Episode 5, Season 2
Children’s books are often the primary way young students are exposed to the history of American slavery. But many books about slavery sugarcoat oppression. Professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas examines what we should consider when it comes to how children’s books portray African Americans and Indigenous people, their cultures and the effects of enslavement. She also explains why it’s crucial to create “a balance of narratives” when selecting books about marginalized and underrepresented communities.
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Resources and Readings
- Learning for Justice, "Lies My Bookshelf Told Me"
- Learning for Justice, "Hercules’ Daughter"
- Rethinking Schools, Teaching for Black Lives
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
- University of Pennsylvania, Literacy, Culture, and International Education
- Twitter, @Ebonyteach
- The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games
- Virginia Hamilton, The House of Dies Drear
- Walter Dean Myers, The Legend of Tariq
- John Steptoe, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters
- Tonya Bolden, Searching for Sarah Rector
- PBS Africans in America, Benjamin Banneker
- National Archives, "To Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin Banneker, 1791"
- Chinua Achebe (Wikipedia)
- Imani Perry, May We Forever Stand:A History of the Black National Anthem
- James Weldon Johnson (Wikipedia)
- Learning for Justice, Black History Month: Teaching Beyond Slavery
- N. K. Jemisin, How Long 'til Black Future Month?
- Rudine S Bishop, Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children's Literature
- Glenda Armand, Love Twelve Miles Long
- Ashley Bryan, Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams
- Learning for Justice, Meet Frederick Douglass
- Detroit History, Frederick Douglass and John Brown Meeting Place
- Manumission (Wikipedia)
- Amma Asante film, Belle (Wikipedia)
- Emily Jenkins, A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat
- The New York Times, “Scholastic Halts Distribution of ‘A Birthday Cake for George Washington’”
- Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
Hasan Kwame Jeffries
- Ohio State University, African-American History
- All Sides with Ann Fisher (radio), Black History Is American History
- Ohio State University, United Black World Month
Asha Jeffries: Here are some fun facts about George Washington. One, George Washington didn’t have a middle name. Two, George Washington’s birthday was not February 22, 1732.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wait, wait—Asha, why are you listing facts about George Washington?
Asha Jeffries: I have to make a list of fun facts about myself for school.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Okay …?
Asha Jeffries: Since Presidents day just went by, I have to read fun facts about American presidents like Lincoln and Washington.
Asha Jeffries: Three, George Washington loved pets and owned rabbits.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And he owned people too, lots of them!
Asha Jeffries: Daddy!
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Let’s rewind for a minute.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It had been a long day. That morning, I dropped my daughters off at school and headed to WOSU Studios to participate in a Black History Month discussion on All Sides with Ann Fisher, a public affairs talk show that airs on one of Central Ohio's NPR stations. That afternoon was filled with faculty meetings back to back to back. And, that evening, I delivered the keynote address at Ohio State's 2019 United Black World Month Celebration, pinch-hitting for CNN political commentator and fellow Morehouse man, Bakari Sellers, who had to cancel at the last minute because of bad weather.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When the day was done, and I was driving home, I reflected on all that had transpired. The radio program had been engaging. Ann Fisher always asks great questions. The faculty meetings were actually productive or at least as productive as faculty meetings can be, and the keynote address was favorably received. The students were fired up and ready to go. And, that night, I swear, when I saw the police, they rolled right past me. The day was a good day. But, as I neared my home and the adrenaline from being on the move began to wear off, all I could think about was getting some sleep.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When I entered my house, I beat a path straight for the bedroom. I heard my kids say something, and my wife, Rashida, say something else. But I was determined to lay down, even if only for a few minutes, so I mumbled something in return and kept right on moving. My grand plan was to rest my eyes for a hot second. Then get up and do some work around the house and maybe a little bit of work for school before turning in for good. But if sleep took me, I wasn't going to fight it. Dishes and laundry would have to wait and so would emails.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I plopped down on my bed relieved to finally be off of my feet. But no sooner had my head hit the pillow than my eight-year-old daughter, Asha, who was in the third grade at the time, burst into the room.
Asha Jeffries: Daddy, you have to help me with my homework.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What?
Asha Jeffries: Daddy, you have to help me with my homework.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I heard what you said the first time. I just don't know why you said it. Go ask your mom.
Asha Jeffries: She told me to ask you!
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What?
Asha Jeffries: She told me-
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: “I heard what you said.” Still laying down, I shut my eyes, massaged my temples and surrendered to the inevitable. Fine. “What's your homework?”
Asha Jeffries: I have to come up with seven fun facts about myself.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: "Geez. That's the assignment," I thought to myself. "And your mom couldn't help you with that?" But before I could give voice to my incredulity, Asha explained that since Presidents Day had just passed, she first had to read a set of fun facts about American presidents. And that got my attention. I opened my eyes. "Which presidents?"
Asha Jeffries: Well, there's Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, too.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: "George Washington, huh?" Asha looked at me suspiciously as I sat up. I was all in now. "Okay. Let's start with Washington."
Asha Jeffries: George Washington loved pets and owned rabbits.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And he owned people, too!
Asha Jeffries: Daddy!
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: "What?" Asha was giving me the side eye.
Asha Jeffries: George Washington had only one tooth when he became president.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And he took teeth from the people he enslaved to create a set for himself.
Asha Jeffries: Daddy, stop!
