Take the cake
by Jamie LaRue
Usually, we think of censorship as the formal action of a government or government official: a school principal pulls a book from the high school library, a public library board votes to remove a title from the catalog, a university fires a professor who publishes something unpopular.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, is a little different. This one, published by Scholastic, and immediately criticized for its portrayal of smiling slaves, has been withdrawn BY SCHOLASTIC. Scholastic wrote,
“While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without 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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”
What has the author said about some of the criticisms? On Children’s Book Council Diversity site, Ganeshram writes,
“the discussion and criticism of the book has…been focused on the literal face value of the characters. How could they smile? How could they be anything but unrelentingly miserable? How could they be proud to bake a cake for George Washington? The answers to those questions are complex because human nature is complex.”
I found the rest of her comments insightful; by and large, however, the many commenters on her post did not. Indeed, one commenter wrote,
“Please with all due respect never write about black history. Please refrain from writing about slavery in any way.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship released this official statement, “While critics hailed the withdrawal of the book as a victory, it should raise serious questions about whether censorship, even when it is self-censorship, is ever a ‘win.'”
So, does the withdrawal of a book by the publisher constitute censorship? Or – to look at it another way that can also be defended — is the book’s withdrawal rather evidence of a long-overdue responsiveness to the many issues of diversity?
Incidentally, what does it mean “to withdraw” a book? While not common, it does happen. After publication, a book may turn out to have a copyright violation. According to the children’s bookseller across the street from my apartment (and these are my words, not hers), children’s books have been recalled by the publisher when they offend the target audience, although she couldn’t come up with any examples. Clearly, that isn’t the probable intention of a publisher – they hope to make money. Withdrawing a book means that the warehouses are cleared out, and the bookstores ship them back as returns. That’s a loss for the publisher in at least two ways: reputation and irrecoverable costs.
But some libraries – at this writing, Worldcat shows 44 library owners – bought it despite the less than laudatory reviews. It’s unlikely that we’ll send them back. Indeed, this book may well be of keen interest in the history of publisher responses both to a need for more diverse content, and a marketplace that spoke swiftly and sharply about the execution.
There are a host of related issues. But let’s hold those for future blogs. For now, did your library buy the book? If so, wouldn’t this be a wonderful opportunity to host a discussion about the backstory, to show the book, to use it to illuminate not just one value, but a moment in our culture when two values – freedom of expression, and sensitivity to diverse viewpoints – conflict?
Jamie LaRue is the director for ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Connect with him @jaslar on Twitter.
Parallels to Vamos a Cuba.
Hi Kathleen! Yes, the NCAC statement mentioned that. What’s the same: the belief that showing someone smiling or happy in an oppressive environment constitutes an endorsement of that oppression, and that no one should even be exposed to that image. I’d challenge that. People can find joy and moments of liberation even in the most appalling circumstances. That’s not an endorsement of oppression. Rather, it’s a celebration of resiliency and humanity. But where the cases are different: in Vamos a Cuba, there was official action to remove a book selected through the normal course of collection development. So, is Scholastic’s action censorship? I’d say not. Is the market response evidence of a climate more inclined toward censorship? Or is it evidence of a growing and critical public awareness of centuries of systemic racism and the politics of privilege. And I’d say…both.
Please close the quotes in the paragraph after the third pull quote. SI believe it should read […’win.'”]
JBeek, thanks for pointing that out. It’s been fixed.
Librarians everywhere should find the “withdrawing” a book very disturbing.
Scholastic found validity with the criticisms of this book and didn’t want to be associated with continuous misrepresentations and false narratives of Black Americans. But good try.
No question that this is a vexing problem. I consider myself pretty much an anti-censorship absolutist (“pretty much” in that I will oppose child porn, for example, and other material that raises issues of criminality). This book, written by a culinary expert, emphasizes that aspect of a quite complex larger story. The cast of characters– all real people — includes the “father of his country,” an enslaved man, who at the moment the story explores was plotting his escape, and his 6-7 year old daughter whom he was obliged to leave behind.
Of course the book cannot be expected to incorporate endless amounts of information, but sometimes the obliteration of context misrepresents such a supposedly “true” story. I feel that happened here. Scholastic has long had a reputation for quality publications. This book does not meet such standards on a variety of levels. Giving very young children this book as a story about an aspect of American slavery — in the White House, of all places, can only leave the impression that there was no significant difference between being a slave and being a servant, and that slavery was indeed a benign institution supported by a revered President. Such a history lesson should rethought for its wider implications. Recalling the book allows for that. We should all expect that to be an extremely rare and carefully considered editorial decision. The fact that attention was drawn to the book by way of public outcry and protest does not mean that Scholastic was pressured to act as they chose to. Here is the note I added to my signature on a petition requesting the recall.
