Always Learning – More on ‘Cake’

Elizabeth Bluemle - January 26, 2016

Recently, I blogged about the flare-up over Scholastic’s pulling of A Birthday Cake for George Washington, and my feeling was that because the book is for such young readers, who will not have the context to read between the lines of the “smiling slave” narrative (nor, sadly, will many of the adults sharing it with them be aware of this problematic treatment of slavery), it was a thoughtful decision to pull the book, despite the chill of censorship such a move casts.
I had felt that the book carried some of the burden that arose with the controversy around A Fine Dessert, and that it was pulled in part because sensitivities and awareness are now at such high levels that the publishing community has started to catch up to a more nuanced understanding of diversity and the importance of authenticity and accuracy.
But many voices in the community have raised the question of whether the fact that the team behind the book are people of color influenced this almost-unprecedented removal of a book from publication. And that question stopped me right in the tracks of my own white privilege – the kind that is most insidious and invisible, the kind I almost never have to think about. That white authors and illustrators have a level of support and comfort in the halls of publishing that few artists of color do. I’ve been aware of the struggles of people of color to be published, of course, and aware of frustrations with an editorial approach that often shows evidence of comfort only with certain limited kinds of stories about people of color. But I hadn’t thought at all about post-publication issues.
Would this book, had it been conceived and created by a white team of writers (and publisher), have been pulled? I want to say yes, but my uncertainty grows and I am uneasy.
Would the book have offended more or fewer people if the creative team were white? I would have believed more, but perhaps I am naive. I do wonder if critics of the decision to pull the book would have felt as angry if the author and illustrator had been white. It is really hard to know what that discussion would have looked like. One could argue that it would look the same as A Fine Dessert, but is that true? Since Cake followed Dessert.
This event raises so many important questions that are vital to our field:

  • Is censorship ever justified?
  • Would we have treated this book differently from a white creative team?
  • How do we talk about important issues from our painful past without sugarcoating or newly traumatizing children?
  • How do we celebrate the triumphs and accomplishments of oppressed people in an authentic, honest, age-appropriate, inspiring and truthful way?
  • How do we get to the place where all voices in this field are valued and heard?

Although the process is difficult, and rife with misunderstanding, distrust, frustration, and pain, it is also an exciting moment in our field. We have the opportunity to really talk about these things and make change. We must face them as honestly and openly as we possibly can, knowing that we will stumble and say ignorant things and change our minds as they expand with understanding. And we need to change our structure. Like the Academy, we need to actively seek diversity throughout our field, in every stratum, so much diversity that it reflects the colorful, many-storied world around us.
Honest dialogue and meaningful action can lead to healing in the same way that a festering wound heals, by being cut open and exposed to light and air. Systemic racism is the festering wound of our country, and my hope is that it is being ripped open at long last. It’s going to get a little uglier before it gets better, and it’s not a quick process, but think about the beauty of a scar that, while visible, is not still festering underneath the surface.
So – I am still struggling to puzzle out how I feel about this question of whether the decision would have been made differently had the creative team been white. We will never know. I suspect the people who made the decision will never know. All we can do is to ask ourselves that question, keep learning as we go, and be open to ideas that challenge our current understanding. I’m also still struggling with the issue of censorship and my relationship to it here.
I want to thank everyone who has contributed to this discussion, here, and on Facebook and Twitter and blogs. Please feel free to post (thoughtful, civil) comments, and to email me with your thoughts at ebluemle @ publishers weekly . com (without all the spaces, of course).

5 thoughts on “Always Learning – More on ‘Cake’

  1. Rhapsody in Books

    I strongly believe in providing “context” to stories about the past, so they aren’t sugarcoating a very bad legacy. But judging from responses to book reviews on my blog of kids’ books that reference slavery and Jim Crow, parents are *very* concerned about traumatizing their children or affecting their self-esteem. One parent even reported that she tried to read her kids a book I had featured, but that they started crying and she couldn’t finish. I would love to see a discussion in which parents, especially parents of color, talk specifically about how they deal with this problem. Frankly, I have even been traumatized as an adult at particularly graphic accounts of racist violence. I don’t believe the information should be covered up, but I’d like to hear about real-world strategies for helping children learn in a truthful but not hurtful way.

  2. Erin Murphy

    Thank you for keeping the conversation going here, Elizabeth. I’m struggling with the same sorts of confusion. Add into this that the most vocal people of color on this issue (the very folks who saw their work as a protest that was successful when Scholastic pulled the book) anticipated cries of censorship and dismissed them in advance as yet another sign of systemic racism, and I get even more confused.

  3. Erin Murphy

    Thank you for keeping the conversation going here, Elizabeth. I’m struggling with the same sorts of confusion. Add into this that the most vocal people of color on this issue (the very folks who saw their work as a protest that was successful when Scholastic pulled the book) anticipated cries of censorship and dismissed them in advance as yet another sign of systemic racism, and I get even more confused.

  4. ChristineTB

    Pulling the book doesn’t have anything to do with people of color being on the project. I suspect, given the fact that the project was written and edited by people of color meant that it probably didn’t go through a vetting on whether the story had any basis in fact. I suspect the corporation just assumed, given the players, that it had.
    I think, as an African American woman, that we don’t do justice to this process by trying to find a race based reason behind every corporate decision and compare it to white authors under similar scrutiny. It’s apples and oranges.
    A FINE DESSERT, for instance, is still on the shelves despite the controversy. And it was fictional. It didn’t pretend to be about real people.
    The issue with A BIRTHDAY CAKE was about the level of scholarship that went into crafting a narrative showing a child who was – in reality – not present with her father but presenting it as if it were a fact. It is about a book that made a hero out of a jerk who – as it turns out – protected his own self-interest by abandoning his own daughter to a life of slavery once he was put back in the fields to do common labor.
    Scholastic made a strategic and smart business decision to pull a book whose negative reception from industry reviewers (not Amazon consumers) would likely drag down sales of its other titles. And that the blogs trying to mitigate the issue by justifying the content was simply adding oxygen to an already raging wildfire. .
    Plus, who on Earth would buy that book? Certainly not parents like me (the ones with a book budget). I’m not sure who they thought the audience would be. To Black parents is just another in a long list of tired attempts to bombard our children with ubiquitous slave stories during the “February sweeps month.”
    (If you detect sarcasm in that comment, you would be right).
    Besides, I don’t think we’d be questioning Scholastic’s decision had the book been about the great recipes an adult created while sitting in one of our Japanese Internment camps while his/her adoring daughter looks on and smiles when the guards come around. Or seeing a meal through the eyes of young girls serving as “comfort women” during the war overseas. Or (you fill in the blanks – just add recipes and historical author’s notes). We’d have seen how offensive it was to try to sell that kind of story to preschoolers and early readers. It’s only when the stories are about black people that we somehow turn a blind eye to the absurdness of that marketing strategy.
    Isn’t it time for us to move on? This cake book has been dissected to crumbs by now.


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