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Yes, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ is racially insensitive — but we should still read it

27 June 2018

From The Washington Post:

Since 1954, the American Library Association has awarded a medal for lifetime achievement in children’s literature in the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The original impetus behind the honor was dismay. Librarians were “chagrined,” wrote historian Leonard Marcus, that none of Wilder’s eight critically acclaimed Little House books had been recognized by the ALA’s highest children’s accolade, the Newbery.

Now, however, librarians are chagrined again. In February, the ALA announced that it was reconsidering the name of the Wilder Award. Alluding to the depiction of American Indians and African Americans in Wilder’s work, the ALA declared that her legacy put the group in the uncomfortable position of serving children while being unable to model values of “inclusiveness, integrity and respect.” Wilder’s books, it went on, “reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced.”

True enough. But the ALA’s statement nonetheless evokes the anodyne view of literature it has sought to correct through its annual Top Ten Most Challenged Books list. Changing the name of the Wilder Award is not an act of censorship, but no book, including the Bible, has ever been “universally embraced.” Mark Twain — whose “Huckleberry Finn” often appears on the list — himself mocked the idea that children’s books should never cause outrage. “The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean,” he once sighed sarcastically.

. . . .

Whatever the ALA decides, as a Wilder biographer, I would argue that her work and its reception are more complicated than we may once have believed, shedding light on the myths that white Americans have woven about the past.

Over the past 20 years, Wilder’s most famous novel, “Little House on the Prairie” (1935), has inspired almost as much disapproval as devotion. The novel has racist elements, and its portrayal of Indians has consequences when read uncritically and approvingly in schools. In 1998, an 8-year-old girl on the Upper Sioux Reservation of southwestern Minnesota — only miles from the storied town of Walnut Grove, immortalized in the 1970s-era “Little House” TV show — came home in tears after listening to her third-grade teacher reading the novel and a character’s repetition of the infamous slur, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Indians appear alternately as thieves or screaming warmongers, and the overall portrait is not tempered by Laura’s childish fascination or her father’s remark about a peaceable Indian, whom he describes as “no common trash.”

. . . .

The Minnesota girl’s mother, Waziyatawin Angela Cavender Wilson, a member of the Wahpetunwan Dakota and a scholar of history and American Indian studies, complained to the school, only to discover that her daughter’s teacher was “a fervent Wilder fan.” Wilson devoted months to an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to have Wilder’s books dropped from the curriculum, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to threaten the school board with a lawsuit over censorship.

In recent years, Wilson’s disgust has been echoed by other academics and joined by demands for greater diversity in children’s publishing, extending to editors, booksellers and librarians. Decrying Wilder’s widespread popularity, the scholar Debbie Reese, a member of Nambé Pueblo in New Mexico and founder of the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, has pleaded for everyone to “read more history.”

. . . .

Complicating the issue, other writers and immigrants, including those of color, prize the Little House books for their cozy family values. In her 2014 novel, “Pioneer Girl,” Bich Minh Nguyen, who was born in Saigon and immigrated to the Midwest with her family in 1975, explores Little House fandom as a means of negotiating assimilation. As for Walnut Grove, some 70 Hmong families — natives of Laos — are now living in and around the town, drawn by one Hmong girl’s devotion to the television show. There is a mural there, painted on the side of a brick building, featuring a smiling Laura alongside a Hmong woman in traditional dress. Their integration into the community has been called “the little marvel on the prairie.”

Whether we love Wilder or hate her, we should know her. For decades, her legacy has been awash in sentimentality, but every American — including the children who read her books — should learn the harsh history behind her work. Vividly, unforgettably, it still tells truths about white settlement, homesteading and the violent appropriation of Indian land and culture.

. . . .

 Each generation revises the literary canon. While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no 8-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of “Little House on the Prairie.” But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell. If the books are to be read and taught today — and it’s hard to escape them given their popularity—then teachers, librarians and parents are going to have to proceed armed with facts and sensitivity.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

In disputes such as have involved Ms. Wilder, PG tends to be in favor of historical accuracy and also respect for the right of an author to choose her words and phrases, particularly when she is writing about her own life and experiences.

