Native Characters in Children’s Books, Part One: Rush RevereDec 1st, 2014 | By rwinn | Category: Opinion, The Inquisitive Academic
It’s disappointing that just 1% of the 5,000 children’s books published annually feature an American Indian character. But it’s alarming how some of those Native characters are portrayed. In the past two years, conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh published three books as installments in his #1 New York Times–bestselling series, Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans. With a barcode labeling the books as “history,” the novels depict Rush Revere, a substitute teacher who enables his middle-school students to witness historical events firsthand via his witty, talking, time-traveling horse named Liberty. Limbaugh stated that he wrote the books because he wants his readers “to know the real story” of events such as the establishment of the Plymouth colony, the Boston Tea Party, and the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The author’s mixture of humor and thinly veiled political commentary has proven to be a hit amongst his faithful. While it may be expected that Limbaugh manipulates historical events and people to suit the reading tastes of his fan base, it’s inexcusable that the series both minimalizes the complexity of America’s history of racial prejudices and perpetuates stereotypes of Native people. Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) play an invaluable role by recommending sound literature to our communities, and Rush Limbaugh’s Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans series is further proof of why we need to be diligent about vetting the texts that the publishing industry is producing.
Limbaugh claims that he does “not have an agenda,” but neither America’s original inhabitants, the Pilgrims, nor the founding fathers would recognize the events as he portrays them. A case in point is that Revere’s students cheerfully witness and pontificate about the fact that the Pilgrims were motivated by a desire to “be free.” This contradicts National Book Award-winning historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s claim that they were driven by a sense of right and wrong, rather than by “liberty and freedom,” which were concepts “completely alien to their worldview.” Limbaugh uses Governor William Bradford to make another political assertion when he claims that the formerly struggling Plymouth colony instantly turned the corner towards success “when every family was assigned its own plot of land to work” and thereby stopped sharing the bounty of their harvest. Limbaugh has the famed Wampanoag, Squanto, affirming this version of history in succinct English, stating the change “made people free. No more slaves to the common house.” Moreover, in later books the monetary motivations for the Boston Tea Party are alluded to but abandoned in favor of the noble version that inspired the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party.
In an error transcending politics, each of the books erroneously presents America’s history of racism. In the opening author’s note in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, Limbaugh writes that the founders of our country “believed all people were born to be free as individuals.” Of course this statement ignores America’s history of both African American and American Indian slavery. In the novel, Squanto does discuss Natives being forced into servitude, but he puts the blame solely on the Spanish and not on the Pilgrims. Similarly, one of Revere’s students is a non-tribally specific Indigenous girl named Freedom who is readily accepted during her brief visit to 1620s Plymouth because she adopts colonist clothing and can speak English.
In the second book, Rush Revere and the First Patriots, an African American student, Cam, corrects the infamous firebrand Patrick Henry’s assertion that he’s Revere’s slave by stating, “I understand that this is 1775 and you aren’t enlightened to the reality of freedom for all men yet, but I am free and will always be free, just like this country.” If this obfuscation of America’s complex, deep-seeded racist past wasn’t frustrating enough, in the third book, Rush Revere and the American Revolution, both Cam’s and Freedom’s races aren’t even acknowledged as they meet and strategize with 18th century Americans. Based upon these interactions, Limbaugh seems to imply that racism, and even slavery itself, could have been quickly overcome if its victims either assimilated or asserted themselves.
The series value is further stymied by Limbaugh’s endowing Freedom with decades-old American Indian stereotypes. For example, when not time-traveling, Freedom wears feathers in her hair. She was named in honor of being born on the Fourth of July, and throughout the series her name and generous disposition win the affections of numerous contemporary and historical figures. Freedom is especially close to Revere’s horse, Liberty. Yet while the horse’s incredible abilities are attributed to a fateful lightning strike, it was Freedom’s grandfather who somehow taught her to both read and link minds with animals. Besides perpetuating the myth that America’s Indigenous people can readily commune with nature, Freedom’s “gift” is unnecessary because she only reads the mind of the talking horse.
Although it may appear that Limbaugh had pure intentions when he donated over 15,000 copies of Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims to schools, the fact that he stated, “liberal heads have been exploding left and right as a result” calls his motives into question. Moreover, Limbaugh’s donation helped to qualify him for the Children’s Book Council (CBC) Author of the Year Award because “finalists are determined solely based on titles’ performances on the bestseller lists.” The outcry over Limbaugh’s personal purchases that qualified him for the award resulted in the CBC stating that they may take into consideration “potentially-manipulable indications of the success of a title” going forward. Limbaugh won the award this past May.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” and this may be most applicable when it pertains to teaching falsehoods to our children. The young minds nurtured by TCU campus and community libraries rely on accurate texts to inspire them, and so we must resolve to ensure our shelves are filled with exciting, historically accurate, and culturally sensitive books. With some diligence on our part, we can help build a generation of readers who separate sound stories from the stacks of flawed publications.
Bird, E. (2014, March 20). Press Release Fun: The CBC and the 2014 Children’s Choice Book Awards. Retrieved November 2014 from http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2014/03/20/press-release-fun-the-cbc-and-the-2014-childrens-choice-book-awards/#_
Children’s Book Council. (2014, May 14). Seventh Annual Children’s Choice Book Awards Winners Announced During the 95th Annual Children’s Book Week. Retrieved November 2014 from http://www.cbcbooks.org/seventh-annual-childrens-choice-book-awards-winners-announced-during-the-95th-annual-childrens-book-week/#.VHJjX8m9ZmO
King Jr., M.L. (n.d.). Quotes. Retrieved November 2014 from http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/23924.Martin_Luther_King_Jr_
Limbaugh, R. (2013a, September 5). It’s My New Book! Retrieved November 2014 from http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2013/09/05/it_s_my_new_book_rush_revere_and_the_brave_pilgrims_time_travel_adventures_with_exceptional_americans
Limbaugh, R. (2013b). Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims. New York: Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster.
Limbaugh, R. (2014a, March 3). 10-Year-Old Thanks Host for Rush Revere Books Donated to Her School. Retrieved November 2014 from http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2014/03/03/10_year_old_thanks_host_for_rush_revere_books_donated_to_her_school
Limbaugh, R. (2014b). Rush Revere and the First Patriots. New York: Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster.
Limbaugh, R. (2014c). Rush Revere and the American Revolution. New York: Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster.
Philbrick, N. (2006). Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking.
Philbrick, N. (2013). Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. New York: Viking.
Reese, D. (2014, March 23). Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims. American Indians in Children’s Literature. Retrieved November 2014 from http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2014/03/rush-limbaughs-rush-revere-and-brave.html?m=1
Terrero, N. (2014, April 11). Kid Lit’s Primary Color: White. Entertainment Weekly.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair.