Educating Our Youth on the Bitter Truth: Slavery in Children’s Literature
Written By: Kaitlyn Freimuth
Until the year 1865, slavery took place across the United States. Natives from the continent of Africa were kidnapped and forced to work as servants for their “owners” (Rael, 2015, p. 1). Americans today may know the basic definition of slavery, but they do not know of or understand the horrors which took place. This has caused misunderstanding and ignorance about the topic. This unawareness of the truth can be traced back to children’s books and an unrealistic portrayal of slavery. While there have been children’s books written about slavery, few of them go in-depth about the treatment of the slaves. Instead, they focus primarily on slaves who escaped and significant “heroes” of the time. Without a substantive knowledge of what occurred during slavery, children cannot fully comprehend the horrors of slavery. While there are many opinions on how today’s authors should recount slavery, it is clear what is being written now is not working. Instead of focusing solely on happy endings, more children’s books need to tell the bitter truth about slavery.
According to Paula T. Connolly (2013), most people understand slavery is “capture and separation from their families, removal from their homelands, and forced transportation across the Atlantic” (p. 1). However, Conolly goes on to state that beyond the information on the basics, the conditions of slavery and experiences of slaves is not as widely known (2013, p. 1). While the majority of people have a basic knowledge of slavery, the lives of slaves, once they arrived in the United States, is not as understood. Without knowledge of the specific conditions and treatment of slaves, it is difficult to understand the horrors of slavery and its impact on the lives of those enslaved.
Before the discussion on how to present this information can begin, the cruelty slaves experienced must first be identified. For most slaves, after being kidnapped and forced onto a ship, they were taken to islands in the West Indies. There, families who had managed to stay together throughout the journey, were ripped apart as each person was sold (Connoly, 2015, p.2). However, this was only the beginning of the maltreatment. Alexander Anderson, who witnessed the horrors which took place on these islands, recounts, “[slaves] are obliged to work as long as they can, that is, as long as they can keep awake or stand” (Anderson, 1805, para. 8). He goes on to detail slaves rarely had enough food to eat, were routinely whipped, and countless female slaves were raped. The conditions were so poor, Anderson recalled that several slaves passed away because of the harm inflicted upon them (Anderson, 1805, para. 9-11). The conditions were almost identical for the slaves who were shipped to the United States (Rothbard, 2018, para. 13-14). It is well known that slaves were treated poorly, but “[i]n reality, treatment of slaves [was] cruel and sadistic. Husbands, wives, and children were frequently sold away from one another and punishment by whipping was not unusual” (American Battlefield Trust, 2020, para. 5). With all of this staggering evidence about how difficult life was for slaves, it can be difficult to understand why there are people who do not realize the struggles slaves faced.
One of the major reasons this problem exists is because the children’s books people read growing up do not discuss all the struggles slaves faced. According to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, “If you have children’s media that’s regressive, and the children of today are going to be the adults of the mid-to-late 21st century if we don’t change the children’s media that they’re being fed by… they’re going to still be influenced by these current writings—from ‘Harry Potter’ to problematic books about slavery—deep into the 22nd century” (Johnson, 2018, para. 20). When reading books, children take what they read to be not only the truth but the whole truth. If a child reads a book that tells very little about the treatment of slaves, they are not going to do their own research, but instead assume they have been told everything they need to know. Furthermore, the information they consume is going to follow them throughout their life. If they are misinformed at a young age, this misinformation will follow them into adulthood. To make things worse, “There is also an absence of social studies content in elementary school curricula. In response to the changing landscape of education, many school districts have reduced the amount of time elementary level students spend with social studies and history content while increasing reading and literacy time” (Bickford and Rich, 2014, p. 66). Since the amount of in-school information on this topic is continuing to decrease, the accuracy of children’s books is becoming more and more essential. Therefore, the facts about how slaves were treated should, to some extent, be included in children’s books.
Before anyone can change how the treatment of slaves is presented in children’s books, it first needs to be acknowledged how authors are writing about slavery now. According to Pauletta Brown Bracy, chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee, one of the issues frequently seen is the idea of the happy slave. She says, “A fixture of racist propaganda for centuries, the ‘happy slave’ is content to work with no pay and enjoys the protection of a kindly master” (Schoenburg, 2016, para. 13). This can be seen in A Birthday Cake for George Washington. In this picture book by Ramin Ganeshram, a young slave girl happily helps to make a birthday cake for her “owner” George Washington. Instead of accurately showing what life as a slave was like, Ganeshram shows slaves happy to do the work they have been commanded to do (Ganeshram and Brantley-Newton, 2016). By approaching this topic in this way, children are fed false information on what it was like to be a slave. Moreover, because of the recommended age level for this book, it could be a child’s first exposure to slavery, Therefore, when they read it, they may not have any prior knowledge to tell them a book or tale is inaccurate. Instead, the young readers will take it as fact, and be misinformed about what slave life was like.
