Always Learning – More on ‘Cake’

Elizabeth Bluemle -- January 26th, 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).

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