“Lost Cause” Children’s Literature: What Can We Do About It?

Author Pat Conroy, who passed away in 2016, wrote in his preface to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind that he absorbed “his first lessons in the authority of fiction” from the novel, which his mother read aloud to him when he was only five-years-old. He explained:

When my mother described the reaction of the city to the publication of this book, it was the first time I knew that literature had the power to change the world. It certainly changed my mother and the life she was meant to lead forever.

Fiction is a powerful messenger, but not necessarily an “authority” worth believing. As I wrote in Should We Change How We Talk & Write About the Civil War?:

Full of racial slurs and stereotypes, [Gone With the Wind] perpetuates myths about the South. In Margaret Mitchell’s fictional version of her homeland, the planters were charming aristocrats, the slaves were stupid and submissive laborers, and the ruthless “Yankee invaders” ruined everything.

[…]

Gone with the Wind espouses romantic notions of the Old South that hide the brutal truth about slavery and those who wanted to maintain it.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it. So did my husband. We understood its context, and we saw it as fiction about the “lost cause” of the Confederacy, not history. Knowing my children did not yet have the background to understand it, I told my twins not to read Gone With the Wind until they’re older and then I swiftly buried it on my e-reader. They share an account with me and have a tendency to read anything they have access to, including the “boring” U. S. Supreme Court cases I send to my e-reader. (See Are You In Need of a Smile?).

Little did I know that they would soon read a children’s book espousing a sanitized version of the same mythology. A few months into second grade, my then-seven-year-olds borrowed Willie McLean and the Civil War Surrender by Candice Ransom from the school library.

Published in 2005 and intended for elementary-age children, this historical fiction focuses on the Confederacy’s surrender at the McLean House in April 1865, told from the perspective of 11-year-old Willie McLean. The story begins with an Author’s Note that says:

In 1861, America was a divided country. White farmers in the South grew cotton and other crops, using the labor of African American slaves. Others in the South also had slaves. Many Northerners felt that slavery was wrong. The two sides could not agree. The Southern states left the United States, and the Civil War began.

[…]

Willie McLean was eleven years old in 1865. The McLeans never wrote down what happened that fateful April day [of the Confederate surrender], but we know that Willie McLean was present. This is his story, as it might have happened.

The only mention in this book of slavery is in that first paragraph, and it’s a pretty bland description of a vicious, race-based system of forced labor. What does it even mean that “Others in the South also had slaves”? What follows in the rest of the story is a sympathetic portrayal of the Confederacy that lionizes Robert E. Lee. The meager Author’s Note does little to counteract Ransom’s portrayal of the Confederate Army as a noble force protecting their way of life from Northern “invaders.”

My children liked the story about Willie and his sister, but found the Civil War backdrop confusing. Thankfully, they brought it to my attention. This wasn’t the first time we’ve talked to our children about controversial historical moments and complicated historical figures–see Arrrr, Matey! Is That George Washington?–but it was one of our earlier conversations with our twins about slavery and the Civil War.

Since then, this subject has come up several times, most recently over the last two weeks as we’ve watched the controversy over monuments that honor the same Confederate myths we see in Gone With the Wind and Willie McLean and the Civil War Surrender. These monuments, the majority of which were erected long after the end of the Civil War, represent a flawed version of history and serve no purpose other than to promote white supremacy and to suggest to racial and ethnic minorities that we are unwelcome.

As an increasing number of these monuments come down, what should happen to children’s books that espouse the same harmful myths? Should they be removed from library shelves, such as the one at my children’s public school?

It’s a challenging issue. Unlike a statue of Robert E. Lee at the center of a public park or in front of a courthouse, a pro-Confederate book’s presence on the shelves among many books in a library isn’t necessarily a celebration of those ideas, and children may have a First Amendment right to access it, as contentious as it may be.

As our Supreme Court said in Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 863, 872 (1982):

The Court has long recognized that local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs…, [but] local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

But Pico is an old case, and merely a plurality decision (which means that a majority of the court–at least five justices–couldn’t agree on it).

In a more recent case, the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which includes the federal courts of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, decided that a school district’s decision to remove a purportedly non-fiction book does not violate the First Amendment rights of their students when the removal is due to “factual inaccuracies” in the book. They said:

[T]he First Amendment does not forbid a school board from removing a book because it contains factual inaccuracies, whether they be of commission or omission. There is no constitutional right to have books containing misstatements of objective facts shelved in a school library.

ACLU, Inc. v. Miami-Dade County Sch. Bd., 557 F.3d 1177 (11th Cir. 2009). They even went so far as to suggest that a school district may lawfully remove a book about the antebellum South that “neglect[s] to mention anything about slavery and the millions of human beings who lived and died in bondage.” Id. at 1223-24.