In times of violent conflict, it is common, even expected that each side will create some epithets to describe those on the other side of the conflict. In 20th century United States history, World War II brought Krauts (see, for example, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 4, 1944) and Japs (see, for example, The Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1942) into regular use. If you look at contemporary newspaper accounts of battles, you will see those terms used liberally. The Korean War (see, for example, the Wilmington Morning News, December 26, 1952) and The Vietnam War (see, for example, The Boston Globe, December 9, 1969) brought Gooks into prominent use.

Turn the sides around in these wars and you will find Americans referred to as Scheiss-AmiGaijin and Miguk Nom.

To address the particular anti-Native-American epithet in Wilder’s stories, it’s easy to find “The Only Good Communist Is A Dead Communist”, ‘The only good Kraut is a dead Kraut”, “The Only Good Russian is a Dead Russian”, “Tthe Only Good Chinaman is a Dead Chinaman” and “The Only Good American is a Dead American” (“The continued survival of life on this planet depends on the extermination of the american nation. This is the simple, unvarnished truth, as any informed person will understand. No tears should be shed for americans, who are not humans any more. They have long since lost the right to be called that. One should not waste tears over roundworms and pathogenic bacteria.”)

The sentiments of the people on one side of an armed battle toward those fighting on the other side tend to be extremely demeaning. The brutal calculus of armed conflicts is that the side that creates the most dead enemies as fast as possible tends to win.

The Little House on the Prairie tells the story of the move of the family to Independence, Kansas, in the southwest southeast corner of the current state of Kansas a bit west of the Missouri border and on the border of what would later become the Oklahoma Territory.

In 1854, what was formerly recognized as part of Indian Territory was, by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, organized into the Kansas–Nebraska territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively overturned the earlier Missouri Compromise between the the Northern and Southern states and nullified the earlier Dred Scott decision which declared that slaves and former slaves could not become United States citizens. These events were, of course, an important prelude to the American Civil War.

The states of Kansas and Nebraska were included in the large parcel of land acquired by the United States from France in 1803 and called the Louisiana Purchase. All the land east of the Mississippi River between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico had been transferred to the United States by Great Britain in 1783. A huge parcel of land west of the Mississippi, comprising the Louisiana Territory had been involved in disputes between the great powers of Europe, first claimed by France, then transferred to Spain then back to Napoleonic France.

Spain continued to own and control a huge portion of the land between the western edge of the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Ocean with this control and ownership dating back to the arrival of the first Spanish explorers at present-day San Diego in 1542.

President Thomas Jefferson engineered the Louisiana Purchase and determined that the acquisition of the land was permitted under the United States Constitution pursuant to the President’s power to negotiate treaties on behalf of the United States. After the acquisition, women, Native Americans, slaves, and freemen of color were not permitted to vote in any elections.

For better or worse, large European powers plus the United States were asserting ownership and control over North and South America. Spain and Portugal effectively divided all of Central and South America between them.

Back to Laura and her books. By the lights of standard legal understandings of the day in the United States and its territories, when Laura’s family moved to a farm near Independence, Kansas in about 1869 and settled, they were acting in a perfectly legal manner under the Homestead Act of 1862.

Homesteading in American territories and states continued through the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century with the last legislation, providing for Subsistence Homesteads as part of the New Deal in 1930. When PG was quite young, he remembers meeting a man who was living on land he homesteaded in the mountains of Colorado. The land titles in large swaths of the Midwest and Western United States derive from homesteads.

PG suggests that Laura Ingalls Wilders’ accounts of her experiences and the words and behavior of her parents that are recorded in her works of fiction were perfectly understandable and accepted as reasonable words and actions on the part of reasonable American citizens living under the conditions extant in the Western territories of the United States during the 1860’s.

