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The PC Police Crack Down on . . . Kids Books

3 January 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

Ranking high among the surrealities of 2016 was the meltdown at a literary festival in Australia when the American-born novelist Lionel Shriver defended the freedom of fiction writers to conjure characters unlike themselves.

“Taken to their logical conclusion,” Ms. Shriver warned, “ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all.” Among the concepts she skewered was “cultural appropriation,” the notion that members of one ethnic group mustn’t use (or eat or wear or write about) things emanating from other ethnic groups. The illogical impracticality of the idea, especially with fiction, hasn’t impeded its spread, and the resulting umbrage was a wonder to behold: An Australian writer of Egyptian and Sudanese origin stormed out of the speech, later blaming Ms. Shriver for celebrating “the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.” The officials in charge of the event disavowed their keynote speaker’s remarks.

Such exquisite sensitivities put a lot of well-meaning people into terrible predicaments in 2016. In the children’s literary realm, where “diversity” has become the lodestar, the year began and ended with choler, indignation and the repudiation of books.

. . . .

That controversy was reminiscent of an earlier one, when ignominy befell author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall, who are white, for their 2015 picture book “A Fine Dessert,” published by Schwartz + Wade. The story traces four centuries of social and domestic change by showing the evolving ways in which families have prepared a sweet dish called blackberry fool. The book’s crime, to its detractors, was what one called the story’s “degrading” depiction of an enslaved mother and daughter in 1810 enjoying themselves as they make and taste the dessert.

In July, controversy swirled around Lane Smith’s picture book “There Is a Tribe of Kids” (which publisher Roaring Brook did not recall) for representing children in a natural setting with feathers in their hair (see below)—as if, critics said, they were “playing Indian.” In August, Candlewick recalled copies of E.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s young-adult novel “When We Was Fierce.” Early critical praise had morphed into social-media wrath over the author’s use of an invented urban dialect that was, in the words of one prominent fault-finder, “deeply insensitive.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

PG says fiction is fictional. It’s made up from thoughts in the author’s mind.

Fictional stories don’t belong to anyone other than the author. Most historical fiction involves the author trying to imagine what life was like during a time before the author was alive. PG doesn’t believe that an author of the same ethnic group as a fictional character who lived 200 years ago has any better idea what that ethnic group’s daily life was like than an author of a different ethnic group.

In any case, it’s fictional and the author can include or create any components of characters or settings the author thinks will make for a good story.

These are fictional characters, not somebody’s actual great-great-great-great grandparent. Even in stories, fictional or nonfictional, that include actual people, those stories are not the property of the descendants of those people.

Are Mexican Americans to be prevented from writing about George Washingon? Can British authors write stories that include American characters? How long would the Western world have waited to read about the challenges of rural Chinese life before World War I if Pearl Buck hadn’t been permitted to write about it?

On a related note, it’s a long-established tenet of American law (descended from English common law) that you cannot defame a dead person.

The rationale is relatively straighforward. Defamation is defined as an act or statement that damages one’s reputation. The dead do not have reputations to damage. As the English jurist Sir James Stephen said in 1887, “The dead have no rights and can suffer no wrongs.”

(PG will note that some states recognize a right of publicity that prevents others from commercially exploiting the image or likeness of a celebrity without consent. Under some state laws, this right (which is a property right akin to a trademark, not a personal right) continues for a period of time after the death of the individual.)

Even under rights of publicity, only Michael Jackson’s heirs, not any African-American, can prevent the use of Michael Jackson’s image for commercial purposes. Similarly, Jay Silverheels’ heirs, not any Native American, could prevent the use of his image or commercial persona. (For those who may not know of Silverheels, he was the actor who played Tonto, the “faithful Indian companion” of The Lone Ranger in a television series created during the 1950’s.)

Furthermore, if one author writes a story, another author can write another story about the same subject or person. The idea that a story is “appropriated” by an author of a particular ethnicity implies that, by writing the story, that author has somehow prevented another author from writing about the same subject.

There are a great many biographies of George Washington. There are also a great many biographies of George Washington Carver. Nothing prevents any would-be author from writing another biography or work of fiction about either of these extraordinary individuals.

