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The (Mis)representation of Enslavement in Historical Literature for Elementary Students

by Timothy Patterson & Jay M. Shuttleworth - 2019

Context: Elementary teachers will make difficult pedagogical choices when selecting materials to support their students’ learning about historical topics. Given the variety of historical books written for their students, certain stories will be emphasized and ultimately legitimated and others will be silenced through absence.

Objective of Study: The objective of this article is to identify and analyze children’s literature spanning a spectrum of theoretical positioning and to interrogate their instructional implications. We investigate narratives and images of enslavement in children’s literature through the question: how is enslavement portrayed in recently published elementary-level (first through sixth grade) literature?

Research Design: This article is a content analysis of 21 recently published elementary-level books that portray enslavement in U.S. history. Unlike previous studies of enslavement in children’s literature, we analyzed both the narrative text and the illustrations in our dataset using methods that ensured interrater reliability. To accomplish this, we developed and tested an analytical tool for understanding the interpretive stances books deploy when they portray difficult moments in history. We deductively categorized textual and visual depictions of enslavement into one of three stances: selective tradition, social conscience, and culturally conscious. The criteria for these stances were established through critical race theory and the broad research tradition on African-American subjects in children’s literature.

Results: Our analysis revealed the presence of all three depictions in children’s literature. Our findings call attention to the need for careful decision-making on the part of elementary teachers, as their decisions around book selection will enact a curriculum that honors particular perspectives of U.S. history. The problematic elements identified in previous studies remain prevalent in modern books for elementary students. However, our findings also suggest teachers will be presented with a more complicated set of options when selecting among historical children’s literature than previously documented by researchers.

Conclusions: While a diversity of interpretive narratives about enslavement is present in elementary-level history books, the invisibility of race in U.S. history remains a powerful feature in current historical resources. Researchers of a number of topics in K–12 education will find utility in the analytical tool developed for this article. Selective tradition, social conscience, and culturally conscious are interpretive frames that can be directed at any number of topics in children’s literature.

My teachers told me we was slaves

My mama told me we was kings

I dont know who to listen to

I guess we somewhere in between (Staples, Volpe, Jones, & Smith, 2015)


In the song Summertime, rapper Vince Staples (2015) reflects on the confusion hes grappled with resulting from divergent school and home-based portrayals of enslavement. Through lyrics delivered with a slow, tired melancholy, Stapless experiences are not unique; the gaps between the history students of color learn at home and the history they learn at school have been well documented (Almarza, 2001; Dimitriadis, 2000; Epstein, 1998, 2001, 2009). Staples chooses to focus on his teachers, but it is likely a multitude of forces contributed to this crisis over his cultural and familial history. For example, K12 state history standards in Michigan, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Virginia pay considerable attention to enslavement, but they do so only in superficial ways by ignoring or downplaying the institutional context in which the peculiar institution existed (Anderson & Metzger, 2011). In K5 history standards nationwide (including Stapless home state of California), enslaved persons are primarily presented as economic contributors to the building of the U.S., while acts of resistance such as Nat Turners rebellion appear only in South Carolinas K5 standards (Busey & Walker, 2017). J. E. King and Swartz (2016) characterize the portrayal of enslavement in elementary standards as the corporate delivery of Harriet Tubman (p. 74), whereby collective resistance is chiseled down to one individuals heroic efforts. This is troubling, as standards embody an interpretive frame of U.S. history where society periodically experiences social conflict but this invariably gets resolved and the forward march of progress continues (Anderson & Metzger, 2011, p. 408). Compounding this problematic approach to teaching about enslavement are the curricular materials meant to support history instruction. For middle and high school teachers, history textbooks are marked by problematic or simplistic explanations of this institution (Brown & Brown, 2010; Cha-Jua & Weems, 1994; Woyshner & Schocker, 2015). Textbooks often describe acts of violence perpetrated during enslavement in vivid detail, but such acts are committed by bad or immoral individuals. As a result, textbooks tend to support the interpretation of enslavement enacted by the standards: textbook narratives do not position slavery as a fully institutionalized system that afforded a foundation of economic stability and wealth that can be traced to contemporary institutions and families (Brown & Brown, 2010, p. 46).

