Thursday, June 07, 2007

"We" the People?

A few years back, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association began a "We the People" Bookshelf program that was designed to, on an annual basis, select a handful of books with specific themes. These books would reflect the peoples of the United States of America. That first "shelf" of books was troubling in many ways. Those who view literature critically for its representation (or lack thereof) of American Indians took great issue with that list. We wrote letters to NEH and ALA to document our concerns, but no changes were made to that first shelf, and books chosen in the ensuing years give evidence that our concerns were not taken seriously. Or, perhaps they were, but the NEH in the Bush administration has a specific agenda driving the selection of books that dismisses us.

Conversations about those "bookshelfs" continue. Below is a post written by Professor Jean Mendoza, a colleague and friend with whom I celebrate and commiserate about life and books. Jean's post was part of conversation taking place recently on the CCBC-NET listserv. I share it here with her permission.


Date: Friday, May 18, 2007

Oh, goodness, this mention of "We, the People" touches a nerve.

A colleague and I have decided the NEH and ALA should call it, "We, Some People" because significant voices are left out and others effectively silenced in and by several of the selections each year.

If one believes (as I do) in the notion of "mirrors and windows" (per Sims-Bishop and others) -- that good literature for children offers them mirrors of their own lives and windows on the lives of people who are "different from them" -- several "WE, the People" selections are highly problematic, distorting both the reflections and the view....

After the first "Bookshelf" list came out, several Native scholars and parents noted the complete absence of books by Native writers, while two of the books, Little House on the Prairie and The Matchlock Gun, contained extremely negative representations of indigenous people. There was no way that a Native child could find in that collection (called Courage) any images of people of his/her heritage suggesting that his/her ancestors might in fact have been courageous, or even fully human and equal in importance to the "settlers". There were more problems with that year's list, but I'll just stick to the problematic representations of indigenous North Americans.

The next year, "Freedom" was the metaphor/topic and again no works by Native writers (or illustrators) were included, though one story with a Native protagonist, by a white writer, appears -- the problematic The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses by Paul Goble. The implication of this absence is that Native people's stories have no relevance in discussions of "Freedom". The irony grows painful.

The next year's collection is called "Becoming American". Probably I shouldn't get started on that choice of title. Who was here first? Who may have struggled the most with what it means, or meant, to "become American"?? And who is unrepresented, except in a book by a white author? As my husband sometimes says, "The irony rusts me out."

And as for this year's shelf, entitled "The Pursuit of Happiness" -- apparently, in the eyes of the "We, the People" selection committee, no indigenous writers of books for young people have made their characters pursue happiness in a manner worthy of inclusion in the collection.

This bookshelf idea seems great -- who doesn't like free books? -- but the practices of those making the selections seem to me (as a parent, grandparent, and aunt of Native kids) blatantly exclusionary. The NEH and ALA have been hearing every year from people (parents, scholars, educators) who practically beg them to choose books that reflect greater accuracy, authenticity, and inclusiveness. And each year, it seems to me, the exclusions simply compound those of previous years. Ignoring voices of protest can, at least for a time, be effective in silencing discourse and perpetuating historical "whitewashing". If that is NOT the underlying purpose of "We, the People", then those who work on the project really ought to make some significant changes. (And if silencing voices and whitewashing history actually were an underlying purpose, then would such a project deserve participation by libraries and schools?) There is no reason to continue to present the distorted (or painted-over) mirrors and windows as the project has done since its inception.

In my humble and deeply frustrated opinion, the "We, the People" bookshelf project really ought to get in synchrony with reality.

Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Early Childhood Education
Millikin University
Decatur, Illinois


edi said...

I found it ironic that the "Pursuit of Happiness" list didn't even include the "The Pursuit of Happyness".
You are so right in posing who are "we" the people!

Gretchen said...

Even though I have applied and received the bookshelf for our library twice, I have reservations about the selection of the books as well. We are located in an extremely diverse urban community, and I don't think the selection of books addresses the modern issues of any minorty group appropriately. The books are also supposed to be targeted at kids and teens in grades K to 12. I feel like the selection relies too heavily on "classics" and is not very inclusive of books that they will actually read for fun! Many of the books end up in our adult collection. Thanks for addressing this topic from the point of view of Native Americans!