder’s books were published, and I cannot overemphasize how dramatically things have changed in the past eighty years.

When I was a child, African Americans could not drink from the same water fountain as white people and they also could not watch movies in the same room. There were signs everywhere to that effect, and these differences were an everyday part of life. I believe it is quite understandable that this unfortunate period of history might have been mentioned in the  literature of its time. After all, writers are expected to write the stories that they are living.

I was not alive in 1935; therefore, I can only speculate about how I might have handled things that were happening then, but I was alive during the 1950’s and I was one of many, many white children who picked cotton in the Bootheel of Missouri. Because I have been writing my memoir for over a year, I know, for a fact, that one of the things that I write most about is MY having picked cotton as a child. I believe that readers today will accept this fact now, but I am not sure what people will think about this 80 years from now. After all, the people who hired us children to pick cotton were breaking child labor laws. Doesn’t that embarrass or shame anyone?  The answer is a resounding “Yes.” For many years, I myself was embarrassed that I had picked cotton as a child.

If people 80 years from now should become more embarrassed about the children who picked cotton during the 1950’s than people are now, they might ban MY book or deem it inappropriate. Is that reasonable? After all, that IS my story. It is what actually happened to me. Does anyone have any right to dilute the facts of my life?

The dilemma becomes greater. I have recently begun writing a novel about my mother’s life. My mother was essentially an abandoned child during the Great Depression, and she grew up in the same part of the South that I just mentioned. Because I am interested in writing for children and for adults, I have begun to consider who my specific audience will actually be for this book. You see, the story is about a child, from the time that she is about 4-years-old, but it is a hard and sad story. Her mother died when she was 9-years-old and had been away from home, dying in a hospital for years before that. The family was poor, and after the mother died, the father essentially abandoned the children, and they were at the mercy of whatever  poor family member would help them.

Is this a story for children? By most standards, it should be a story for juveniles. The protagonist is juvenile, but the story is one that would be very painful for children if it were not handled with “kid” gloves. If I, the writer, elect to dilute my own story and it is published that way with my blessing, that is one thing, but if people come along 80 years from now and decide that I am no longer appropriate, that is another thing entirely.

Now, let’s return to the book Little House on the Prairie. In my opinion, no one has any right to change that book now. It accurately portrays an attitude that was openly embraced during the 1870’s, when the story took place. And Wilder told the story in 1935 in a way that was acceptable then. If that has become offensive to readers later, I believe that we the readers need to increase our own understandings rather than to try to alter history.

The reality is that when we change the historical part of our historical fiction, we no longer have historical fiction. Rather, we have the evil spawn of historical fiction. We have propaganda or evangelizing that is trying to ride the coattails of would-be literature. That sounds a bit too much like the Puritanical Primers for my taste.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am violently opposed to the writing of insensitive and culturally offensive work now–especially when that work it is written about the 21st century, but I do not believe that we have the privilege to alter history just to “better” our tales. Isn’t this very much like banning books? I grew up in the Mississippi River Delta of Southeast Missouri, and I would be fighting mad if anyone tried to take away Huck Finn again.

I do not believe that we teach anyone anything by sticking our heads in the sand and by inviting others to do the same. The best way to teach is to allow everyone to take off their blinders and to have a closer look. If there are “adults” in the midst, they might explain the historical context of a book, but I do believe that these adults need be sure that their own biases do not overshadow the telling. I believe that it is important for every audience to keep looking at history–the entire history.

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

But the important thing is that in order to avoid making the mistakes that we have made before, we must be aware of them.

“History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.” – Anonymous

©Jacki Kellum July 11, 2016

 

 

 

 

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