Another example of the “happy slave” can be found in A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat by Emily Jenkins. Like A Birthday Cake for George Washington, this picture book shows slaves happily making a dessert for their master. This story focuses on four children, each in a different century, making a blackberry dessert with a parent. While it shows both technological and societal changes that occurred throughout the years, it poorly represents the life of a slave. Instead of portraying their lives realistically, it portrays a “happy slave” (Jenkins and Blackwell, 2015). When showing the slave family, the photos show them smiling, happy to please their masters. Instead of representing the life of a slave family accurately, the images throughout this section of the book make life seem easy and care-free (Jenkins and Blackwell, 2015). It is important to note that there are scenes that hint at a poor lifestyle for these slaves. For example, the slave girl is seen in a closet licking the bowl clean after serving dessert to her masters (Jenkins and Blackwell, 2015). However, this brief glimpse into reality is not enough to justify the previous representations. Instead of showing a single scene of repression, the author and illustrator should have worked to put the struggles slaves faced at the forefront of the plot. To truly highlight the differences between the centuries, which is what this book claims to do, it would have to highlight the issues people of color faced during each time period. Instead, it barely touches on it at all.
However, the “happy slave” representation is not the only misinformation frequently found in children’s books about slavery. Most stories about slavery also include happy endings. John H. Bickford III and Cynthia W. Rich from Eastern Illinois University completed a thorough study on how slavery is represented in children’s books. Bickford and Rich state, “In our pool of children’s books, slaves secured freedom in every book save two… Almost three-quarters of the books included successful slave escapes… and almost one-fifth culminated in the Civil War ” (2014, p. 8). While having a happy ending is not a poor decision for many storylines, it is not realistic to give every slave mentioned in a children’s book a happy ending. While some individuals escaped slavery, it was rare. Instead, many were only able to run away for short periods of time (American Battlefield Trust, 2020, para. 5). Therefore, it is inaccurate to suggest most slaves made it to the north. With happy endings frequently portrayed, it gives the impression that escaping slavery was common. Additionally, by insinuating many to most slaves were able to escape, these children’s books are saying that almost anyone could escape slavery and inadvertently suggesting escaping was easy.
When discussing the representation of people of color in children’s books, it would be irresponsible to not take the racial identity of the authors into account. Predominantly, it is important to note if the people making these mistakes are Caucasian or people of color. The sad reality is, all races have taken part in “sugar-coating” the lives of slaves. While both the author and illustrator of A Fine Dessert are Caucasian, A Birthday Cake for George Washington was written and illustrated by women of color (Schoenburg, 2016, para. 19). While there is little to no research on this topic, it is clear that this issue goes beyond the race or ethnicity of the author. In the same study mentioned before, Bickford and Rich found almost every children’s book written about slaves, whether written by a caucasian author or a person of color, contains historical misinterpretations or poor representation (2014, p. 2). Their research covered children’s books on this specific topic and included different genres and authors of different races (Bickford and Rich, 2014, p. 2). In their findings, they discovered neither the genre nor the author’s race was significant regarding representations of slavery. Instead, they found the “majority of books we reviewed are developmentally appropriate because they have suitable content and engaging narratives, yet most are sated with historical misrepresentations” (Bickford and Rich, 2014, p. 16). For example, most authors are making these mistakes in an attempt to make slavery “age-appropriate”. So the problem authors now need to face is how they can appropriately present the information without disregarding what happened.
With such cruel and inhumane treatment towards the slaves, it is difficult to decide how children’s books should communicate these facts to children without making these books too graphic. One of the proposed ways to approach this is to avoid the celebration of courage. While it is important to note there were brave slaves, it is essential to avoid the idea of “brave slaves” being the main theme. Instead, Pauletta Brown Bracy, chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee, claims, “kids need context: What was happening to enslaved people? Why was it happening?” (Schoenberg, 2016, para. 15). Instead of focusing on one slave who escaped to the north, books should focus more on the majority. Children’s books should focus on the big picture and give the facts. For example, it would be important to note the racial prejudice and how it turned into slavery. By focusing on the broad facts, children will be obtaining critical information about the topic without said information being “sugar-coated”.
One author, Julius Lester, uses this technique in his book From Slave Ship to Freedom. In this picture book, Lester explores what it was like to be a slave by starting from the beginning of a slave’s journey. The book opens with a group of slaves being thrown over the edge of a slave ship and left for dead. Throughout the story, the narrator does not focus on an individual slave but instead describes what the life of a slave was like. The narrator discusses the threat of being fed to sharks on the boat trip to America and the back-breaking work all slaves were made to do. When discussing the slaves who escaped, it approaches it realistically. Instead of talking about the slaves who made it to freedom, Lester makes it known there were more who did not (Lester, 1998). By discussing the treatment of slavery without focusing on an individual, this story accurately teaches children about what it was like to be a slave. It focuses on the majority rather than the anomaly.