PG suspects that locating anyone who held substantially different views of Native Americans within several days’ travel from Independence, Kansas, during that time would have been impossible. Indeed, traveling very far east from Douglas Montgomery County, Kansas (where Independence was and is located) would take a traveler into a state in which slavery had been legal until a handful of years earlier.

PG suggests that applying 21st century mores and habits to 19th century words and fears is silly.

If the 19th century has nothing worthwhile to teach us, by all means, don’t study it. However, if we believe people who lived a long time before we do learned any lessons or discovered any truths during their lives that may be beneficial to us, we should be prepared to accept them on their own terms and as inhabitants of their own times and conditions, living among people who believed and spoke much as they did.

Some have suggested that Laura’s way of speaking has simply become unacceptable in today’s world. While PG would not make some of the statements contained in Laura’s book today, Laura has already made those statements and is notably unable to revise or adapt the words she wrote a long time ago.

Laura has moved on. She can’t be punished or shamed by anything we do or say today.

On the other hand, generations of readers have consumed the words of her books and, on balance, have loved what Laura has written. Like a great many readers of a variety of older books, they have worked around anachronisms and odd habits of speech to make a connection with the author and the characters she has created.

A great many readers have managed to deal with Twain’s Nigger Jim and found his works rewarding. Jane Austen’s characters seem to have survived blatant misogyny in a great many forms.

Have readers become so delicate that they’ll shatter if they read about the only good Indian?

 

 

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33 Comments to “Yes, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ is racially insensitive — but we should still read it”

  1. From the Red Guards of the Chinese cultural revolution: “Criticize the old world and build a new world with Mao Zedong Thought as a weapon.”

  2. Why does no one seem to understand they’re not pulling Wilders’ books down from amazon and burning all the library copies?

    They renamed an award. This is not a precursor to a liberal neo-fascist dystopia of approved-think. They renamed a freaking award.

    • Felix J. Torres

      They would if they could and said so:

      “The disadvantage in changing the name is that the old name (the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award), which has painful associations for many, must continue to be referenced by ALSC in the interest of communication and transparency regarding the change,” the association said.

      Ideally they’d like to disappear her entirely from history.

    • Because of the following:
      I pulled a book from my child’s school library shelf to ask the age range for it, thinking to give it to my daughter to read. I’d read it as a child and found it fascinating. It was called Indian Captive and was based on the life of Mary Jemison, an actual child captive in the 1700s. The librarian took it from me, checked one blog (the end all be all in if books are acceptable) and removed it from the library! It’s an award winning book! But it portrays one or two of the Indians (who the girl didn’t like) negatively. Apparently, she wasn’t allowed to dislike some of her captors! She stayed with the tribe for life and was interviewed as an old woman. The book is based on the interviews for the most part.
      Once you label the books as unacceptable, this is what happens.

    • Why does no one seem to understand they’re not pulling Wilders’ books down from amazon and burning all the library copies?

      Everyone understands that. They are discussing the idea behind the action.

  3. First statues, now books.

  4. Excellent remarks, PG. I appreciate and agree woth you wisdom.

  5. Well said, PG. I grew up in an Arizona mining town – South Slavs, Mexican Hispanics, and English “races” mostly.

    “Micks are all drunkards and thieves.” Part Irish, on my father’s side.

    “Germans are all Nazis.” Mostly German on my mother’s side. (The South Slavs still remembered big chunks of their families killed in WW II. People with German names were just barely tolerated, but it was very chancy being a Croatian around there – actually, I cannot recall a single one in the area.)

    Never bothered me. Because my parents taught me that I am not my genes, and very much not where my ancestors came from. There would be far less trouble in the world if more parents did that. Only less, there are still all of the other more immediate and just as foolish differences on which to base a bias. (Plus quite reasonable ones – or at least I believe a bias against jihadists, actual Nazis, etc. are reasonable ones.)

  6. “Have readers become so delicate that they’ll shatter if they read about the only good Indian?”