End of PG’s pontification.

Children's Books

51 Comments to “The PC Police Crack Down on . . . Kids Books”

  1. It’s standard S**-ism. First they complain that books aren’t ‘diverse’, then they complain that ‘diverse’ books written by white people are ‘cultural appropriation’ of ‘diverse’ cultures. So all books not written by ‘diverse’ writers must be banned.

    It’s just another example of how S*** destroy any industry they take over.

  2. Barbara Morgenroth

    We will tell you what to think.
    We will tell you what to write.
    We will tell you what the right thoughts are.
    Then you have complete freedom of speech to create whatever you like.

  3. Here is a genuine question I have for people who believe in cultural appropriation, i’m not sure how many people on the site do But here goes.
    Do cultures own The ideas and innovations created within then?

    • I’d like to try to answer your question Anon. It is a complicated issue or set of issues that I think have little to do with publishing or writing or imagination.

      I think it has to do with unlaid anger, rage about the past. The idea that ‘someone of some heritage group’ stole, raped, pillaged, enslaved, murdered’ so many of us, and now look, some of their descendants, related or not, but certain ‘other’…. just walk in and do the same about OUR history, OUR lives, Our stories, Our music, Our Language. Take it without asking us. The only things we were left with, our ways, our stories, our music, our dances, our foodways, our religion…. They came again, and took it without asking.

      I think it also has to do with monetary compensation, the lack of renumeration for years/ decades lived without fair pay,with family history of beatings and purposeful harms to them by certain others, with no compensation for murdering families — debts never paid… Even as I shake my head not knowing how such debts can ever ever be ‘paid’ to anyone’s satisfaction.

      Too, the compensation given to an author/illustrator, not of that ethnic group with such a history of enslavement and slaughter, theft of lands and more… The compensation given by publisher to those who now financially benefit from telling the stories that did not grow from their own family trees… Rankles some.

      Add to that even if all Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans [all of whom make up the core of my own family] wrote a million stories of their own ancestors and their current day situation, they are not, most of them, going to be speaking at conferences, being paid decently, have their books reviewed, all of which are still considered high honors– oddly so– to be praised by the very dominant culture you find suspicious and… Guilty of past deeds egregious.

      It is clear there is not enough to go around to begin with. To watch a non-native, non black, non latino [sorry to put it in negative terms like that] walk off with those goods too, rankles some.

      These are not facts, they are feelings about the past and present to be found in certain layers of many an ethnic group… About theft from long long ago, and in the present.

      What some call ‘identity politics’ and trust, in our family each of us has been on every side of it, making fools of ourselves, as well as standing with honor to try to protect that certain aspects of our and others’ heritages not be trivialized by layers of society that seek to diminish other humans… I dont have much of a stomach for ‘identity politics.’ But think identity is an important part of our family’s lives.

      Added to the mix that I dont know how to weigh exactly except to try to respect each person’s heritage backgrounding at least as much as they do…. Is that many people in western culture seem not to know their own heritages well. Not sure, but perhaps if you dont have an ancestral attachment with ceremony, for instance, not particularly knowing the old ways, only knowing perhaps names and occupations, not the old stories of the far back family clans and tribes, that one might not see how others value that, and so take at will from other’s histories as they hold, not as lists or academics or even history, but as ‘my family life and ways.’

      Not sure, but having given this all much thought and seen rages unleashed at conferences against women who dont ‘write right’ according to certain well known feminists, rages unleashed against as this article states, some poor author who in all well meaningness wrote about something with care, but outside his/her ethnic backgrounding by blood and clan,

      and particularly one instance comes to mind when I was on applications committee for state ‘artist in residence’ grants. A woman of Euro heritage recited as her performance application, Harriet Tubman’s speech, aint I a woman. The two African American people on the committee voted her down, saying to her, trying to be helpful, but winding up I’m afraid not looking far enough ahead, that she couldnt be harriet tubman because she was not black, that she should pick something not from African American history to portray.

