Thursday, February 03, 2011

Robert Lawson's "Indians--tame ones" and slaves in Minnesota

This weekend at the Children's Literature Symposium at Florida State University-Sarasota, I'll be giving a talk about the illustrations of Indians in books that won the Caldecott Medal. I've been doing research on the books, reading some of them for the first time, and re-reading others.

One that I am re-reading is Robert Lawson's They Were Strong and Good. Published in 1940, it won the Caldecott that year. The book opens with a Foreword that reads:
This is the story of my mother and my father and of their fathers and mothers.

Most of it I heard as a little boy, so there may be many mistakes; perhaps I have forgotten or mixed up some of the events and people. But that does not really matter, for this is not alone the story of my parents and grandparents, it is the story of the parents and grandparents of most of us who call ourselves Americans. 
So, Lawson tells us, They Were Strong and Good is a family history of sorts. His disclaimer is interesting---it leaves me with many questions. The cover of the book shows us his parents and grandparents:

and the end pages (pages just inside the front and back cover) show us the same people. This image is from Peter D. Sieruta's blog, Collecting Children's Books, where he's got an essay on They Were Strong and Good. His essay title is "They Were Strong and Good Enough for 1940."

In 1994 a revised edition was published. In the revised one, the phrase "Indians--tame ones" was changed. The phrase "tame ones" was omitted. That wasn't the only part of the book that was changed. Its language with respect to African Americans was also changed. Beverly Slapin wrote about the changes a few years ago, and Jean Mendoza shared some pointed questions about the original text.  Please take time to read what they said.

As I studied They Were Strong and Good yesterday, I honed in on this page:

The text that goes with the page places that image in Minnesota. In the foreground are an Indian man and woman who have been given a pie and are being chased away. But who is chasing them? The young girl behind the African American woman is Lawson's mother. Lawson was born in 1892, so I'm guessing the year for that story is roughly 1872, assuming his mother gave birth to him when she was 20 years old. So...  Minnesota in 1870s. Slaves? That gave me pause, so I started digging in to Minnesota history and slavery.  Right away I found a Minnesota Public Radio story about the research and upcoming book by Professor Christopher Lehman at St. Cloud University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Here's the first few paragraphs from the MPR site:
St. Paul, Minn. — A St. Cloud State University professor has found evidence of slavery in several Minnesota counties before the Civil War, a groundbreaking discovery that sheds light on the Midwest's pre-Civil War history.

Christopher Lehman, an ethnic studies professor who is researching slavery in states along the upper Mississippi River, has documented slavery in Stearns, Benton, Hennepin, Ramsey, and Washington counties.

His research, to be published in a book in 2012, also found that prominent St. Cloud families of the mid-19th Century were slave owners.

I wrote to Professor Lehman to let him know about They Were Strong and Good and he's written back asking for more information. Hence, today's blog post. I don't know if it will, in the end, be useful to Lehman. What I find deeply satisfying about studying children's books is the information they hold. Some, like They Were Strong and Good tell us a lot about history and race. They should not be dismissed as "less than" because they're written for children.

There is value in having children study They Were Strong and Good. I don't recommend it be used with young children "as-is"---it should be studied by students in high school, perhaps in critical media literacy or social justice or civics courses.  

I'm looking forward to the Symposium, listening to learning from others who also work with and study children's books. One keynote speaker is Mary GrandPre. She did the illustrations for the Harry Potter books. The other keynote will be given by Kenneth Kidd, author of Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. An excerpt from his book is available at the publisher's website. If you're near Sarasota on Saturday, consider attending the symposium. Registration for the general public is $85.00 and includes lunch and snacks.


Laughingrat said...

I might just be processing this wrong, but it looks like you assume the scene takes place in the 1870s, and yet also assume the African-American woman was enslaved. That seems pretty unlikely, regardless of the region (although goodness knows that economic and racist practices in the South kept slavery alive in all but name for many African-Americans). Given the probable date, what seems much more likely is that she's a paid domestic servant.

Debbie Reese said...

You could be right, Laughingrat. Lawson didn't call her a slave. That was my question. I started to dig in and saw the work Lehman is doing. It seemed to confirm my thought that she was a slave, but I've got to dig in some more.

hschinske said...

It might be possible to figure out how old Lawson's mother was, too, if the genealogy is recorded anywhere (census records and so forth).

According to, his father was a "young teenager" when the Civil War broke out, which would make him anything up to 44 when Robert was born. So perhaps it's not so unlikely that his mother was more like 30 at his birth rather than 20.

Helen Schinske

Children's books about nature said...

It is a great story for the little kids about the grandfather and grandmother. It is a good way to let them know their ancestors. I would prefer to tell this also to my nephews and niece.

Jean Mendoza said...

Debbie mentions that I commented previously (in 2006) about the original text of Lawson's They Were Strong and Good. I should add that the original text to which I was responding was one that I found that year (2006) in a public library. My point here is that libraries continue to make the unrevised version of the book available to children -- not that the revised version expresses attitudes that I'd want a grade school audience to emulate. And when I imagine sharing it with African American or Native American children ... yuck. No thank you. In my opinion there is not much new or good for them to learn from the book; not even from a "that-was-then-this-is-now" discussion. (Because those biases persist to this day, and many non-White kids have encountered them or heard about relatives who have done so. So "that was then and it is now, as well.") Even the revisions seem to say, "My white ancestors were strong and good, and yours were probably slaves or domestic help (African American kids) or thieves (Native American kids)." As a historical document this book in any version may have potential use in a university classroom or possibly in a high school class where critical thinking and social justice are woven into the curriculum. One would hope that in such a setting, IF an instructor opted to use TWS&G, the White young adult readers could say something like, "My ancestors' ideas about and behaviors toward other people were a mess, and I need to be strong enough to deconstruct and contest those attitudes and actions -- for the greater good."

Anonymous said...

Robert Lawson's mother was almost thirty-eight when he was born. The African-American servant In his mother's childhood home is inaccurate. I believe his maternal grandparents employed a German woman. There were African-American servants in Lawson's childhood home and perhaps that memory is the source of the servant in TWSG.