103 Leukemia Journal, July 24, 2016 – A Fine Dessert

We moved into our house in Kirkwood in July 2007. The following February a
disgruntled black Kirkwood resident shot and killed a police man outside city
hall, six city council members and another policeman inside. It was shocking and
tragic and sad.

I’m a pretty good friend maker, and before the shooting, but especially
after, I wanted to be an ordinary, chatting across the fence or in the grocery
store or library neighbor to people in the black community. For the next few
years, I went to community meetings in response to the shooting and racism in
Kirkwood. Was one of the founding members of the Citizens For Healing and Hope
book group, which still meets. But took the job of Peace Corps Recruiter at
Washington University, and then was caregiver for three years for my husband
after his hand accident, and wasn’t able to maintain any Kirkwood black
friendships.

But after diagnosis, I met and hired Blanche, who owns her own home health
care business and happens to be black. Since I might end up bed-ridden, wholly
dependent for the most personal kinds of care, I’ve worked on developing a
relationship of mutual trust and respect with Blanche. She’s been coming every
other week for two years. Socializing, yakking about our lives is an important
part of each of her visits. From the beginning Blanche and I have been able to
talk about anything; I like her honesty and good sense. .

Blanche is a big reader, too, so I loaned her my copy of Annette
Gordon-Reed’s The Hemmings of Monticello; An American Family, Ylonda
Gault Cviness’s Child, Please, a book about the “old school wisdom of
strong black mothers, ” other Black topics. She borrows books from me in between
reading for book groups. She’s a shrewd, resilient, compassionate woman, devoted
to her family, her church and her clients.

I don’t need personal care yet, so as we talk, Blanche makes pots of soup or
quinoa with vegetables or other plain meals from my favorite recipes, or cuts up
fruits and vegetables for salads. Once or twice a year we make my buttermilk
chocolate cake with chocolate ganache; a wicked indulgence we sample and giggle
over before I send her home with half.

Blanche travels regularly with her sisters – to Branson, Las Vegas, LA, and
with church friends on Black History tours and other cultural outings. She’s in
a study group at church, another reading group, and a “tea and cake” social
group with women friends. “They like wine, but I’m not a wine drinker. I have
the tea.” Sometimes she brings the chocolate buttermilk cake.

When she came a couple weeks ago, I mentioned the sickening Nice tragedy, and
she said, “I’ve been to Nice. I went to France with my son. We were in Nice,
Paris, the Louvre.” Her son is a painter, a graduate in fine art, who studied
French in college for three years. She joined him on a study abroad trip. She
said, “I was scared in Nice. My son went off somewhere for a minute and I was
left alone on the street corner. I could hear all these people talking and
didn’t understand a word. I thought, that’s what immigrants feel like when they
come here.” But, she said, people were nice to her. A French woman who spoke
English noticed her, asked if she were all right, if she were lost, could she
help Blanche? And then the son returned, she said, so she was fine.

So I have a black friend, and if you are white and have a black friend, race
comes up. Last year I read a review of a children’s book, A Fine
Dessert
, by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, an historical
treatment of four centuries of families making a pudding called “blackberry
fool.” I’m always looking for good children’s books for young grandchildren and
baby gifts; liked the review and without reading the book, ordered it. Literally
the day it came, I happened on another review criticizing the book’s racial
insensitivity.

The most controversial scene shows a black mother and child hiding in a
closet, licking the pudding bowl clean while the master and his family, served
by another black, eat their pudding around the dining room table.

I read the book, liked the illustrations but wondered about the depiction of
the slave mother and child, and read more reviews.

The New York Times named A Fine Dessert one of the 10 best illustrated
children’s books of 2015, their review suggesting the depiction of a slave
mother and child gave a rosy view of slavery. Horn Book, School Library Journal
and a blog called Reading While White; Allies for Racial Diversity & Inclusion
in Books for Children & Teens argued that even slave mothers smiled lovingly at
their children, thus experiencing joy and happiness in their captive lives. The
author, Emily Jenkins apologized publicly, saying, “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.”(1)

I found blog responses from blacks, but no black reviews of A Fine Dessert.
The reviews seemed to be projections of white hopes, and polite generalizations.
My own response has been confusion and uncertainty. Would I have written a
similar review? What would a black mother or grandmother or pre-school teacher
think of the book? I put it aside, waiting till I knew Blanche better to ask her
opinion.

I gave her the book last month, said I’d ordered it without reading it first,
read negative reviews, had not sent it to my grandchildren, and wanted her
opinion.

As we sat together, Blanche read it carefully, then asked me who it was
written for. I said pre-school – primary grade kids.

She said this book might be a black child’s first experience with
representation of blacks in a book, and also a white child’s.

“Those little kids,” she said, “will think, why are the black mother and
child hiding in the closet while the family eats the pudding they made? They
will think, those black people are inferior. The black child will think, ‘I am
inferior.’ ”

Then she said, “Why do we always have to talk about slavery as essential to
black identity? Why not show an ordinary black family from another time, mom and
child, or dad and child making pudding. Or two gay black parents making pudding;
we have gays in the black community.”

She said, “I would never read this to little kids, any little kids. I’d give
it to high school kids, a class with black and white kids. This is not a book
for little kids.”

She suggested having high school kids read the book and participate in a
teacher guided discussion of their responses to it. She then suggested students
work in small groups, using A Fine Dessert as a model, to re-write and
re-illustrate the book as part of a school project. Keep the four centuries
framework but come up with more inclusive, positive representations of families
in each century, maybe start with a Native American family, but definitely put
the black family in a different time than slavery. Some students to research
given time periods, others to choose representative family groups, write new
text, draw or paint or make some other kind of new illustrations. Use the
student created books for follow-up discussion about race, ethnicity and food
culture in America.

Brilliant idea; wish I’d thought of it.

When she left that day, Blanche took A Fine Dessert to show her brother, also
a gifted artist. A little uneasy when she returned, she was candid about her
family responses. She didn’t mention her brother, but told me what her sisters
said. The older one, in her 70s, was politely neutral. She’d lived through the
Civil Rights demonstrations, and was, Blanche said, philosophical about today’s
lack of progress in race relations. The younger sister, in her late 40s, was
irate. “Get that “trash” out of my house,” she yelled at Blanche.

Blanche was in Orlando last week on vacation with her second son, his wife,
three young children, her sister and her son’s in-laws. She’ll have some good
stories, and bad, about the adventure when she comes back. I’ll be glad to see
her, share some complicated family stories of my own. Before she left, we
decided to make our own fine dessert again, that wicked chocolate buttermilk
cake.

(1) Lauren Barack, “Emily Jenkins Apologizes for A Fine Dessert,” School
Library Journal, Nov 3, 2015.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.