Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Slapin: Open Letter to Beth Kanell

Beverly Slapin (she includes bio info in her essay below) submitted this Open Letter as a comment to Seale and Dow's review essay of Beth Kanell's young adult book, Darkness Under the Water. Because her letter is about Ms. Kanell's companion website for the book, I'm also placing it here, with its own post.


Ms. Kanell—
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Beverly Slapin. I am Jewish. Many of my maternal relatives, along with millions of others, were murdered by the eugenicists who called themselves National Socialists, in the town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland. My paternal grandfather fought against the Czar in Russia and, for this reason, was one of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of revolutionaries who were murdered. My ancestors fought and died so that I could be here. And because I’m here, it is my obligation to speak for them. And because they were who they were, it is my obligation to combat racism wherever it exists.
I am co-founder and executive director of Oyate and I’ve taught in the area of critical multiculturalism, especially since it relates to Native peoples, since 1990. I am co-editor of Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children and A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, which won an American Book Award. I am a children’s content editor for and frequent contributor to Multicultural Review. I have read thousands of young adult books, including historical fiction, and have written more reviews than I can count or remember. I have read The Darkness Under the Water four times. Last, but certainly not least, having worked with them for many years, I consider Doris Seale, Judy Dow, and Debbie Reese, dear friends and colleagues. They stand by their words and I stand with them; not because they’re my friends but because they’re speaking truths.
At this point, I’m going address the discussion questions on your website. While discussion questions for young adult fiction, and especially young adult historical fiction, generally aim to encourage young readers to empathize with the protagonist or other characters, your questions serve only to distance young readers from the Abenaki characters in the story, and from the Abenaki peoples in Vermont. I will focus on questions 10 and 11, which I consider the worst discussion questions I have ever read anywhere.
Question 10: Many times in nature, animals seem to realize when another animal is “different.” Sometimes the animals try to make the different animal leave or they attack it for being different. Do people act the same way? How do the people in Molly’s story show this? Have you seen people do this? Have you also seen people who choose not to act this way? Describe them and give your opinion on why they react differently.
Question 11: The decision in Vermont to sort people out by whether they seemed like "good citizens" for the state was happening in many other places. More than half the states in America passed laws that allowed doctors to "sterilize" people who were "unfit" in some way. Do you know anyone who has sterilized a pet so it would not have puppies or kittens? Was there a good reason? Talk about the ways people are different from pets and whether there can ever be good reasons for choices like this for people. Is it different if the choices are forced on someone?
In comparing the criminal behavior of the eugenicists to a natural fear that “animals in nature” may have, you are excusing what they did and, by your analogy, blaming the Abenaki for being “different.” By comparing the Abenaki to pet dogs and cats—which is what you do—you are dehumanizing the Abenaki peoples. You are heaping shame on Abenaki people in general, and, in particular, you are shaming Abenaki youngsters who may read your book. And you are encouraging non-Indian young people to feel superior. This is racism, pure and simple. This may or may not be your intention; I have no way of knowing.
Now, Ms. Kanell, imagine you are, say, Jewish. And you are living in, say, Eastern Europe in the 1930s. And, in school, you are forced to answer “discussion questions” that compare you and your family to dogs and cats that need to be sterilized. Well, this really happened. I know this history. And now you, wittingly or unwittingly, are making it happen again. For Doris and Judy and all the other Abenaki people in Vermont and elsewhere who are now being forced to relive the pain, I’m asking you to remove your discussion guide from your website. If you have a shred of decency, you will.


Anonymous said...

Yes, perhaps not the best discussion questions, but I would imagine that the second question would be leading children to obviously conclude that animal sterilization is different to that forcibly performed on humans. As a teacher, I would be hoping this could lead to an interrogation of the kind of ideology that positioned native peoples as at the bottom of an imagined hierarchy of "races", or as occupying some sort of "mid-way" between animals and white humans. This kind of thinking propagated such eugenics programs, but perhaps the presentation of the questions loses the potential to examine the thinking behind these racist exercises and instead could be seen as promoting them still. The first question is not as obviously connected to such a valuable opportunity to deconstruct racist thinking.

Gillian said...

Good letter.

It looks like she might have gone and changed the last two questions, re-wording them and taking out the animal comparisons. If this is the page you had taken them from.

Anonymous said...

You know, I can't even imgine what she was thinking in Question 11. Because yes - it really does compare the steralization of people to the steralization of animals. As though these things are in any way comparable.

I don't care if she changed it. What was she thinking in the first place?

Anonymous said...

"Is it different if the choices are forced on them?"

Think about it, Discussion-Question-Writer. Think really, really hard about it. Maybe look up "choice" and "forced".

Sam Jonson said...

Gillian, I think Kanell did in fact read that open letter. Especially now that Question 11 mentions the 1930s and Jews. Too bad Kanell didn't change the other bad parts of her book. Stupid "good intentions" European and McEuropean [white Usonian] writers.