This sensitive topic includes a lot of graphic details. Many educators and parents are cautious in exposing children to the trauma slaves endured. While this is understandable, Bickford and Rich rightfully explain, “A story about American slavery cannot likely be told without some violence, family separation, and little hope for freedom… In short, such brutalities cannot be eliminated from the story while maintaining historicity” (Bickford and Rich, 2014, p. 17). It is not possible to accurately tell a story about slavery without including the facts. As awful as it is, slaves were abused and mistreated without much hope of escaping. This is not to say children should be exposed to excessively graphic portrayals but to instead focus on not hiding what happened. There are ways to communicate the horrors of slavery while keeping it appropriate for elementary-age children and below.
One book that approaches this topic well is Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine. This book is the true story about Henry Box Brown who was born a slave. Throughout the story, Levine mentions the hardships of being a slave without going into graphic detail. It describes Henry’s parents, wife, and children being sold and torn away from him. The book presents a discusion of the difficulty that came with trying to escape slavery and the reality that sometimes slaves thought they were going to be freed by their owners but were not. At the end of the story, Henry does make it to freedom, however, there is no mention of him ever reuniting with his family. Instead of bringing everyone together again, or even giving hope it may happen in the future, the author leaves the reader with no mention of freedom for anyone other than Henry (Levine, 2007). By ending the book without the traditional “happy ending”, Levine avoids “sugar-coating” reality. Instead, he keeps the story accurate and educates readers on the reality of being a slave. Levine teaches readers that not every slave got their happy ending while avoiding graphic wording or images.
However, the responsibility does not fall solely on the shoulders of authors. Both parents and educators need to provide age-appropriate literature that accurately represents the history of slavery to young readers. As Bickford and Rich state, it is their “responsibility to supplement literature with curricular tools that facilitate engagement and comprehension” (2014, p. 17). A child cannot be expected to pick up a picture book, no matter the accuracy, and understand every aspect of slavery. Learning about slavery requires explanation and discussion. While choosing an age-appropriate book that realistically portrays the lives of slaves is important, it is equally important to extend this education past the contents of a book. A book can teach a child a lot, but, like all topics, discussing it afterward can help a child make sense of what they just read. So, while an accurate storyline is important, education should never stop there.
To ensure future generations will understand what life was like for slaves, it is necessary to have and use children’s books which avoid the unrealistic portrayal of slavery. Without this, Americans will only ever know basic facts about slavery and will be unknowingly ignorant about the struggles slaves faced. To do this, authors need to stop “sugar-coating” slave stories or using the “happy slave” image. Instead, authors should go in-depth about the treatment of the slaves, and focus on the majority rather than the minority. While it is important to educate young people about those who made it to freedom, by only talking about those slaves, authors are not teaching the truth. By focusing on those who never saw freedom as well as those who did, children will be able to better understand the realities of slavery. Furthermore, educators and parents need to be more open to discussions about this topic. By adhering to these suggestions, one can make certain future generations will better comprehend the bitter truth of slavery.
American Battlefield Trust. (2020, March 20). Slavery in the United States. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/slavery-united-states
Anderson, Alexander. (1805). Injured humanity: Being a representation of what the unhappychildren of Africa endure from those who call themselves Christians. The Gilder Lehrman Collection. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/T-05113.pdf
Bickford, J. H. III and Rich, C. W. (2014). Examining the Representation of Slavery withinChildren’s Literature (2014). The Keep, 9(1). Retrieved March 28, 2020, from https://thekeep.eiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1026&context=eemedu_fac
Connolly, P. T. (2013). Slavery in American children’s literature: 1790-2010 [eBook edition].University of Iowa Press. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/luthercollege-ebooks/reader.action?docID=1187834
Ganeshram, R., & Brantley-Newton, V. (2016). A birthday cake for George Washington. NewYork: Scholastic Press.
Jenkins, E., & Blackall, S. (2015). A fine dessert: four centuries, four families, one delicioustreat. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books.
Johnson, G. (2018, June 13). Representing slavery in children's literature. Retrieved March2020, from https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/representing-slavery-childrens-literature
Lester, J. (1998). From slave ship to freedom road. Scholastic Press.
Levine, E. (2007). Henry’s freedom box: A true story from the underground railroad.Scholastic Press.
Rael, P. (2015). Eight-eight years: The long death of slavery in the United States, 1777-1865. [eBook edition]. University of Georgia Press. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/luthercollege-ebooks/reader.action?docID=2081294
Rothbard, M. N. (2018, November 14). The brutality of slavery. Mises Institute. Retrieved fromhttps://mises.org/library/brutality-slavery
Schoenberg, N. (2016, February 15). Slavery in children's books: What works? Retrieved March2020, from https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/ct-prj-slavery-in-childrens-books-20160227-story.html