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: "No, you stop." We stared at each other in silence, neither willing to yield. But soon, she continued with fun facts numbers three through seven, and I continued with my historical addendums. Asha and I eventually completed the assignment, and I eventually got some sleep. But the idea that so-called fun facts about early American presidents is how our children are introduced to enslavers troubled me then and troubles me now. Because when students are finally taught about slavery, which in most places doesn't really take place until the eighth grade, they have already been conditioned to believe that those who held others in bondage were good people, the kind of people who owned pets and bunny rabbits no less.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The fun facts approach to teaching slavery predisposes students to accept as true the lie that slavery was a benign if not a benevolent system. But if fun facts about enslavers isn't the right way to introduce slavery to young learners, then what should we be doing? And how should we be introducing slavery to children? Well, let's find out. I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This podcast provides a detailed look at how to teach important aspects of the history of American slavery.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises. In our second season, we are expanding our focus to better support elementary school educators to spend more time with teachers who are doing this work in the classroom and to understand the often hidden history of the enslavement of indigenous people in what is currently the United States.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Talking with students about slavery can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges so teachers and students can develop a deeper understanding of the history and legacy of American slavery. Children's books are often the primary way that young students are exposed to the history of American slavery. Young people can and need to understand this country's founding injustices. But many books about slavery are harmful. Some sugarcoat oppression with pictures depicting so called happy slaves. Others only talk about successful escape stories as if slavery had a happy ending. And then there's the near total omission of the enslavement of indigenous people. This means that teachers and librarians need to consider the ways that the books they choose portray African Americans and indigenous people, as well as their cultures and the effects of enslavement.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In this episode, we're going to examine what teachers and families should consider when selecting children's books about slavery and teaching about marginalized identities. I had the chance to talk with Professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas at the Second Annual Teaching Black History Education Conference at the University of Missouri Columbia where she was giving a talk about teaching slavery through children's literature. In our conversation, she offered advice for helping teachers navigate and build around the limitations of books for young readers. She also explains why it's so important to create a balance of narratives when selecting books about marginalized and underrepresented communities. I'll see you on the other side. Enjoy.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm really excited to welcome to this episode of Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. We're actually in studio together in Missouri. So this is really fantastic, Ebony. I'm so glad that you are with us, and welcome.
Ebony Thomas: Thanks so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You look at, in your work and in your research, depictions of slavery in children's literature. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got interested in that subject, both professionally as well as personally.
Ebony Thomas: I first got interested in thinking about the presence of black children in kids' books as a kid myself searching for any traces of myself amid the pages of everything I was reading. I was reading Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. I noticed quite quickly that black children only showed up in some genres. We showed up lots in historical books, books about slavery or civil rights. Of course, there were the exceptions that proved the rules. So, Virginia Hamilton's mystery stories, The House of Dies Drear, Walter Dean Myers, The Legend of Tarik. I think about Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters even as a picture book from my childhood. So there were exceptions to that rule. But most of the time, when a black child showed up in a children's book, K-12, the book was trying to teach me something.
Ebony Thomas: I longed for magical escape. I longed for adventure. I longed to be taken out of 1980s Detroit. So, I have to say it's a lifelong interest that only became more acute when I started teaching kids in Detroit.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So, you didn't go directly from graduate school to the ivory tower. I mean, you spent some time in the classroom back in your hometown of Detroit teaching what grade level?
Ebony Thomas: I began by teaching fifth grade for two years. Then I taught high school English and creative writing for five years in Detroit and Ann Arbor. I noticed that, even with the books that we did have on the shelf, the books that I was presented with as a child in the 80s and early 90s and that I had for my students in the early 2000s, there were very limited scopes of what a black child character could do in those books. Enslaved children or children who are something less than free haunt all of English language children's literature because of the inception of the genre.
Ebony Thomas: I've been joking with audiences that there are only five kinds of black characters and/or black story people in books for children and teens. The first is the enslaved character. The second is the character who's fighting against Jim Crow or dealing with segregation during the nadir period of American history. The third is the character fighting for civil rights during the mid-20th century. The fourth is a character who's trying to survive life in the ghetto. If it's a boy, he's usually wrestling with whether to join a gang or not. Then there's the black best friend in suburbia.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So how does the enslaved character fit into that?
Ebony Thomas: Among all those characters, I think the enslaved character is the foundational trope for how black children exist in our literate imaginations. Because when children's literature itself as a genre first arose during the late Enlightenment and then really in the 19th century with the rise of this literate middle class with this idea of Victorian motherhood. These were mothers who could read books to their children. Or, if you were exceptionally wealthy, you could afford a nanny or governess who could read these tales to your young charges. This is a very small set of women, even among white English women, that they became idealized.
Ebony Thomas: I find that during that period enslavement and the question of black freedom was foremost on everyone's mind. So, during the same period that we begin getting the first children's books in the late 18th and early 19th century, this was the question around the British Empire. Slavery was the question in first the North American colonies and then the fledgling United States. So really the enslaved child of African descent, the enslaved black child, haunts to borrow a term from Toni Morrison, haunts the whole of U.S. and U.K. children's literature. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, but those exceptions are notable because of their very exceptionality.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned that there are exceptions-
Ebony Thomas: Yes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But there's also a running theme of exceptionalism in children's lit—really but all literature—when it comes to the African-American experience. How does that color the imagination of children about what slavery was, and what was possible or not possible in it?
Ebony Thomas: The problem with slavery is that it does not fit very neatly within either children's literature as a genre, as a category. There are many things about enslavement that are simply and fundamentally not representable within what we think about as children's books. Then it also doesn't fit the American exceptionalist meta narrative at all that we are trying to inculcate in children from their very earliest year. I think the result is that it sits on easily within the body of children's literature that we have especially post-civil rights movement. We're not really sure what to do with it. It's something that kids ought to know about. Very often, a picture book is how we introduce enslavement to children, but we don't do it very well.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Because of this discomfort, this uneasiness with what to do with slavery, what do we wind up doing in the picture books themselves?
