Books Race & Racism

BHM #22: It’s Time to Stop Sugar-Coating Slavery

With Black History Month upon us, I thought I’d put together some more ideas for families, educators and social justice activists interested in addressing race, slavery and anti-blackness with young children. In my search for knowledge, I am coming across some great resources that I’d like to share with you!

(This is the twenty-second in a series of posts devoted to sharing the rich history of African-Americans. For this reason, I’m reposting this post from February 21, 2016. To see more posts in this series, click here.Additionally, you can click here to see more posts about raising anti-racist children.

Newsflash! Being enslaved is NOT an enjoyable experience!!!

Nonetheless, it took a recent successful grassroots campaign that resulted in the recall of the children’s book A Birthday Cake for George Washington and the related critiques of A Fine Dessert have brought more people into the conversation about how and when to talk to young children about the history of enslavement of Africans in the United States.

A firestorm erupted when Scholastic released a children’s book early this month, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, featuring smiling slaves baking a cake for George Washington. The back cover portrayed George Washington and his enslaved chef, Hercules, arm-in-arm, like best buddies. The image convinced many that this was an Onion parody and not an actual children’s book published in 2016. The images of seemingly happy enslaved African-Americans working in the kitchen were underscored with Hercules’s closing words when he serves the cake: “An honor and a privilege, sir… Happy birthday, Mr. President.” The story never offers children a hint as to why it was not a “privilege” nor a smiling affair to be enslaved. Nor do readers learn that the conditions were so dire that Hercules escaped on Washington’s birthday the following year, despite having to leave his children behind.

Even though the book was criticized by The School Library Journal as “highly problematic” and Kirkus Reviews described it as “an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery” Scholastic made no moves to recall the book.

Enter heroic librarians and social justice organizations, #BlackLIvesMatter activists and journalists to save the day! They began a grassroots campaign that went viral in just four days with the hashtag #slaverywithasmile (created by Leslie MacFadyen of the National #Ferguson Response Network.) Under tremendous pressure from petitions, op-ed pieces and commentary on social media channels, Scholastic finally recalled the book.

Uncle Hercules?

These protests are a part of a larger campaign for children to learn the truth about history and the world today. As Edith Campbell noted:

While this victory is empowering, the fight itself is disheartening because the battle against the portrayal of “happy slaves,” of people who were less than human and who were being well cared for is a hundred years old. The need for accuracy, not for sweetening, with regards to the enslavement of Blacks in America is critical to this country. This era in American history has shaped our national identity and until we get it right, we will continue to be encumbered with racism.

[Read more here.]

The depiction of happy slaves is nothing new and fits into a much larger pantheon of Black caricatures such as the Mammy, the Brute (now labeled the “thug”) and the Coon, that function to maintain white supremacy in the hearts and minds of many Americans. This is how we are taught to be racist.

Ever heard of Uncle Ben? How about Uncle Tom? As the Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia states:

The Tom caricature portrays black men as faithful, happily submissive servants. The Tom caricature, like the Mammy caricature, was born in ante-bellum America in the defense of slavery. How could slavery be wrong, argued its proponents, if black servants, males (Toms) and females (Mammies), were contented and loyal? The Tom is presented as a smiling, wide-eyed, dark skinned server: fieldworker, cook, butler, porter, or waiter. Unlike the Coon, the Tom is portrayed as a dependable worker, eager to serve.

Within this historical context, one understands that Happy Birthday Mr. President is more than just a simple story of a cheerful Black chef who bakes for the president. It fits into a harmful narrative that negates the atrocities of slavery and justifies the enslavement of Black people. I mean, who wouldn’t want to bake a birthday cake for the President? With this message in mind (and sugary treats to boot!)… who wouldn’t want to be a slave?


The Ages and Stages of Talking about Slavery with kids…

On the contrary, it is understandable that adults would shy away from stories that would unnecessarily frighten young children with the raw truth about slavery. Is it developmentally inappropriate to discuss with a preschooler events that happened over a hundred years ago when the concept of time is already abstract enough. (Try discussing the difference between three days, three weeks, and three years with a three-year-old and you will see what I mean!) Add to this the frightening idea that enslaved families were separated and young children were taken away from their parents when they were sold off in slavery. Thus, talking about slavery the wrong way and you may have a toddler scared of being separated from mommy and daddy!

Nonetheless, it is important that in trying to protect our children from the atrocities of slavery, we don’t gloss over the truth or reinvent history.