Elementary teachers are typically without a history textbook (Passe, 2006) and often face pressure to reduce the amount of time spent on history instruction, replacing it with reading and literacy instruction (Fallace, Biscoe, & Perry, 2007; Holloway & Chiodo, 2009). As a result, many elementary teachers report choosing from a variety of historical fiction and nonfiction trade books in supplementing in-class history instruction (Wilton & Bickford, 2012). However, elementary teachers risk entering a fraught landscape when deciding among the books about enslavement in U.S. history written for elementary-age children. In early 2016, the explosiveness of this terrain was emphasized when Scholastic published A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The book, written for students in first through third grade, tells the story of George Washingtons enslaved person and cook Hercules. It generated controversy for its description of life under enslavement and artistic portrayals of Hercules, his daughter Delia, and Washingtons other enslaved persons. Ramen Ganeshram, the books author, defended this portrayal by writing in a now deleted blog post:

It is the historical record not my opinion that shows that enslaved people who received status positions were proud of these positions and made use of the perks of those positions. It is what illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton calls out in her artist's note as informing her decision to depict those in A Birthday Cake for George Washington as happy and prideful people. (as cited in Peralta, 2016)

Critics, however, did not charge A Birthday Cake for George Washington with being historically inaccurate, though some noted that the brutality of Herculess biography was omitted or remained in the books literal margins. Rather, their concern was with the implications of telling this particular story, especially to a young audience with such details omitted from the narrative (DOyley, 2016).

This controversy highlighted the difficult pedagogical choices elementary teachers must make when selecting materials to support their students learning: given the variety of historical books written for their students, which stories will be emphasized and ultimately legitimated and which will be silenced through absence? Unfortunately, little research exists on historical childrens literature to help guide early elementary teachers in making these pedagogical decisions. Much exists in the way of alternative history curricular material available at the elementary level, but elementary teachers often lack a framework for choosing and arranging these materials to provide a coherent vision of history, in part because few of them have had university-level training in history, political science, geography, or economics (Brophy & Alleman, 2008; Marker & Mehlinger, 1992). These conditions signal an urgency for more research that investigates portrayals of race in history books for elementary students. This study goes a long way to highlighting this issue by investigating childrens literature that present narratives and images of enslavement in U.S. history through the question: How is enslavement portrayed in recently published elementary-level (first through sixth grade) literature?


Because of the presence of recently published books minimizing or equivocating the experience of enslaved people, a study of how it is depicted in childrens literature is a pressing issue. Readers reactions to one of the books in this study, A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat, articulate just how essential such research is. Professional reviewers of Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackalls (2015) book were largely silent on many troubling omissions in A Fine Dessert. It was not until nine months after the books publication that a groundswell of concern over A Fine Dessert developed primarily through a critical blog post and social media trends like #SlaveryWithASmile. The largely grassroots reaction to A Fine Dessert demonstrates the passion and concern parents of color bring to portrayals of enslavement their children are likely to encounter in schools (Thomas, Reese, & Horning, 2016). A persistent theme in these reactions is that parents of color did not believe that Jenkins, Blackall, employees of Schwartz and Wade Books, or the reviewers of A Fine Dessert considered how such a story would impact children of color who read the book. The controversies surrounding A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington (described in the introduction to this article) signal the American publics discomfort in addressing enslavement, and it stresses the need to better understand what elementary-age students are reading in history lessons about this topic.

Reflecting broadly on the field of elementary history education, researchers have long complained that instructional resources contain very little content, and what is there is commonplace information and likely to be familiar to students (Alter, 1995; Brophy, 1992; Haas, 1991; Hall, 1985; Larkins, Hawkins, & Gilmore, 1987; Ravitch, 1987). Publishers pressure authors writing for young audiences to present topics and events in U.S. history in noncontroversial ways (Matusevich, 2006), which has resulted in inaccurate and poor historical accounts of peoples of color. For example, researchers have routinely critiqued the portrayal of Christopher Columbus and the contact between Europeans and the indigenous population of the Americas (Bickford, 2013; Bickford & Hunt, 2014; Bickford & Rich, 2015b; Bigelow, 1998a; Bigelow, 1998b; Field & Singer, 2006; Henning, Snow-Gerono, Reed, & Warner, 2006; Peterson, 1998). Bickford (2013) found numerous misrepresentations among 33 fiction and nonfiction books about Columbus or the Columbian Exchange, and most of the books in Bickfords study told the narrative of exploration and Western contact with the Americas through a Eurocentric perspective. With only three exceptions, none of the books name the Arawak tribe as such or name an individual member of that indigenous tribe. Thus the Native American population is silenced through omission. Similarly, the violence perpetrated by Columbus and his crew is either misrepresented or omitted outright.

