[U]p the center aisle came marching five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms. White circles were around their eyes and their mouths were wide and red. Up onto the platform they marched, then facing forward in a row suddenly they all advanced, singing,
"Oh talk about your Mulligan Guards!
These darkies can't be beat!
We march in time and cut a shine!
Just watch these darkies' feet!"
No way around it, the minstrel show scene is about as offensive as they come. In combination with the multiple times where LIW expresses the settlers' racist attitudes toward native populations, the Little House
series could be chronicled as racist literature. At the least, it's an historical fictional account of racism expressed openly without critique from the author.
Years ago, I read a column by Roger Ebert where he engaged the question of whether or not it's okay to heap critical acclaim on a work of racist art. Ebert used Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will
and D.W. Griffith's KKK propaganda-laden Birth of a Nation
as examples. While including both works on his list of the great movies, he also made sure to say the racist attitudes lauded in the films are not okay. Ebert felt the personal need to say both "shame on you" and "well-made film!"
I agree with Ebert's approach. The racist attitudes of the settlers as depicted in the Little House
series are not okay. And I certainly don't believe we should give LIW, Pa, and Ma passes because it was the time immediately following the Civil War and Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves. A minstrel show in black face remains offensive regardless of the historical epoch. So, shame on my ancestors for thinking and acting like bullies. At the same time, I'm grateful to LIW for providing such a true account of settler life in the mid-to-late 19th century. It's instructive for us in our own time of racially charged rhetoric and action at home and abroad. Moving on from the racism...
LIW once again shows her gift for depicting the closeness of family relationships and the heartbreak of moving away from loved ones. Laura's relationship with her sister Mary is beautifully written. And honestly, I can't get enough of reading about the twinkle Laura keeps putting in Pa's eye. Their father-daughter relationship makes me smile. Sigourney smiles too, and asks me most nights before story time - "Daddy, what will happen to Laura and Pa tonight?" We're still having plenty of fun reading this series together.