Racism, History, and Little House on the Prairie

So, we've been reading through the whole Little House series, the Younger and I, and we got to the minstrel show. It's about midway through Little Town on the Prairie. We've been reading through the series in order, with a sense of trying to recognize the ways in which, well, "We don't quite believe what they used to believe back then. Things have changed, and we hope we're more able to recognize each other's humanity now."
That's what I've been trying, anyway.
And it isn't so hard, at first. In a lot of the early books, there's a lot of Ma, an otherwise exemplary person of great patience, wisdom, and personal fortitude, saying, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." And while Laura never comes out and says that that's wrong, it's clear that Pa disagrees, and that makes the whole thing more comprehensible. There's even a sense that Laura in some way connects with the Indians. So, as I read out loud to the Younger, (remembering that I tried to give this context to the Elder, who read these on her own where it is much harder to reach someone), I would say things like: Ma just didn't really know any Indians, and people can be so fearful of things they don't know.
Things like that.
But all along, I remembered there was going to be a bigger problem, and then one day, there it was: The Minstrel Show.
By this section of the book, the town is really coming together. They've been meeting in a literary society, they've had spelling bees, they've grown into a community. And then, the culmination of all this entertainment is when the men of the town smear on some cork, paste down their beards, roll their eyes, play their drums, and have a minstrel show.

"There was no time to think. When the dancing stopped, the jokes began. The white-circled eyes rolled, the big red mouths blabbed question and answers that were the funniest ever heard. Then there was the music again, and even wilder dancing.
When the five darkies suddenly raced down the aisle and were gone, everyone was weak from excitement and laughing."

The very lack of self-consciousness about it is astonishing. It's presented as the funniest, most wonderful thing that could happen. How wonderful, they exclaim, we can have minstrel shows as good as the ones in New York!
In a way, its very baldness makes it easier to talk about. Plus the fact, for which I am endlessly grateful, that there is, in the series, one black character, one that Laura appears to forget about entirely: the doctor, the only one in the book, who saves the family and their nearby settlers from death by malaria, in Little House on the Prairie.

"She heard voices jabbering again, and the slow voice drawling, and she opened her eyes and saw a big, black face close above her face.
It was coal-black and shiny. Its eyes were black and soft. It's teeth shone white in a thick, big mouth. This face smiled, and a deep voice said, softly, 'Drink this, little girl.'"

Yes: he's presented as this foreign, terrifying animal-like creature, but also, indisputably as what he was—the only actual medical doctor for miles and miles around, who went from settlement to settlement, to the Indians, too, and saved them. He saves them all.
"So how come they made fun of the black people then?" the Younger asked when we talked about it.
"Well," I offered, trying to walk that fine line wherein I point out a problem but don't entirely dump how huge and terrifying it is on her small head; "it's just that she forgot that they're not just people to make fun of. They're not trying to be awful, they're just trying to have fun, but sometimes people get confused…"
"Oh, look, they're moving back to the claim!"
And the moment is gone. I know she's getting that we think racism is wrong, and a problem, and she's learning to understand it a little. And I try to tell myself that this was just a beginning to a lifelong conversation, not a solution to an age-old problem. And that she is a person of good heart and great sense.
But I know, too, that I am reading racist books to her, lots of them, and as much as I am trying to use them as a way in to a discussion, I'm reading them to her, pouring this stuff into her small open ears just the same, and it's scary.

What they're reading now
The Elder: Pokemon Platinum Guide (God help me)
The Younger: Fairytale Look and Find

3 thoughts on “Racism, History, and Little House on the Prairie

  1. I’ve been thinking about your post on this book for a while. First off, I think that you handled the discussion fine. It won’t be the last time that you have to explain some horrible fact of history to your child in a way that helps her to understand and also to learn your family’s moral code (this is NOT okay).
    And I think that Laura’s description of the Minstrel Show is bound by the time in which she lived (and then wrote); by the reality of the world she knew. And that’s okay, as far as it goes.
    Really enjoying your blog, by the way.


  2. I found this by accident today looking for something else. I really hate it when people today point out the flaws of people from yesterday without trying to know or understand their mindset since they lived in a different time and place. Did it ever occur to you that he Indians may have been teaching their young to hate white people? They did not have written language like we did to write these things down or people would be surprised by the hatred they had for other warring tribes and then for white people. Not all was based on land-grabbing and encroachment as many were just warring tribes, while some were more friendly.
    If you had been raised to not be around or know Black people then they would seem strange to you. When someone is sick and in delirium then they would most naturally see someone who is black with shiny skin as a scary person or ‘animal’. People who are that sick are usually delirious and do not think properly.
    Had Laura and her family lived in the mid 1900’s to now they most likely would not have been as ‘racist’ as we see them today. Times are different. The way people think today is different. Vilifying Laura and her family with your child is also just as wrong as you see Laura’s racism. In fact, it is also a form of racism as you are attacking a person who was raised in a totally different time when people were not as enlightened as they are now.
    When I read these books to my children 20+ years ago- we did discuss how different Laura and her family were. We discussed how much more they knew than we do so that they could live a very self-sufficient life and could survive when most people today could not. How many know how to weave straw hats? Know herbs to forage for for health? Know how to dry foods and preserve them under such primitive conditions? Could make all of their family’s clothes? Make their own cheese? Butter? And plow ground and plant with a yoke of oxen?
    We also discussed how people viewed others different than themselves back in those days, just as many people still do today. Wee discussed how Darwin’s theory of evolution also caused overt racism as it was the ‘fittest survived”. We discussed how not ever seeing or knowing people with black or brown skin could make you fear them or see them as less than you (also based on evolutionary ideas of people being more ‘advanced’ than others on the evolutionary tree instead of all people being created in the image of God and therefore worthy).
    We do not have to vilify people and their beliefs who came from a different time period in order to understand them or to talk about their viewpoints that do not align with ours today. The Historical Context absolutely must be taken into consideration.


    1. It’s true that the books need to be seen in their historical context, but it’s also true (I think) that we need to use our own context to evaluate them. I appreciate your sharing your thinking on this.


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