Though receiving less attention from researchers than colonization, depictions of enslavement in U.S. history have been marked by similar omissions and misrepresentations. A fundamental tension exists when depicting enslavement for young readers: authors must walk a path between portraying the violence of enslavement and depicting the peculiar institution in an age-appropriate manner. As a result, inconsistent portrayals of African-American history are common in both elementary history textbooks (Alter, 1995; Brown & Brown, 2010; Denton & Muir, 1994) and childrens literature (Apol, 1998; Bickford & Rich, 2014; Bickford & Schuette, 2016; T. L. Williams, 2009). Violence is often present in depictions of enslavement in childrens literature, though it tends to be minimized or implied. In the most comprehensive study of enslavement in childrens literature published over the previous 60 years, Bickford and Rich (2014) found that, much like in elementary textbooks, slave owners were portrayed as immoral individuals, effectively absolving the larger slave system of blame. In nearly four fifths of books, domestic work on large plantations was misrepresented as the typical role for enslaved persons even though field work was by far the most common position (Parish, 1989; Schermerhorn, 2012). A vast majority of books depicted life after enslavement and during Reconstruction in generally hopeful tones, omitting the violence, oppression, and disenfranchisement experienced by former enslaved persons (Hunter, 1997; L. Levine, 1977).

This research pool is lacking a comprehensive interpretive analysis of books about enslavement in U.S. history that are in use in classrooms today. For example, T. L. Williams (2009) focused on a small number of books from the popular Dear America series, although not representative of the multitude of options available to teachers. Bickford and Richs (2014) study is informative in establishing trends in childrens literature over the last 60 years, but it does not offer a concentrated analysis of recently published books that are likely to be in use in contemporary classrooms. While Bickford and Schuette (2016) investigate books about enslavement within a larger study on books that portray the Black freedom movement (enslavement through the civil rights movement), they focus exclusively on nonfiction books written for elementary and middle grade readers. Importantly, neither Bickford and Schuette (2016) nor Bickford and Rich (2014) analyze the illustrations in books written for elementary students.

Our review of the research on history books for young readers indicates only limited empirical studies on representation of historical topics in childrens literature. We found a small but growing collection of studies that consider depictions of historical events and personages in books for young readers. These studies tend to originate from two disciplinary terrains: research that engages in literary analysis and research that considers childrens literature through the lens of history education. Taken together, this pool of studies on historical literature for children is thin; researchers have investigated only seven historical figures and six historical eras (Bickford & Schuette, 2016). While topics such as child labor are presented generally in historically accurate ways (Bickford & Rich, 2015a), many books for young readers contain unfortunate misrepresentations, inaccuracies, and omissions. This is troubling, as many elementary teachers will forego the use of a history textbook when teaching historical topics and instead rely on childrens literature to integrate history instruction with other content areas such as language arts and art (Bickford & Rich, 2015b; Holloway & Chiodo, 2009; McMurrer, 2008). To advance this literature, in this article we propose and implement criteria for analysis that allows for a more comprehensive and contemplative analysis of the interpretive stances imbedded in these books. This framework will be useful for researchers who plan to study similar books, as well as teachers who are deciding what books to use and how to develop pedagogy around these books.


This study is framed by critical race theory, particularly as it relates to K12 education (Bernal, 2002; Dixson & Rousseau, 2005, 2006; Ladson-Billings, 2003a; Parker, 1998; Solórzano, 1997) and the teaching and learning of U.S. history (Grant, 2011; Howard, 2003, 2004; Ladson-Billings, 2003b; Lintner, 2004; Tyson, 2003). Critical race theorists argue that whiteness is a form of property that endows the holders of it with the privilege of excluding those without (Dixson & Rousseau, 2005; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). As such, the problem of property in schooling goes beyond the well-documented material disparities in schools (Kozol, 1992) and extends to the content of the curriculum. When applied to history curricula, critical race theory holds the potential to examine the way racism is made invisible through the curriculum and can serve as an analytic tool to explain the systemic omission, distortions, and lies that plague the field (Ladson-Billings, 2003b, p. 9). Critical race theorists assume that racism is a defining feature of the social, political, and economic realities of life in the U.S. (Bell, 1992). These same concerns are manifested in the production of academic knowledge around U.S. history. Critical race theorists argue that students of color must learn their history in order to develop the capacity (knowledge, skills and dispositions) to disrupt the systemic racism and negative social construction of racial identity they face and that seeks to control them (Grant, 2011, p. 35). While a colorblind construction of U.S. history is demonstrably harmful to adolescent African Americans, it also serves to confirm sympathetic yet stereotypical images of the historical experiences of African Americans and Native Americans often held by European-American students and stunting their learning of U.S. history (Epstein, 1998, p. 418). In other words, critical race theorists contend that a colorblind presentation of U.S. history is misguided and damaging to all students.

