By now, most people in the book world have heard about the controversy of a children’s book for Scholastic being pulled off the market because of its depiction of “happy” slaves on the plantation of George Washington. If you haven’t, an original report is here, and the author’s response to criticism of her work is here.
Most people, and I include myself within that group, thought the book should never have been allowed to reach the publication stage. It should have been–and was–predictable what the reaction to Ganeshram’s treatment of slavery was going to be. She argues that she did not have much control over the book’s illustrations, and I can well believe her. Most of us don’t have much control over the cars and the homes we “own,” either.
But on the issue of the book’s accuracy about slavery, Ganeshram’s argument is more nuanced, and in fairness to her, we should listen to it. Most of the critics object to the book’s depiction of slavery simply because we know that, on the whole, slavery was a miserable experience for those so enslaved. But–and this is a crucial qualification–there are gradations of human experience, even within conditions we on the outside might judge to be uniformly terrible. People do smile and sing, even in prison; they play musical instruments, even in concentration camps. Are these activities justification for continuing concentration camps or perpetuating horrible conditions in prisons? Certainly not. You dismantle the concentration camp and free the prisoners from the appalling conditions there; you make the prison as humane a place as you can for the inmate until he has served his time. You make it clear to all who would listen that captivity and slavery, whether they are legal or illegal, are terrible conditions to be in. But in the interest of historical accuracy and truth, you do not assume that terrible conditions always and everywhere wipe out the full range of human emotions. They don’t.
This truth, small though it may be against the larger reality that many thousands of people have suffered under nearly-unbelievable conditions throughout history, is what infuriated readers and historians a generation ago when they came to consider Eugene Genovese’s book about slave life on the plantations, Roll, Jordan, Roll. Genovese maintained that, in order to survive and resist their slavery, slaves had to adopt many strategies to cope with it. That resistance meant–much to the chagrin of those who would like to believe that the experience of slavery was monolithic–that slaves had to and did express the full range of human feelings. Rage and despair, certainly. But slaves also cried when Washington and Jefferson died. I would have cried, myself, had I been in their shoes, though not all of my tears would have been of grief. Some would have been of anxiety and fear over an uncertain future.
I know this much: there is enormous public pressure to conform to a particular historical worldview, especially when we think we know the truth about an era, such as slavery in the ancient world or slavery in the American South. We even need a sense of uniformity in history in order to educate ourselves about the past and set public policy for the future. But the fullness of human emotion is not driven out of us regardless of whether our state is happy or miserable. We feel all of our emotions until the day we can feel them no more.
A personal story. After Hurricane Katrina, I moved in with my parents. There was no other place to go. Rents are quite high in Houston, and they’ve gone up even more in the last decade. Living in this small house has enabled me to continue to save for my retirement, and it has enabled me to assist my parents in the upkeep of our home. I am generally happy.
No one should think, however, that I am happy all the time. Often, I feel trapped in my circumstances. My parents are aging rapidly. Both of them suffer from diagnosed and undiagnosed dementia. Between the two of them, they have very little short-term memory, which means they cannot function in daily life, even when they think they can. They forget; they stumble and fumble; they even throw things. It takes five of us in the immediate family to handle their affairs, but even so, there’s not a day that goes by that they don’t argue about something–a bill, or the way breakfast is fixed, perhaps–and my body and spirit are exposed to their anger and their worry all day long, every day. I have felt every emotion it’s possible to feel, even though my basic living circumstance hasn’t changed in ten years.
Ganeshram was trying to put that point across to her young readers–that humans remain fully emotionally engaged regardless of their circumstances–and I see what she was trying to do. I still feel that a book about slavery was the wrong subject through which to make that point, but that doesn’t mean the point can’t be made in such a book. Eugene Genovese made it in his book. Nor does it mean that the point ought not to be made. On the contrary, it needs to be made more often. In Ganeshram’s case, the book simply failed, but the point still stands: the human experience is not monolithic, even though we find it useful or comforting to think that it is.