What about a children’s book that mentions something about slavery, but only briefly and blandly? What if this book is purportedly fiction, but supposedly based on historical fact?

I assume that fiction has more leeway to deviate from historical fact than non-fiction does–it is, after all, fiction–but let’s not forget Pat Conroy’s observation about its “authority.” Fiction is powerful, whether it should be or not, and Willie McLean and the Civil War Surrender left my then-seven-year-old children with the impression that the Confederacy was more noble than it really was. A stronger Author’s Note–one that offered genuine background on what the South was fighting for–would have helped contextualize the strictly Confederate viewpoint it otherwise presented.

That said, I’m not inclined to ask a public school library to remove a book like this from its shelves (and risk being sued). My preference is to discuss controversial books with my kids instead, helping them to develop the critical thinking skills they need to see books that romanticize the Confederacy for what they really are.

 

11 thoughts on ““Lost Cause” Children’s Literature: What Can We Do About It?

  1. I worry so much about this! I know that there were a lot of messages I absorbed from fiction that I never discussed with my parents, and that my parents would n e v e r have endorsed if they’d known I was learning them. I’m glad you were able to talk to your girls about this book — they’re so lucky to have you!

    (“Others also had slaves” really REALLY sounds like they’re trying to talk about black slaveowners without actually saying it. IDK maybe I’m being oversensitive, but that was how it read to me.)

  2. I love that you are both an active parent AND thinking about the school environment. I feel like I hear of other parents usually being one or the other: those parents who want to control the school library selection for the “good” of all children but don’t seem to understand they can talk with their own children about why they object to certain books, or those parents who take their children under wing at home and see the school environment as something to combat.

    I responded to you on Twitter about the statue topic, but I was unclear! I keep reading that some people are worried that removing statues is erasing history, so I’ve got this idea that those individuals see statues as a sort of Cliff’s notes to history, which is silly. Statues are really about memory, but reverence, in my opinion.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I think it’s much better to talk to my own kids about the material they read/see than demand that NO ONE have access to those ideas. Schools and libraries have to make decisions about what books are appropriate for the children they serve, but once those books are on the shelves, it becomes very controversial to remove them (and potentially illegal).

  3. This is such an important and difficult topic. Fiction can shape our views in subtle ways, especially historical fiction. I’m really hoping the next decade shows an increase in appropriate, #ownvoice genre fiction available for children because as a librarian it’s very difficult to find mirror works to recommend to kids who only like mysteries or historical or sci-fi or romance.

    1. “Fiction can shape our views in subtle ways, especially historical fiction.” Well said! I hope we will see an increase in #ownvoices genre fiction too. That would be wonderful.

  4. This was a well-written piece, AMB, and I love how involved you are with your children’s reading program.

    Though the lines are blurry, as you’ve illustrated, I tend to side with the idea of letting the information exist but perhaps putting context around it — somewhat similar to how Wikipedia will have a note stating the potential inaccuracy/controversy of certain articles. I know such language is a bit sterile when dealing with something as horrible as slavery, but I feel that it provides “something” without heading too far down the dark road of hiding divergent ideas from the public sphere.

    1. Thanks! Like you, I prefer to let information exist with appropriate context. I wish the author/publisher of this children’s book had done a better job with the note.

  5. I’ve read Gone With The Wind several times and enjoyed the writer’s talent in telling such a compelling story, but of course I’m aware it’s a fictionalized account of the horrors of slavery. This and similar books should be kept to remind us of a dark time in our history. It is fiction, after all, but that shouldn’t prevent discussion over the deeper meanings behind it. If history is forgotten or buried, we run the risk of it happening again. Look at what’s going on in America right now, with the rise of neo-Nazis being all but pampered by a certain idiot in the White House. Although it would never have happened under any other president, it’s generating lots of talk and compelling people to band together against it. Books can do the same thing.

    1. GWTW is a very compelling novel, and as long as its readers are old enough to understand its context and the history it misrepresents, I encourage people to read it. Reading it isn’t a celebration of its ideas. I hope it sparks discussion and reflection.

  6. Very thought-provoking. Thanks for this, A.M.B. Presenting an arriving group in history as “settlers” or “explorers” vs “colonizers” is another common misrepresentation/whitewashing of history. Colonizers (including the Loyalists who left the U.S. during the American Revolution and came to Canada) relocate, diminish, and even attempt to exterminate existing populations as they “settle” their new territory. The Loyalists from New England acted as colonizers rather than settlers with the existing indigenous and Acadian populations in eastern Canada. I’m not sure why we find it such a challenge to portray historical fact a little more honestly in children’s fiction – or in all fiction.

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