“I am angry and disappointed that Scholastic has become a publishing house capable of printing and distributing such a poorly researched and historically dishonest book for children. What were the editors thinking? The story of slavery is in great measure the story of resistance, rebellion, sabotage and escape, from first to last. To prettify the life and experience of a slave child in this way is a brutal travesty. How is it possible that no one on your editorial staff had the professionalism, or even the intellectual curiosity, to look up the story of Hercules and his heart-rending decision to escape slavery at the cost of leaving his daughter behind? And the fact that he was a fine enough man, father, and teacher that when asked, his young daughter understood his flight and proclaimed her joy that he was free. Birthday cakes are insignificant in the face of such human suffering and survival.”
You raise some interesting questions. It’s something that has come up many times in the past year. This is a great example of how complicated and nuanced some of the values we hold dear in our profession can be in conflict. It also is a reminder that we can’t blindly jump on one side or the other. Although, I do not see this as censorship, considering it was an publishing house decision about their own product, I do see it as a social justice issue. When we center the conversation on censorship we can easily lose sight of the larger issue, which is problematic depictions of race in a time when we, as a nation, really need to be aware of the impact that these images perpetuate.
I don’t consider Scholastic’s decision censorship. Would I consider a library withdrawing this book from their collection censorship? Maybe. I’ve been sitting here trying to decide how I feel about this, which is difficult because I have so many conflicting feelings. On one hand, I consider myself a librarian with strong anti-censorship tendencies and values. However, on another hand, I also believe firmly in accurate, historical representation, and I find myself sympathizing with those who have taken offense to this book.
I think the best solution is, as Jamie notes, to turn this into an opportunity for dialogue. The book has been written, it is now out there, and I can only hope that some folks who take this home to their children trust that having a real conversation about the history of slavery in our country is beneficial and critical to the development of our future societal attitudes. (And yes, my organization has several copies of the book and a small hold list going…)
Thank you all for your comments. Jody is right: as professionals, we have many values, and they do comes into conflict. Perhaps (apostasy!) everything doesn’t have to be filtered through the First Amendment lens FIRST. And not only that lens. But it does have to go through there eventually, as long as librarians remain one of the guardians of that principle. Meanwhile, I welcome the thoughtful comments here.
This is a very interesting issue and discussion. A small correction to one comment might be in order. George and Martha Washington never lived in the White House. John and Abigail Adams were the first. If this book, which I have not seen, portrays this story as taking place in the White House, it is, as commenters mentioned, poorly researched. However, that is not the issue. Portrayals of slavery in any books, non-fiction or fiction, for children or adults, are increasingly problematic. But can we be absolutely sure, positively positive, that no slave ever once smiled when making a birthday cake for his or her master, mistress, or child of the household? Have we all mastered the content of thousands of slave narratives, some of which are self-described narratives of individual slaves having deep affection for the families with whom they lived. I think the suggestion of dialogue about the book is a good one, perhaps way over the head of the target market, but certainly an appropriate step for professionals. I also would like to see less reflexive action taken concerning these very big issues without considerable,thought and research devoted to realities being portrayed.
Jamie, I hoped that you would write something about this story! Thank you for the thoughtful discussion and comments. I can’t decide how I feel about this one way or another, but I think it’s fantastic to have a dialogue with other professionals about the implications for our field.
I thank you for catching my error. The story does indeed ( and of course) take place in Philadelphia. As for slave mirth and merriment, your are also certainly right about that — all human beings seize and cherish occasions of joy, delight, and happiness. But is it appropriate to represent actual slave children in America to present-day 6-9 year olds as leading lives they themselves would hardly find onerous? Have a look at the Amazon page for this book. There are thought provoking library publication reviews and reader reviews. It appears likely that George Washington was hardly a benign master.
I found this review interesting by Daniel Jose Older
“Why aren’t free speech organizations as concerned with the exclusion of writers of color from the publishing marketplace as they are about the censorship of one racist children’s book?”
I managed to get hold of a galley copy of the book, and would challenge the rising theme that the book is “historically inaccurate.” It’s not. It is, as Scholastic notes, carefully researched and presented. Moreover, the author’s note at the back is a pretty direct note about Hercules’ status, escape, and the unknown fate of his daughter. That said, Older is right that the real issue is the suppression not just of a book, but of the participation of people of color in the big, mainstream publishing houses. The ironic difficulty of this book is that it was both written and edited by African-American women, who made deliberate and thoughtful choices about their presentation – and one wonders how their contributions will be greeted by Scholastic in the future.