Earlier this month, the childrenâ€™s book industry released yet another picture book featuring smiling enslaved people, gleefully going about the apparently-not-so-bad business of slave work. A Birthday Cake for George Washington tells the story of Hercules, the first presidentâ€™s enslaved chef, and his daughter, Delia. Life seems to be pretty decent for them, judging by the wide, shiny grins that appear on almost every page. No context is given about the true, horrific nature of American slavery; George Washington appears as a warm, benevolent patriarch. Besides a brief mention of the complexity of the topic in an authorâ€™s note at the end, the book gives no hint as to why Mr Hercules would go on to run away, leaving his daughter behind, on George Washingtonâ€™s birthday.
Black Lives Matter activist Leslie Mac led the chorus of voices raised up against it. She talked about it on her podcast and began the Twitter hashtag #SlaveryWithASmile. Childrenâ€™s book activist Debbie Reese, literary scholar Ebony Elizabeth, writer Mikki Kendall, myself and others chimed in, many of us still reeling from the staunch defence put up for the last picture book showing smiles and slavery, A Fine Dessert. Unlike that book, which received critical acclaim for months before it garnered criticism, A Birthday Cake for George Washington was roundly panned by critics and bloggers for essentially the same faults.
On 17 January, Scholastic (who, full disclosure, published my young adult novel Shadowshaper last year) pulled the book from circulation, stating: â€œwithout more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.â€
On Friday, three prominent free speech organizations â€“ the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Pen American Center, and the The First Amendment Committee of the American Society of Journalists and Authors â€“ condemned Scholasticâ€™s decision to pull A Birthday Cake for George Washington from circulation; a move the group qualified as â€œcensorshipâ€.
Their statement â€“ which sounds more like panicked GOP candidates squalling about the rise of â€œPC cultureâ€ than organizations dedicated to freedom â€“ conflates Black Lives Matter activism for equality in childrenâ€™s books with the anti-immigrant cultural studies purges in Arizona and homophobic attacks on books with LGBTQ characters.
It seems the definition of censorship becomes more fluid and convenient with each new use. If free speech groups feel the need to cry censorship about editorial decisions, there are many, many stories of slavery that donâ€™t feature smiling enslaved people or white saviours in the rejected folders of the 79% white publishing industry that they could start with. They could look into the even wider array of stories about our anger, our resistance, our power, that have never made it out of the slush pile, let alone to the shelves of major bookstores.
But the free speech advocates havenâ€™t devoted much energy to the alarmingly un-diverse publishing industry and its very real effect on literature. (Pen American, of which Iâ€™m a relatively new and usually proud member, has been doing more recently and hosted an excellent series of panels on the subject last year.)
What weâ€™re left with is a palpable sense of selective outrage. Pulling a book because itâ€™s historically inaccurate and carries on the very American tradition of whitewashing slavery is classified as â€œcensorshipâ€, while maintaining an ongoing majority white industry that systematically excludes narratives of color is just business as usual.
Under that selective reasoning, those of us who donâ€™t want children to be exposed to heinous caricatures of people of color or whitewashed versions of history must be content to sit on the sidelines. We are left to hope that teachers and librarians provide the proper context for the work, cold comfort considering the history of childrenâ€™s literature and the education system, both of which have long institutional histories of upholding white supremacy.
The statement praises A Birthday Cake for George Washington for generating â€œimportant discussions about how our nation creates, perceives, and perpetuates narratives about slaveryâ€. But thereâ€™s nothing new about the question of how America has failed to reconcile with its ugly history or how the survivors of that history have been able to represent themselves. Frederick Douglass never allowed himself to be photographed smiling so as not to perpetuate the myth of the â€œhappy slaveâ€. He also warned against being â€œtold of the contentment of the slaves, andâ€¦entertained with vivid pictures of their happiness.â€ He was astonished to encounter northerners who believed the slavesâ€™ song was proof of their happiness: â€œIt is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.â€
The bookâ€™s defenders couch their arguments in the claim that a book has no power. â€œI have always been skeptical of claims that a particular book would harm a particular child,â€ Roger Sutton, editor in chief of the Horn book, wrote in defence of the book, â€œnever mind children as a whole, or children of a particular ethnicity or gender.â€ You canâ€™t champion the power of books on the one hand and then pretend they donâ€™t affect the world at all. Rebecca Solnit put it perfectly in her recent essay Men Explain Lolita To Me: â€œThere is a common attack on art that thinks it is a defence. It is the argument that art has no impact on our lives, that art is not dangerous, and therefore all art is beyond reproach, and we have no grounds to object to any of it, and any objection is censorship.â€
Of course books are dangerous; thatâ€™s why we love them. Stories matter, and the stakes are higher in childrenâ€™s literature. â€œIf books have the power to help us find ourselves,â€ Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park recently explained, â€œthen a childrenâ€™s book has superpowersâ€. And if the pen truly is mightier than the sword â€“ as we were reminded us again and again after the Hebdo tragedy â€“ then we must understand that, like the sword, the blade of art and literature has two sides: one that can create and the other destroy.
Somewhere beyond the false equivalency of caring what our children read and censorship, there is a way to cultivate equity in books by being a conscientious, compassionate, and reflective literary citizen. Iâ€™ll meet you there.