Crucial to our analysis of childrens literature about enslavement are the ways in which critical race theory makes plain the presence of master narratives in framing stories about race in U.S. history (Busey & Walker, 2017; Ikemoto, 1993; J. E. King & Swartz, 2014; Ladson-Billings, 1998, 2003c; Montecinos, 1995; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002; Tate, 1997; Woodson, 2015). A master narrative is a bundle of presuppositions, perceived wisdoms, and shared cultural understandings persons in the dominant race bring to the discussion of race (Delgado & Stefancic, 1993, p. 462). Master narratives are presented as neutral and objective histories, but they often misrepresent the cultural practices of peoples of color and silence their voices. Ladson-Billings (1998) argues that master scripting means stories of African Americans are muted and erased when they challenge dominant culture authority and power (p. 18). Master narratives rely on essentialized notions of bounded racial identities and serve to deny notions of embedded, historical racism (Ikemoto, 1993). Critical race theory, however, makes evident the ways in which master narratives, for example, present masters as morally wrong individuals, rather than the benefactors of a racist institution. As a result, researchers have used critical race theory to document master narratives in social studies curricula, textbooks, and supporting materials (Alridge, 2006; Brown & Brown, 2010; Busey & Walker, 2017; Epstein, 1998; J. Frost, 2012; Ladson-Billings, 2003c; Woodson, 2015). These master narratives are particularly acute in K5 social studies standards, where the entirety of Black civic engagement is personified by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, whose acts of resistance have been coopted to fit within a master narrative of American progress (Busey & Walker, 2017). Similar master narratives are evident in portrayals of the civil rights movement in K12 history textbooks (Woodson, 2015). These master narratives, which embody an ideology of white supremacy, appear to condition the interpretations students of color bring to their understandings of the civil rights movement. In this article, our use of critical race theory makes evident the ways in which master narratives are implicitly or explicitly embedded in portrayals of enslavement in childrens literature.


While other researchers have thoroughly documented the various omissions, misrepresentations, and inaccuracies found in childrens literature about enslavement (Apol, 1998; Bickford & Rich, 2014; Bickford & Schuette, 2016; T. L. Williams, 2009), the goal of this study is to identify and describe a cross section of recent stances that guide narratives about this historical topic. This study does not aim for an exhaustive survey of childrens literature in the historical genre. Other works (e.g., Brooks & McNair, 2009) established foundational and contextual summaries for a broad range of African-American childrens literature, and this study inquires into a narrower segment of literature to highlight in detail how these books present this issue. The objective of this article is to identify and analyze elementary literature spanning a spectrum of theoretical positioning and to interrogate their instructional implications.

This article distinguishes itself from other studies on the representations of enslavement in elementary-level books because of our attention to recent books and distinctive method for analyzing and characterizing findings. For example, Bickford and Rich (2014) catalogued a variety of misrepresentations in elementary- and intermediate-level books about enslavement published within the last 60 years, but their methodology for analyzing data included a multitude of possible categories/characterizations and focused only on textual evidence. Here, our article diverges; we emphasize the most recently published works (half of the selected pool are from 2007 and later), we utilize textual and visual representations, and we use more narrow categories/characterizations to set forth more unified findings (each of which will be discussed more fully below).

We selected specific titles of childrens literature for inclusion in this article because of their recent publication and their availability either by purchase or through library lending. The selection process targeted books published since 2000, but it also included three titles from the previous decade as reference points in which to contextualize the more recent books.  These three books had been reprinted many times and were widely available for purchase and for loan. To identify potential books for the study, search engines from online booksellers provided information on titles for sale; listings in the New York Public Library and Queens Public Library revealed which books were available for borrowing. We identified most of the books for this study through online booksellers. Through search engines at Amazon.com and Barnes and Nobles website, we used the terms slavery and childrens book and narrowed our options by choosing categories U.S. History and Childrens Books to provide titles. We also identified potential books for the study by using the sites item-to-item collaborative filtering feature. This option suggests additional books that other customers have often purchased together. Through this process, we were able to identify books like The House That George Built (Slade, 2015), which told the story of the White House construction but omitted the enslaved people who helped build it. This book complemented Brick by Brick (Smith, 2013), which described the construction of the presidents home through the perspective of enslaved people.

We collected 29 titles and settled on 21 for inclusion into the article because of their appropriate readability by students in Grades 1 through 6 (see Table 1). We eliminated books from this study (e.g., Fradin & Fradin, 2013) if they scored above the sixth grade on readability tests (Flesch, 1981, 1994) and above the sixth grade Lexile range in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy (National Governors Association for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). We acknowledged that these quantitative measurements were not uniformly valid (Snow, 2015), and therefore consulted elementary school colleagues to confirm that our included and rejected books correlated with their experiences of what determined a probable book for use in their classrooms.

