Friday, July 03, 2015

Claiming, Misrepresenting, and Ignorance of Cherokee Identity

Some books that we give to young children carry enormous weight. The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage is one example. It is about the Supreme Court's decision in 1967, in which they ruled that people could marry whomever they loved, regardless of race.

Richard Loving was white. The woman he loved.... is misrepresented in The Case for Loving. The author, Selina Alko, echoed misrepresentations of who Jeter was when she wrote that Jeter was "part Cherokee."

Jeter didn't say that she was part Cherokee.

Indeed, her marriage license says "Indian" and when she elaborated elsewhere, she said Rappahannock. I wrote about this at length back in March of 2015.

Yesterday morning (July 2, 2015), I read Betsy Bird's review of Alko's book. This part brought me up short:
A side issue has arisen concerning Mildred’s identification as Native American and whether or not the original case made more of her African-American roots because it would build a stronger case in court. This is a far bigger issue than a picture book could hope to encompass, though I would be interested in a middle grade or young adult nonfiction book on the topic that went into the subject in a little more depth.
Actually, saying that it "brought me up short" doesn't adequately describe what I felt.

First, I knew that Betsy was referencing my post. I took her use of "side issue" as being dismissive of me, and by extension, Arica Coleman (who I cite extensively), and by further extension, Native people who speak up about how we are represented--and misrepresented--in society, and in children's books.  On one hand, I felt angry at Betsy. As a teacher, though, I understand that we're all on a continuum of knowing about subjects that are outside our particular realm of expertise.

Representation, and misrepresentation, of Native identity is important.

Because so many make that (fraudulent) claim, it strikes me as a significant wrong to see, in The Case of Loving, words that say Jeter was Cherokee when she did not say she was. It unwittingly casts her over in that land in which people claim an identity that is not really theirs to claim.

Here's another reason that Betsy's review (posted on July 2, 2015) bothered me. I read it within a specific moment in my work as a Native woman and scholar who is part of a Native community of scholars.

On June 30, 2015 (two days before Betsy's review was posted), The Daily Beast ran a story about Andrea Smith, a key figure to many academics and activist who are committed to social justice, especially for women, and in particular, women of color. The focus of the article is Andrea Smith's identity. For years, she claimed to be Cherokee. She said she was Cherokee. But, she wasn't. She is amongst the millions of people who think that they have Cherokee ancestry. Some do, some don't.

I met Andy several years ago (most people know her as Andy). At the time, she said she was Cherokee. I had no reason not to believe her. I don't remember when I first heard that she might not be Cherokee, but I did learn (not sure when) that she had been asked by the Cherokee Nation to stop claiming that she is Cherokee. I don't know what she personally did after that, and she has not said anything (to my knowledge) since the story appeared in The Daily Beast.

Things being said about Andy, about being Cherokee, and about claims to being Cherokee, reminded me of David Arnold's Mosquitoland. There's so much ignorance about being Cherokee! That ignorance was front and center in Arnold's book. I'm deeply appreciative that he responded to my questions about it, and that he is talking with others about it, too. Those conversations are so important!

I view Andy's failure to address her claim to Cherokee identity as a dismissal of the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation. It is a dismissal of their nationhood and their right to determine who their citizens are. Andy knows what the stakes are for Native Nations, and for our sovereignty. She knows what she is doing.

Jeter was adamant about who she was. My guess is that she knew what the stakes were, for her personally, and for the Rappahannock who, as of this writing, are not yet federally recognized as a Native Nation.

Betsy doesn't have the knowledge that Andy has. Few people do. Betsy is listening, though, as evidenced by her response to me this morning (see her comment on July 3). I am grateful to her for that response. She has far more readers than I do, and our conversation there will increase what people know, overall.

In that response, Betsy notes that Alko probably didn't have the sources necessary to get it right. Let's say ok to that suggestion, but, let's also expect that the next printing of the book will get that part right, and let's hope that editors in other publishing houses are talking to each other about this particular book and that they won't be releasing books with that error.

That error may not matter to a non-Native child or her parents, but it matters to a Cherokee child and her parents. It matters to a Rappahannock child and her parents. It should matter to all of us, and it will (I say with optimism and perhaps naively, too), because we're having these conversations.