      I voted for her, saying that the children she would perform for would never have a chance to hear harriet tubman by an african american OR a euro-american. Why? There just arent enough actors in the schools to go around. So, why not.

      Well, why not turned into anger from the other two judges, hurt feelings. I understood. But I truly would like whatever conciliation needs to happen between peoples to happen in meaningful ways, what some call verbal reparation from/by those who are dedicated to making more peace amongst groups. So we could walk with one another more.

      But in the meantime, Id say the compensation from the publisher, the touting of the authors publicly for the ethnic-based work not from their own heritage, has more to do with it all than if the story were writ, illustrated and only read aloud to one’s family and school chums. Just my .02

      • Insightful comment. BTW, it was Sojourner Truth not Harriet Tubman, who gave the speech ain’t I a woman.

      • I know this is not the larger point, but I think you mean Sojourner Truth.

        I always liked that speech, and wondered how the audience reacted in real life when she gave it. I despise the idea that only some people should like it and only some people should be inspired by it, and that who the people are should depend on their sex or race. That’s just weapons grade stupid.

        Anyway, I agree you are likely correct about the source of some of the grievances for some people. I would not see it catered to, though, and I am glad you were willing to vote for the lady doing [Sojourner’s] speech. I think it’s just as important for kids to see that any one can be inspiring to any one and they don’t have to “look like” someone to admire them.

        • you are right Jamie, thank you so much for correcting me. Im sorry I cant go back in and correct it, as TPV doesnt have editable abilities after five mins, I wish it did. But hopefully people will read your correction and all will be well.

          You know, too, Jamie, that in the same artists in the school app.ication process, a nice looking black man read a piece from Shakespeare’s Othello {I am sure I got that character’s name right, lol] and the other two judges went wild over him, even tho his rendition was truly poor. Im not even sure people were aware of how odd the whole bent was. They talked about how black men never played the ‘big’ roles and wasnt this fellow really something, and well, it was a time, wasnt it., about 20 years ago.

      • The idea that ‘someone of some heritage group’ stole, raped, pillaged, enslaved, murdered’ so many of us, and now look, some of their descendants, related or not, but certain ‘other’…. just walk in and do the same about OUR history, OUR lives, Our stories, Our music, Our Language. Take it without asking us.

        How does one steal, rape, pillage, enslave, and murder your history, your lives, your stories, your music, and your language?

        Whose life is being murdered or enslaved by the written word in a novel?

        • “anonymous” I answered what the viewpoint is for many. Yours appears different. Understandable

      • Hi Usaf,
        Thanks for attempting to answer my question.
        I guess I’m just uncomfortable with this new idea of original sin, i’m sure my ancestors did some pretty awful things to other people, that all human groups throughout history have in enslaved or been enslaved by each other. To be held accountable for something I had no knowledge of, and no part in Seems somewhat unfair.
        I’m also uncomfortable with treating people as ambassadors for their culture, it’s suggests that people are not individuals but merely units in a cultural matrix, and how can you ask entire culture for permission anyway.

        • I think Anon, its prob ‘work in progress’ as some say. And as for ‘original sin,’ I think I know what you mean. And… still, I think honestly, a lot of it is about the perception of being paid to skim. As I mentioned, even if all the majority and minority groups had completed manuscripts about their own stories, histories, etc, by the millions. Very few might see a following… and monetary gain.

          Truly, I think maybe one way to beging would be to say your general thoughts to enrolled tribal people who have lived on rez for generations, say at Standing Rock[Lakota Sioux] or Window Rock [Diné] or up along east coast Oneida etc. and ask what they see, want. I note that conferences wherein people suddenly rise up to say whatever, are but a tiny tiny sampling of what people of like kind might think.

          I think it would be worth the going directly to the groups. Although I woulsd also say that ‘the traditionals’ who tend to be older in native groups, might hold different attitudes than the very young.

          AIM did a lot to push back non native people from doing various ‘indian’ things. There are also federal laws about who can and cannot, say collect certain raptor remains and also who can call the art they make, “native” or indian.

          It is a strange world we live in when so many from all groups are in
          identity holdings and others think they ought not for they do not themselves do so.