Table 1. Elementary Childrens Literature Depicting Enslavement in U.S. History


Date of Publication

Author & Illustrator(s)

Depiction of Enslavement

If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad


Ellen Levine & Larry Johnson

Social Conscience

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt


Deborah Hopkinson & James Ransome

Social Conscience

The Invisible Princess


Faith Ringgold

Culturally Conscious

In the Hollow of Your Hand


Alice McGill & Michael Cummings

Culturally Conscious

Circle Unbroken


Margot Theis Raven & E. B. Lewis

Culturally Conscious

If You Lived When There was Slavery in America


Anne Kamma & Pamela Johnson

Social Conscience

American Slave, American Hero: York of the Lewis and Clark Expedition


Laurence Pringle, Cornelius Van Wright, & Ying-Hwa Hu

Culturally Conscious

The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom


Bettye Stroud & Erin Susanne Bennett

Social Conscience

Henrys Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad


Ellen Levine & Kadir Nelson

Social Conscience

I Want to Be Free


Joseph Slate & E. B. Lewis

Culturally Conscious

Ellen Crafts Escape from Slavery


Cathy Moore & Mark Braught

Social Conscience

Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom


Shane W. Evans

Social Conscience

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans


Kadir Nelson

Culturally Conscious

Tea Cakes for Tosh


Kelly Starling Lyons & E. B. Lewis

Social Conscience

Hopes Gift


Kelly Starling Lyons & Don Tate

Social Conscience

When the Slave Esperanca Wrote a Letter


Sonia Rosa & Luciana Justiniani Hees

Culturally Conscious

Brick by Brick


Charles R. Smith & Floyd Cooper

Culturally Conscious

Juneteenth for Mazie


Floyd Cooper

Social Conscience

The House that George Built


Suzanne Slade & Rebecca Bond

Selective Tradition

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat


Emily Jenkins & Sophie Blackall

Selective Tradition

A Birthday Cake for George Washington


Ramin Ganeshram & Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Selective Tradition

The analytical procedure of these 21 titles relied upon qualitative content analysis (e. g., Schreier, 2012) to guide the description of the literature within established parameters (Lillejord & Ellis, 2014). As a research tool, content analysis is a strategy helpful in analyzing and synthesizing large quantities of information into pre-established groupings (Krippendorff, 2004). Holsti (1969) describes content analysis as any technique for making inferences by objectively and systematically identifying specified characteristics of messages (p. 14). Content analysis aids the inspection of virtually any field of writing and is one of the most prevalent avenues of research in history education (Berger, 1973; Roberts, 2014; Wade, 1993). However, surveys of such studies found them to be decidedly disappointing, with significant issues in sampling, interrater reliability, and reporting of results (Roberts, 2014; Wade, 1993, p. 247). We were mindful of these criticisms in developing our methodology for this content analysis.

Visual images are integral to understanding the meanings conveyed in historical books (Sleeter & Grant, 1991) since illustrations in historical books rarely include interpretive scaffolds (Masur, 1998; Werner, 2002). In addition, elementary students pay particular attention to illustrations (Roy-Charland, Saint-Aubin, & Evans, 2007) and will use a combination of text and illustrations to make meaning out of what they are reading (Belfatti, 2012; Sipe, 2008). With this in mind, we utilized a compositional interpretation approach (Rose, 2016) to analyzing the illustrations in the 21 books in this study. With roots in art history and visual cultural studies, a compositional interpretation allowed us to consider a number of components of each illustration in concert to allow for an interpretation of each illustration. In our analysis of each illustration, the components included content (what is depicted in this illustration?), color (do the hues, saturation, and values of the colors stress a certain aspect of this illustration?), spatial organization (in what ways are the viewer positioned with regards to the object of this illustration?), and most importantly, the expressive content (what is the mood or feel of this illustration?).


Interplaying with content analysis, we deductively categorized textual and visual depictions of enslavement in this article according to criteria established by critical race theory and the broad research tradition on African-American subjects in childrens literature. In particular, the work of literary theorists Rudine Sims Bishop (2003, 2007) and Raymond Williams (1977) were informative to developing this set of criteria. This set of criteria provided us with an interpretive frame through which to view the books in this article as well as a system to classify thematic, literary, and other elements that appear across many of them. It is important to note that these criteria apply only to the narrative text and illustrations of each book. Our analysis is limited to the interpretive stances embodied in the books themselves; we cannot and do not make any claims about the intentions of the authors and illustrators of these books. The criteria are: 1) selective tradition, 2) social conscience, and 3) culturally conscious. Each are outlined below.

