Monday, January 18, 2016

Racism? Or Just a Proud Slice of History?

When you write social studies lessons, which I do but rarely, you learn quickly how every word matters. There is no objective viewpoint; both writer and reader bring bias to the text.

The other day, Chuck sent me a clipping about a new Scholastic book for young readers called A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The author is a New Yorker with a Caribbean-Iranian background; the illustrator is African-American, and the book tells the story of a real-life chef in George Washington's home, a chef who was also a slave. It is primarily about his relationship with his daughter, also a real person. As the writer of the blog noted, it appears to be "a book for parents who want to teach their children that slavery, American style, wasn't that bad."

I LOLed at the commentary and passed the article on to DZ, whose connections in the children's book biz allowed her to find out the moment Scholastic decided to scrap the book. This was after the VP of Scholastic, a well-respected African-American award-winning author of books based on historical personages, wrote a blogpost in support of the book. It was also after 900+ people signed a petition asking for it to be pulled. Now people are accusing Scholastic of self-censorship that takes away from our ability to have a reasonable conversation about race.

So who is right? I am reminded of my father's refusal to let us watch "Hogan's Heroes," because although you can make a show about people acting kooky and having fun in a Nazi prison camp, you probably shouldn't.

I grew up at a time when Communism was vilified and people of color did not exist in my childhood textbooks. I can't say that either fact destroyed my life or even made me who I am today, but I was lucky enough to have a lot of other influences. I object to censorship or trigger warnings for college-age students, and I'm disgusted when local school districts cave to parents who want LGBT-themed books off the library shelves. But when you write for little kids, even if you can't show horror, you should nevertheless not sugar-coat reality. The chef and his daughter may have had a loving relationship, but he ended up running away, and she was enslaved until she died. That's not your ordinary daddy-daughter relationship story. What do you think?

1 comment:

Steve Adams said...

Not having read the book, I can't comment on it specifically. I would make just the general comment that it seems unfortunate if every person's story is required to be a proxy for the social issue of that person's time. Slavery, even if the dominant fact of these people's lives, wasn't the only fact of their lives, and their relationship with one another may even have been more important to them. Maybe it's OK to have just one story of their's be about something other than their bondage, or to show that love can exist even under such conditions.