          I dont know the answer Anon, but i do know this… that given my own lines, there is SO much to write about without leaving that vast landscape, I cant live long enough… but there is that one Chinese person rumored to have come into the family from Angel Island, a true non latino, non native american, non african american. I may have to ‘cross over’ and write about him! lol

    • You might find someone with another viewpoint over at Cicada magazine (for teenagers).

      Just read their submission guidelines. They explicitly state that cultural appropriation is not welcome there.

  4. And if you’re ACTUALLY diverse, and writing about something you KNOW, you’re still going to have a hard time getting readers.

    It’s possible to write these things right or very wrong; the criticisms should be about the book, not the author. It was years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin that black people told their own stories to white people. They had, and still have, trouble getting listened to.

  5. The issue is that the modern Left has become a movement completely fueled by who and what it hates rather than who and what it advocates. Thus new ideas and people to hate must continually be found in order for the movement to sustain itself.

    • I’m not sure this is a Left or Right idea. The continuum from freedom to authoritarianism is a circle. The Stalinist Left meets the Fascist Right in a world where First Amendment freedoms are distant memories.

      • Thanks for your rational and accurate thinking Ryan Petty.

      • Fascism was a heretical variety of Socialism based upon the idea that nationality was a more fundamental social bond than economic class. The idea that Fascists belonged to the Right originated in Stalinist propaganda. Stalin did not want any competition from other varieties of Socialist.

        By the way, all of these things happened in countries other than the United States, which is the only place on earth with a First Amendment.

        • It’s really naive to say that Fascism isn’t a Right Wing ideal. When people call others “libtards” or “cuckservatives” or brag about how much they hate people who think differently from them, especially religious dissidents like atheists, agnostics, Muslims, and Jews, they are speaking the language of the hard right wing nationalists. Many of their talking points come directly from Fox News or Breitbart.

          Yes, there are some PC people who attack books or things based on cultural appropriation, but guess what books are still banned because they portray “witches” and “satan-worship”? Harry Potter.

          Take a look at a list of the most commonly banned books. Not books criticized by PC police. Books that are outright banned. Most of them, including Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and “Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” are banned by religious fundamentalists. So who’s really oppressing who here? Do you believe that people should have the right to criticize books they don’t like for whatever reason? Fine, then people should have the right to not like a book based on religious or cultural appropriation or whatever.

          But should people be able to ban books? No, I don’t think so, except for perhaps a few extreme circumstances. And who’s banning the books? Not just criticizing them, or disagreeing with them, but actually BANNING them? The right wing, especially religious fundamentalists.

          • I think that both the extreme right and the extreme left Tried to eliminate ideas that they find distasteful in different ways.
            While religious conservatives ban books out right, The left try to shame and silence anyone with a different opinion to the prevailing orthodoxy, making everyone think the same and in couraging a form of self censorship.

          • It’s really naive to say that Fascism isn’t a Right Wing ideal. When people call others “libtards” or “cuckservatives” or brag about how much they hate people who think differently from them, especially religious dissidents like atheists, agnostics, Muslims, and Jews, they are speaking the language of the hard right wing nationalists.

            The principal ideals of the Right, in the English-speaking countries, are limited government, personal liberty, and the equal application of the laws to all citizens. None of those are subscribed to by hard nationalists. The ‘alt-right’ are only right-wing in the continental European sense – that is, in the absence of any form of classical liberalism. They take their entire ideological toolkit from Marx, except that they draw the opposite conclusion from his – that if capitalism is a criminal syndicate grinding the faces of the proletariat, they prefer to be on the side of the criminals.

            The principal idea of Fascism is ‘all within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State’ – which is an idea stolen from Marxism and then warped. It is in no sense Rightist, except in countries (such as the former Prussia and imperial Germany) where absolute monarchy already verged on totalitarianism.

            Take a look at a list of the most commonly banned books. Not books criticized by PC police. Books that are outright banned. Most of them, including Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and “Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” are banned by religious fundamentalists.

            Banned where? Is it illegal to obtain or read these books? Are they not sold in the bookshops? The only religious fundamentalists I know of with the power to physically interdict the supply of any book are Islamic fundamentalists, in those countries where they hold power.