    I think for a balanced hearing you would have to ask a lot of enrolled tribal people this question. Many think ‘the homestead act’ was a ‘made-up’ act to destroy, rout, murder native peoples, whilst stealing land, selling it to their cohorts. I think there is truth to that, as incident after incident of native people being tortured, hung, and otherwise murdered, and as slaughter after slaught, can be apprised from writings of settlers and us army, and ‘indian affairs’ records etc.

    I dont know “little house’ tried to read years ago, and it was not interesting nor accurate as history. Have no animus toward those who think it is great, whatever it is made of. I think taking this name or other names, off an award most of the world has never heard of, is fine. They have their own tribe. It is not mine to say. USA moves in same way as other nations/sciences/politics, etc in promoting and demoting various.

    To me, ‘freedom to read what one likes’ is where I’d put my energy, not in what who how thinks about whatever book, and only two versions of whatever [there are many many viewpoints that are valid if not objectively, then subjectively] , and PLENTY of people around lol, who care about much that I dont. So there it is.

    Also we were taught to hold to our ethnic traditions, and also to bridge to the greater culture. We were not taught to abandon our heritages and esp the persons who fought to stay alive in many desperate ways which we remember as our family heritage stories, during murdering wars that came upon them from nowhere.

    One of the things about America, I think, is that most of what we think might clash with others’ renditions, but are just thoughts and preferenes, not death threats.

  7. “Have readers become so delicate that they’ll shatter if they read about the only good Indian?”

    I think for a balanced hearing you would have to ask a lot of enrolled tribal people this question. Many think ‘the homestead act’ was a ‘made-up’ act to destroy, rout, murder native peoples, whilst stealing land, selling it to their cohorts. I think there is truth to that, as incident after incident of native people being tortured, hung, and otherwise murdered, and as slaughter after slaughter, can be apprised from writings of settlers and us army, and ‘indian affairs’ records etc.

    I dont know “little house’ tried to read years ago, and it was not interesting nor accurate as history. Have no animus toward those who think it is great, whatever it is made of. I think taking this name or other names, off an award most of the world has never heard of, is fine. They have their own tribe. It is not mine to say. USA moves in same way as other nations/sciences/politics, etc in promoting and demoting various.

    To me, ‘freedom to read what one likes’ is where I’d put my energy, not in what who how thinks about whatever book, and I’d not agree there are only two versions of whatever [there are many many viewpoints that are valid if not objectively, then subjectively] re history and other matters, and PLENTY of people around lol, who care about much that I dont. So there it is.

    Also we were taught to hold to our ethnic traditions, and also to bridge to the greater culture. We were not taught to abandon our heritages and esp the persons who fought to stay alive in many desperate ways which we remember as our family heritage stories, during murdering wars that came upon them from nowhere.

    One of the things about America, I think, is that most of what we think might clash with others’ renditions, but are just thoughts and preferenes, not death threats.

    Also being in my seventies, the slurs of kraut, krauthead [meaning cabbage head] were NO where near the vicious slurs used against chinese, germans, japanese, vietnamese. Nor the kill the cops. Nor the ugly american all of these as blanket verminizing of entire groups, nations…I dont find any value in repeating them here, but trust, the words used were far far darker and carried with them the idea of each person of the denigrated groups, being ‘life not worthy of life.’

  8. “Have readers become so delicate that they’ll shatter if they read about the only good Indian?”

    No, I hope not. But those lines should not have been read to that eight year old girl—when she’s fifteen, okay, perhaps, but not at that age.

    • We are all 8 year olds to the PC crowd.

      • Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak because a baby can’t chew it – I hear they say Twain said it first …

        This whole PC pile of crap is going to catch up with us soon …

  9. Ray Bradbury wrote about this. As did Orwell. While I’ve not read much Orwell, and certainly not the book I’m about to reference: “He who controls the past, controls the future”.

  10. How representative of US librarians is the ALA?

    • I only know one ALA member out of the dozens of coworkers I have. They tend to skew more liberal and older. Most young librarians I know feel it’s not worth the cost.

