The other day, I came across a copy of The House That George Built (by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Rebecca Bond, Charlesbridge, 2012).
A play on The House That Jack Built, the book features a sing-songy rhyme on the righthand side of each spread (“This is the lot / that grand, scenic spot, / for the President’s House that George built”) and a more detailed history of the President’s house’s conception, building, and completion on the left. Painterly watercolors add to the book’s storybook-like feel.
Not until more than halfway through does the book acknowledge that our White “Founding Fathers”--the ones who fought so gallantly for freedom--enslaved other human beings to create the President’s House. And even that information is couched in bowdlerizing language: “By now over one hundred workers--free men and slaves--lived on the construction site in small, temporary huts. They labored from sunrise till sunset, six long days a week. But with presidential duties and the house, George worked seven.” In the Author’s Note, the topic of enslaved people’s labor on the President’s House is similarly relegated to a small paragraph towards the end. That’s it.
I am accustomed to prettified versions of America’s history, but I lingered over this one (which somehow never showed up on my radar screen back in 2012). Here’s why: I cannot mentally square the care and precision the creators took to call the building the “President’s House” rather than the “White House” (it was not called “the White House” until the early 1900s) with the revisionist decision they made to frame the book around the idea that “George built” it.
Why so careful to get the building’s name right, but so free to credit a slaver with having built it, when the only actual building that George participated in was pounding in some wooden stakes to mark the site?
Accuracy is a big deal in anything labeled nonfiction. I’ve been on enough award committees to know that even the slightest error can doom a book. The author and editor were probably hyper-aware of this as they made the decision to consistently call the building the “President’s House”. But what to do when accuracy isn’t the issue so much as White-centricity? I can already hear the denizens of George-defenders telling me “but it was his project! He envisioned the house, that’s what the authors meant, it’s supposed to be a metaphor! Anyways, you have to consider the time--slavery was legal!” OK, I get all that. And, I also get that George’s point of view isn’t the only point of view from which we can look at this story. Where’s The House That WE Built, told from the point of views of the enslaved Black people, free Black people, and immigrants who actually built the thing?
I do see some promising signs of change. More and more reviewers are naming a White-dominant narrative as a problem (Kirkus being a prime example), but we also need authors and editors to consider whether their narratives--particularly their “nonfiction” narratives--are White-centric.
Consider, for example, Bold Riders: The Story of the Pony Express (by John Micklos, Capstone, 2015).
Over and over, this pithy book presents First/Native Nations people as one of a series of obstacles the brave Pony Express riders needed to surmount:
“The route crossed mountains, rivers, and deserts. Winter snowstorms and spring floods might prevent delivery. Riders also needed to cross land claimed by many American Indian tribes. Some of these tribes were warlike. How could lone riders get through?” (p. 13)
“Riders spent long hours in the saddle and faced many dangers. They might get trampled by a herd of stampeding bison. They might have to outrun hostile American Indians. Even if all went smoothly, they finished their shifts stiff and sore from their hard rides.” (p. 19)
“The brave Pony Express riders had many adventures and faced many dangers. History shows that the Paiutes were at war with settlers and soldiers along the Pony Express route. When riders said they had tangled with or escaped hostile Paiutes, they were likely telling the truth. Sometimes they even had scars to show. We also know that some riders lost their lives in the line of duty.” (p. 20)
The p. 20 quote, in particular, intrigues and troubles me. Micklos seems to know that something in this narrative is “off”, and is defending his White-centric narrative with “these are FACTS.” But that’s a strawman argument. I don’t think anyone would dispute that Paiute people fought White Pony Express riders.
The problem is the way the narrative is framed and constructed in the first place. Why were the Paiute people attacking? Were they, in fact, attacking--or defending themselves? Page 13 refers to land “claimed by many American Indian tribes,” but if the First/Native Nations people were there first, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the White people “claimed” that land? Why are the First/Native Nations people described as “hostile” and “warlike”, while the White people are described as “soldiers”? Why, for that matter, don’t we use the term “invaders” instead of “riders”? Where are the narratives that are just as by-the-numbers accurate, but centered in non-White points of view?
Don Tate’s Poet comes to mind, as does 1621: A New Look At Thanksgiving, and for teens, Howard Zinn’s Young People’s History. I’d love more. Leave them in the comments (and publishers, feel free to send us more of the real thing!).
Ed. 6/19/2016: Alyssa Mito Pusey, Senior Editor at Charlesbridge and Editor of The House That George Built, responds via CBC Diversity. In her post, Alyssa models what a productive, constructive dialogue can look like, and also bravely shares her own feelings:
For me, it’s a nerve-racking time, in some ways. Authors and editors are being held to more rigorous standards, and I really don’t want to mess up. I certainly don’t want to incur the wrath of the blogosphere. More importantly, I don’t want to produce books that perpetuate racial stereotypes and white privilege, however unintentionally.
My fears aside, this is also an exciting and empowering time. I feel like my eyes are being opened, like I’m learning and growing with every article and blog post—Allie’s included. I’m receiving and acquiring more biographies of people of color. I’m asking experts and other readers for honest feedback on questions of representation. And I’m trying with every book to be as inclusive as possible.
I’ve got a long way to go, clearly. But I hope to keep on improving as an editor—and to do what I can to help publish nonfiction that accurately reflects our diverse world.
Alyssa, a huge thank THANK YOU goes out to you from me and the whole RWW team. I particularly admire how you make space for your own fears as well as the excitement and empowerment you're feeling, and how you phrase this as a "yes, and" rather than a "yes, but"--you're excited AND afraid, not excited BUT afraid. This is a crucial distinction, and something I, as a white person, need to practice, as this type of thinking runs counter to white culture. Again, thank you.