Selective tradition acknowledges when books are intentionally selective in how they present the past. R. Williams (1977) defines selective tradition as the process by which certain events, peoples, and experiences are included or excluded, and thus validated or invalidated, in historical accounts. Selective tradition operates in a way that selects certain meanings and practices for emphasis, while others are neglected or placed in the margins (Brooks & McNair, 2009). The selective tradition mode of presentation misleads readers, often because it is intentionally narrow or simplified. R. Williams (1977) argues such perspectives are particularly problematic because they are powerfully operative in the process of social and cultural definitions and identification (p. 115). Similarly, critical race theorists contend that what is selected for presentation in a work of literature inevitably takes on legitimacy and validation within social and cultural narratives. Thus, literature in the selective tradition becomes particularly problematic and must be brought under control, mastered, and then reshaped before it can become a part of the master script (Swartz, 1992, p. 341).

Selective tradition has been used as a theoretical perspective by several researchers to document and disturb instances where African Americans were ignored or depicted in stereotypical ways in school materials (McNair, 2008; Power, 2003; Taxel, 1984). In books about enslavement, depictions focus on empathetic or praiseworthy moments in enslaved persons lives and unintentionally marginalize their experience by focusing on the better aspects of the slave system (Sims, 1984, p. 148). Thus, in books that exhibit a selective tradition perspective, the violence of enslavement is minimized or missing, masters and enslaved persons happily work together, enslavement is presented as a necessary evil, or enslaved people are absent from events where they played important roles. We are not suggesting that when curricular materials exemplify the selective tradition that authors of such works are intentionally narrowing their focus to reinforce a white monoculture. Therein lies the challenge of analyzing books in the selective tradition; while an author may have sought to portray sympathies for enslaved people, they unintentionally laid bare a white hegemonic view of the institution. R. Williams (1977) describes this phenomenon as a sort of practical consciousness that shapes perceptions of ourselves and our world through popular culture, literature, and of course all aspects of schooling (p. 110). While this article does not aim to document why an author or segment of society tends to omit critical details about enslavement, it does acknowledge that the presence of a selective tradition in school materials sets up damaging stereotypes, the meanings and knowledge shaped by it become significant because they shape individuals perceptions of the world and their roles in it (Harris, 1990, p. 541). Whether such stereotypes may be intentional or coerced is immaterial. The motivations for such work are unexplored because the presence of their published work has cross-cutting impacts on shaping racial narratives in schools and communities.

Social conscience books distinguish themselves from those of the selective tradition by their empathy, sympathy, and tolerance for African-American children and their problems (Sims, 1982, p. 17). Yet they also bear similarities to selective tradition books for their inadvertent perpetuation of culturally inauthentic ideas. Sims (1982) used the term social conscience to describe books that were initially produced in the 1960s to ease the integration of European-American and African-American children into the same classrooms.

The objectives of such social conscience books sought to acknowledge racisms presence and impacts. European-American readers were meant to learn about racism and discrimination and African-American readers were meant to learn that racism impacted their European-American peers as well. Critics of these objectives argue that these books were created from an ethnocentric, non-Afro-American perspective, which potentially could lead to the perpetuation of undesirable attitudes (Sims, 1982, p. 18). Thus, a social conscience book offers mixed results when portraying enslavement; the authors attempted an empathetic view of enslaved peoples experiences and also created misrepresentations. Unlike books that exhibit a selective tradition, these books portray enslavement as a joyless existence marked by suffering and a lack of dignity. However, problems remain. Social conscience books tend to portray racist characters as villainous outliers in communities that are having only a momentary lapse brought on by the situation (Sims, 1982, p. 23). As such, social conscience depictions of enslavement are likely to focus readers attentions on masters who were immoral individuals, obscuring the broad ways in which the economic benefits of the slave system reached beyond plantation life into institutions still operating today (Bell, 1992). While selective tradition depictions of enslavement will either ignore or downplay violence, social conscience depictions will present such actions in passive voice as a way to obscure responsibilities for the institution. In sum, these books are often factually accurate but present enslavement as a normal, if regrettable, part of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Books challenging both the selective tradition and social conscience depictions diverge because of their attempts to be culturally conscious (Bishop, 2003). Sims (1982) argues that in culturally conscious books, elements in the text, not just the pictures, make it clear that the book consciously seeks to depict a fictional Afro-American life experience (p. 49). Due to the scope of this article and its critical race lens, we have broadened Simss definition and applied themes from culturally conscious depictions to include both historical fiction and nonfiction books for young children. Culturally conscious books contain linguistic styles associated with African Americans and portrayals of African-American cultural practices and customs. Oppression and survival are particularly prevalent themes in culturally conscious books. Due to these elements, in concert with the critical race notion that racism has been made invisible by the history curriculum (Howard, 2004), we identified books as culturally conscious if they depicted enslaved persons as property and described violence against enslaved persons in active voice (with both victim and perpetrator). Finally, we deemed books offering readers with affirmative portrayals of skin color, both in the language of the narrative and the accompanying pictures, as culturally conscious. Such portrayals represent an effort to create and promote positive associations with the darkness that carries so many negative connotations (Sims, 1982, p. 71). While both social conscience and culturally conscious books frequently depict conflicts between Caucasians and African Americans, the narratives in culturally conscious books are told from the perspectives of African Americans. As Sims (1982) writes, The goal of the characters in these books is to achieve their own ends such as survival, landholding, education, a sense of independence in the face of racism, discrimination, violence, and other misuses of white economic and political power (p. 55). As such, a culturally conscious book presents the closest effort to portray reality as experienced and told by African Americans.