      I’m not a member because I think a lot of its political stands actually make my work more difficult. Basically, I work in a politically mixed area and I have no desire to alienate half my patrons over things like the overly hyped Banned Books week or clumsily done symbolic gestures like the Wilder Award renaming.

      They are also one of the reasons the ALA accredited Master’s degree is required for just about any library job that’s more than shelving books, however low the starting salary or temporary the position.

    • Felix J. Torres

      You decide:

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Library_Association

      These days they sound more political than educational…
      …but then, most “educational” outfits these days are mostly “re-educational”.

      Looking at their organizations I see little or nothing about promoting literacy or reading.

      ——–

      “Established in 1969, the Social Responsibilities Round Table currently oversees a number of task forces including the ‘Feminist Task Force’; the ‘Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force (HHPTF)’; the ‘International Responsibilities Task Force’; the ‘Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Task Force (MLKTF)’; ‘The Rainbow Project Task Force’; and the ‘Task Force on the Environment’. According to their website, the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) have worked to make the American Library Association (ALA) more democratic and progressive. Their primary focus is to promote social responsibility as a core value in librarianship and to ensure that libraries and librarians work to recognize and solve social problems in their community.[32]

      In 1970, the ALA founded the first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender professional organization, called the “Task Force on Gay Liberation”, now known as the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table or GLBT Round Table.[33][34] The first leader was Israel David Fishman.[35] Barbara Gittings became its coordinator in 1971. In the early 1970s, the Task Force on Gay Liberation campaigned to have books about the gay liberation movement at the Library of Congress reclassified from HQ 71–471 (“Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes”). In 1972, after receiving a letter requesting the reclassification, the Library of Congress agreed to make the shift, reclassifying those books into a newly created category, HQ 76.5 (“Homosexuality, Lesbianism—Gay Liberation Movement, Homophile Movement”). In 1971 the GLBTRT created the first award for GLBT books, the Stonewall Book Award, which celebrates books of exceptional merit that relate to LGBT issues. Patience and Sarah by Alma Routsong (pen name Isabel Miller) was the first winner. In 1992, American Libraries published a photo of the GLBTRT (then called the Gay and Lesbian Task Force) on the cover of its July/August issue, drawing both criticism and praise from the library world. Some commenters called the cover “in poor taste” and accused American Libraries of “glorifying homosexuality,” while others were supportive of the move. Christine Williams, who wrote an essay about the controversy surrounding the cover, concluded that in the mid-90s, the library world was “not an especially welcoming place to gays and lesbians.” In 2010, the GLBTRT announced a new committee, the Over the Rainbow Committee. This committee annually compiles a bibliography of books that show the GLBT community in a favorable light and reflects the interests of adults. The bibliographies provide guidance to libraries in the selection of positive GLBT materials.

      On July 23, 1976, the Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship was established as a Council Committee of the ALA on recommendation of the Ad Hoc Committee with the same name (which had been appointed by the President of the ALA in December 1975) and of the Committee on Organization. The Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship works to “officially represent the diversity of women’s interest within ALA and to ensure that the Association considers the rights of the majority (women) in the library field; to promote and initiate the collection, analysis, dissemination, and coordination of information on the status of women in librarianship; to coordinate the activities of ALA units which consider questions of special relevance for women; to identify lags, gaps, and possible discrimination in resources and programs relating to women; in cooperation with other ALA units, to help develop and evaluate tools, guidelines, and programs designed to enhance the opportunities and the image of women in the library profession, thus raising the level of consciousness concerning women; to establish contacts with committees on women within other professional groups and to officially represent ALA concerns at interdisciplinary meetings on women’s equality; and to provide Council and Membership with reports needed for establishment of policies and actions related to the status of women in librarianship; and to monitor ALA units to ensure consideration of the rights of women.” [36][37] In 1979 the Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship received the Bailey K. Howard – World Book Encyclopedia – ALA Goal Award to develop a profile of ALA personal members, known as the COSWL Study. In 1980 the Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship was awarded the J. Morris Jones – World Book Encyclopedia – ALA Goals Award with the OLPR Advisory Committee to undertake a special project on equal pay for work of equal value.[37] “

  11. This statement doesn’t condone or support any political candidate…

    If you want to know why Trump got elected, look no farther. This nonsense is reaching a boiling point. Don’t listen to George Washington because he owned slaves. Don’t read Mark Twain, don’t support the Constitution because it didn’t free the slaves…

    The next thing people tell you to do after they tell you not to read books, burn them.

    I seem to recall the last major political party that told its citizens not to read books, which names were acceptable, what clothing they were allowed to where as good citizens, what words they were allowed to speak.

    They were called Nazis.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Ouch.
      Godwin’s Law!

    • I seem to recall the last major political party that told its citizens not to read books, which names were acceptable, what clothing they were allowed to where as good citizens, what words they were allowed to speak.

      They were called Nazis.

      I thought the Communists were involved in things like that too (guess “Commies” wouldn’t be PC).

      Given how many people in the US are now identifying themselves as Socialist, I wonder if that’s part of the impetus behind this historical purge/PC movement.

    • *Checks history books*

      No, progressive liberals don’t seem to have been a feature of the Nazi party – which was instead dominated by angry white men holding onto outdated ideals.

      • Which differentiates the Nazis from progressive liberals…how?

      • You seem to be lacking some key historical information. Like what Nazi’s were and what the party was called, why they formed, and who led them.

        Calling them white, by the way, is stupid. Since Germany is a largely Caucasian nation and has been for a long, long time.

        Hitler overthrew the conservatives of his nation. He was very much a progressive liberal. He wanted national healthcare, no guns, and acceptance for all… except jews.

        Modern-day progressives want national healthcare, no guns, and acceptance for all, except for white men.

        I don’t see the difference.

  12. Elizabeth Shown Mills, one of the leading academic genealogists in the US, calls the inability to view historical events through the eyes of the people who then lived “presentism.” Many people in the West have a serious case of presentism. It derives, ironically enough, from a lack of empathy and the inability to place one’s self in the shoes of another, the “other” in this case being someone who lived during a different time period.

    As L.P. Hartley put it, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

    • Felix J. Torres

      So, incrementally erasing the inconvenient past would be “creeping presentism”.
      I like.

      Useful concept for time travellers. 🙂

      Great quote, too.

    • “It derives, ironically enough, from a lack of empathy and the inability to place one’s self in the shoes of another, the “other” in this case being someone who lived during a different time period.”

      But does it? I mean, these people have no difficulty in empathizing with their preferred minorities, and placing themselves in what they believe to be those people’s shoes.

      I think it is moral arrogance, based on the illusion that had they lived in the past, they would have been among the enlightened vanguard against slavery, racism, colonialism, etc.

  13. the argument for letting past evils be “Pastisms”, lol, is contravened by plenty folk of the same era who did not lash out, call for the deaths of, or attempt to harm others, in fact, often the opposite. A handful being published isnt the final say so historially, nor the deeper and more broad or regional or familial ideas about the times, about any time.

    the word lol ‘presentism’ does not reflect thoughtful consideration of past realities. It attempts to silence a useful discussion. Oh its nothing miore than ‘presentism.’ Move along, nothing to weigh, assess from the past.
    lol

  14. Couple of minor corrections: Independence is in SE Kansas, not SW Kansas, and Independence is in Montgomery County, not Douglas County.

    “In times of violent conflict, it is common, even expected that each side will create some epithets to describe those on the other side of the conflict.”

    Violent conflict certainly describes eastern Kansas before and during the Civil War. I reside in Lawrence, in Douglas County in NE Kansas, which is about 40 miles west of Kansas City, Mo. Lawrence was the center of the abolitionist movement, which sought to make Kansas a non slave-holding state. This eastern part of the state was called “Bleeding Kansas” prior to the Civil War.

