A Fine Backlash: No Smiling Black People!

Good grief, book people can be exhausting. Take this lovely little picture book.

There’s nothing bookfolk love more than to take a beautiful book and pick it apart for one detail. There’s a lot of talk going on about diversity in books and in particular about this book. If you haven’t been following the discussion, the blog 100 Scope Notes compiles quite a few opinions here. As a black woman, I’m stunned by these discussions. There are SO many problems I have with the backlash.  First, it’s not about slavery…..it’s about dessert!

Second, the haters.

Congratulations! You’ve taken a beautiful book that works on many levels for a wide range of readers and demeaned it why? Oh, that’s right, the author chose to show slaves, ohmyGod, smiling! The horror, the travesty! By the way, the smiles aren’t big, cheesy grins. They’re small and pained. The most popular critique is that the author ‘whitewashes’ (don’t you love irony?) history and in doing so trivializes the very real struggle of slaves. Well, as Ms. Blackall says in her post, yes slavery was unspeakably horrific but the triumph of the human spirit is such that even in the darkest of times there may be an occasion where for the briefest moment one might find reason to smile. She doesn’t gloss over anything; you can tell from the pictures that they’re not living an easy life, and the image of mom and daughter huddled in the cabinet says all that needs to be said. It is a picture book, after all. Would you have preferred she show the mom and daughter being whipped while they picked the berries? Maybe a black man hanging from a tree in the background? Would that have been an authentic enough depiction of slavery for you, haters?

One of the reasons this book works so well is precisely because it does work for readers of many ages. For the younger reader, it’s all about the pretty illustrations. They might notice that the clothes change, the utensils change. The disparity shown between the slaves and the white family is noticeable but subtle. I think that’s smart because it doesn’t give young readers/listeners more than they can handle while at the same time showing something that will make them wonder. Why are they in the cabinet? The adult reading to them is then able to give an age appropriate explanation. For older readers, school-aged kids who may have a rudimentary understanding of slavery (but even if they don’t), they get it. Kids are smart, smart enough to pick up on the context clues the illustrations provide.

And it’s not about slavery; it’s about a dessert! That the author felt the need to apologize, to stem the tide of vitriol coming her way most likely, is to me in itself offensive. What I take from the uproar is that people are upset that black folks were shown feeling happy (how dare they!) rather than sad and beat down. What, black folks don’t get to be happy? They aren’t allowed to enjoy even the tiniest morsel of sweetness? All they get to do is eat the bitter pill of suffering, struggle and oppression?

And there it is. We want diversity in books but only if it falls in line with the image we’re comfortable with. Why else does pretty much every children’s book about blacks have to do with slavery, civil rights, racism, being poor or being in prison? The message: it’s hard out there for a black person! It’s not enough to know we struggle but they want to SEE the struggle, see the strain on our faces. You know what? You don’t need to. The more I think about this book, about myself, about the black people I know and the long line of black ancestors I come from the more I know that some of those slaves would’ve smiled. Black people are strong and proud. We’re good at finding joy in the midst of the storm, at snatching up happiness where we can get it. That’s why when I see that picture of a slave mom and daughter sitting in a cabinet sharing a private moment and the remains of a bowl of blackberry fool I know that they would’ve licked their fingers….and they’d smile.

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