Sunday, September 16, 2018

Problems with "Americans" by Douglas Wood

What’s it supposed to mean, to be American these days? White supremacists are loud & proud at the highest level of government. Oligarchs quietly funnel fortunes into campaigns against the public interest. The chief executive and his minions gleefully disrespect entire populations of (usually brown) human beings. A shameful number of people don’t even know that Puerto Rico is part of the US … Being an American can feel, well, ugly.

Since the US was founded, Native people and people of color have dealt with definitions of Americanness that excluded and marginalize them and in the case of Native peoples, strip them of sovereignty, autonomy, and culture.

So it’s been hard to review the new picture book Americans by Douglas Wood (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Wood and illustrator Elizabeth Sayles are clearly calling children’s attention to the UNITED part of “United States”: “Americans share certain ways of doing and being that hold us all together.” 

The book communicates on several levels: full-page illustrations, smaller spotlight illustrations, text, and several pages in the back explaining the illustrations.

The first double-page spread begins, “Americans love.” The text goes on, “We love our ideals of human dignity and freedom…” then mentions families, neighbors, friends, and the beauty of the land. Several pages later is, “One thing Americans do really well is disagree.” Images there refer to the Boston Tea Party, public protests for women’s suffrage, civil rights, the labor movement, peace movements, and LGBTQ rights. One child-figure carries a Black Lives Matter placard. 

So where are the Indigenous people in Americans?

·      In the cover illustration: Black Elk (Oglala Lakota) is one of 7 public figures depicted. Explanatory text in the back notes that he witnessed the defeat of Custer, spoke out against forcing Native people from their lands, and told his life story in Black Elk Speaks. With him are Woody Guthrie, John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed), Eleanor Roosevelt, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michelle Obama, and…. Laura Ingalls Wilder?! What the actual heck. Given how Wilder wrote about Native people, her presence in the cover illustration positions Native people as objects of a conflicted white gaze. (Black Elk Speaks is itself a problematic product of a non-Native scribe/filter/editor.)

·      On the “Americans love” pages about beauty of the land: spot illustration labeled “Totem Pole (Tlingit) of the Pacific Northwest.” Explanatory text in the back basically says what totem poles are. I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy of that text, but I know there’s more to Tlingit totem poles than that. So I wish the author and illustrator had included their sources.

·      On the “Americans believe” pages about the First Amendment, and freedom to worship: spot illustration of  “Pueblo Eagle Dance”. The author doesn’t specify which Pueblo, and that’s a problem, especially since in the back pages, it’s called “Native American Eagle Dance” – far too general. Debbie sees some other important shortcomings that we can go into at another time. The explanation emphasizes that the US government outlawed Native religious practices until 1978 (with follow-up legislation in 1993), which is important stuff for kids to know: the US ideal of religious freedom has always been selective.

And that’s it for the intentional representations of Indigenous people.

So, where AREN’T Native people in Americans?

·       “Sometimes Americans fight” depicts the settler revolution against Britain, the Tuskegee airmen, and some WWII scenes. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t acknowledge the longest fight of all -- settler-colonial warfare against Indigenous people that eventually involved Native nations from sea to sea.

·      “But Americans also make peace.” It’s just as well that those pages don’t depict the US military signing treaties with Indigenous nations – treaties that the government broke as soon as settlers wanted the land and other resources.

·      The “Americans disagree” page doesn’t refer to any influential protests specific to justice for Native people, like the occupation of Alcatraz or Standing Rock. But it does include the Boston Tea Party, during which colonizer men dressed in facsimiles of traditional Native clothing while protesting taxes.

·      “Americans choose” shows a wagon train on the Oregon Trail, in the heart of Native lands, the heart of their existence -- but we don’t see any Native people on these two pages. And the back-matter explanation doesn’t mention Native homelands, or the fact that Native nations, in order to survive, resisted the settler-colonizer invasion. Was that “a choice”? Maybe so, but not much like the “choices” depicted in spot illustrations (a “Vote” button, a young woman in a graduation cap).

·      The “Americans make mistakes” pages show the Dust Bowl, a child in a Japanese internment camp, Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, and children wearing protective gloves while cleaning a polluted river. There’s no acknowledgement that systemic greed, bigotry, racism, classism, sexism, and short-sightedness are foundational problems, deeply rooted in “American” society. They have spawned terrible “mistakes” like water pollution and slavery -- not to mention genocide against Indigenous people. And indeed, Americans doesn’t mention it.

Americans doesn’t entirely erase Native people, but it relegates them to spots on the historical landscape, footnotes in a narrative that embraces an ideal of “acceptable differences.” It barely hints at the complex and painful relationship between the US and Indigenous nations/peoples, and turns away from the challenge of acknowledging that larger story.

Americans as a social studies offering nods in the direction of a few serious issues, but it seems to me to fall short of opening readers' eyes to ugly but real aspects of Americanness -- like racism, bigotry, genocide, greed for resources, exceptionalism that rationalizes bad behavior -- that kids will have to see if they are to fully grasp what it means to be “an American” now.

--Jean Mendoza


Ava Jarvis said...

You know, it occurred to me that if I were a kid right now, with the mind of a kid and all, reading this book would raise MANY questions.


- If Americans love human dignity, why did slavery exist for so long? Why did boarding schools exist? Why did Japanese internment happen? Why do we put immigrant children in cages now? What is up with that? Like, the only way that statement works is if "human" doesn't actually mean "human" here, but a very limited set of people...

- If Americans love freedom, why does our legal system have little to no recourse for the poor who cannot afford lawyers? Why did we conspire to destabilize democratic countries? Why did we turn down Vietnam when they asked for help to escape the colonialism of France? Hey, isn't that, like, incredibly two-faced of us?

Like, that's *just* the first couple pages. Of a picture book. I really pity the kids who try to ask their parents these questions and get punished instead of getting answers, or bigoted lies instead of actual answers.

And Americans make mistakes... Hoooooooooooooooooo boy, that's an understatement. Why do we make those mistakes? Never answered in this book. Because the answer would undermine the authority of adults who write books like these...

Even though I'm Vietnamese, seeing a little picture of a Japanese kid in an internment camp would, um, haunt me for a very long time. If the book author is going to lance East Asian/Southeast Asian kids through the heart like that, it's only fair that they discuss how that kid came to be in that camp in a bit more detail than "it just happened because we make mistakes."

Seriously, that kind of unexplained picture is what lead me to question whether or not I was actually a human when I was little, and the teachers could never, ever tell me "oh, because racism" and just left it up to me and my classmates to decide that maybe I was an animal that needed a cage.

(And yes, that's pretty uncomfortable to think about these days.)

In conclusion: wow this book is going to cause a lot more harm than anything else its authors may or may not have intended.

debraj11 said...

As always, there's a great deal to digest and think about in this review. I wish these reviews could become part of children's literature programs. It would make an excellent resource for teaching them how to think critically and culturally.


Anonymous said...

When you have two page spread, it's impossible to include everything. Maybe they were going to include Native Americans on other pages, but they didn't make the cut. And I think we bring our adult knowledge to picture books that children don't have. They will interpret these pictures differently. Share it with children before assuming how they'll take it.

Ellen Fleischer said...

You can't evaluate what "might have been meant to be included but didn't make the cut", you can only evaluate what actually did. Of course, we bring our adult knowledge to picture books, but children still come away with impressions that shape their thinking.

I know a lot of stuff went completely over my head when I was younger. And before I got my English Lit degree. But just because I wasn't aware of bias and subtext doesn't mean I wasn't influenced by it.