Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Reviewing While White: Mary Jemison, Native American Captive.

By Ernie Cox

Whiteness is difficult to see and talk about for many of us (White people) because we know it by another name – “normal”.
In The Racial Contract Charles W. Mills explains how the White normative view is established and maintained: “…what it requires to achieve Whiteness successfully, to become a White person, is a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities.”  
In the new Based on a True Story series from Macmillan, the White point of view is the lens through which young readers experience the timeline of United States history. The decision to contract this series with a single White author has ensured a series that will only strengthen the dominant White narrative of U.S. history while ignoring the realities and perspective of people of color and members of the First/Native Nations. By way of example, we will review one volume (which to date has not been reviewed in professional journals) in this series – Mary Jemison: Native American Captive by E.F. Abbott.
The book opens in 1743 with Mary Jemison’s pregnant mother making the transatlantic voyage to America. The passengers are weary:
“Thirty days. And still no land in sight”
“Why did we want to go to America?”
“What will we find there”
“Land to call our own”
“Wild savages”
“Freedom” (page 2)
By 1758 Mary and her siblings are helping to tend the family homestead in central Pennsylvania.  “Travelers from western Pennsylvania told frightening stories. More and more colonists were attacked by savages”  (page 6).  In his scholarship about Whiteness, Mills details how the dichotomy of savage (in this case First Nations) and civilized person (Europeans) is constructed around the description of space:
“Europeans, or at least full Europeans, were ‘civilized’ and this condition was manifested in the character of the spaces they inhabited”  (pg 42, Racial Contract). Those spaces included the cities of Europe, the colonial towns, and the settlements.  Abbott devotes time to detailing how Mary’s family toiled to make the land civilized.

“The family had worked hard to make their farm. They cut down trees and pulled stumps. They built a house and barn. They had fields for crops, meadows where lambs and calves could wander, and an orchard dotted with pink apple blossoms.” (pg 4).
“NonEuropeans were ‘savages’ and this condition was manifested in the character of the spaces they inhabited”  (pg 42, Racial Contract). The White narrator of Jemison’s story foreshadows the danger: “A savage would be silent.” “A savage would creep quietly through the woods – until, at the very last moment, he would whoop the death yell” (pg 8).
Mary wants to escape the the frontier and move to Philadelphia. “Let the wild animals and wild people have these woods”.  The narrator repeatedly equates First/Native Nations people to animals.   The Shawnee men who arrive at the Jemison’s farm  “were desperate with hunger – like bears waking up from their hibernation starving and cross”  (pg 21).
In selecting Jemison’s story as a way to explore the colonization of North America, Abbott inevitably casts First/Native Nations people as aggressors.  According to the author’s note, the major source of information for this book was A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison by James E. Seaver in 1823. Seaver wrote the book based on interviews with Jemison. Abbott found that many dates in Jemison’s recollection were inaccurate, but the larger problem with Abbott’s book is that the entire narrative of colonisation is through the eyes of a White person.  Even the version of the Seneca creation story was taken from Seneca Indian Myths by Jeremiah Curtin, a White folklorist.   

We can find no source information to indicate that Abbott contacted or read the accounts about Mary or the larger social history of the Seneca Nation by anyone other than White scholars of a different era. Today’s young readers will be little more enlightened than Mary was in the late 18th century. Several images are included in Abbott’s book to provide context for the historical period.  Among them is this image from the Library of Congress. Note the caption on the original.

Montcalm trying to stop the massacre.jpg

Abbott captions this image as “A wood engraving of Native Americans attacking the British during the French and Indian War.”  Images and text work together to establish the members of the Seneca tribe as the aggressors.  
After Mary is taken away by Shawnee men and sold to members of the Seneca Nation she begins to understand more about the First Nations.
“The Six Nations have signed a treaty with the Yengeese at Easton” Jako-ki said
“Six Nations?” Mary said
“Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Seneca,” Jako-ki said.
The Seneca women go on to explain how many treaties have been broken. Mary recalls her father describing the First/Native Nations as savages who “didn’t deserve the land because they didn’t farm or build houses.” “Now Mary knew differently. She slept in a bark house. She ate the corn the tribes grew” (pg 94).  What Mary doesn’t realize and readers are not told is that “The Seneca were the largest of six Native American nations which comprised the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations, a democratic government that pre-dates the United States Constitution.”  https://sni.org/culture/

Nina posted a few months back about In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall.  In that review she talks about the refreshingly different perspective provided in that story, which is grounded in a First/ Native Nations point of view. The “Indian Captive” narrative has a long history in children’s literature. Lois Lenski won a 1942 Newbery Honor for her book Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison. Why is it that over 70 years after Lenski’s book the same narrative (albeit poorly written and researched compared to Lenski) of White superiority over First/Native Nations is still being published? Most libraries are well stocked with narrative voices such as Abbott.  Mary Jemison: Native American Captive does nothing to enlarge the scope of children’s literature. If the complete story of North America is to be told publishers need to seek out stories by more First/Native Nation authors.  Mary’s story ends in her old age explaining her history (and by extension the story of the Seneca) to White kids who live nearby.  The Based on a True Story series leaves contemporary kids in the same position - dependent on the White normative view to understand U.S history.  


Debbie Reese said...

Thanks for this review, Ernie! People have been writing to me about this book, but I don't have a copy.

I've got pages of notes for a post about Lenski's. I've got Seaver's too.

Your comment--that it is similar to Lenski's in that it does not add anything new--is important. I think calling out the same-old when we see it matters, because libraries are spending precious dollars of same-old. If same-old doesn't sell, might publishers take heed and look for Native writers for these histories? Or, for stories that we want out there in the schools?

