June 28, 2017

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You Don’t Show the Sweet Without the Bitter | Up for Debate

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Sarah Hannah Gómez

I bought my first Holocaust memoir at a Scholastic Book Fair when I was seven. I simply saw an interesting title and picked it up. Nobody told me I couldn’t. Nobody told me I shouldn’t. Nobody gave me any indication of what it was about. I just read it, because I was a reader.

I still have that book, and there is a single annotation in it on the title page: “Hannah Gomez hates Hitler!!!” It was the first time I learned about the Holocaust, but it was not difficult to understand the gravity or reality of it. It was clear that I had just read something that was essential knowledge for any citizen, and I wanted to note my position on the subject. I was also acutely aware that it was about Jewish people. As someone who was being raised a Jew, the Holocaust was especially important for me to understand.

I don’t recall my mother expressing surprise or concern that I was reading a book about such a serious topic when I hadn’t learned multiplication yet. The same goes for slave narratives. Even though I was not raised by African American parents (I am biracial and adopted), there was never a time in my life that I was not aware that I was black. I always had access to books about slavery. It was made clear to me that even fictional narratives were based on painful truths, and there was an enduring heritage of prejudice and disenfranchisement that would affect my life anytime I left the house. What good would it do me to have no understanding of where it came from? You could say this is a heavy weight to place on a child’s shoulders, but you have to start lifting weights if you ever want to lift heavier ones.

I read Meet Addy (American Girl, 1993) and saw a nine-year-old child force-fed worms by a bored overseer. I read Nightjohn (Laurel Leaf, 1993) and watched a man have his fingers cut off for mentoring a girl who reminded me of me. I read Follow the Drinking Gourd and Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (Dragonfly, 1988, 1995) and learned about secret codes to freedom. It was fascinating. It was distressing. It had weight. It mattered. It was real.

Kids tend to assume that whatever they know is common knowledge to everyone else. My eighth grade “slave quilt” unit was remedial for me, but my wealthy, mainly white classmates seemed to find it quaint. Once I brought an anthology of African American literature to school for an assignment. A friend flipped it open to an old folk song called “Run Nigger Run” and burst out laughing. He tore the page out because he wanted to show it to everyone. It was a joke to him. And why not? Songs designed to send messages without arousing suspicion were common knowledge to me, but to him, it seemed to prove that black oppression is imaginary.

His education about slavery was probably limited to fairy tales about Harriet Tubman and grade-wide quilting bees. He had probably never seen a drawing of someone who looked like him being whipped. He had probably heard somebody say “Your name is Toby, boy!” as a joke. So of course a song about staying ahead of the master’s dog was silly.

People whose cultural memory includes oppression, genocide, or disenfranchisement don’t have the luxury of avoiding those topics with their children, because they have lasting effects into today. It doesn’t lead to raising victims, but informed citizens.

I understand small moments of joy on a page, like a slave receiving a Christmas present, because I can place those stories into a broad landscape and see them as the exception, not the norm. I knew what it would be like to be black today because I learned what it was like to be black yesterday through books that respected my identity and recognized my intellectual capacity even in elementary school. But apparently others didn’t read those.

A book telling kids a true story about the slave of the first president is a great idea, and the politics of being a house slave versus a field slave are interesting, and worth exploring. But from what I’ve seen of A Birthday Cake for George Washington, there is little nuance or context for readers to gain any understanding of the issue. To hand a child a book that exudes positivity at the exclusion of a bigger truth is dangerous. You have to earn hopeful stories about horrifying events, and you can only see what hope means if the horrors lurking nearby are visible. You don’t get to skip to happily ever after. You don’t get to show the sweet without the bitter.


Sarah Hannah Gómez is a former school librarian and currently works as a freelance writer and editor, fitness instructor, and program manager at We Need Diverse Books. She lives in southern Arizona. Find her on twitter: @shgmclicious

Recalling a Book: Bowing to Pressure, or Righting Wrongs?
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Comments

  1. Hannah, what I appreciated most about your rich essay is that you’ve provided a point of view that hasn’t often been represented in the discussions about A FINE DESSERT and A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON — the experiences of children of color who are reading these stories in diverse classrooms, and the conversations about race, difference, and inequality that emerge from this. When books offer “little nuance or context for readers to gain any understanding of the issue,” this can lead to conflict in classroom discourse and interaction, lasting trauma for students from the groups being misrepresented, and a missed opportunity for building empathy and understanding in all our children. Thank you so much for sharing your valuable perspectives, and your own experiences reading literature as a child.

    • Thanks, Ebony! I know it’s been a decade and more since these incidents, but that’s how deeply they affected me and how much it created in me a longstanding resentment of educational institutions and bad memories when I think of my formal schooling. Educational injustices stay with you in the same way that bullying and harmful social experiences do.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The book in question was written, illustrated, and edited by three women of color. Each of them has written intelligent and long explanations about their approach to the material in A BIRTHDAY CAKE. Did you read these explanations, and the book’s Afterword, and what did you think of them? Also, what do you think about Scholastic pulling the book off the market, despite the fact that these three women of color were standing by their work and willing to accept the firestorm of criticism they were facing?

    • I am aware of all of those things and have read them. I have read as much of the book as I was able via the Amazon preview, because probably 95% of the people talking about this book do not have access to it in its entirety. I think good intentions don’t always mean good products, and I don’t think that any of the people involved of the making of the book are bad people or that their other work is suspect. I think Scholastic pulling the book is interesting for many reasons and that it would be better if the book had never been picked up in the first place.

  3. Freida Pompano says:

    I have a serious concern about this and many other essays I have read on this general subject. Too often there are examples of white persons who just don’t get it, such as the boy in Gomez’s class. But is it really accurate to paint all white educational experiences with this brush? I don’t deny the lack of understanding or education about diverse matters too many white kids receive during their schooling, but do these anecdotal examples of white ignorance further the discussion? In many ways it feels like they simply spin our wheels.
    My experience is unique as is everyone else’s. As a child, I had different feelings reading books about the Holocaust and slavery than the boy in Gomez’s class did, as well as that of Gomez. Is perpetuating an us vs. them model is the way that we’re going to foster a better understanding? Whites who do not see themselves as Gomez’s ignorant classmate are likely to brush that example off as unfortunate but not “who they themselves are or were”.

  4. Why are you letting the author and the illustrator so easily off the hook for their personal responsibility for this mess? With the Daniel Handler affair, you said on another site that he committed a racist act, and he even apologized. You were strongly outspoken about A FINE DESSERT, and the writer there apologized. Here, you say nothing about the writer and illustrator committing a racist act, and the fact is they have refrained from apology.

    Why the double-standard?

    • There is no double standard here. Are you talking about me personally not being adequately outspoken for your liking? If so, I must point out your own cowardice and the irony in commenting anonymously so that you don’t have to stand by anything yourself.

      I don’t think I was particularly outspoken about A Fine Dessert, but if I was, and if you’re clearly googling and following me as much as you must be if you’re calling out my record in defending or condemning past incidents, you should be more than capable of seeing that I have commented on plenty of articles about this book.

      There was a specific word count attached this piece and it was requested that I approach it with regard to how children read. You can write your own opinion however you like.

  5. Simone Lorrain says:

    A great essay, but you never say if you think the book should have been recalled by its publisher. In your opinion, was the fact that it didn’t show enough horrors of slavery enough to warrant the publisher pulling it off the shelves? Or does it just make it a bad book that still should have been published like a million bad books before it?