Turning Diversity Flare-Ups into Opportunity

Elizabeth Bluemle -- January 19th, 2016

The children’s literature world has been stirred up by Scholastic’s announcement on Sunday that they are pulling A Birthday Cake for George Washington from their line-up and offering full return credit for unsold copies. The nutshell for anyone new to this issue is that a picture book for young readers was published, and then recalled because it ended up altering and reinterpreting history in ways that made slavery seem like a sometimes proud and happy experience, without sufficient accuracy and context in the story itself for its young readers to understand the reality of that experience (though there is a note in the back matter clarifying some of the license taken).

Our small world is in an uproar of disagreement about this decision to pull the book; you can read some articles from various viewpoints:

While the Internet is aflame with vilification and ire on both sides, what I want to talk about is the opportunity that this decision affords us in the future.

The only productive way to move through this is for people to listen to each other. Personally, I strongly believe the decision was a wise and necessary one given the problematic treatment of this story. And yet, I also feel sad for the author and artist of the book, because this must be their ultimate nightmare. Seeing a book they’ve worked on for years, with all good intent, withdrawn, and having strangers and colleagues fling vitriol at it (and at them personally) on the Internet, would be terribly unsettling at best. I truly hope that even if we take issue with some of the decisions made in the making of the book, we can keep our discussions civil.

I can see how some of the decisions that ended up not being acceptable could happen innocently enough. I could imagine a conversation where the creators and editors are talking about the shape of the story and the characters, and someone saying, “This is a story about a famous adult. How do we get the child’s-eye view in there?” and voila! there’s Delia, the daughter of Hercules – the perfect narrator. So what if she was actually working at the Virginia plantation while her father was in Philadelphia making the birthday cake? There were likely girls helping in the kitchen, and it makes for a stronger story if it’s his own daughter. It’s obvious how that decision could have been made, creatively speaking, but in addition to the historical inaccuracy, here’s another reason that kind of decision is extremely problematic.

The decisions that led to altering the history behind a story like A Birthday Cake for George Washington may have been made – however subconsciously – with the subconscious priorities of a particular audience in mind – a perhaps largely white audience of gatekeepers at schools and libraries. Looked at by that audience, those changes perhaps seem small: Delia wasn’t in Philadelphia helping to make the cake; Hercules made an escape attempt on Washington’s birthday, but not on *this* birthday. However, looking at the story from the perspective of the actual historical figures, and the truth of the full stories of their lives, these are huge, crucial distinctions.

What I’ve been thinking about: I’m left wondering why we would be telling this story in the first place.

I can see wanting to tell stories of triumph and achievement in unlikely environments. It is a given that any enslaved people would deeply value and preserve their own dignity, as much as possible; everything else was stolen by their captors. Dignity and spirit are necessary for survival. I would also argue the same is true for creative individual expression, in whatever way that gets to express itself in a limited sphere. Don Tate’s wonderful Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton tells such a tale, but does so in a balanced way with a lot of context and historical detail for a young audience. He includes joy and personal achievement in his text without whitewashing or glossing over the facts.

Our country is deeply traumatized by our history of uprooting its original Native American citizens and importing slaves to create wealth for white European immigrants. We can’t pretend that history away. We need to face it, try to make amends for it, not repeat our mistakes, and honor the experience of those whose ancestors suffered (and continue to suffer) as a result of a systemically racist structure. I understand the desire to find and celebrate stories of victory over harsh circumstances. But some of these stories, I think, end up attempting to soothe the anxieties and guilt of the dominant culture while painting a whitewashed (irony noted) portrait of the truth.

Let’s hope that there were moments of pride, dignity, accomplishment, and achievement in slaves’ lives, that there was laughter and there was spoon-licking. But any shining moments happened in a context where freedom was denied and the majority of slaves lived miserable, hard, diminished lives. We cannot escape that fact. Freedom is something that many of us are so lucky to take for granted, especially those of us who have never had it threatened, much less taken away. Its value cannot be forgotten when we are writing stories, especially for the young.

Some authors are concerned that this event will have a chilling effect on “diverse” books because publishers will be terrified to misstep. To my mind, this is instead a helpful wake-up call, a reminder that diverse books must be authentic and thoughtful. Creative teams must dig a little deeper to make sure they’re doing justice to the stories they’re telling. By all accounts, the chef Hercules was a fascinating individual whose story is definitely worth exploring – just perhaps not in such an abridged manner to such a young audience. When we tell stories of slavery to children — which unfortunately we must, if we are to help them understand the world they are inhabiting — we need to tell those stories in a new way. Why do these books never talk about what on earth was going on with the white owners’ decisions to own and oppress people? Children need and deserve honest conversation around difficult issues.

The diverse stories about human triumph I would like to see look to our more recent past, and now, and to the future. I find it frustrating for the vast majority of stories featuring African-American characters to be set during slavery and civil rights, as though their history begins and ends there. (Which, possibly, in the subconsciousness of white people, it almost does, in the sense that the events of those eras necessarily include stories about white people, and white people sadly still tend to be most interested in stories that include them—for better or worse.)

Let’s show kids of all races what amazing things have been accomplished by free people of color, and give them new role models among the titans of the past.

I’d love to see a picture book biography about Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut. How about Mark Dean, one of the country’s top engineers at IBM? The list of scientists and innovators, inventors and physicians, business entrepreneurs and artists, is packed with inspiration.

How great would it be to expand kids’ visions of who and what they might become, instead of constantly relegating them to a limiting and deeply traumatic past, or trying to contort that terrible past into something positive?

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