How far we have—and haven’t—come

I heard from a number of sources (various media outlets, the church where my daughter sings and the school system she attends) in the last week or so that we as a nation have not made much progress since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  Racism is still endemic in media (the same media, by the way, decrying our lack of progress), institutions (ditto), and our day-to-day interactions with each other.  This is true.  But it is not fair to say we have not made any progress at all.  The question is, how much?  For today’s blog, I want to take a look at a case in point: the work of the illustrator Garth Williams.

Williams’ pictures are known to most Americans, even if they don’t know his name.  American-born, raised and educated in Britain, Williams came to prominence following a World War II which he spent patching up bomb victims in London.  When he returned to the States after the war, famed children’s editor Ursula Nordstrom gave him E.B. White’s Stuart Little to illustrate.  His lively, sensitive portrayals of animals earned him further commissions, both for E.B. White (perhaps most famously in the 1951 classic, Charlotte’s Web) and other authors, including Margaret Wise Brown (Little Fur Family, 1946) and Russell Hoban (Bedtime for Frances, 1960).

But he also received a commission that allowed him to expand beyond anthropomorphized animals.  In 1947, Nordstrom asked him to re-illustrate Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books (the original illustrator was Helen Sewell).  Williams took the assignment seriously enough to go across the country to see the places where Wilder and her family had lived.  It took him six years before the first of these books was published with his illustrations.  Williams’ illustrations are now the classic version of the “classic” stories by Wilder.

The reason I put quotation marks around Wilder’s classic status is that the books have been the center of a number of controversies over the years for their portrayal of non-white characters.  The oft-quoted Ma telling the family that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” is probably the most familiar of these controversies.  But Williams’ portraits of Native Americans are not terrifying, and are based on Williams’ research into the Native tribes of the region. Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie also portrays an African-American (Dr. Tan), described in the text as almost nightmare-like by Laura; her first view of him is when she is feverish, and she describes him as “it”.  Williams’ drawing of Dr. Tan is as far from a nightmare as possible, just a kindly, bespectacled prairie doctor.  Williams chooses to depict a later scene, when Laura is awake and aware of her surroundings.  The text still states that “She would have been afraid of him if she had not liked him so much” (191), but Williams’ drawing, as with the Native Americans, depicts no hint of fear or fearsomeness.

Williams' Friendly Dr. Tan

Williams’ Friendly Dr. Tan

Wilder’s most significant racist moment concerning African-Americans, however, is the portrayal of a minstrel show in Little Town in the Prairie, in a chapter called “The Madcap Days”.  Williams’ illustration for this chapter could have focused on many different moments, but he chose to draw the five white men in blackface and oversized clothes.  Given his earlier, sensitive portrait of Dr. Tan, this endorsement of acceptable racisms is unfortunate (to say the least).

Depiction of historical racism?  Or just racist?

Depiction of historical racism? Or just racist?

After completing the Little House series, Williams went back to illustrating mostly animals, so it might be reasonable to assume that “race” and racism did not signify in any of his other works.  However, in 1959, Williams became the subject of a controversy that involved his book, The Rabbits’ Wedding, published the year before.  Unsurprisingly, the controversy occurred in the state of Alabama, where the Montgomery Bus Boycott and lawsuits about voting rights had already gripped the state.  Senator E. O. Eddins complained that the book encouraged interracial marriage because the wedding of the title was between a black and a white rabbit.  Although the book was not, in the end, banned (thanks to the efforts of State Library director Emily Wheelock Reed) it was placed on special reserve in many libraries.  Williams himself denied that he had been deliberately provocative, arguing that it was an adult issue that children would not see.

Depiction of progressive racial agenda?  Or just rabbits?

Depiction of progressive racial agenda? Or just rabbits?

When looking at these three different books in their historic moment, Williams’ portrayals of “race” (whether human or rabbit) seems neither particularly progressive nor particularly regressive.  He denies writing about race in The Rabbits’ Wedding, and creates positive depictions of both Native Americans and African Americans in the Little House books.  He also illustrates negative racial stereotypes through the minstrel show; the minstrel show, however, was still a common form of entertainment in the 1940s and 1950s, in theatre and on television.  This is not to excuse Williams in any way; merely to say that the minstrel show drawing, in its time, would not cause any particular uproar from white mainstream America (whereas the black and white rabbit, in the context of racially-divided 1950s America, did).  In the 1950s—before Martin Luther King’s March on Washington—Williams’ drawings probably counted as generally sympathetic to members of other races.

All three of these books are still in print, so in some ways it is more to the point to ask what their continued publication says about race and racism now.  The Little House books may be considered classics by some, but at the same time, if Wilder submitted these stories to a publisher today, with their racist attitudes unremarked upon, they would not be published.  This is good, but is it enough?  Is it time for a new illustrator, one who chose not to depict blackface minstrelsy as madcap fun?  Or new stories altogether, about African-American pioneers and the hardships (fever ‘n ague AND racism) they faced in staking a claim in the expanding United States?  The Rabbits’ Wedding controversy may be a historical curiosity now, but there continue to be uproars about animal marriages (see Richardson and Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three, for example), suggesting that Williams’ willful ignorance of the racial interpretation of his book might have been naïve even in its time.

We no longer can argue that some racisms are acceptable (historical or otherwise), or that kids won’t understand them.  We’ve moved beyond the innocent forest where black and white rabbits can get married “and never be sad again”, but also beyond the isolation of the lonely prairie where an us-versus-them mentality prevails.  We’ve come some distance from America of the 1950s, but if we want to create a world where racism is unacceptable to our kids, we can’t read a book about Martin Luther King one day of the year and then return to the minstrel show on all the others.

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