Portrayals and Prejudice

Yesterday, I read an article about the controversy surrounding The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz.  Admittedly, I haven’t read the book yet although it is on my list.  The Hired Girl is set in 1911.  The main character, fourteen-year-old Joan, is desperate to get off the farm.  She takes on a variety of hired jobs and in one interview she’s asked if she is Jewish.  Her response stirred up the controversy.

“I was as taken aback as if she’d asked me if I was an Indian. It seemed to me—I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then—as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.”

The controversy stems from this alleged negative portrayal of Native Americans.  I say alleged because it seems more like negative thoughts than an honest-to-goodness portrayal.

The book’s defenders point out that Joan’s attitude is accurate for the time. Furthermore, she apparently grows beyond this belief in the course of the book.

Questions were asked.  Answers were given.  Dialogue insued.

Birthday CakeContrast this to the controversy over A Birthday Cake for George Washington.  It is about George Washington’s slave and chef, Hercules, and his work to bake a birthday cake for Washington.  In one of the illustrations, Hercules and his daughter smile at each other.  Critics claim that this misrepresents slavery. “Slavery is bad!”

Not surprisingly, no one argued against that point although they did point out that the book doesn’t say slavery is good. The controversy continued and those involved with the bookself clammed up. No dialogue.  Just accusations.  I get the complaints because this is a portrayal, but I would really have loved to talk to the editor and gotten her view of things. But I also understand why she chose not to argue with people.

The protest grew and Scholastic pulled the book.  This makes me almost queasy. Like Mitali Perkins, I wish they had added to their book list instead of subtracting.  Additional books could create a dialogue.  Removing a book?  That’s just censorship.

I also wonder what will happen with future books, or books that might have been. I suspect that there are a lot of stories out there that will never be told.  Publishers will be too reluctant to take the risk even if the stories could broaden our view.

I hope my concern is misplaced. The problem is that I can’t think of a single case where censorship has led to greater intellectual freedom.