By having them, I hope (again, optimistically and perhaps, naively), that we'll move to a point in time when the majority of the American population will understands what it means to claim a Cherokee (or Native) identity, and a population that ceases to misrepresent Cherokee culture and history. In short, we'll have a population that is no longer ignorant about Cherokee people specifically, and Native people, broadly speaking. Children's books are part of getting us there. They carry a lot of weight.

For now, I'll hit upload on this post, post the link in a comment to Betsy's review, and respond (there) to other things Betsy said. I hope you'll follow along there.

__________

Further readings about Andrea Smith's claim to Cherokee identity:




Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Dear Tim Federle: Some thoughts on Native content in BETTER NATE THAN EVER

Dear Tim Federle,

I read your piece, Book for Kids Raises Eyebrows Over Young Gay Character, at Huff Post. There, you said that Better Nate Than Ever features:
...a subplot about a teenager who's starting to notice other boys and beginning to wonder why.
That subplot made some parents uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that they decided to do what they could to prevent you from visiting the schools their kids go to. You quoted one such parent, who wrote a review that said
...homosexuality is presented as normal and natural in this book.
I love what you said right after quoting that parent. You said
You bet it is.
I am with you on that. It is normal. It is natural. And I'm glad it is in your book. I want more books like that, too.

But. There's something else in your book that is presented as normal and natural. It happens on page 213. Freckles is sitting on a futon with his laptop. Nate joins him there:
I sit on the futon Indian style and can feel the weight of the day on my head, my eyes drift.
Indian style? Dang! That is a stereotype of how Native people sit. It is so pervasive that it has become "normal" and "natural" to write it, say it, and not notice it as a stereotype. Given the popularity of your book, might you talk to your editor and change that sentence so it reads:
I sit on the futon and can feel the weight of the day...
Or maybe
I sit next to Freckles on the futon and can feel the weight of the day...
Nothing is lost by taking out "Indian style." The gain? A Native kid doesn't have to see his culture stereotyped yet again, and non-Native kids (who doesn't have this in their vocabulary at present--seems it has really fallen out of use) don't get introduced to that stereotypical idea.

Now let's flip over to page 264-265. It is Halloween:
Kids are starting to appear in costumes, on the street, looking just like the kids back home. The getups aren't any better, and that really blows my mind; I'd think in New York the ghosts would be ghostier and the witches witchier. But I guess a kid's Halloween costume is the same everywhere. A bunch of little boys, smaller than me, come toward us, dressed as a pack of cowboys.
"Look out for Indians," Aunt Heidi says, and Freckles sort of fake-hits her and says, "Native Americans," and we sort of laugh.
For a second, I think that we're passing a pretty convincing caveman... 
That paragraph continues, but there's no more talk about cowboys or Indians.

I trust that you and your editor, David Gale, thought that passage would show an awareness of issues over the use of the word "Indian" to reference Native peoples. True enough, the word "Indian" is problematic, but using "Native American" instead doesn't "fix" the problem with the word, especially in this particular context.

Let's back up and see why that doesn't work. Freckles tells Aunt Heidi to use Native Americans instead of Indians. This is how that would read, if she did as he suggested when she saw little boys coming toward her dressed as cowboys:
"Look out for Native Americans," Aunt Heidi says.  
I don't think "Native American" is better than "Indian." Why she's said "Look out for Indians" is important. In the U.S., people hear the word "cowboy" and "Indian" comes to mind, because of all those cowboy and Indian stories and movies. In them, the Native men weren't seen as dads, or husbands, or sons in those scenarios. They were portrayed as blood-thirsty, savage, and primitive. Saying "Look out for Native Americans" instead of "Look out for Indians" leaves that portrayal intact. That's why the suggestion falls flat.

As with my question above about "sitting Indian style," let's imagine a re-write. Let's say you want to keep this in the story, so that your readers gain something about Native peoples as they read it. How about if Nate (instead of Aunt Heid) says "Look out for Indians" and then, Aunt Heid or Freckles says something like "Yay! Nobody in stereotypical Indian costumes!" Nate could say "Huh?" and Aunt Heid could say something like "I got a lot to say about that. Learned a lot when I went to see Bloody Bloody Jackson. I got there and there was a protest going on! Native people were there, objecting to that play." In case you missed that protest, Mr. Federle, here's one article about it: Native Americans protest 'Bloody Bloody Jackson.'

I'll close with this: I appreciate what you tried to do with the Native content. I understand that writers are afraid to write diversity into their books, because they're afraid they'll get it wrong and someone will say something about it. You took the risk, and, you goofed. But! These problems in your book can be fixed. I hope you attend to them, and, that you include an Author's Note, too, that tells readers why they're being revisited.

Sincerely,
Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature


Saturday, June 27, 2015

Want a tri-fold of our We're the People: Summer Reading 2015 for your library?

Turning your calendar to July? Looking for books to recommend to kids and teens? Ones that portray all of us who are The People of the U.S.?

Given yesterday's Supreme Court decision, maybe you're looking for a book in which the author presents two dads, not as the main theme, but as a natural part of life? Take a look at When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez. It is on our list! 



Download a tri-fold pdf of the Summer Reading 2015 list that I worked on with Edith Campbell, Sarah Park Dahlen, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Sujei Lugo, Nathalie Mvondo, and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. Some background about the list is in my post on May 25, 2015. See Lyn Miller-Lachmann's annotated list, too! Credit for the trifold goes to Sujei Lugo. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

First thoughts on Robbie Robertson's HIAWATHA AND THE PEACEMAKER

When I get a book written by a Native person, my heart soars with delight.

In the mail yesterday, I got a copy of Robbie Robertson's Hiawatha and the Peacemaker.



For now, I'm focusing on the words. To start, I flipped to the back pages and read the two-page Author's Note, in which Robertson tells us that he was nine years old when he was told the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. Here's the last paragraph in Robertson's note. When I read it, my delight grew:
Some years later in school, we were studying Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem about Hiawatha. I think I was the only one in the class who knew that Longfellow got Hiawatha mixed up with another Indian. I knew his poem was not about the real Hiawatha, whom I had learned about years ago, that day in the longhouse. I didn't say anything. I kept the truth to myself.. till now.
Robertson has done us all a huge service. Teachers and librarians everywhere can ditch all those books with "gitchee gumee" in them. With Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, young people can--as Robertson said--learn about the real Hiawatha. And, given that Robertson includes the fact that Peacemaker had a speech impediment, I think people within the special needs community will find Robertson's book an invaluable addition to their shelves.

I would love to be at the American Library Association's annual conference next week. At the closing session on Tuesday, June 30th, Robertson and Shannon will have a conversation with Sari Feldman, the incoming president of the association:



Before I sign off on this post (I'll be back with a more in-depth look at the book later), do make sure you get a copy of Sebastian Robertson's biography of his dad: Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story! It is terrific.






A Native Response to Sophie Gilbert's Article "In Defense of Pocahontas"

Yesterday (June 23, 2015), I read Sophie Gilbert's article in The Atlantic, "In Defense of Pocahontas: Disney's Most Radical Heroine."

My first reaction to Gilbert's article was anger. I was incensed at her because she said this:
The main problem with Pocahontas--as expressed by several Native American groups, including the Powhatan Nation, which traces its origins back to Pocahontas herself--is that over time, she's come to embody the trope of the "Good Indian," or one who offers her own life to help save a white settler.
In short, Gilbert dismissed Native views. In her article, she quotes from the Powhatan Nation's statement on the film. I trust that she read the second paragraph, which says:
Our efforts to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred.
She's done the same thing Disney did. The thrust of her article is "in defense" of the film. To her, it doesn't matter what the Powhatan Nation said. She doesn't say who the other "Native American groups" she referenced are, or what they said about the film. But again, whatever they said doesn't matter, because she sees fit to write "in defense" of Disney.

I tweeted at her about that dismissal. She replied. Here's a screen capture of that exchange:



And then she followed up with "I was talking about the narrative of the movie, just to clarify." I don't understand her clarification, because the narrative in the movie is what the Powhatan Nation was talking about, too. At the end of their statement is this:
It is unfortunate that this sad story, which Euro-Americans should find embarrassing, Disney makes "entertainment" and perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation. 
Gilbert is doing the same thing Disney did. She is promoting this dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation and all the people who are led astray by the narrative of that film.

By focusing on "female agency" and an "environmentalist message," Gilbert is throwing millions of people under the bus. She's not alone in doing that, though. It happens a lot in literature, with people defending books like Touching Spirit Bear. It has inaccuracies, too, but people think its message about bullying is more important that those inaccuracies. Or, Brother Eagle Sister Sky, which has problems, too, but people think its environmentalist message is more important than its inaccuracies.