    After the proslavery Douglas County sheriff and a large force sacked Lawrence in 1856, John Brown, who had moved here to join the free staters, led a militia to attack and kill 5 proslavery men, who had not been involved in the sacking, in Franklin County, the next county south of here (the “Pottawatomie Massacre”). One of Brown’s sons died and afterwards, two of his sons were captured by the proslavers. Brown and his militia attacked a band of proslavery men in a pitched battle in Douglas County now called the Battle of Black Jack and Brown won the release of his sons. This was in 1856 and was the first real battle between proslavery and antislavery (free state) forces anywhere in the U.S.

    Proslavery “Bushwhackers” from Missouri continued to attack free- staters in Kansas and free state “Jayhawkers” from Kansas raided western Missouri. After Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Kansas became a free state in January, 1861. Ft. Sumpter was attacked in April.

    This fighting in Kansas culminated in 1863 during the Civil War when Colonel William Quantrill and his confederate militia (including Jesse James) attacked Lawrence and killed over 150 unarmed men and boys, burning Lawrence to the ground. General Ewing, the Union commander in Kansas City, responded by forcing all citizens in four Missouri counties south of Kansas City to evacuate.

    My wife and I drove across Missouri from St. Louis home within the last week. We stopped in Arrow Rock, a small historical town on the Missouri River near Boone’s Lick, a salt-making operation run by Daniel Boone’s two sons in the early 1800s. There is a fabulous museum there that portrays well the history of Missouri. This includes the Missouri and Osage native Indian populations whose lands were taken by the encroaching white men, the fighting between the French and British and their Indian supporters, the Indian tribes being pushed west from further east, the Lewis and Clark expedition up the Missouri River in 1803, the treatment of African Americans both as slaves and after being freed, the dispute over slavery, the Civil War, and much more.

    I know there are those in western Missouri who remember their family history, including being forcefully displaced by the union soldiers and losing their homes and possessions as well as family and friends killed. Here in Lawrence, the proslavery forces, especially Quantrill and his militia, are consistently described as despicable murderers. The great athletic rivalry of Kansas University (“Jayhawks”), located in Lawrence, and Missouri University (“Tigers”), located in Columbia, which unfortunately mostly ended when MU left the Big 12, had carried on this enmity.

    John Brown, of course, was later hung after trying to instigate a slave revolt when he and his men, black and white, occupied the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia in 1859. The union soldiers that evicted him were led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was celebrated by song and is portrayed in the state capitol in Topeka, Kansas in a large mural with a Brown holding a bible in one outstretched hand and a rifle in the other.

    http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/.a/6a00d8341c3e3953ef0147e21967f3970b-popup

    A literary connection to Brown is found in the poet, Langston Hughes, raised in Lawrence. Hughes’ grandmother’s first husband, Lewis Leary, a free black man, was one of Brown’s men who died at Harper’s Ferry. His bullet-ridden shawl was given to his widow and she wore it throughout her life and wrapped the baby Langston in the shawl. In 1931 Langston wrote a poem about Brown, addressed to free black Americans:

    “Perhaps
    You will remember
    John Brown
    John Brown
    Who took his gun,
    Took twenty-one companions,
    White and black,
    Went to shoot your way to freedom
    Where two rivers meet
    And the hills of the
    North
    And the hills of the
    South
    Look slow at one another —
    And died
    For your sake.
    Now that you are
    Many years free,
    And the echo of the Civil War
    Has passed away,
    And Brown himself
    Has long been tried at law,
    Hanged by the neck,
    And buried in the ground –
    Since Harpers Ferry
    Is alive with ghosts today,
    Immortal raiders
    Come again to town –
    Perhaps,

    You will recall
    John Brown.”

    • Thanks for the corrections in my Kansas geography, John. I lived in Southwest Missouri for a while and was over-confident in my knowledge of what happened where over the state line.

  15. “PG suggests that applying 21st century mores and habits to 19th century words and fears is silly.”

    Indeed, but that’s not happening, but the reverse – that it’s silly to apply a 19th century mindset to 21st century ideals.

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