Editorial published in the Manchester Journal on June 28, 2017
Essex artist and educator Judy Dow has urged Vermonters to confront the less savory aspects of our history in her quest to have Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s name removed from the annual children’s book award presented by the Vermont Department of Libraries. Dow insists that the prolific local author had ties to the eugenics movement, which rose to prominence in Vermont in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. One of the many tragic results of this movement was the, often coerced, sterilization of at least 250 Vermont citizens who were deemed too undesirable for procreation. Though Fisher’s involvement with the eugenics movement may have been tangential, many of the views put forth by the author remain troubling. It has been said that there is no perfect hero, but how can we as a community begin to grapple with Fisher’s problematic prejudices?
We begin by shining light on those whose voices have been silenced by history. We know that the French Canadian and Native American populations of Sandgate were named in an example of “rural degeneracy” by the Vermont Commission on Country Life (of which Fisher was an active member) and later degraded in Fisher’s novel Bonfire. These individuals remain in our local history as only “primitive” and “irresponsible sub-normals.” For many of the minority and disabled populations victimized by Vermont’s sterilization program, that dark history remains even more one sided. Educating ourselves on this chapter of our history, and listening to the stories of those oppressed, opens the door to dialogue and thus growth. In questioning Fisher’s prejudices and searching for truth, we can begin to reach some modicum of justice for these voiceless Vermonters.
In this dialogue, we can also begin to question our own prejudices. It is the height of privilege to assume that our own experiences, in a largely white state, are universal. When we are told our heros are harmful by individuals like Dow, who has both French Canadian and Native American roots, it is our duty to listen. Though Vermont is a largely progressive state when it comes to human rights, there is a danger in complacency. Even the most virtuous amongst us is likely to have biases that deserve questioning. Shirking issues such as this exemplifies insensitivity, as well as ignorance to the ways that racism and discrimination continue to permeate our society. Let us discuss and debate, but do not discredit those that have been hurt most.
State Librarian Scott Murphy has emphasized that this award is not about Fisher, but rather promoting literacy amongst Vermont’s children. Indeed, the context of this controversy is crucial. While there is a danger in judging the past by contemporary convictions, there is also an obligation to ensure an environment in which every child can comfortably learn. If just a few members of our community continue to be hurt by the prejudices that Fisher may represent, we will all suffer in return. This debate provides us with a meaningful opportunity to question our past, and determine what we value in the future. Let’s ensure that those values include us all.