Something else is always more important than getting the facts right when Native people are being misrepresented. That's where Gilbert stands. She's getting called out by people for the article. Take a look at her Twitter account: Sophie Gilbert.

One thing she was criticized for was her use of 'tundra' to describe the setting for The Lion King. In response, she changed it to 'savanna' and said "sorry for the embarrassing lack of geographical knowledge."

Based on her response to others who criticized her defense of the movie, I doubt that we're going to see a tweet from her that says "sorry for the embarrassing lack of respect for Native voices."

Gilbert objected to one person's tweet that suggested she was speaking from within a white privilege space. She called that a personal attack. What, I wonder, shall we call her dismissal of Native voices?

_______________

For further reading:
Pocahontas' First Marriage: The Powhatan Side of the Story, by Phoebe Farris
The Pocahontas Paradox: A Cautionary Tale for Educators, by Cornel Pewewardy.
Who Was Pocahontas: Frightened Child or Exotic Sexual Fantasy?, by Steve Russell.

Update, 5:14, 6/24/2015: The complete name of the Powhatan Nation is "Powhatan Renape Nation." It is recognized by the state of New Jersey.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Martina Boone's COMPULSION

This is my second post about Martina Boone's book. My first one is about Boone's use of Gone With the Wind in her YA novel. In April of 2015, I learned about Martina Boone's Compulsion: Heirs of Watson Island. Published by Simon Pulse (which is part of Simon and Schuster) in 2014, the protagonist is a teenage girl named Barrie who moves to a plantation in South Carolina to live with her aunt Pru. The story is set in the present day, but the past is very much a part of Compulsion. 

The island where the plantation is located is haunted and the house is falling apart. Having read it, I do not recommend Compulsion. 

Notes as I read:

On page 61, Barrie is at the river. She sees a ball of fire hovering over the water. It gets dimmer and the river itself seems to be burning. The flames travel to a "shadowed figure of a man." Cupped in his hands is an ember (that is all that remains of that fire ball):
A cloak of black feathers covered his back and shoulders, and a matching feathered headdress melded into his long, dark hair.
He turned suddenly and looked at Barrie--straight into her--with eyes that were only lighter spots in a face painted with a war mask of black and red.
She blinks and he's gone, but "her heart was a drumbeat in her throat, war drums pounding, pounding a retreat" (p. 62).

Page 145: Barrie is with her cousin, Cassie, who tells her the history of the island. When the Carolina colony was being settled, the governor was gambling with Thomas Watson, a pirate. There are two other pirates gambling that night: John Colesworth and Robert Beaufort. Descendants of all three figure in Compulsion. Watson accused the governor of cheating. Later when it came time to give out land grants, the governor took revenge on Watson by giving him land on a haunted island. Barrie asks, "Haunted?" and Cassie replies:
"Yes, haunted. Thomas Watson's island was inhabited by the Fire Carrier, the ghost of a Cherokee witch who had cleared his tribal lands of malicious spirits, yunwi, and pushed them down the Santisto until they'd come to the last bit of land surrounded by water on every side. The Fire Carrier bound the yunwi there, and kept them from escaping, with fire and magic and running water."
Early on, Watson had tried many times to build a mansion on that land but overnight, whatever he'd built during the day disappeared. Another pirate, Colesworth, offered (p. 145):
"to get one of his slaves to trap the Fire Carrier and force it to make the yunwi behave."
The slave was a voodoo priest, Cassie tells Barrie (145-146):
"He trapped the Fire Carrier at midnight when the spirit came to the river to perform his magic, and he held the Fire Carrier until the witch agreed to control the yunwi and make them leave Thomas Watson alone."
Then, they made the yunwi give Watson back everything they'd taken from him. And then they trapped the Fire Carrier again and demanded that he help Beaufort win a woman's heart. That woman was already in love with Colesworth, but thanks to the Fire Carrier, Beaufort seemed to know whatever the woman wanted. Eventually, he won her over and they were to be married, but Colesworth had the voodoo priest capture the Fire Carrier one more time, hoping to get the woman back. But the Fire Carrier was tired of being used. He overwhelmed the voodoo priest and put a curse and gifts on the three men. Future Colesworth generations would be poorer and unhappier than the Watsons. That's the curse. The gifts? The Watson's would always find what they'd lost, and the Beauforts would always know how to give others what they wanted.