Ebony Thomas: I think a number of things end up happening because in a picture book, you only have 32 pages, generally very limited text and the book itself is meant to be chaperoned by an adult reader. So, someone is generally at first reading alongside the child. One of the challenges of slotting slavery within that format is that so much of the information being conveyed in the picture book is done through pictures. So many of the harsh realities of enslavement simply are not seen as appropriate for any child between the ages of four and eight. You can't depict most of it. Of course, there are some great picture books about enslavement that depict the joy of it. So, there's a focus on holidays, heroes and crafts. It means that the first information that young people get about enslavement tends to be incoherent without a lot of adult intervention around those books.
Ebony Thomas: What I believe that authors and illustrators have been doing since the close of the civil rights movement and the rise of multicultural education and publishing is they have nobly tried to rehabilitate the image of the black child, which before the civil rights movement had just been caricaturized, erased, marginalized or set aside as a helper throughout most of the history of children's literature. There just weren't very many agentive black children in those books. So, for the first 30 or 40 years after the civil rights movement, you're just doing repair. There has been this tendency to focus on heroes like set up Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman to be a hero that is equal to the founders so we can put Harriet Tubman alongside Abraham Lincoln. Some of this is because, in the United States, we really love our heroes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I love the way you framed it as putting it into not just historical context, but into the context of the times in which we are living coming out of the civil rights era and the need to do this repair because so much psychic damage had been done. So, in a very well-meaning intentional, purposeful and needed and necessary way, you're going to have these authors who are consciously saying, "Listen, we need to show the heroism and the humanity of enslaved folk." So you get the smiling character of the enslaved person. But that can be problematic as I hear you saying, right? Because in a sense, certainly, there were moments of joy, but there's also moments of pain. There's great suffering in slavery. It's a challenge to try to thread that needle to show the humanity and to show through the ability to find the joy, but then not to minimize, erase or ignore the pain.
Ebony Thomas: That's it. You've hit the nail on the head because one of the challenges of enslavement is that this is almost impossible to do because so much of enslavement was so horrific that our ancestors didn't want to pass on the story. So, I never understood Toni Morrison's famous quote from Beloved, that this was not a story to pass on, until it came up in a K-5 classroom context. I'm not saying we shouldn't tell the story of enslavement to young children. They need to be introduced to the true nature of the country early on. I wonder about how we introduce it through these children's books.
Ebony Thomas: Generally, and I cannot prove it, I have not done a national survey to find out if this is the case, I believe that many people first learn that slavery was a thing that existed in this country from encountering a book about Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth when they were very young. As you notice on, those were exceptionalities because they were not only transcendent and heroic, it's almost as if the vast majority of white characters in early children's books were all Abraham Lincolns or Thomas Jeffersons. But no, we get a variety of white child life. We don't just get historical figures. We just don't get exceptional heroes.
Ebony Thomas: Yet, there are very few picture books, or relatively few picture books, about people who just, and I'm not trying to be flip with this at all, happened to be enslaved. Slavery was a legal condition. It didn't take one iota of our ancestors' humanity away from them. So, showing the joy, even within this horrific condition, is something that's so difficult because if you're showing them smiling, then people object that you're caricaturizing black people for smiling in a picture book. I think it's the context of the emotion. There was a controversy around two picture books that appeared in late 2015 and early 2016 that showed black people who were enslaved smiling while servicing white folks.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Not just any white folk. I mean, George Washington.
Ebony Thomas: Right. George Washington. [chuckles]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Which speaks to what you were saying about the sort of idealized heroes in American past, but go ahead.
Ebony Thomas: Absolutely. I think that the context of the emotion or this affective domain needs to be considered. It would have been fine to show enslaved people smiling if they weren't serving and smiling. They could have been having a party in the quarters, which happened. Or they could have been sewing a quilt to pass on—one of the few items that enslaved women were sometimes allowed to pass down. They could be smiling anticipating a new child. There were so many other ways of thinking about the context of that smile in those books. So, I want teachers and parents and caregivers and especially these children's publishers to understand that context is everything.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's such a great point because one of the challenges that teachers have and parents, too, when they pick up these books, they have to do some analysis themselves. If you see the enslaved person smiling, that in itself is not necessarily problematic. But, like you said, what is the context? Is it serving and smiling? Or, is it resisting in some social way away from white folk where you're finding the joy, not in service to white folk, but joy in where they would have actually found it amongst their own. We're not necessarily conditioned to do that. Let me ask you this. What is the impact, either drawing on your research or even speculating or theorizing, what is the impact that this then has on that third grader when they're introduced even to the good stuff, even to the exceptional, right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Let's talk about Harriet Tubman but you haven't talked about anything else with regard to slavery. What impact does that then have on children for how they then will understand and engage with historical instruction with regard to slavery later on?
Ebony Thomas: I think that the challenges, even though our ancestors were just as human, just as noble, just as worthy, just as deserving as anyone else, slavery inherently tends to be a subjugated position. Children are acutely aware that an enslaved person is not a princess or a knight or a superhero or even just a kid down the street.