  6. “That controversy was reminiscent of an earlier one, when ignominy befell author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall, who are white, for their 2015 picture book “A Fine Dessert,” published by Schwartz + Wade. The story traces four centuries of social and domestic change by showing the evolving ways in which families have prepared a sweet dish called blackberry fool. The book’s crime, to its detractors, was what one called the story’s “degrading” depiction of an enslaved mother and daughter in 1810 enjoying themselves as they make and taste the dessert.”

    this wasn’t a cultural appropriation argument. the OP is conflating a valid issue with what I agree is a silly issue, which is incredibly annoying. A children’s book with depictions of happy slaves is deserving of criticism.

    • I think that the authors were trying to portray the fact that the mother and daughter enjoyed making the desert, not that they are happy being slaves.
      And I think children are more Mentally capable than most people give them credit for, they could probably understand that being happy in one situation Doesn’t necessarily mean that your life is a happy one.

      • the actual complaint about the artwork in that book was, in my opinion, valid. The ‘cultural appropriation’ debate is largely idiotic. These are two different conversations.

        • I dont know George, we worked in refugee camps for years, and also in prison ministry. People can be happy under all manner of hideous conditions. Especially often the children. Would they be happy about losing so much, about being slaves, about being falsely incarcerated or justly so?
          NEVER.

          Two different ideas about having happiness in certain moments versus never being happy about being entrapped and threatened daily.

          • The complaint about the children’s book has to do with normalizing the concept that slavery ‘wasn’t all that bad’. It isn’t a debate about whether slaves were ever, ever happy. A nuanced character development of a slave who knows both joy and sadness has a place in any work of fiction. An illustrated children’s book showing happy slaves is not that.

            • Ah, I see, they said it somehow wasnt all that bad? Well, you are right, that would be wrong. Was the book a slice of life, like one day in the [sorry, boring] story, Mrs. Dalloway? Or was it over a long time? Im sorry, Im not cfamiliar with the book. Later I will google for it. Have to go get vittles before the new snow storm rolls in; the sky is heavy heavy in white.

              • it is one picture on one page in a book, showing a mother and daughter making a desert and being happy while doing do.

                no further commentary or context is provided.

                The subject of the book is the history of the desert.

    • A children’s book with depictions of happy slaves is deserving of criticism.

      There were lots of slaves through the ages. Were none of them ever happy? How do we know?

      • Wow.

        • In Eugene Genovese’s _Roll Jordan Roll, the World the Slaves Made_ the describes happy times as well as horrible, and how slaves carved space out for themselves, especially in places with low supervision, like the Carolina Low Country. So yes, people found ways, times, and spaces to celebrate and enjoy. No, that does not mitigate the fact of slavery, or that slavery is wrong (at least in western-based societies post 1865).

          • No, that does not mitigate the fact of slavery, or that slavery is wrong (at least in western-based societies post 1865).

            This raises the question whether you think slavery is right in non-western societies, or whether it was right before 1865.

  7. PG, thanks for your pontification on this one.

    🙂

    Not involving children’s books but I remember in college, attending a public whipping of William Styron. His crime? Having the audacity, as a white man, to write THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER.

    How well known was the story of Nat Turner at the point when William Styron chose to write about him? Though we lack survey data, I believe most Americans had never heard of him. It was a worthy story and William Styron wrote from it a brilliant historical novel.

  8. This academic wrote an excellent critique of cultural appropriation:
    http://fredrikdeboer.com/2016/12/01/no-one-has-the-slightest-idea-what-is-and-isnt-cultural-appropriation/

  9. Next, they will prevent male writers to write about women, and female writers to write about men. Because: what do they know, right?

  10. “Similarly, Jay Silverheels’ heirs, not any Native American, could prevent the use of his image or commercial persona.” -PG

    Which reminds me of Stan Freberg’s ad for Gino’s Pizza Rolls and the reaction he got from a (clueless) woman at CBS’s Standards and Practices.

    The commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxeZo7gRkeA

    A short version of the story (from memory, so apologies):

    Freberg gets a call from said woman.

