The sky here is a beautiful shade of dull gray, creating a mild day for catching up on whatever fits the mood. I have a few general household things to do and lots and lots of reading. Last night, I switched from Netflix to Amazon and started watching “Mozart in the Jungle”. I actually stayed awake and stuck with it until 2 am! I can’t help but wonder why Netflix, Showtime, HBO and Amazon can produce such great stuff but the major television networks that exist to produce television shows seem entertain us with mediocrity. Perhaps they’re simply feeding the masses and going for the profit.
Too many schools seem to simply feed the masses and endorse mediocrity as well. Although they’re supposed to be non-profit they generate a large income through sports and testing. I’m picking on them today because of the poor job they do with regards to teaching history especially when it comes to enslavement. Perhaps through trying to create an American ethos that is above reproach, our history is misrepresented. Of course it’s not only the teaching of enslavement. We’re rarely taught that about the Zoot Suit Riots, that the first Africans to visit America were explorers, that Chinese explorers reached the Americas before the Europeans or even that Native Americans are still alive and thriving while still fighting for their rights. The leaders of the free world can’t talk aloud about these things.
But, enslavement is on the chopping back today because its presence in children’s books has us still debating when the topic should be introduced to children and how much they should be told; how much should be sugar coated. History is an all or none proposition: once we change the his-stories to be more palatable, we’re not telling the truth. All or none, my friends. All or none.
I have to wonder why there have been so many picture books published on enslaved people and so few for middle grade and young adult readers. When I think of the story of Hercules (the subject of the recent A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram and Vanessa Brantley-Newton) and all the documents that exist about his life and times, I
wonder why the book wasn’t written for an older audience. I look at the works of nonfiction authors like Tonya Bolden, Tanya Stone, Steve Sheinkin, Phillip Hoose and Marc Aronson and wonder why more authors don’t fully expand their stories for an older audience. Besides, I thought nonfiction was the new black.
I haven’t read Birthday Cake, but was called into the fray when Vicky Smith made reference to my wondering whether an African American would have written A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat. Ganeshram was born to a Trinidadian father and an Iranian mother. While Trinidadians did experience enslavement, her cultural memory is not the same as that of African American. It’s every bit as valid, but it’s not one of reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, Red Summer or Harlem Renaissance.
In a recent blog post, Andrea Davis Pinkney, the book’s editor, states that the “two books are vastly different” and she’s quite correct. While Birthday Cake contains a snippet of enslavement in a larger story, Birthday Cake is a story of enslavement. But, there’s more.
Set in the 1810, Fine Dessert is story of antebellum slavery in the tidewater region, the time and place that contains some of the stereotypes of this peculiar institution. It was a slave society, where Blacks were seen as “slaves” or as objects rather than humans. Hercules, born around 1755 lived in the Chesapeake region during the Colonial era. He could have
walked the streets with free blacks, maintained a garden, earned his own money and bought his or his family’s freedom. His privileged position as a head chef would have gained him much scrutiny and little margin for error. While slave codes had not yet been enacted, there was still a clear line between those where free and those who were not.
These two books contain the possibility of opening a real dialog about the practice of enslavement, even about the use of the term ‘slavery’ vs. ‘enslavement’ because it is so easy to see Hercules as a fully realized human being who was enslaved.
As my brief comparison of these books shows, I do have hope that we can consistently develop accurate representations of all American history in children’s literature. Yes, enslavement is American history. Still, I have to quite sounding so final when I end my posts like I did when I boldly stated an African American would never have written Fine Dessert although I do still have my opinion. I have to realize that while African Americans have learned behaviors through oppression in this country, they attend the same schools as European Americans and mis-learn the same history. Mediocrity is a bitch, isn’t it?
I’ve not yet read Birthday Cake and hope I can give it a positive review, as I hope with all the books I read. I will post a review soon.
This isn’t quite where I expected this post to go! It’s ALA Midwinter weekend! SLJ just forecast 2016 in Kidlit! We’re working on the Summer Reading list!! Well, I guess I’ll just have to post again soon. I know I’ll be giving a special shout out to marginalized authors at the Media Awards tomorrow.
Here’s hoping your week is more than mediocre.