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Which parts of history are OK to ignore?

Rebecca Horvath • Jul 8, 2018 at 7:30 AM

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessary reflect those of the Johnson City Press.

A case of political correctness struck recently when a division of the American Library Association voted to remove the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from an annual award.

The problem?

The attitudes and societal mores reflected in Wilder’s books might be offensive to Native American children reading them now; they’re “inconsistent” with the organization’s core values. (I would hazard a guess that had the organization existed in the mid-1800s, their values would probably have been quite similar to those in the books, given the historical context.) Across the board, folks lambasted the decision, but of course, there were some who celebrated it.

Call me crazy, but I don’t quite understand how whitewashing history is helpful to anyone.

The folks who worked up a tizzy over Wilder’s words are the same ones who refer to our president as Hilter. What if that’s offensive to Jewish people whose family members suffered and died under the Nazi regime? They also hold modern white people accountable for slavery, even though it was abolished long before our lifetimes and our only connection to it is our race. In other words, they want to remember history only if it can be used as ammunition to attack their political opponents. Sorry, folks, but you can’t have it both ways.

It begs the question: Exactly which parts of history are OK to ignore? And who decides?

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are undeniable classics. They’ve entertained children for several generations and the charming television series based on them still runs in heavy rotation on cable, even though production ended some thirty-five years ago.

The books tell the story of the Ingalls family (and later the Wilders) as they made their way West and settled in the mid-19th century. Native Americans were still largely an “unknown” for most settlers and it was natural (human, you might say) to be fearful of the unknown, just as it was natural (human) for Native Americans to be afraid or resentful of settlers infiltrating their land. The books honestly portray the time in which they were written. If Wilder were alive today, she’d write very different stories. Again, she wrote in the context of her time, just like every other author. Dystopian literature was not her thing.

Most kids who read Wilder’s books are in the 9-12 age range. I have a child in that age group; I know how the pre-teen brain operates. (Does it always make sense? Certainly not, but that’s another story for another time.) A 10-year-old who doesn’t understand why people in 1860 were afraid of Native Americans will ask a parent or teacher; she’ll also have some basic history education under her belt to help her interpret their attitudes. It’s not really that difficult to explain, even though most kids (thankfully) have no concept of such racial and cultural biases. Kids are remarkably sharp observers, but they also think of the 1990s as the Dark Ages — the 1860s might as well be a thousand years ago and on another planet. While any little girl would relate to young Laura’s spunk and curiosity, she will also readily recognize their major differences.

The problem, of course, is that the issue goes much deeper than children’s novels written about a time long ago and far away.

Ignoring history, whitewashing it, or pretending it never happened doesn’t serve any purpose. Terrible things have happened in our country’s (and our humanity’s) history, but nothing can change that. Forgetting such things happened only dulls the lessons we can learn from them and puts us at risk of repeating mistakes.

We can remember a time when Native Americans were feared without fearing them. We can learn about the horror of slavery without experiencing it. We can mourn the Holocaust without celebrating Hitler. We can be reminded of racial and gender inequality without backsliding into either one. Remembering isn’t endorsing. We can look back at how far we’ve come and be proud, but only if we know what we’ve overcome. (Yes, reminders can be painful; discretion helps with sensitive topics.)

A history book should not be confused with a fairy tale book; it’s education, not entertainment. We learn nothing from a “let’s not offend anyone” version of history. Watering it down might make us feel better, but it teaches us nothing. History is what it is — we can’t have a selective memory. And even in eras where many bad things happened, there was still good in the world.

It also extraordinarily arrogant to assume that we are better than previous generations, simply because we think we are free of biases and problems. When people look back on 2018 in 100 years, through their lenses, they will see problems that are invisible to us now. While many things change — and very often for the better — we as individuals are no better than our grandparents or their grandparents. We are each products of the time in which we live and no time is perfect. We make mistakes, too.

If we strip honors away from every person in history who displayed attitudes reflective of the world they lived in, we couldn’t name anything after anyone. There’s a difference — a huge difference — in a person being representative of their era (i.e. Laura Ingalls Wilder) and one who committed atrocities (i.e. Hitler). We are smart enough to know the difference; dumbing down isn’t necessary.

It’s up to each of us to honor the good and learn from the bad in the past. It’s our collective history — the good, the bad, the appalling, the wonderful — and we owe it to ourselves and our children to make sure it is all remembered. If we forget where we’ve been, we’ll never know where we’re going or how ± and most importantly, why — to get there.

Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community activist. Reach her at rebeccasjh@hotmail.com.



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