It’s a question faced time and again by educators and authors on a regular basis. And it’s a debate we need to continuously have, especially as some of the most popular books released are presenting critical, uncomfortable narratives like slavery in a whitewashed light.
One such book is A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat by Emily Jenkins and featuring illustrations by Sophie Blackall. The “well-intentioned” book tells the story of the history of a particular dish, blackberry fool (what a name indeed).
And that’s where the trouble really begins. In the illustrations and corresponding text, the slave mother and daughter can be seen preparing the meal, smiling as they complete their grim tasks
This particular part of the book has drawn criticism for “whitewashing slavery” and depicting the era as a pleasant time – as depicted by the smiling daughter’s pictures – and “erasing the tribulations of Blacks in American history.”
“Their minimized stories [serve] to placate White guilt,” writes Allison McGevna, the Managing Editor of HelloBeautiful.com. “These books, at best, do little to show the true, dark side of the truth. At worst, they reinforce the dangerous suggestion perpetuated by racists everywhere that Black people were, somehow, happy to be in chains.”
Even the saddest moments of the story are depicted as ones of joy for the mother and daughter:
After waiting table at supper – where the master and his family ate turtle soup, roast turkey, corn cakes and sweet potatoes – they spooned the blackberry fool into yellow dishes and served it. Later, the girl and her mother hid in the closet and licked the bowl clean together. Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmm. What a fine dessert!
“For a Black child who is reading books like these, there is no empowerment, no rebellion, no images showing characters taking pride in their identity,” McGevna writes. “Instead, they are presented with images of a perpetual state of being less than, with affirmations that their joy is something to conceal and, most sinister of all, in the idea that the completion of tasks can only be a source of pride when they serve to make their White masters happy.”
The author and illustrator have received criticism on social media. Jenkins issued an apology on the Reading While White blog, a site created by white librarians with the intent of confronting racism in children’s literature. She said that she had come to understand that “my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive.”
“I own that and am very sorry. For lack of a better way to make reparations, I donated the fee I earned for writing the book to We Need Diverse Books.”