Based on what I read at On Kindness, On Intention, and On Anger in Children's Writers by V. Arrow, Thomas's remarks were primarily about race. As I read responses--online and privately--to what she said, I have several thoughts.
One: she gave voice to concerns of white writers who feel threatened by the new (to some) and renewed interest in the accurate representation of people who are not white.
Two: she gave voice to concerns of white writers who feel threatened by the new (to some) and renewed interest and commitment to publish writers who are not white.Discussions on social media are evidence that people were clearly uncomfortable with what Thomas said. Was she, herself, uncomfortable as she delivered that lecture? Does she, today, feel unfairly criticized by what people are saying? Are you a white writer who agrees with what Thomas said? Do you think the criticism directed at her, today, is unfair? Mean, perhaps?
As a Native woman and mother, I ask that you set aside your feelings of discomfort. Instead, I'd like you to think about the millions of children of color, and Native children, who've read horrible things about themselves in the thousands of books that white writers have written.
Did you know, for example, that Little House on the Prairie has "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" in it three times? Can you imagine how a Native child feels reading that line?
Let me tell you. A few weeks ago, a young Native boy visiting me saw that book on my table. His eyes widened and his voice rose as he said:
Is that Little House on the Prairie? I had to quit that book.He shook his head a bit as he talked about the Indians stealing furs. And then his voice got even louder when he said
That part where it says 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian? That's when I really had to quit that book!!!It is for that child, and millions of other children like him, that I do the work I do on my site and in my lectures and workshops.
It is uncomfortable for writers who read criticism of their work that points out that ideas and words they've carried in their head all their lives is problematic. These ideas and words appear on the page as a norm for one of their characters. For some, having it pointed out to them generates a huge feeling of embarrassment. For others, there is a defensive reaction, too.
As I read V. Arrow's post, knowing that she was in that room as a student--that she is someone who wants to be a writer of children's books--I knew that she took a great risk in writing her post. As I read through twitter conversations about what she shared, I was glad to see established writers like Anne Ursu and Laura Ruby thanking her for that post. Later, Mary Rockcastle (the director of the program) issued this statement:
Our MFAC program at Hamline is committed to creating a truly diverse and inclusive community. Where ALL of our students can create and do their best work without the noise and pain of ignorance, intolerance, and denial in the larger world that gets in the way.
A faculty member's words yesterday sent the absolute wrong message about how we should deal with each other's anger and pain--as a community and as a culture. It is unacceptable to deny, denigrate, minimize or otherwise deepen this pain.
Our goal is to educate each student about how this happens, how we purposefully or unintentionally get it wrong, so it does not happen again. So the community we've been building learns, grows, and prevails.I gather that everyone was required to attend Thomas's lecture and that there were others that they could choose from. I hope that the program selects someone to deliver a required lecture each residency term--a lecture that takes up this moment at Hamline. It was one moment--one hour in a day--but it was far more than that. For Hamline, the stakes are high right now. I read tweets from people who said they were crossing Hamline off the list of writing programs they're applying to.
The stakes are high for Hamline, but they're far higher for the children and young adults who will read the books Hamline students write. It is 2015. For over one hundred years, people have been objecting to the ways that people of color and American Indians are portrayed in children's books. This is not new to me and others who have studied children's literature, but to far too many people, it is a new discussion because it is beyond the spaces they spend their time in.
Hamline can bring it into that space.
Every intervention individuals and institutions make is absolutely vital so that we all get to a point in time when all children can read books that are free of the noise and pain of ignorance, intolerance, and denial in the larger world that intentionally, or not, denies our existence and humanity.
For further reading:
MFA vs POC, by Junot Diaz, April 30 2014
On Being a Person of Color in an MFA Program, by Justine Ireland, July 13 2015