Barrie is a Watson. Cassie is a Colesworth. Because of the curse, she's poor and wants Barrie to use her gift of finding things to help her find the Colesworth valuables, buried by an ancestor before the Yankees burned Colesworth Place down. Barrie isn't sure she wants to help her.

That night, Barrie heads out at midnight and sees the Fire Carrier again. She sees him better this time (p. 159):
The glistening war paint on his naked chest, the feathers in his clock and headdress stirring in the breeze...
He wears that red and black mask again. He stares at her again and then walks away. This time, she sees shadows, too, and realizes they are the yunwi. And, she smells sage burning. She thinks he wants something from her.

Later when she is talking with Pru, Barrie learns that her aunt feeds the yunwi at night and that they take care of the garden. When they're outside, Barrie feels a tug from the woods. Pru tells her not to go there.

On page 273 she goes outside again at midnight. This time she's in socks. As she runs about, she gets cuts from gravel and shells on the path. She slips and cuts her palm, too. She washes the blood of her her palms in a water fountain. It seems her blood runs in ribbons through the water, and that she can see human figures in the shadows. She sees the Fire Carrier again. He points to something behind her. She looks at the top of the fountain and sees a spirit. It is a woman whose torso and legs are a column of water. Barrie asks her what she wants, and she says "You have given blood." and then "We accept the binding." As she walks back to the house she realizes the yunwi are swarming around her bloody footprints. She pulls off her socks and throws them to the yunwi, telling them to "eat up." It occurs to her that she can use those bloody socks to barter. She grabs them back up and tells the yunwi that they'll have to give back things they took from her. Turning back to the house she finds her missing things and missing screws, too, that they'd taken when making mischief in the house. She throws the socks back down to the yunwi and tells them not to break anything else, or take anything else, either, from her or anyone else. Through her blood, Barrie has power over the yunwi. 

From there, the yunwi are around her a lot but don't figure much in the story. They more or less accompany her around.

Fast forward to page 375 when Barrie's gift draws her out to the woods. With Eight, the two walk towards a particular tree that is pulling at her:
"I've heard of this tree." Eight followed her toward it. "The natives around here used to call it the Scalping Tree and hang the scalps of their enemies on it."
The tatters of Spanish moss did look eerily like scalps. Barrie shivered despite the still-warm air. "Why?"
"I don't know. I don't even know which tribe it could have been. None of them, probably. The Fire Carrier was Cherokee, but since he brought the yunwi here from somewhere else, he clearly wasn't local."
Barrie finds the spot that is pulling at her, digs, and they find a metal box that has keys that gives them access to a room, and a staircase to a tunnel. There's a pull from there, too. Barrie and Eight (and the yunwi) go down the stairs, unlock another door and find that lost treasure Cassie wanted her to find. That's not the source of the pull, though, so they go a bit further. The yunwi find the source first: two skeletons. Barrie and Eight hear something behind them and see that Cassie has followed them. She grabs the bag of treasure and takes off, locking them in that tunnel. Barrie asks the yunwi to get them out but they don't go near the door. Why? Because the door is made of iron, and iron hurts them.

Barrie and Eight decide to head on through the tunnel. The yunwi go with them. Eight says it may have been an escape route "during the Yamassee uprising" or "other Indian raids before that." When they come to a fork, they choose one and follow it. Barrie realizes the yunwi have stopped at the fork. They watch, forlornly. "[S]he was leaving them locked up here alone in the dark" (p. 398). She tells them she'll come back and let them out. That tunnel is to an iron door they can't get through. They try the other one and eventually find one that doesn't have the magical protection (things don't rot) that the others do. She gets out but runs into Ernesto (he's got tattoos all over, speaks Spanish) and Wyatt (Cassie's dad) who, it turns out are drug runners.

While tussling with them, the hour turns to midnight. She smells sage, and the Fire Carrier sees her struggling. He sends fire that causes Ernesto and Wyatt's boat of drugs to explode. She gets away, climbs out of the water and sees the Fire Carrier, up close (p. 422):
In the rushes before her, the Fire Carrier stood close enough that the war paint on his face and chest shone slick with grease. Veins stood out on his arms, and every lean muscle of his chest and stomach seemed defined and ready to spring into action. But apart from the feathers on his clock and headdress stirring in the night air, he was motionless. He watched her.
She sees that he's about her age. His eyes are sad. She wonders why he's been doing this midnight ritual of lighting the river on fire year after year. She understands he wants something from her. He heads off to the bank and she realizes she can almost see through him. Hearing splashing she's afraid it is Ernesto or Wyatt, but it is Eight. In the next (final) chapter, Wyatt is dead. Cassie and Ernesto are missing. The bodies from the tunnel are brought out (they're Luke and Twila. Luke was Barrie's great uncle and Twila was Eight's great aunt. They're part of a rather layered mystery element of the Compulsion.)

