This is one of the busiest weekends in Holly Springs, Mississippi. It is the weekend of the Annual Spring Pilgrimage. I could write on this event from any number of angles, most analyzing why the pilgrimage continues to attract visitors from all over. I may write a longer piece at some point, but for now I'd like to focus on a book I bought at a book sale sponsored by the Friends of the Marshall County Public Library.
Today, shortly after I arrived at the sale, only an hour before its closing, I came across Robert Lawson's They Were Good and Strong. I was immediately attracted to the book because, well, I was looking for old books and they easily stood out among boxes and boxes of new ones. I have been in the regular habit of buying books both at this yearly sale and more often at the local branch of MCPL. Quiet as it is kept (and I shouldn't be letting the cat out of the bag now), one can get some really classic books, and great children's ones (hardcover with beautiful illustrations, block prints, etchings, colors so vibrant the books as well as the pages are worth framing).
The cover of Lawson's book is enchanting. The copy I have is from the 1940 printing. It has a bright red cover with an illustration of two family members (Lawson's parents) in the foreground and other ancestors in the background. I couldn't wait to get home to crack the book open, but I did wait while two ladies I attended the sale with continued perusing. One of the friends came home from the sale with me, and as she was talking about our day I was skimming the pages. I was shocked at what I was reading. I'm fairly certain that after reading two or three pages I turned back to the title page to recheck the date of publication. I wondered how much benefit of the doubt I should be giving Lawson.
I cannot do justice to a discussion of this book in today's post, because I'm long winded and pathologically analytical, and I just refuse to give this text short shrift. So, later. But I did decide to check online to see what people have been saying recently about the book. Shocked again.
Let me say that when I say I am shocked I'm not using this term in its usual meaning. In truth, I am not shocked at all that, first, Lawson saw his ancestors as good. This opinion of his family does not surprise me for many reasons (I won't go over now). Second, I am not shocked that there are people who have high praises for this book even today. I've read the responses, and many of them seem completely to miss the fact that the author's appreciation of his family members depends on his and their not acknowledging or even realizing the existence of other perspectives. If the author's ancestors are good, the Native Americans who begged European settlers for food (according to what Lawson was told) are bad. On the other hand, the blacks in the text do not have even this negative agency. Rather, they exist only to serve their masters. An Aunt Jemima-like figure, a mammy, is in fact the one who shoos away the Natives while her mistress stands in the background, a picture of innocence.
So, what I really mean by shocked is something like afraid. Yes, afraid. What are the implications for humankind not just that a "well-intentioned" writer back in 1940 would miss the humanity of the people of color in his text, that Viking would find reason to publish this story, and that Caldecott would see fit to award such a provincial outlook but that so many of today's readers read this book just as it was intended to be read more than sixty years ago. Shock as fear has also a physical expression, an achiness, a weariness that is hesitance to imagine that racism is perpetual.