Ebony Thomas: Children pick up clues that to be enslaved means that you are not free. Humans long for freedom. I mean, we all do across all cultures, across all space and time. Because of the reality that our country was built on enslavement, the black child then has this dilemma of double consciousness quite early on, far earlier than I think we give it credit for. They end up being like my nephew. When he was four years old, he has gorgeous, dark chocolate skin. He was the only little black boy in his suburban class in Michigan. He came to me and said, "Auntie, you know what? I'm dark-skinned." Just that earliest awareness, that skin color in the United States has not only historically but in contemporary times meant something about whether you were free or not, or as free as other people.
Ebony Thomas: Children are picking up clues from their very earliest ages. So, I would submit that, as amazingly radiant as Mother Harriet was, as heroic as she is, some black girls still long to see themselves as a Disney Princess because a Disney princess doesn't have the same weight And I think even as an enslaved real-life character. We keep telling teachers, "You need diverse books. We need more diverse books. We need more diverse books." But, because of the genre disparity in children's literature, when a teacher, often a white teacher, grabs a book off the shelf, it usually is in one of those five categories I've named and very often it's about slavery.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So I wonder if, and speaking about context, you have to understand and recognize and teach the context for things that are happening within the book. But I wonder, and listening to you, if we are too dependent on picture books to teach history. That what we should be doing is teaching it in history classes and social studies classes. Then using literature and children's literature to dig deeper as opposed to saying, "We're going to let that do all of the work for it."
Ebony Thomas: Absolutely. I agree 110 percent. If I had my way, we would add back social studies and science curriculum for our younger kids. So, of course, in primary grades, we're teaching them letter and number skills. We're teaching them how to read. We're teaching basic math. But once the kid gets to second or third grade, we absolutely need to push social studies instruction earlier. So having people who are subject experts thinking about how best do we introduce this topic to young children. So perhaps instead of a narrative, there are very early informational texts that we could give. We do have some, a small but growing number of informational texts for very young readers where they can get some introduction to primary source document, even if it's just a picture of the young person. Or a picture of Frederick Douglass, great orator Frederick Douglass. We do have some of that. But typically, kids do not get that until they're in the upper elementary grades, but more commonly in middle school.
Ebony Thomas: This is not happening because of the testing regime in the country right now. I must call the name of a couple of amazing African-American women children's writers who are doing incredible work and that I would like to see happen more for the younger grades. There's Tonya Bolden. So, I've been asking for more books about the late 19th century in black children's literature because right now, we don't have very much at all. She's done an amazing book among many, all her books are wonderful, about Sarah Rector, who was a late 19th century Gilded Age black millionaire, child millionaire. She was black and native, I believe. She did all this research, historical research, but the book is probably most appropriate for kids in grades six through eight, maybe fifth-graders who are really great readers.
Ebony Thomas: I'm wondering if we can have picture books about books like that because this is a notable figure, but we just don't introduce those kinds of kids to young audiences very early on. Usually it's the heroes. But, again, it's just as if the whole of picture books for all children were just notable presidents and world leaders. It's very distancing for kids. Then you layer slavery on top of that. Once a kid grapples with what slavery is, it's very difficult to deal with. They don't want to think about it. So, we'll hear by middle or high school, "I don't want to think about slavery. You're always shoving slavery down my throat," because they've just been inundated with that when they ask for books that are about their people.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I hear you saying that not only do we need books that portray the diversity of African-American experiences in slavery, for example, but books that display the diversity of the African-American experience over time. That by simply having your slavery and then civil rights books, and then books centered around Barack Obama-
Ebony Thomas: [laughter]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You miss the full scope of the African-American experience. You need that for children to see themselves in these characters. You just gave this wonderful presentation, and you were talking about how our children are often stereotyped about their reading scores and what the usual narrative is about their reading scores. Could you just say just briefly what you were saying?
Ebony Thomas: Oh, absolutely. [chuckles]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It was a wonderful point.
Ebony Thomas: This is a quote from my book, The Dark Fantastic, which is not specifically about slavery. It's about thinking about race in the imagination and how the imagination forms through fantasy tropes. But I noted that maybe it's not that black kids can't read. Maybe it's we adults have not really considered what we are giving them to read. Because, if most of the books that a child reads between preschool and kindergarten and grade 12 feature really difficult topics in history, hard history, then after a while, they're not going to want to read that.
Ebony Thomas: This is what we hear from kids. I mean, this is what I hear from my nieces and nephews. We already know that. I'll never forget when I was working on this project and my niece was about 11, my eldest niece. I have three of them, but the eldest one. I asked her what she knew about slavery. The way that she narrated it to me, she's very animated type-A personality, bubbly, friendly, just like me. She went into a flat monotone and sounded like a Wikipedia article. The way that she just depersonalized it was uncharacteristic for her. That was not her. It's like, "Yeah. A long time ago, people went over in ships and... " So it's almost like she was parroting whatever she had learned in school by sixth grade about enslavement.
Ebony Thomas: The seven years I spent teaching K-12 absolutely inform everything else that I have done during and since. So, I think that getting my students to want to engage with the past was extremely and incredibly challenging unless the past was showing resistance. One of my most popular lessons when I taught ninth grade English, so this is not little kids, but ninth grade English was when I taught the exchanges between Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Jefferson. So they corresponded. We read excerpts of those letters back and forth. My students, particularly my boys, loved Banneker's responses to Thomas Jefferson. I'd have them read it out loud, reader's theater, and they would just go, "Sir, sir, sir." They turned Banneker into a hip hop verse because he was going back on Thomas Jefferson's prejudices about people of African descent. He was just really going in on the critique.