Barrie thinks about how the Fire Carrier saved her life. No mention of the yunwi. 

The end. Of this book, that is. Compulsion is the first of a trilogy.

My thoughts on the Native content of Compulsion

When we first meet the "Fire Carrier" of this story, Boone gives us things commonly (and stereotypically) associated with Indians: feathers, painted face, drums. This land was haunted before Barrie's ancestor was given this land. I may have missed it, but I don't recall reading why that land was haunted.

We know the Fire Carrier is there now, and that he's ghost-like (remember Barrie can see through him), so he's definitely haunting that land now. He, we read, is a Cherokee witch. If you look up the yunwi, you'll likely find references to Cherokee Little People. If you go to the Cherokee Nation's website, you'll find information about them. Some of what Boone tells us about the yunwi aligns with information at the website, but Boone's yunwi are cannibals. Remember? They swarmed over her bloody footprints. That doesn't fit with what I read on the Cherokee Nation site, but it does fit with some false but common ideas of Native peoples as being cannibals. It is odd, too, that Boone's yunwi can't go near iron. I don't see that on the Cherokee site, either. From what I understand, the Little People are independent, acting on their own, significant to Cherokee ways of being in, and understanding, the world. But Boone's yunwi can be controlled by... a white girl. Echoes of Indian in the Cupboard, right?!

Then there's that scalping tree... Setting aside the outlandish idea of a "scalping tree" let's look at what Eight said about that tree. He assumes it can't be associated with the Cherokees because they weren't "local" to that area. Maybe... but maybe not. The South Carolina website tells us Cherokees were in South Carolina at the time it was established as one of the 13 colonies.

In all honesty, I find the Native content of Compulsion to be inaccurate and confusing. And troubling, too.

As I read, I came across some other troubling content. Cassie is in a play. The play? Gone With the Wind. I came upon that part the day after the murders in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. It stopped me cold. I wrote up my thoughts, then, right away. Nothing I read as I continued alleviated those concerns.

I'm also unsettled by Ernesto.

It seems to me that Boone has, unintentionally, wronged three distinct groups of people and readers in the US: American Indians, African Americans, and Latinos. What will she do in the next two books of this trilogy? In an interview, she indicates her character will grow through the series, but I've given that idea some thought and find it wanting.

I'm closing this post with a quote from Anonymous, who submitted this comment to my previous post about Compulsion:
I find the idea of a reader -- particularly a child -- having to wait to see herself humanized an inherently problematic one. Yes, it might accurately reflect the inner journey many white people take, but isn't the point that our dehumanizing views were always wrong? And therefore, why go back and re-live them? Such ruminations could definitely be appropriate in an all-white anti-racist group, in which the point is for white people to educate each other, but any child can pick up a book, and be hurt--or validated--by what's inside. Asking marginalized readers to "wait" to be validated is an example of white dominance as perpetuated by well-intentioned white folks.
Need I say that I do not recommend Compulsion?

Friday, June 19, 2015

GONE WITH THE WIND in Martina Boone's COMPULSION

Eds. note: Updated on June 28 2015 with a list of other children's and young adult books that include a reference to Gone With the Wind. 

Back in April of 2015, I learned about Martina Boone's Compulsion: Heirs of Watson Island. Published in 2014 by Simon Pulse (which is part of Simon and Schuster), the protagonist is a teenage girl named Barrie who moves to a plantation in South Carolina to live with her aunt Pru. The setting is present day.

The island where the plantation is located is haunted, and the house is falling apart. Later, we'll read about malicious Cherokee spirits called "yunwi" who are doing things (loosening screws and the like) to the house at night so that the next day, things come apart when touched. Outside in the garden, however, they are helpful. If Pru leaves food out for them, they will tend the garden.

This is my first post about the book. I've not finished reading it yet. My decision to post right now, before I finish it, is deliberate.

