Weeding Out Racism’s Invisible Roots: Rethinking Children’s Classics | Opinion

Challenging old classics is the literary equivalent of replacing statues of racist figures.

Lately, I’ve heard from several parents, educators, and librarians who want to prevent white children from imbibing prejudice. When I suggest that one simple step we can take is to proactively encourage young people to read diverse books, there’s agreement. When I suggest another equally easy step is to stop supporting racist classics, I meet resistance.

Immense and complex problems face us as a nation today—and I’m not trying to trivialize them. Changing the stories we read (or don’t read) won’t change society overnight, but I do believe it will help curb insidious biases from perpetuating in future generations. If we’re serious about preventing children from growing into adults who indulge in exclusionary behavior or ignore supremacist institutions and traditions, we must take small steps that are within our control, while demanding larger changes.

Powerful books can transport us to different places and times and also transplant us, temporarily, into a character’s body. Protagonists haunt us, move us, and sometimes spur us to act by sowing empathy and respect for diversity.

Conversely, exposing young people to stories in which racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate are the norm may sow seeds of bias that can grow into indifference or prejudice.

Racism in classics can’t be negated merely by alerting young readers to its presence. Unless we have the time, energy, attention, expertise, and ability to foster nuanced conversations in which even the shyest readers feel empowered to engage if they choose, we may hurt, not help. Pressuring readers of color to speak up also removes free choice and can be harmful.

Even if we establish safe environments for discussion, classics privilege white readers. If we say that we love Mary of The Secret Garden, who considers Indians to be Blacks and says that Blacks “are not people—they’re servants,” we’re excusing and overlooking her openly expressed hatred. To Kill A Mockingbird exemplifies the white savior stereotype. Uncle Tom’s Cabin broke out of the horrifically narrow confines of the era when it was written—but can it be considered progressive today? Isn’t it more important to pay attention to books written by more recent Black authors, and include both titles that speak about the history of enslavement, and also, equally, books that celebrate Black joy? Consider whether, if Holden Caulfield had been a dark-skinned teen, his behavior (which includes hiring a prostitute) would have been considered threatening, inappropriate and even criminal—or if he’d have received the level of approbation and adoration from white readers that he’s enjoyed. Ask if absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric.

Read: Little House, Big Problem: What To Do with “Classic” Books That Are Also Racist

Insisting on exposing diverse children to racist classics in which they see characters like themselves demeaned, or, at best, entirely excluded, is not just insensitive, but downright cruel. Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie endorses terrible historical injustices. It also, like most fairytales, perpetuates the myth that dark skin isn’t beautiful. Such ideas can damage the self-esteem of readers with diverse backgrounds.

Reading can be a key to success. If we want to nurture readers of color, we must get rid of racist classics in homes, bookstores, and English classrooms.

I’m not advocating we ban classics. Or erase the past. Classics are undoubtedly examples of excellent writing, or they wouldn’t have survived the test of time. I’m just suggesting we study classics in social studies classrooms, where inherent ideas of inequity are exposed and examined; where Huckleberry Finn may be viewed as an example of literature that showcases the white lens. Delay the study of classics until readers are mature enough to question, debate, and defy subtle assertions. Dissect classics in college by setting aside time to delve into both literary merits and problematic assumptions. Redefine parochial notions of what “well-read” means; after all, British children are unaware of many celebrated American authors.

When we defend classics, we’re sometimes just defending childhood memories. I wholeheartedly agree that Pippi Longstocking has many merits, but before putting her on a pedestal, re-read the series, while imagining you’re dark-skinned or reading an unabridged version aloud to children with diverse backgrounds. Mightn’t Pippi move aside to make place for other spunky characters whose fathers aren’t white kings of black cannibal tribes?

Poe, Melville, Faulkner…there’s a long list of brilliant white writers who belong to an exclusive club that remains suspicious of and usually refuses to admit diverse authors. But brilliance isn’t a thing of the past. If we focus on excellence alone, we’ll embrace works that enrich our experience of language while deepening our compassion and expanding our minds. And yes, standards of excellence in reading and writing can be achieved using newer books—as work by educators like Donalyn Miller and Julia Torres suggests.

Let’s recognize books vetted by resources such as We Need Diverse Books and LatinX in Kidlit. Let’s actively add to shelves and reading lists, books that win awards celebrating excellence and honoring diversity, such as the Walter Award, Coretta Scott King Award, South Asian Book Award, Schneider Family Book Award, and Lamba Literary Award. Let’s curate books that can become future classics.

Library budgets are limited. So is every reader’s time. Keeping racist books out of young readers’ hands won’t prevent them from growing into racists, but it may encourage them to read books with egalitarian worldviews.

Challenging old classics is the literary equivalent of replacing statues of racist figures.

Read: Kid Lit Authors (Re)Make History

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