With the assistance of a graduate student, we piloted a content analysis of six books with the objective of establishing criteria for the three categories described above, with a particular objective of distinguishing books that fell roughly along the midpoint of a spectrum with selective tradition and culturally conscious at the endpoints. The purpose of this initial process was to develop a protocol for identifying qualities distinguishing social conscience books from those in the selective tradition or culturally authentic tradition. To guide this process, we individually read each book and asked if the author 1) attempted to develop a sympathetic and/or culturally authentic approach and 2) oversimplified the experience of an enslaved person or the broad institution of enslavement. Books that met only the first criteria were initially grouped as culturally conscious, and those meeting only the second criteria received a preliminary designation as selective tradition. Books that met both criteria received a temporary tag of social conscience. The purpose of this preliminary analysis was to group books in preparation for a more robust level of scrutiny.

The next step involved implementing a more comprehensive analytical protocol for each of the three groupings of books (see Table 2). For books identified as selective tradition, we set out to document the absence of key details of enslavement. For example, if authors omitted evidence that enslavement was a moral wrong, avoided the emotional and physical pain of enslaved people, and/or deliberately omitted or misrepresented enslaved peoples role in history, these characterizations strengthened a books position as selective tradition. For books initially identified as social conscience, our analysis focused on if they acknowledged the wrongs of enslavement and of the desire for enslaved people to be free while simultaneously presenting misunderstandings. Such misunderstandings most frequently arose in escape stories, where authors presented enslavement as morally repugnant yet framed it as a sort of getaway adventure minimizing experiences of enslaved people, even suggesting that escape was a viable solution to the institution. For books first identified as culturally conscious, further analysis asked if they upheld objectives of sympathetic and accurate depictions of enslaved people and their experiences. Additionally, we asked if these books avoided framing the storys ending with an optimistic outcome, spin, or omission about enslavement. After utilizing this second analytical step, most movement among the preliminary evaluations occurred either to or from a social conscience designation. No books moved among selective tradition and culturally conscious. If we placed a book in a newer categorization, we did so only after deliberating why the latter analysis merited a stronger consideration.

Table 2. Coding Protocol for Depictions of Enslavement in Elementary Childrens Literature

selective tradition                social conscience                   culturally conscious




Selective Tradition

Social Conscience

Culturally Conscious



Enslavement is not presented as evil.

Enslaved persons may be omitted from story in which they had a historical role.

Enslavements evils are acknowledged but may be diminished or unexplored in favor of other story lines like escape narratives.

Evils of enslavement are omnipresent, and enslaved peoples humanity and/or culture is emphasized.


Enslaved people may be smiling, and they may be shown celebrating or having fun more than any other disposition. Enslaved peoples expressions cannot be differentiated from free peoples expressions. Pain from violence or forced labor is missing.  

Enslaved people have somber or pained expressions and their expressions and/or body language can be differentiated from those of the master(s). Pain from violence and forced labor may not be described or depicted.

Enslaved people have somber or pained expressions from forced labor or experiencing/ witnessing/fearing violence. Masters inflicting pain through violence and/or forced labor on enslaved people is described and depicted.



Cultural distinctions between enslaved people and masters are erased.

Aspects of African American culture are highlighted in ways that may suggest stereotypes.

Aspects of African-American culture are accurately highlighted and celebrated despite the omnipresence of enslavement.

master-enslaved person relationship

Enslaved peoples life equated with that of free people, or the master-enslaved person relationship is unclear or missing.

Enslavements evils may be misguidedly blamed on a few immoral masters instead of on the institution itself.

Enslaved people are property of masters. Masters inflict abuse and/or profit from enslaved peoples labor.

violence and forced labor


May be discussed in passive voice.

Discussed in active voice.

