My friends in the children's literature world began telling me about a picturebook called A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON shortly after Christmas 2015. In early January, there was a review by Kirkus children's section editor, Vicky Smith, in which she pointed out similiarities between it and one of the four stories in A FINE DESSERT.
I really wasn't interested in talking about this subject in public anymore. It was a sore topic after I spent an hour during a busy end-of-semester while suffering from norovirus talking to a reporter who cited none of my research, using a soundbite quote instead. Besides, I am currently working on finishing THE DARK FANTASTIC, which is depressing enough, as it's all about racism in transmediated youth science fiction and fantasy.
Then I learned the book in question had been created by women of color. I was dismayed (thinking please, no, no), but after I learned that, I REALLY didn't want to get involved. I had the opportunity to peruse a copy of the book at MLA 2016. I talked about this ongoing controversy with my academic BFF, a 19th century scholar of slavery and visual culture.
What spurred me to speak out was my friend Edi Campbell writing a review of the book. I have the utmost respect for her. She is a highly regarded librarian, and her review came after several prominent reviewers in the children's literature world had also not recommended it, perhaps most notably Kiera Parrott of School Library Journal. Kiera had initially given A FINE DESSERT a good review, then reconsidered after the discussions began this fall. I first RTed a link to Edi's review on Thursday, January 14.
Then I began seeing Tweets from people outside of children's literature about the controversy. I only retweeted a few of these, because I really was trying to avoid another storm.
When I first moved here, no fewer than a half dozen Black Philadelphians insisted that I learn the truth about George Washington. Back then, I was so not into the Founding Fathers (this was years before ), but I remember being implored to go see the way Washington "chained his slaves in the basement," "used their teeth as his dentures," etc. Academic BFF and I made our pilgrimage to Independence Mall, saw the exhibit, and learned. I never got the impression Washington was an especially benevolent owner, but the visual proof in Philadelphia makes it difficult to support milder narratives, even for young children.
At this point, I was hoping slavery historians would chime in. Because I still didn't want to get involved, but so much about this was bothering me. But once again, I tried to keep things general.
By this point, I was seriously done. And angry (more like infuriated) that this was even an issue. Why publish this now? I was weary, tired, busy, and sad after last fall's brouhaha over dessert. (Of course, I knew why it was being published now... Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month are when a lot of our historical children's lit gets sold.)
Next, I subtweeted what had angered me most about those blog posts, after Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs was trotted out to appease everyone when zero people of color were nominated for major Oscar awards.
Context: the president of the AMPAS had just issued a statement about the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations that I couldn't bear to retweet. I felt "trolled" -- Toni Morrison was right about racism being the greatest distraction, because we were being told we had no right to feeling as if media excluded us by someone who looked like us.