Ebony Thomas: I just think that there are ways in which kids, my kids in particular, were really trying their best to stay in the present. I call it presentism on Twitter sometimes, but I think that the imperatives of embodied black existence in the here and now drew a lot about Detroit kids into reality, keeping it real. Yeah.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm struck, too, as you were commenting on the conversations between, exchanges between Jefferson and Banneker, and that the students, especially the young black boys, keyed in and connected to Banneker. I'm very much of the mind, and we've talked about it here in early episodes of the podcast, about the power of resistance as a tool for getting students, especially black students, to engage in this subject so they don't get turned off. Part of the reason why they get turned off is because how they would understand in the simplest way, if somebody is treating you badly, you fight back. So why aren't these people fighting back? If they're not fighting back, I don't want to have anything to do to deal with them. It's somewhat ahistorical because you're usually saying, "Okay, you got to build context and then build a context for why people..." Look, slavery's bad. Kids understand that. Right? Period.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So, then you can say, okay, this is how people fought back because in fighting back, they are able to recognize the thread, the humanity of the enslaved. Once you see the humanity of the enslaved, you do not push back against connecting with them. Then it's like, "Oh, okay. Now let me figure out what was going on." I mean, even thinking about children's books, I think even the best of them, it creates that tension because, well, are you just doing the exceptionalism again? It's like, "Yeah, but if you're doing it and not leaving it there." They're doing and then using it as a door, a portal through which to explore this greater experience and say, "Okay, this was one experience. I understand that people fought back. I understand that everybody wanted to fight back but didn't necessarily have these opportunities or ways to do it in this way, but they fought back in these different ways."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If we have books that... Or look for those books that touch upon those themes, I think our students would be better served by them.
Ebony Thomas: Yeah. I get excited. Yeah. A children's literature of black resistance is what we really-
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Is what we need.
Ebony Thomas: Is what we need. I'm just thinking about pitching this to my friends at Scholastic and Harper Collins. We need resistance books. We really do. Our kids need them; all kids need them. Because when they see us clapping back, it'll be other people. These books are teaching people how to treat us or teaching everybody what black people are in the imagination. I'm with you 100 percent there. Yeah, we need books of resistance way, way more. So, we're still focused on closing the achievement gap, raising test scores because that is the true measure of equity. We have not asked many questions about the kinds of reading and writing that we are presenting our children with, or the kinds of literacy benchmarks that we're asking them to achieve when some of this literature may be inherently traumatic.
Ebony Thomas: Again, getting into trauma, I'm a literacy scholar. I'm not a child psychologist. But what does it mean when so many of the books that children encounter in classrooms deal with things that many adults don't want to talk about, that many adults feel are best left in the past. But we require little kids to think about it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Some would then say that, "Well, then we shouldn't talk about slavery in the classroom and certainly not at these early ages." But I actually hear you saying something different. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I hear you saying, "No, we need to talk about it. We need to teach it." But we have to do it with balance that we don't want... We just recreate or create new traumas if that's the only thing that we focus on. In our curriculums, we also have to look for children's books and children's literature and picture books that show the African-American experience and African-American people in their full breadth and depth. Is that an accurate assessment?
Ebony Thomas: Absolutely accurate. Absolutely accurate. I keep thinking about Chinua Achebe's... I hope I pronounced that correctly. But Chinua Achebe's quote about wanting a balance of stories for Africa. The late great Nigerian writer, but that's true across the pond, too. That's true in the diaspora, too. We need stories about that hard history of the... I'm thinking about “Lift Every Voice and Sing” because of Imani Perry's amazing May We Forever Stand. So that's a great book about the Negro national anthem, or the black national anthem, written by James Weldon Johnson and his brother.
Ebony Thomas: But here's the thing I think about that line "Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us." It's important for us to know about the darkness of that past. Again, dark as metaphor is also something that I think about in my scholarly work and how we use dark in the West. Point taken. But the other half of the line is what the Johnson brothers, a generation removed from slavery, taught us back in the day. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. That is so important. We need both to know about the past. Our people have come from, as my grandmother used to say, a mighty long way. But our people also have hope for the future. Quoting N. K. Jemisin, "How Long 'til Black Future Month?" Although I do think we still...
Ebony Thomas: Black History Month is important, but that's why it's so important to make sure even from the very earliest ages, from board books, we give children images of the black past but also black presents and futures so that we can begin to break out of these boxes and these cages that trap black people. Not only in narratives but as whatever happens in stories is sort of a dress rehearsal for what happens in real life. I just want us to really think about these images and the kinds of subconscious messaging that not only our kids are getting, because I haven't gotten to all kids because I'm... Of course, first to our children thinking about what they're going through, but these books travel where we do not.
Ebony Thomas: When there are children who do not encounter many black people or families or kids like them, but they're reading these books about slavery and civil rights and the ghetto. Of course, those books are augmented with multimedia and digital media and social media. They're getting an idea of who black people are. Then they have to deal with people of African descent in the real world. So far, that has not been working very well for all of us.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In thinking about these books, in particular, in the books that deal with slavery, and knowing that taken in isolation, they can be problematic. The depictions of the African-American experience dependent upon the context can be problematic. But they can be useful, the books themselves can be useful for helping to get our children, our students, our young people to understand what slavery was and its centrality not only to the African-American experience in this earlier period, but to the centrality of the American experience.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In our school libraries, these books are on the shelves. There's picture books that deal with slavery. And, there are new books being published all the time. What are two or three elements that teachers should be looking at when they pull these books from the shelves and are considering using them in the classroom to teach about slavery?
