Children's author apologises for 'racially insensitive' smiling slaves picture book

Emily Jenkins sparked controversy with her 'whitewashed' depiction of slavery in A Fine Dessert

A slave girl and mother pick blacberries on the plantation in A Fine Dessert
A slave girl and mother pick blacberries on the plantation in A Fine Dessert

The author of a children’s picture book criticised for its depiction of smiling slaves has apologised for being “racially insensitive” and promised to donate her earnings to a diversity campaign.

Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall were nominated for a string of awards for A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat, which follows four families across different eras, all making blackberry fools.

One scene sees a slave girl and her mother make the pudding for their master's family in an 1810 South Carolina kitchen before hiding in a cupboard to lick the bowl. Slavery is portrayed as wrong in the book through comparisons between slaves and masters, but their seemingly happy demeanours have come under fire, particularly as the story is aimed at children.

Similar depictions of smiling slaves were often used by slave owners to convey the obviously ludicrous message that slavery benefitted African Americans and should be upheld.

Librarian Elisa Gall wrote in August: “I appreciate the creators’ efforts to not ignore that part of history, but I wonder: Showing smiling slaves might not be ignoring this part of history technically - but isn’t it ignoring a huge, essential part of it? Is illustrating a watered-down snapshot any better than leaving it out all together?”

Twitter debate followed about whether or not poor representation was better than none at all, and it was not long before Jenkins spoke out to say she appreciated how “articulate” the comments were and “that people took the time to write them”, adding that she was “hearing what you say and absorbing it”.

Shortly afterwards, Jenkins apologised in a comment thread on blog Reading While White, writing: “I have read this discussion and the others with care and attention. I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive.

“I own that and am very sorry. For lack of a better way to make reparations, I donated the fee I earned for writing the book to We Need Diverse Books.”

She was praised by some readers for “graceful handling of the situation”, while others refused to accept her apology.

Blackall also addressed the controversy, writing on her own blog last month: “[Children] are horrified at how unfair it is. There is nothing whimsical about hiding in the cupboard. It conveys a complete lack of freedom. I have shown isolated moments of their day which may appear pleasurable, but I don’t think I have made slavery out to seem pleasurable or fun.”

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