Controversial kids coloring book with happy US slaves - Acceptable?

Can you do a historical kid’s book with US slaves that does not explicitly reference the horrors of slavery? This book below is in the news. The cover art is actually rather charming but … well … they’re slaves! They had better bake massa Washington’s cake! - the subject matter underlying the issue is not. I would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall in the creative meeting.

I suppose the author’s point is that while slavery was a terrible institution people did live have workaday lives and had interesting, positive experiences even as slaves. Can you make this straddle?

Amid Controversy, Scholastic Pulls Picture Book About Washington’s Slave

No. You can’t side-step a major part of the slaves’ lives, just to paint a rosy picture.

Instruct the kids to only use those tan “flesh colored” crayons.

Problem solved.

And rename the book “Wal Mart, the early years”.

I have really mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, the central message of the story appears (from articles, full disclosure, I haven’t read the book any more than you have) to be that it’s an honor and a fun thing to bake a wonderful cake for that great hero, George Washington. Washington was anything but a hero to the people he kept enslaved under threat of mutilation or torture if they tried to escape his imprisonment, or even if they didn’t work hard enough for his liking. You might posit some Stockholm Syndrome bullshit if Hercules hadn’t actually escaped from slavery on Washington’s birthday: clearly Hercules wasn’t a guy happy with his enslaver.

(I have read A Fine Dessert, and found both the slave section and the modern new age San Francisco section pretty gross).

On the other hand, I’m really uncomfortable with a book publisher pulling a book from circulation due to political pressure. I’d much prefer that people don’t buy the book, rather than have the publisher make it completely unavailable.

I don’t have an answer.


A few years ago when visiting, I found out that my niece was being taught about slavery in kindergarten. I thought that was rather early to introduce such an intense concept. Of course because it was kindergarten, the homework paper I saw was extremely dumbed down. To the point where you wonder why bother introducing the topic.

I have no idea how the entirety of the book describes slavery. The complexity and controversial nature of the subject seems inappropriate for a book for small children. This might be a better lesson for children somewhat older with a some more background on the subject who would be able to understand a broader discussion.

FFS, are some people really not still getting it :smiley:

What’s in the follow up, Baking in Auschwitz, Learning to Swim in the Rio Grande?

It’s complicated. I think the editor and author make good cases for why they made the choices they did.

I can see both (or more?) sides to the issue. My personal two cents is that in the long run it’s as unhealthy to demand that American history be only represented by evil white slave owners and black people who never smile because they are oppressed slaves as it is to pretend that white masters were all loving caretakers and all the black people actually didn’t mind so much.

It’s complicated, and instead of needing every story to contain the ‘full picture’ of the larger story, I think it’s ok to let all sorts of different stories be told. The collection of all the stories helps us to understand the complexities of our history. If we decide ahead of time that all stories set in the era of slavery must be told in a certain way, well then what’s the point of telling a new story at all?

So slavery as was in Rome would have been fine?

To have any integrity at all, the book must end with the historical fact that Hercules–however proud he may have been to provide cakes for General Washington–DID escape. He chose NOT to go on providing those cakes.

That ending might have provided a chance to discuss the fact that human beings do try to make the best of their situation, and might even smile or laugh while living in circumstances of slavery and degradation…but in the end, they will choose freedom.

But the coloring book as it is: no, it should not be promoted by any reputable seller or publisher. It has no integrity.

Great post, and I agree. It is not possible for any one story of a large subject to contain a “full picture.”

On the other hand, and particularly for instances of telling that might be anyone’s first hearing of a story on the subject, I think it’s only right and fair to expect that there be an acknowledgement of the depth of the subject, the fact that there are other stories in it. I would be troubled if some kids were to come away thinking that the concept of “slave” was pretty similar to the concept of “baker.”

Small nitpick: it’s not a coloring book. Here’s the Amazon Preview.

The afterward apparently does mention Hercules’s escape, but it’s not part of the story. In the book’s blurb, Hercules is referred to as a servant and a slave. The one problem that they face int he book is that they’re out of sugar. The story’s description of the relationship between Washington and Hercules is this: “President Washington is the most famous person in all of America. Papa is the general of the president’s kitchen.”

There may be something in the pages omitted by Amazon that makes this better, but right now it sure looks like a Happy Slave narrative.

And no, not all stories need to be told the same way. But it’s a bit bizarre at this point for us to tell a story about an enslaved man that’s all about how happy he is to bake a cake for his enslaver. There are a thousand stories about slavery that don’t turn it into a good thing.

Agreed. But at least this sort of thing gives us a chance to point out the fallacious thinking that is often in evidence when the topic of humans-oppressing-other-humans arises: namely, that these situations are All or Nothing.

For example, a common claim is that if any slave ever laughed or smiled, that “proves” that Slavery Was Not So Bad. Or, if any wife gets slugged by her husband–but he doesn’t put her in the hospital–then she is not being abused and she should just shut up about it. Or, if an online bully threatens to rape and murder a columnist and publishes the columnist’s address, but instead “all” that happens is that someone throws acid on the columnist’s face, then people should quit complaining about online bullies, because after all, no one got raped or murdered.

The truth, of course, is that many slaves had moments of happiness—but that in no way makes slavery “okay.” To think it does make it okay, is evidence of a delusional and disordered mental state.

No one story can cover everything, but there’s no point in making a character a slave, if the fact that they’re enslaved won’t influence the story in any way. Hercules probably would have had a lot more riding on successfully baking a cake than pride.

Agreed. And like I said, maybe there’s something in the omitted pages that makes this better. A conversation between Hercules and his daughter in which he expresses pride in his skills alongside a hope that some day he could practice them freely instead of for a slavemaster, or a hint that he was planning to escape, or a note that the “great man” Washington wasn’t so great if he was keeping you enslaved–something like that would help.

I get the idea that Hercules is an interesting historical figure, and it’s great to make him the star of a book. I’m not sure that a single picture book is big enough to have both Hercules and Washington as good guys. That’d be a pretty incredible feat to pull off.

Excellent point! It sounds like a task only a master of the novel could manage; picture books are probably not in the running for conveying complexities of that magnitude.

It’s up there with Jerry Lewis making a comedy set in a concentration camp.

It may be a bad idea but it’s still a free country. Don’t like the book? Don’t buy it.

Or don’t sell it. Nobody forced the publisher to pull the book. It’s not censorship just because a publisher decides not to publish a book. It’s a free country and publishers are free to not publish books for whatever reason they like. Including the reason that lots of people pointed out to them how problematic the book was.

Sure, slaves found some happy moments in life, but that’s because people, particularly survivors of horrible experiences, tend to be resilient. That part needs to be told - the fact that slaves might smile or have happy moments doesn’t make slavery OK, it just shows how tough and resilient people can be under adverse circumstances. Even a kind master is still a master. Some slaves may have expressed contentment to serve certain individuals, but that was likely because they had knowledge of far worse owners than their own and it was part of making the best of their situation.

It’s complicated. So it accurately portraying history in a way that is both truthful and makes sense, especially to young people.