Ebony Thomas: Okay. Here are a few criteria. The first is the teacher or the caregiver who's pulling that book from the shelf needs to figure out who's telling the story. The story might be about the helpful white character. Where enslaved characters might not be telling their own stories or they’re seen as beside the point. While I'm not saying all those stories are terrible, I would question whether or not that's actually a story about enslavement at all. It's about something else. It's about the construction of U.S. whiteness or white society or something like that. Who is telling the story is one of the criteria. Look at the narration or the focalizer. How is the story being narrated. Where's the focus of it?
Ebony Thomas: Another criteria that I would want teachers or caregivers to use while evaluating this kind of literature is for them to not look at the words for a moment and just flip through the illustrations in that book and to see what the enslaved characters look like or other characters of African descent. Where are they on the page? Are they centered? When you open up a picture book, it's a double-page spread. Is that character centered? Are they off to the side? Do you see their faces? Are the drawings lifelike or otherwise stylized? Now, this is very subjective here. But there's a thin line between artistic license and caricature. Because of our long U.S. history of caricature, and unfortunately blackface minstrelsy, look very carefully at the illustrator's technique. How are they drawing those features.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The features.
Ebony Thomas: Yeah, the features of the people in the books. Then I think, finally, this is a more subjective category, I would think about the prosody of the text in the story, the prosody of the emotion. Thinking about how emotions are being construed throughout the text and just being very sensitive to who is in your classroom or who is around that circle. These books we know from anecdotal evidence and hopefully from research soon, young adults or adults coming of age have told us heartbreaking stories of being the only black child in a classroom when slavery comes up. Or for older children, they always talk about To Kill a Mockingbird and having to deal with that.
Ebony Thomas: I myself had a classroom experience where my only black girl in a class in Ann Arbor, I read Crooks. She was offended by a young white boy reading African-American vernacular English. Being very sensitive to any emotional issues that arise in that book and thinking about the ways in which you handle that issue depending upon who the children are in your class. Only you can do that. You know your children best. So I think I'll close with just know the children in front of you. Know what they're ready for, know what they're prepared for and proceed with courage and good faith because we need you doing this good work.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Know where they're coming from.
Ebony Thomas: Absolutely.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Know their communities.
Ebony Thomas: Know their backgrounds.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Know their background, know their families. That's great. That's great. So, you've looked at all of these books, you and your research team. What are some of the books that do a good job? Certainly want to leave our listeners with some useful information. But then even some of the common characteristics that you see across some of the books. In other words, things that our teachers, the listeners here, should be looking for when they're thinking about using a picture book in the classroom.
Ebony Thomas: I always go back to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's work. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop is Professor Emerita at The Ohio State University. She is one of the founders or perhaps one of the first preeminent multicultural children's literature scholars. She's the one who came up with the metaphor of the windows, mirrors and doors of children's literature. In her book, Free Within Ourselves, she has a five-point rubric for evaluating culturally authentic African-American literature.
Ebony Thomas: One of her criteria that I love is thinking about the role of family and community. Because without our families and communities, we would not have survived any of it. We wouldn't have survived the middle passage. We would not have survived the plantations. We would not have survived Jim Crow. We certainly wouldn't have survived what we're going through now with mass incarceration and police brutality.
Ebony Thomas: One of the things that I look for in picture books about enslavement is how they are portraying black family and community survival even during tough times. The best children's books do that. For instance, one book that I love and I talk about in my presentations is Glenda Armand's Love Twelve Miles Long about Frederick Douglass and his mother. We all know that Douglass' mother was sold away from her son very early on. She walked 12 miles to see him. I think was it every other week? It's been a long time since I've read the narrative, so please forgive me for that. We read it a lot when I was in high school and then undergrad at FAMU.
Ebony Thomas: I like that because although some of it is... We're not getting the full horror of a mother being sold away from her baby. It still shows the profound love that this woman had for her baby where she's walking... After she's tired and she has worked, she's in enslaved labor and she's walking to see her son and how excited he gets for the visits of his mother, I think that's humanizing. I like Ashley Bryan's Freedom Over Me. Ashley Bryan is one of our... I had the pleasure of meeting him. Penn just acquired his collection of papers, but Mr. Bryan is 95 years old. So, he is a living legend, living griot. He is a living griot. Freedom Over Me presents different stories of enslaved people.
Ebony Thomas: Along with family and community, anytime we can think about the strength of the collective, which you're not allowed to talk about the people or the collective in the United States, because then you're a stinking communist or a socialist. But thinking about collective action--I think that's important. Maybe picture books where we get more than one person. We break up the hero narrative. Or we look at the people who Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were in conversation with. Here's a picture book I'd like to see—because I'll say this and then stop because I could just go on and on.
Ebony Thomas: Here's a picture I'd like to see that we won't get. I'd like to see more picture books about interracial coalitions and how interracial coalitions have both succeeded and failed throughout U.S. history. Because it's always been something that the powers that be don't want to see because of the way in which the United States is constructed. So Frederick Douglass and John Brown had a very important conversation in Detroit, Michigan, back in the 1850s. I see Dr. Jeffries, he's a historian, he's nodding. That conversation you don't learn about until you are in college or university. [chuckles]
Ebony Thomas: So, we don't have many picture books about John Brown. What I learned about John Brown when I was a kid was that he was crazy. This important conversation that Douglass and Brown had was in my hometown of Detroit. There was a historical marker there. I would like to see... There is a way you can tell that story, maybe not to four-year-olds but to 7 or 8-year-olds where you can talk about maybe not the whole... You don't carry the story out to the bloody end of Harpers Ferry, but there were people thinking about abolition. Oh, one more. I know I get...
