Pa in Blackface: Confronting racism in our children’s books

written by Anti-Racist Parenting columnist Dawn Friedman

I’m a fan of the Little House books and have been since my mom gave me the yellow cardboard box set when I was seven so I was thrilled when my friend set up her Beyond Little House group blog. Amassing a team of Little House experts, the blog highlights tales from the real Laura Ingalls Wilder that give insight to the fictionalized stories of her life.

Recently one of the bloggers brought up the racism in Little Town on the Prairie when Pa dons blackface to play a “darky” to entertain the town. The chapter is accompanied by a Garth Williams illustration depicting Pa in his grease paint with his whiskers tucked into his collar.

Then up the center aisle came marching five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms. White circles were around their eyes and their mouths were wide and red. Up onto the platform they marched, then facing forward in a row, suddenly they all advanced, singing.

The man in the middle was clog dancing. Back against the wall stood the four raggedy black-faced men.

… The cheering started; it couldn’t be stopped. Feet could not be kept still. The whole crowd was carried away by the pounding music, the grinning white-eyed faces, the wild dancing.

There was no time to think. When the dancing stopped, the jokes began. The white-circled eyes rolled, the big red mouths blabbed questions and answers that were the funniest every heard. Then there was music again, and even wilder dancing.

So how’s a concerned parent to handle it? Well, in her post, the author tentatively ventures that maybe it’s best to ignore it:

But if I’m going to prepare her, what should I say? This is where I get stuck. Until now, whenever I’ve been faced with educating my daughter on various aspects of How The World Is, no matter how much hemming and hawing I do or how cleverly I try to craft words in my head, ultimately I’ve decided to do and say nothing until she does. Kids don’t know that injustice exists until it affects them or it’s pointed out to them. Kids who are different from her — the overweight kid in fourth grade, her African-American classmate, the two kids in her school on permanent crutches — are simply part of her life. If she asks questions, I answer. But basically she doesn’t notice or compare or judge. It’s simply How Things Are. There is going to be a time where she hears or sees something that doesn’t square with this ideal. And that’s when we’ll have a discussion. I’m willing to wait.

I figured I’d chime in with my thoughts over here and kick the trackback to the blog entry.

I’d venture to say that the classmates mentioned here – the classmates different from the poster’s apparently majority child – are having an entirely different experience and their experience is part of that school’s (and her child’s) collective experience and it’s worth exploring critically even at six. One wonders if the aforementioned African-American classmate would have the same no-reaction reaction to Pa’s minstrel show or if this is part of the poster’s daughter’s privilege.

Although her daughter is missing the racism, the racism is still there and it still matters and it needs to be part of what should be an ongoing family discussion. Ignoring racism doesn’t make it disappear – even from our favorite books and stories.

It’s not easy to see our heroes fall. It’s confusing and painful and I can see why parents might want to avoid it. But there’s a difference between stomping on Pa’s legend with both feet (damning him and the books) and opening up a discussion (where the books help foster vital dialogue).

My son isn’t really a fan of the Little House books but he’s had his own heroes fall. A couple of summers past he became a fan of Mickey Rooney after catching TCM showings of Little Lord Fauntleroy and Captains Courageous. Eventually his movie roaming led us to Babes in Arms, which includes a rollicking number featuring Rooney crooning in blackface. Well, heavy discussion ensued, (including mention of Rooney’s yellow face routine in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

Was it fun? No. Was it easy to answer his questions and witness his dismay? No. Did we both learn a lot? Hell yeah.

I know it’s easy for us white people to pretend like this racism doesn’t matter in the context of the times. You know, the old “but that’s just what they DID back then” justification. But really what we need to do is confront the context and ask our children to think critically about our heroes so that they are able to denounce racism wherever they find it.

We can ask our kids:
1. Do you think this kind of racism was ok back then even if it isn’t now?
2. Is it ok to act racist if your intentions are good? (Pa was just entertaining the townfolk after all.)
3. Can someone still be a good person if they are a racist? (Should we judge Pa on his best actions or his worst?)
4. If we are not the targets of the historical racism, we can ask ourselves how we might feel if we were. (Do you think an Asian person might feel differently about Rooney’s portrayal? Do you think a black child might be more upset reading about Pa’s minstrel show?)
5. What do you think about banning these kinds of images? There are some people who think people shouldn’t read the Little House books because of the racism. Is this a good idea or not?

There isn’t one right answer to these questions and where a family takes them will depend on the family’s perspective and values. But they’re important questions to ask and the dialogue is one that should happen sooner instead of waiting for the child to initiate it.

Ignoring the racism in Pa’s behavior (and in Laura’s pleasure in the performance) means missing a valuable opportunity to educate our children about our history and the complexity of our country’s continuing racial struggles (note that blackface isn’t just a part of our past). Our kids need our help as they learn how to critically examine their heroes; avoiding the issue doesn’t serve them as well as they deserve.

Other resources for parents:

Dawn Friedman is a writer and mother to two children. Her articles have appeared in Salon.com, Yoga Journal, Brain Child and the Greater Good and she is the op-ed editor at Literary Mama. She is also the founder of OpenAdoptionSupport.com and since the adoption of her daughter in 2004 has become passionate about the need for adoption reform. She blogs at this woman’s work.

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