The book is set in Charleston. I started reading it Wednesday afternoon. That night, nine African Americans were murdered in Charleston. When I woke up on Thursday, my social media feeds were about the murder of nine people who were killed in a historically black church of deep significance, by a white person who said [Y]ou've raped our women... 

I read the news stories and then, returned to Compulsion. I came to a part that brought me up cold. On page 150, Cassie (one of the main characters), tells Barrie:
...my theater group and I do Gone With the Wind at night, in front of the ruins.
I read that line and paused. I imagine a lot of readers will pause, too, but that a lot more won't. Most will just keep on reading. Far too many people don't see the novel or movie as racist. (The "ruins" are what is left of Cassie's family plantation.)

After I ruminated on that for a while, I read on. I wondered if Boone (the author) would, in some way (through a character or through the narration), critique Cassie or her group for doing that play.

I didn't find anything more about it until I got to page 237. Barrie and Eight (her love interest) are at the play. The play opens with Cassie and two boys coming onto the stage. They're wearing "aristocratic costumes" and are followed by
...a girl dressed as a slave, who balanced glasses and a pitcher of lemonade on a tray.
Barrie and Eight are engrossed by the production (p. 238):
Neither of them moved again until the audience gasped when Rhett Butler came on stage, played by a light-skinned African-American boy.
"Oh, that's brilliant," Barrie whispered. Everyone around her whispered too, but then the magic of the play took hold again.
When the play is over, Eight wonders "if that was nerve or genius." Barrie replies that it is both. End of discussion. I assume they're talking about casting an African American as Rhett. And, I assume that the girl playing "the slave girl" is white.

I have a lot of questions at this point.

Why were they doing that play in the first place? Since the author includes it without comment, is she among the millions who don't see it as problematic? Or, who have nostalgic attachments to it, such that they can't set it aside?

Why "a light-skinned" boy? Why not just say "African American boy"? Was it necessary that he be light skinned? What does it mean to have an African American boy in this racist play? It reminds me of Ann Rinaldi's My Heart Is On the Ground, in which a Native girl happily plays a Pilgrim in a Thanksgiving play.

I assume that we (readers) are supposed to think that Cassie is enlightened for casting a light skinned African American as Rhett. We're supposed to think that there is racial progress in Boone's Charleston. I don't see racial progress at all, but I wonder if Boone imagined me, or any person who casts a critical eye on Gone With the Wind as a reader of her book? As presented, it reminds me of The Help where good white people help black people.

In interviews of her, I've read that Boone's characters are going to change over the three books. Maybe Boone is going to have Barrie and Cassie step away from Gone With the Wind. Maybe they're going to say "it was dumb for us to do that" or something like that. That is what characters do, right? They change over the course of a story.

I want to poke at that idea a bit.

Let's assume that by the end of the trilogy, Barrie or Cassie (or both of them) reject Gone With the Wind. Readers will move with them to that point. It'll be a win for social justice. But who is it a win for?

Some readers will applaud when Barrie or Cassie see the light. But what about black teens who already see that light? They are asked to be patient until Barrie and Cassie see that light. They, who are the target of racist acts today, have to be patient.

I find it deeply disturbing. The instant that the play is mentioned, somebody in the book has to say WTF so that immediately, readers will think differently.

Am I making sense? Do you get what I'm saying? Help me say it better so that writers won't do what Boone has done.

There's so much more to say.

The white man who murdered nine African Americans in Charleston said "you rape our women." Did you know that there are heated discussions within some circles about whether or not Rhett raped Scarlett? In Boone's book, Rhett is African American. My guess? Boone and her editor had no idea that some would read Rhett-as-African-American as a negative rather than the plus they intended it to be.

Once I hit upload on this post, I'll return to Compulsion. I have a lot of notes about the Cherokee witch and the voodoo priest. As a Native reader, I gather I'm supposed to be patient, too, as a white writer speaks to white readers about racism, in the past, and in the present, too.

Update, Sunday June 21, 2015

I finished reading Compulsion. My review, focusing on Native content, is at Martina Boone's Compulsion

Update, Sunday, June 28, 2015

Do you remember coming across Gone With The Wind in these books?

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. In Chapter 15, Opal is at the library to get a book she can read aloud to Gloria Dump. The librarian, Miss Franny, suggests Gone With The Wind, which she says is a "wonderful story about the Civil War." Opal says that war was about slavery, and Miss Franny says "Slavery, yes," and "It was also about states' rights and money" (p. 101). Gloria Dump is African American and tells Opal she's heard of the book. Opal reads it aloud whenever she's visiting Gloria. On page 135 Opal asks Gloria if she wants her to read some more. Gloria says "Yes, indeed." and "I've been looking forward to it all day. Let's see what Miss Scarlett is up to now."