    CBS: We can’t run the ad. It’s offensive… Couldn’t you at least use a real Indian?

    SF: It’s Jay Silverheels.

    CBS: Oh. Well, I need a signed statement from him saying that he doesn’t feel he’s being exploited.

    Freberg calls Jay Silverheels.

    JS: Oh, hi, Stan. How did the commercial turn out?

    SF: Great but there’s a problem.

    Freberg recounts to Silverheels the call from CBS, finishing with:

    SF: She wants a signed statement from you saying that you don’t feel you’re being exploited.

    JS: Exploited? Tonto put my kids through college!

    • THAT is a great story Donna. Thanks

    • Oh wow. I didn’t know Pizza Rolls went back that far!

      But you remind me of Hattie McDaniel, who played the slave in Gone with the Wind, among many other maid roles. Some black people thought the role was demeaning, so she shouldn’t be honored or acknowledged.

      Apparently she had to defend herself a lot, because at one point she said, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”

      Which seems rather sensible a position for her to take.

      • Very good story also. Sometimes people just assume and forget to to ask the people affected.

      • The story I heard is that after “Gone With the Wind” Hattie McDaniel said she’d never play a slave or a maid again. So maybe she didn’t like it as much as she said?

        Also, propaganda and playing into terrible stereotypes might not hurt the individual in the movie, but it can hurt society at large. Imagine that a bunch of Neo-Nazis paid a Jewish man a million dollars to be in an anti-Jewish movie they made. Maybe that guy’s happy with his role. Maybe he’s laughing all the way to the bank at how a bunch of stupid skinheads gave so much money to a Jew. But if that video inspires some loon to show up at a Jewish community center and shoot a bunch of people there (which has happened, many, many times), can you really argue it didn’t hurt anyone?

        • I think Mammy was the smartest character in the book and in the movie. I imagine Hattie McDaniel realized this as well.

  11. I’m a storyteller. I’ve told stories across Canada, to crowds ranging from 5 to 5000. I’ve told ghost stories and Anansi tales and tales of the Raven. Every single time I tell one of those stories I breathe new life into the words.

    I don’t pretend that I am native. I don’t pretend that I was born in Africa.

    I just tell stories.

    Now you can’t read Huck Finn. You can’t read Doc Savage and you can’t read Fu-man-chu. Ben Kingsley plays The Mandarin for laughs. We are all tiptoeing around diverse cultures for fear of offending other people. Next thing you know they will be trying to enact a law that says that a fellow from Kentucky can’t learn to speak French because that is cultural misappropriation. When the hell will all this foolishness end? We are all one tribe. We all come from Earth. One language – and a billion dialects. One religion – and a half a thousand variations. World peace won’t ever happen until we all sit down and talk together and talking together begins with telling stories.

    • Except Steve, if you try to tell Raven stories at a gathering of Tlinkt or Kaukutl or other First Nations people to whom the Raven stories are sacred, you might be asked how you daily help in the struggles of the Native people, how you contribute to helping them, or if you just are an entertainer with no ties to the tribal roots of Raven, no knowledge in ceremony of calling on Raven. Not saying you cannot. Just saying much depends on who you are near and what they see as familial in another, versus exploiter.

      Ghost stories are different for they are often difuse, although if you tell a Marie story in NOLA, and her relatives are present, you better tell it right. They still carry French daggers. Anansi stories are dilute, most often far far from their very dark old African origins, now made into ‘fool’ stories of the tricksterish variety.

      • Well I mispelled everything important– Kwakiutl/ Tlingit. Sorry.

      • Ghost stories are different for they are often difuse, although if you tell a Marie story in NOLA, and her relatives are present, you better tell it right.

        How can we ignore the race and ethnicity of the ghost?

  12. On the potential protection of traditional knowledge:
    http://www.ip-watch.org/2016/12/01/popcorn-football-chocolate-us-idea-prompt-discussions-wipo-tk-committee/

    It’s worth remembering that every culture has traditional knowledge, and that some things may be ‘invented’ by two cultures independently.

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