So, with Black History Month fast-approaching, when and how, do we talk with children about slavery in meaningful and developmentally appropriate ways?

Kids are developing rapidly during the preschool and early elementary ages. A four-year old is dramatically different from a six-year old in their ability to comprehend concepts like time and empathy. And of course every child is different. That said, it is important for educators, caregivers, parents and social-justice advocates to come together in learning communities to discuss ways to meaningfully engage about slavery with young children.

Questions to Consider when Talking About Slavery with Young Children

In that regard, Teaching Tolerance offers some helpful questions to get this conversation started with an article titled, When and How to Talk with Young Children about Enslavement: Discussion Questions for Educators by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards. Below I have adapted questions for your school, aftercare or preschool community to discuss. (Click here for a downloadable copy to bring to your child’s school or aftercare site.):

  • When are kids old enough to understand different aspects of slavery? What do we want kids at different ages to understand?
  • Do preschool age children actually understand the concept of “long ago”? Will talking about frightening aspects of history make them worry that these events happened yesterday or even today?
  • How do Black children think and feel about learning people like them were enslaved? How does it impact their sense of belonging? Identity? What do they think/feel when we read about it in books?
  • What do White, Asian, or Latino children think and feel when they learn about slavery? What do they think/feel when we read about it in books?
  • What will young children learn about slavery from movies, TV, books or other adults if parents or educators don’t discuss it with them first?
  • How are families included this discussion? How do Black families and White families feel about how we teach slavery in school? How should we handle different beliefs about how slavery should be discussed?
  • What overarching concepts about fairness/unfairness or inclusion/exclusion do we want children to understand? How can we talk about slavery in developmentally appropriate ways without glossing over or  sugar-coating its realities?
  • What values do we want to share? How can we use stories about slavery to teach compassion, empathy, perseverance and courage?
  • What responses do we want to model for children in teaching about slavery? How can stories about slavery serve as opportunities to talk about speaking up for others, or standing up for fairness or human rights?

Parents can download these questions to bring to their school or preschool and ask teachers to talk about them.

Teaching Kids About Slavery: Picture books struggle with the Task

Learn more about the protest and recall effort in this great NPR Podcast on All Things Considered

What do you think? Do you have any recommendations for talking with your caregivers or school community about when and how to talk about slavery with young kids? Share in the comments below!

Coming up next I’ll post a list of tried and true resources for starting conversations about race with young children. (Check back with this blog or follow this blog for the next post!) In the meantime….

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3 thoughts on “BHM #22: It’s Time to Stop Sugar-Coating Slavery

  1. Thanks for covering this important issue on your blog. What’s really important here is the continuing battle to get books that accurately represent marginalized children published and into homes and libraries. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center collects statistics that indicate about 13% of all children’s books have main characters that are of children of color or Native American, and even fewer are actually written by these marginalized authors. It’s important that parents begin (or keep!) requesting books with Native American or children of color in there bookstores or libraries. Don’t assume that because you don’t see the books, that they don’t exist. It’s important that parents question classroom reading selections because our children need to find themselves in books read at school so that the do indeed want to read. And, it’s important that parents buy books and build libraries in their homes for their children.

    If we’re demanding the books that we want for our children and if we’re aware of what’s being published, hopefully we can eliminate these false and harmful portrayals.

    1. Thank you for your comment–I agree completely. I’ve been pushing this at my daughters school. We have a supportive principal and receptive staff. Nonetheless, it was never a school-wide priority to address this systematically. So, last year as the chair of the School Site Council I worked with the principal to make diverse books a part of the school site plan. He also created a budget for it. Thus, this year teachers worked with the literacy coach to work with all teachers to review classroom libraries and create purchase lists of books we lacked. If we want to eradicate systemic racism in our schools, we need to be systematic in our actions and not rely on one or two individuals to think/feel like doing the right thing.

  2. I don’t think kids are ever too young to be learning about slavery; it’s just a matter of finding the appropriate terms. At the youngest ages, children learn about slavery in the negative as they establish ownership of their own bodies and develop empathy. It’s important to teach children that slavery is an institution. People can be held in slavery, but people are not slaves. When it comes to talking about the history of slavery in the Americas, it’s good to talk about the many different roles people played in slavery and to provide children with empowering images of sabotage, rebellion, and escape, without glossing over the fact that many people benefitted greatly from slavery both directly and indirectly. The most important thing is to listen to children and be open to surprising conversations and questions.

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