Ebony Thomas: Another story I'd like to think about is the fact that enslavement, we give ourselves credit. The way that enslavement exists in the early literacy curriculum is that the United States was misguided around things like… There were some people who were... They held people, it's a bad thing, but there was a civil war. There were these black heroes that either self-liberated or they freed others. Then there was a civil war, yay Abraham Lincoln, yay heroes. The march toward freedom and progress and equality kept keeping on.
Ebony Thomas: What I love to see is more books about how the British Empire pretty much manumitted their slaves. Now, I'm not giving the British Empire any credit for anything. Worst empire in human history. Just period. I mean, I'm not a historian but as a history fan girl, I mean, they make Rome look like they were playing patty-cake with people. Britain was horrible. But there was manumission. So, it's not that Great Britain was any better than United States, but just thinking about the road to manumission over in the U.K. and in the Empire, and then thinking about why the United States chose specifically not to do it that way. There are so many little stories you could tell.
Ebony Thomas: Okay. I promise I'll be quiet after this one.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: No, you're good.
Ebony Thomas: I'll tell you. I'm a history fan girl. I'm not a historian, but I love historical fiction, especially for young people. There was a lovely film by Afro-British filmmaker, Amma Asante, called Belle by a historical figure who was instrumental at the beginning of the conversations around ending slavery in the British Empire. Her name was Dido Elizabeth Belle. She was a biracial daughter of a peer and a black slave. Her grandfather was Lord Mansfield who presided over the Zong case.
Ebony Thomas: I have been asking children's literature to give me a book. I asked for a white or a middle grades book, be a picture book. I said, "This is a woman who was so beautiful. She's depicted in a very famous painting and you can't have a picture..." We still don't have a picture book about Belle. Why not? There are so many stories that we could have and don't. I think that's what really strikes me. We get the same story over and over again. Black authors keep telling me, "I am so tired of writing about the same 12 black historical figures," when you get them off the record because, of course, they're trying to eat. But the black authors and illustrators are telling me, I hope they don't stop talking to me now, but they're telling me, "I am so tired."
Ebony Thomas: They want to do these innovative projects and then the publishers, they look at what teachers around the country, particularly in places where there aren't a lot of black people, and they have a Black History Month program or curriculum or unit to put together. That's what sells. Oh, we'll take another book about King and God bless King. I feel like I always have to love my ancestors, love on my ancestors while I'm doing this critique of the contemporary industry. I'm thankful to those 12 figures because they were transcendent. However, there was thousands about the stories we're missing.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So, there are some good books out there. There are a couple of fantastic books, but a lot of the books that are out there are problematic. But even problematic books can be useful in the classroom.
Ebony Thomas: Yeah.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But you really got to know what you're doing. What are some of the tropes that can be critically analyzed by teachers and used effectively in the classroom with young people?
Ebony Thomas: I think that one way that teachers can help their students develop a critical lens around children's literature is to actually do the historical reading themselves. I'm not saying that you have to go become an expert on enslavement in order to teach slavery and children's literature. However, I do think that coupling your unit around a children's picture book with some of the actual history, even if you know it, and your knowledge informs what it is that you do is very helpful.
Ebony Thomas: For instance, during the smiling slaves controversy... Okay, let me explain what that was. In late 2015 and early 2016, there were two picture books that were published that featured smiling enslaved people who were serving. They were in a service capacity. The first was called A Fine Dessert. It was written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Sophie Blackall has gone on to become a two-time Caldecott winner. So, I have to note that here on this podcast and every time I get a mic because people have said that sometimes protests on social media hurt someone's career. In Sophie's case, it may have helped her career because people felt like there was pile on.
Ebony Thomas: So anyway, that team was all white. So, you had a white author, white illustrator, white editor, I believe the art director. So, everybody involved, and I don't know about everybody around the table. The stakeholders there were white. About three months after that protest, another book came out that Dr. Jeffries mentioned, Hasan, you mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Unfortunately, everyone responsible for that book, and I won't call their names, but everyone responsible for that book was a woman of color. A couple were black women.
Ebony Thomas: Here's the thing. Some people were appalled and wanted to cancel them. I didn't feel that way because I felt as if we grow up here just like everybody else and we're affected by the same images as everyone else. But then this is what you do with a book like A Birthday Cake for George Washington where you have people happily baking an anachronistic cake for... Because the kind of cake they even made, that's just 20th century cake and they would have made something different in the late 18th century. But anyway, neither here nor there.
Ebony Thomas: What you do is you pair that with a read of a wonderful book—you should read this—Erica Armstrong Dunbar's Never Caught. Then you read about how George and Martha Washington actually treated their enslaved people. Then you are able to hack that lesson or hack the book for the kids. So, you can have them read the picture book, use it with older elementary kids, so upper elementary kids. Then you can have them look at the Mount Vernon website. There are resources on Teaching Tolerance, Teaching for Change and other historical websites. You can have them see what is accurate about the book, what's good about the book, what do we like about it?