Just as Long as We're Together by Judy Blume. On page 220, Rachel tells Stephanie "If you feel like reading, there's a really good book on my desk. It's called Gone with the Wind.

More Best of Mad Libs by Roger Price and Leonard Stern. On a page about Romantic Movie Blockbusters, is this: "Gone With the Wind, set during the ___ War, is the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a young, ___-willed woman. She uses her feminine ___ to win back her ___, but in the process loses Rhett Butler, the only ___ she ever loved."

Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret Pitch, by Donald J. Sobol. On page 49, Sally talks about Percy, who is a gentleman, and is taking her to see Gone With the Wind. First published in 1965, by Nelson, the 2002 edition is from Dell Yearling, and the 2007 edition is from Puffin.

Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets by Dav Pilkey. In chapter 20, George (the African American character), says "In the past, literally dozens of epic novels have been written that have changed the course of history: Moby Dick, Gone with the Wind, and of course, Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets!"  (Eds note, 6/30/15: I inserted a screen capture of the page with Gone With the Wind.)

Anastasia at Your Service by Lois Lowry. On page 29, Anastasia is thinking of what she'll talk about the next day, working as a companion to an elderly woman. The text reads (p. 29): "Tonight she would have to think seriously about Conversation Topics. Not politics or religion, she knew. Literature, probably. Tonight she would review in her mind all the books she had ever read. Gone With the Wind was one of her favorites. She could talk to people at the luncheon about Gone With the Wind. Why Scarlett didn't marry Ashley Wilkes. Stuff like that."

Do you know of others?


Update, June 30, 2:00 PM
In the comments below, Deborah Menkart pointed to I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin. On page 193, 11 year old Celeste is with her aunt. They watch Gone with the Wind: 'Mesmerized, we curl up on the couch and watch all three hours of Gone with the Wind while our mouths turn blueberry-blue. Then I crawl up the stairs to my room and hope that I have a dream about Rhett Butler as I remind myself that, like Miss Scarlett said, "Tomorrow is another day."' 

Update, June 30, 2:07 PM
On Twitter, MelissaA1763 wrote "The Outsiders. Can't remember the specifics, but Ponyboy and Johnny read it while they're in hiding, and Johnny really likes it."

Update, July 1, 9:43 AM
On Facebook, Benji pointed me to Lowry's Number the Stars. I looked it up. It is on page 27: "Mama had told Annemarie and Ellen the entire story of Gone With the Wind, and the girls thought it much more interesting and romantic than the kind-and-queen tales that Kirsti loved." Annemarie and Ellen are playing with paper dolls. Annemarie is being Scarlett. Ellen is being Melanie. They play at getting ready to go to a ball.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Enid Blyton's SECRET SEVEN series

Enid Blyton popped up in my news media feed this morning because of an exhibit about her and her work that is on national tour in the UK. Somewhere in my reading about children's literature, I'd read something about her work being controversial. I rummaged around a bit and hit on the golliwogs in her stories. I poked around a bit more and found that she has characters who play Indian ("Red Indian" as it is called in the UK) in the Secret Seven series.

According to The Telegraph, the images of golliwogs and references to them have been "doctored" in books in which they appear. I doubt if the same is true for the playing Indian parts of her books. I ordered The Boy Next Door and will see if any changes have been made. Course, I won't know till it arrives just which edition I'll get!

For now, check out these three illustrations (credit for these images is to the Enid Blyton Society website).

Here's the cover of the 1944 edition. Illustrations for it are by A. E. Bestall:



From what I've gleaned about The Boy Next Door, Blyton's characters peer over the fence and see the kid next door dancing like a Red Indian. Since they play Red Indian, too, they decide to put on their Red Indian costumes and sneak up on that neighbor kid and scare him. So... here they are, sneaking up on him:



But something goes wrong:



When the book arrives, I'll share what I read. Old books, yes, but Blyton is a key figure in children's literature. As such, her work remains influential. In the meantime, head over to the page about this book. There's a lot more illustrations there, and some comments about the story, too. No mention, however, of the problems in a play Indian theme.