Last night I finished Michaela MacColl's THE LOST ONES, which purports to be about an Apache brother and sister who were captured and eventually ended up at Carlisle. Most of the book is about the three years they spent in between, at Fort Clark. Kirkus noted problems in it, and I hope other journals do, too. Some are easy errors to spot, like calling "Changing Woman Goddess." And, the framework is telling, too. It is in Calkins Creek's "Hidden Histories" series, and the back cover tells us that MacColl "uncovers" this story. Clearly the words of a White person, thinking a White person is doing a good thing by writing this messed up book.

I'm working on a review of it.

Kim Bradley said...

Ernie, thanks for this. I'm appalled that a modern book would use the word 'savages.' I'm appalled by a lot of it, actually.

René Saldaña, Jr. said...

In particular, I appreciate your point that privilege allows the dominant to overlook (naively?) the (mis)use of language: in particular, the caption on the illustration: attributing the violence to the Indian rather than the British or French military: it is the Indians who do the attacking, while the soldiers are the attacked, the victim. This is a powerful use of words, but in the negative sense.

Brian Fahey said...

Thanks for the review, Ernie. Disappointing that this is basically a "Cowboys and Indians" kind of interpretation. It would take very little effort, especially give the resources at MacMillan, to construct a series that offers diverse perspectives, is accurate, is well written and holds the attention. It's a head scratcher that they went with one author. As for Jemison's story, kids would be better off reading the Wikipedia entry, which is more neutral and factual.

Hanna said...

Thanks for taking the time to do this, Ernie. When I saw the cover and description at a preview, I immediately groaned. My gut instinct was to throw it in the recycle bin.

Why is it no one at the publisher can see how blatantly problematic this book and others in the series are?

I would not give these books to any kids. I would not insult their intelligence by providing them with misleading premises and inaccurate histories.

How, other than not purchasing these books, can librarians send a strong message to publishers that these hackneyed, reductive stories are not a good use of anyone's time or money?

Anonymous said...

Hanna, That is a great question! Withholding purchases is a strong message but there must be other responses too. Let me ponder this for a bit.

Debbie Reese said...

I wonder if something like an Open Letter to Publishers of NonFiction might be an option? Lot of librarians could sign it... You could write it, Ernie, and say something like "We, the undersigned librarians, are disappointed in the kinds of nonfiction about Native peoples that is being published today. We are choosing not to make purchases that, in effect, are the same kind of biased stories we already have."

Destinee Sutton said...

Thanks for writing this review, Ernie. My library already bought the book, so there's little I can do there except include a link to your review in our catalog.

I looked at the full record for this book in our catalog and found out that the series doesn't have a single White author, but four different White authors writing under a single pseudonym. The author of this particular book is Jane Kelley (http://janekelley.blogspot.com/). I wonder what her response would be to your review? I'm tempted to contact her and see if she's open to being enlightened.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thank you for your review and for your comments. Very thought provoking.

Traci Sorell said...

Thank you for this review and pointing out so many obvious problems with language, point of view and not sharing the complexity of interactions between the Six Nations and the Europeans moving onto tribal lands. This type of writing coupled with problematic images sets up damaging stereotypes in children's minds that so many are working to counter with a more accurate view of history which includes all voices and experiences.

Nina Lindsay said...

I'm wondering about this too. I first saw this book at a Macmillan preview breakfast, and I just froze, thinking "I can't imagine how this will be good." But I couldn't figure out how to say anything, appropriately. Which, I'm realizing, is a White Person Problem. Damn.

Hanna said...

I like Debbie's idea. It should be noted, though, that the series is promoted as historical fiction, not non-fiction.

I wonder how the publisher's expectations for a book affects their attention to racist/homophobic/ableist/etc./inaccurate content. It seemed clear to me that the publisher does not expect this series to win awards or be evaluated on its merits.

Work like this is different from other recent titles with egregiously inaccurate or problematic content, including When We Was Fierce, A Tribe of Kids or A Fine Dessert. Those works were promoted as serious contributions to children's literature, whereas a series like this seems intended solely for commercial gain. Certainly, there is a market for books that continue to valorize Whiteness while demonizing Native peoples and everyone else.

Yet, the impact on kids is the same—a child who reads any of these titles comes away with a false understanding of the world and their history.

I have to admit that I dismissed the series as popular garbage, but the truth is that we won't get better series for kids unless we press for them. So I'm grateful, Ernie, that you are encouraging us to take this book seriously.

How do we hold publishers to a higher standard when accuracy and integrity seem to be at odds with (or tangential to) the publisher's commercial interests?

Beverly Slapin said...

Thank you so much, Ernie! I think Hannah’s question, “How do we hold publishers to a higher standard when accuracy and integrity seem to be at odds with (or tangential to) the publisher's commercial interests?” is the crux of the problem. My experience with these “series” boils down to this:

Hire a group of hack writers, using a single pseudonym, for a couple of hundred dollars each. Hand them each an outline, a page count, maybe a vocabulary list, and a due date for the manuscript. Make sure to impress upon them the importance of time over research. (They can rely solely on Wikipedia or find any other quick research source.) An in-house “researcher” will quickly locate graphics for the entire series, and an “editor” will write captions. Real history and honest point of view are not important; time is the only thing that matters. When the series is published, one positive review from any source will be enough to sell the entire series to schools and libraries, so frantic homework-driven children will have something—anything—to use.

So it doesn’t matter that Mary Jemison did not look like Farah Fawcett-Majors. And it doesn’t matter that the Seneca people were fighting for their lives and lands. And it doesn’t matter that Mary Jemison—called “Molly” by the people who took her into adoption—had good things to say about her new family and people. What matters is that another series gets published—quickly—and is marketed widely—and sells.

I’m currently working on a review of a book by one of these publishers. No one will be surprised. Again, thank you, Ernie!