The real censorship in children’s books: smiling slaves is just the half of it

Why arent free speech organisations as concerned with the exclusion of novelists of colour from the publishing marketplace as they are about the censorship of one racist youngsters volume?

Earlier this month, the childrens volume industry released yet another picture volume featuring smiling enslaved people, joyfully running about the apparently-not-so-bad business of slave work. A Birthday Cake for George Washington tells the story of Hercules, the first chairwomen enslaved chef, and his daughter, Delia. Life seems to be pretty decent for them, judging by the broad, shiny grinnings that appear on almost every page. No context is given about the true, horrific nature of American bondage; George Washington appears as a warm, benevolent patriarch. Besides a brief mention of the complexity of the topic in an writers 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 Washingtons 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. Childrens book activist Debbie Reese, literary scholar Ebony Elizabeth, novelist Mikki Kendall, myself and others chimed in, many of us still reeling from the staunch defence put up for the last picture volume presenting smiles and bondage, A Fine Dessert. Unlike that volume, 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: without more historical background on the evils of bondage than this volume for younger infants can provide, the book may devote a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.

On Friday, three prominent free speech organisations the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Pen American Center, and the The First Amendment Committee of the American Society of Journalists and Authors condemned Scholastics decision to pull A Birthday Cake for George Washington from circulation; a move the group qualified as censorship.

Their statement which sounds more like panicked GOP candidates squalling about the rise of PC culture than organizations dedicated to freedom conflates Black Lives Matter activism for equality in youngsters volumes with the anti-immigrant culture studies purges in Arizona and homophobic attacks on volumes with LGBTQ characters.


Slavery as depicted in A Fine Dessert. Photograph: Emily Jenkins

It seems the definition of censorship becomes more fluid and convenient with each new utilize. If free speech groups feel the need to cry censorship about editorial decisions, there are many, many tales of bondage that dont feature smiling enslaved people or white saviors in the rejected folders of the 79% white publishing industry that they could start with. They could look into the even wider array of tales about our indignation, our resistance, our power, that have never made it out of the slush heap, let alone to the shelves of major bookstores.

But the free speech advocates havent dedicated much energy to the alarmingly un-diverse publishing industry and its very real effect on literature.( Pen American, of which Im 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 were left with is a palpable sense of selective outrage . Pulling a volume because its historically inaccurate and carries on the very American tradition of whitewashing bondage is classified as censorship, while maintaining an ongoing majority white industry that systematically excludes narrations of color is just business as usual . Under that selective reasoning , those of us who dont want infants 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 thatteachers and librarians offer the proper context for the work , cold convenience considering the history of childrens 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 important discussions about how our nation creates, perceives, and perpetuates narrations about bondage. But theres 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 happy slave. He also warned against beingtold of the contentment of the slaves, andentertained with vivid pictures of their happiness. He was astounded to encounter northerners who believed the slaves song was proof of their happiness: It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The sungs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is alleviated by them, merely as an aching heart is alleviated by its tears.

The volumes defenders couch their debates in the claim that a volume has no power.I have always been skeptical of claims that a particular volume would harm a particular infant, Roger Sutton, editor in chief of the Horn book, wrote in defence of the book, never mind infants as a whole, or children of a particular ethnicity or gender. You cant champ the power of volumes on the one hand and then feign they dont affect the world at all. Rebecca Solnit put it perfectly in her recent essay Men Explain Lolita To Me : There 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.

Of course books are dangerous; thats why we love them. Stories matter, and the stakes are higher in childrens literature. If volumes have the power to help us find ourselves, Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park lately explained, then a childrens volume has superpowers. And if the pen truly is mightier than the sword as we were reminded us again and again after the Hebdo tragedy then we must understand that, like the sword, the blade of arts 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 volumes by being a conscientious, compassionate, and reflective literary citizen. Ill meet you there.

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