Is a blind spot still a blind spot if you can see it?
I had an experience of seeing one last month. It came after a flurry of Internet debate surrounding the picture book “A Fine Dessert,” written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.
The book depicts four families making and enjoying one dessert in different centuries. In the first section, which set in the 1700s, an English girl and her mother pick wild blackberries, milk the cow, beat cream using a whisk made of twigs, draw water from a well, and strain the berries through muslin to make blackberry fool. In each subsequent section, the characters use newer technology but the same amount of love to create the confection. Each section ends with the characters licking the mixing bowl or spoon.
The book garnered praised from School Library Journal, The New York Times, and others, but in late October, I heard there was a backlash brewing, so I got a library copy.
The part of the book that drew controversy is the second section, set in South Carolina in 1810. In it, an enslaved mother and daughter make blackberry fool and serve it to their master’s family. Then they hide in a closet and lick the bowl clean together.
After reading this NPR article about the issue, I wasn’t sure how to react. Critics said that the 1810 scenes perpetuated imagery of smiling, happy slaves, while Jenkin’s author’s note and Blackall’s comments to NPR indicated that their intention was to show “people finding joy in craftsmanship and dessert even within lives of great hardship and injustice.”
From my own experiences of the world, I know that portraying oppressed people as only miserable is reductive and inaccurate. (The phenomenon of #theafricathemedianevershowsyou trend this summer spoke to that.) But did the scenes of an enslaved mother and daughter hiding in the closet effectively celebrate the strength of the human spirit in the worst of circumstances? I wasn’t sure. And I also knew that I don’t hear enough of the voices of people of color on topics of race and also on children’s literature.
So I kept reading.
Eventually, I came to this Goodreads review. In it, Jessica, a Michigan-based youth services librarian, lays out a number of strong critiques of Jenkins and Blackall’s decisions. Here’s the one that really hit me:
If I went back in time with my future child or explore sections of my portrayed history, I am showing to them that after making the dessert, we get to hide and lick the bowl. Awww, isn’t that sweet.
And there it is: my blind spot. Because I can dissect these scenes in “A Fine Dessert” a million different ways, but I never have to read it thinking “that’s what I’d have to do if I lived during slavery.”
Does seeing this mean my blind spot is gone? No. But hopefully it’s like the ones on the sides of my car: I know where they are, so I can be diligent about checking them.
Hopefully Emily Jenkins (a.k.a. E. Lockhart, the author of “We Were Liars”) and Sophie Blackall will do the same. On Nov. 1, Jenkins told the “Reading While White” blog that she had come to understand her book as racially insensitive and consequently donated her income from it to We Need Diverse Books.