Ebony Thomas: But then how might you change the story given this new information? So, there are ways that we can help our students develop a critical lens around the story. Then at the end of that, you all can have fun together. If they're younger, you guide them through it. If they're older, certainly middle school kids, you can just... if you have any kind of web access, they can just go to town. You can have them write letters even if they don't send the letters to the publisher, although maybe that would be a good idea. They could write how they might revise the book. Then that helps them take ownership of the story. How might I have written the story differently now that I know what actually happened? That Hercules wasn't exactly pleased to make the Washingtons’ food while his family were in chains or he was in chains. That's how I think we can use even bad books.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thinking about the quote unquote "bad books," they focus on, perhaps more so than some of the other subjects, the question of the founders. There's something going on there because this is a birthday cake for George Washington. If you were to ask that same team and pitch the idea of, do a book about a birthday cake for George Washington, they're like, "Oh, okay." Clearly, they thought that was okay. But if you would have said, "Do a birthday cake for an enslaver,"—
Ebony Thomas: [laughter] Oh, no.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: They might have been like, "Oh, what y'all talking about?" Right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But the association or there was no association in that sense that George Washington is as much a person holding people in bondage as he is the first president of the United States. There's a dissociation, but that's something that we see.
Ebony Thomas: There is something about the founding... I kept trying to find picture books that accurately depicted the Washington's cruel treatment of the Mount Vernon enslaved folk, or the people in Philadelphia, which black Philadelphians told me about when I moved there seven years ago. They said, "You need to go down to Independence Mall. You can see Washington chained up his enslaved folk in the basement." I was like, "What?" Because you don't hear that. So, my student and I, we have an article out in Social Education that came out last year. We spent over a year trying to find… Okay. We even said let's just look at the 21st century, picture books from the 21st century. Do they depict Washington slaveholding? The answer is no.
Ebony Thomas: When they do, and I know you know this, Hasan, they want to give him a pass. They say it was Martha. Those were Martha’s slaves. She was cruel. So, there's something about... We have whitewashed Washington and certainly many of the other founders we don't talk about or think about. There's something there that bears more examining than I've had the capacity to do.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think part of what we're doing in portraying and depicting, particularly the founders because the founders will serve as the stand-in because if you can absolve the founders of their enslavement of other people, then what can you say about others who were enslaving? So, it really bleeds over. But I think what we're actually doing, and this can become the danger of treating these enslavers, treating the founders in this particular way, is what we're actually doing is rationalizing evil.
Ebony Thomas: [sighs—lets out breath] Yeah.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What are the implications of that for how we want to then study slavery and the American experience and how we understand racism and the harmful effects of white supremacy and continuing discrimination a century and a half after slavery ends if we've rationalized the way and muted the harm that slavery does beginning with the very moment that we introduce the issue through children's literature most likely in the second, third and fourth grades.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think we kind of got at this, but I want to ask it just very pointedly if you will. So, here's the question: Why is it important to teach slavery to children?
Ebony Thomas: Oh, my goodness. [chuckles] It is important to teach slavery to children because if you do not understand slavery in the United States, you will not understand not only racism in the contemporary United States, you will not understand the contemporary United States. It's stitched into the very fabric of even our current political culture. You won't understand the Electoral College. You won't understand everything being talked about at Washington, D.C. You won't understand why we don't have universal healthcare. There's just so much about the U.S. that is impossible to understand without understanding that we were once a slave society.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: As I listened to you answer, I'm struck by the realization that we will teach American history so we can pull out... If we don't teach slavery to children, it's not like we're not going to teach some version of American history then. So then, when we do eventually circle back around and want to introduce slavery, it makes no sense-
Ebony Thomas: That’s it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And its impact and the lasting legacy of it doesn't make any sense-
Ebony Thomas: That’s it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And doesn't gel and jive with the version of history that we have been teaching from the very beginning of their education.
Ebony Thomas: That's it. You and I know as professors, as educators and as scholars what human beings do with contradictory information. Something's got to give or give way. Something has got to give way. Either the United States is the land of the free and the home of the brave or else we are a recovering slave society. We know that the two can exist in tension and have existed in tension. But that's really hard for people. We see an increasing number of people who are rejecting the latter completely. Like, you know, “No, we don't want to think about this. Slavery was a long time ago, and the Native Americans were conquered.” That's another kettle of fish. That's another episode, but those are the twin founding sins of the country that we have to wrestle with. So, yeah.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. Ebony Thomas, thank you so much for taking the time. It's been a long day. It's been a wonderful and powerful conference. You did great work this morning, this afternoon. Thank you so much for taking the time out this evening to carry on the conversation and share your insights and your wisdom and your knowledge and your suggestions about how to use children's picture books effectively to accurately teach the history of American slavery. So thank you very much.
Ebony Thomas: Anytime. It's been a pleasure.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She is a former Detroit Public School teacher and past chair of the National Council of Teachers of English Standing Committee on Research. Her most recent book is The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games from NYU Press. Dr. Thomas is also an advisory board member and consultant for the Teaching Hard History project.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center helping teachers and schools prepare their students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Teaching Tolerance offers free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find these online at tolerance.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an adequate understanding of the role slavery played in the development of what is currently the United States or how its legacy still influences us today. Now in our second season, this podcast is part of an effort to provide comprehensive tools for learning and teaching this critical topic. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials that include over 100 texts, sample inquiries and a detailed K-12 framework for teaching the history of American slavery. You can find these online at tolerance.org/hardhistory.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Thomas for sharing some insights with us. Thanks to LaGarrett King for making my interview with Dr. Thomas possible, and a special thanks to Asha Jeffries for playing herself in the introduction. This podcast was produced by Shea Shackelford with production assistance from Russell Gragg. Kate Shuster is our executive producer. Our theme song is “Different Heroes” by A Tribe Called Red featuring Northern Voice who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is by Chris Zabriskie.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what we're doing, please let your friends and colleagues know. Tell us what you think on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate the feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University and your host for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.