We conducted our initial analysis of the data separately to achieve a degree of interrater reliability (Bernard, 2006). For example, when the first author finished conducting the afore described protocol, he demonstrated his findings by physically placing the books along a visual spectrum, with selective tradition and culturally conscious at the ends and social conscience loosely in the middle. Utilizing this physical representation of their analysis, the first author then invited further deliberation with the second author and discrepancies between the individual findings were remedied. We sought an additional degree of interrater reliability by inviting undergraduates at one of our institutions to analyze the selected books. These students were mostly first- and second-year students in an introductory education course; the lesson involved students analyzing the 21 books in an introduction to multicultural education and critical race theory. The students read about the three theoretical categories for homework and engaged in a whole-class discussion to clarify terminology. In groups of 3 or 4, students analyzed a cross section of the books, usually about ten in total. While every student did not analyze each book, all of the books were examined by at least 11 students, or about half of the participating students.

The students confirmed our findings about books described as selective tradition and culturally conscious but diverged on some books identified as social conscience. Some of the students argued that escape narratives should be described as culturally conscious instead of social conscience. We studied the students contrasting remarks when completing our findings. While we agreed that the students disagreement highlighted the contested nature of the social conscience descriptor, the opportunity to even further analyze those selected books helped to strengthen our convictions about their analysis. We argued that escape stories emphasized benevolent whites over cruel masters, often read as an adventure instead of a wrenching journey, and usually elevated escape as a central narrative instead of as an outlier of the institution.

Throughout this process, we acknowledged our positionality and examined the influence it had on our research. This was not an after-the-fact procedure, but rather a reflexive practice we engaged in throughout the research process (Best, 2003; Peshkin, 1988). We are white researchers, and we sought a self-scrutiny of our perspectives, an especially important assessment given that the portrayal of race and enslavement were central parts of our study (Bourke, 2014, p. 1). As a part of this inquiry, we sought active engagement with scholars who studied the depictions of African Americans in elementary textbooks (Milner, 2007). Through these dialogues, we reflected on our need to be thoughtful about the limitations of our perspectives. These dialogues directly informed our conceptualizations of selective tradition, social conscience, and culturally conscious as analytical frames, as well as how to identify books that portrayed the lived experiences of African Americans in an authentic manner. We also recognized that our efforts to study the description and depiction of race and enslavement was an ongoing process, and honest attempts to understand multiple perspectives was a required part of the procedure (DuBois, 1903/1994).


Our analysis of 21 elementary books about enslavement in U.S. history revealed the presence of all three depictions in these books. Our findings call attention to the need for careful decision-making on the part of teachers, with particular emphasis on Grades 1 through 6. As curricular-instructional gatekeepers (Thornton, 1991), their decisions around book selection will enact a curriculum that honors a selective tradition, social conscience, or culturally conscious perspective of U.S. history. We present our findings by examining books containing components of the categories described above. We have also laid these books along a continuum to demonstrate the ways in which some of these books prose and drawings straddle multiple categories, and the degrees to which these embody each perspective (see Figure 1). These findings suggest that the problematic elements identified in previous studies, such as the minimization of violence during enslavement and hopeful, if inaccurate visions of life for freed people after enslavement, remain prevalent in modern books for elementary students (Apol, 1998; Bickford & Rich, 2014; Bickford & Schuette, 2016; T. L. Williams, 2009). However, our findings suggest teachers will be presented with a more complicated set of options when selecting among historical childrens literature than previously documented by researchers.

Figure 1. Depictions of enslavement in elementary childrens literature



Three books firmly embody the selective tradition perspective towards enslavement. Enslaved people in selective tradition books regard their masters with either ambivalence or cheerful attitudes; pictures in these books show enslaved people happily working on plantations and smiling at each other and their masters. Likewise, masters, when depicted, treat enslaved persons with the care and consideration they would members of their own families. As a result, selective tradition books are either historically inaccurate or misrepresentative of the lived experience of enslaved persons (Sims, 1982).

African-American Culture

In selective tradition books, cultural distinctions between enslaved people and masters are equivocated. For example, A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat (Jenkins & Blackall, 2015) tells the stories of four families throughout U.S. history all making the same dessert: blackberry fool. In 1810, an enslaved girl and her mother make this treat on a plantation in Charlestown, South Carolina. Daughter and mother are shown smiling while picking blackberries in the plantation garden. After preparing the dish, they serve the masters family this treat and hide in a cupboard to cheerfully sample the remnants of their hard work. Alongside a drawing of the mother and girl tasting the mix while hiding in the bottom shelf of a linen closet, the narrator describes the moment with this passage: Later, the girl and her mother hid in the closet and licked the bowl clean together. Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmm. What a fine dessert! (p. 16). While the narrator does identify the master, the mother and daughter are never explicitly named as enslaved persons. Rather, the reader must infer this from the context of this vignette. Within the larger scope of the book, enslavement is depicted as a normal feature of life in 1810 and weaved seamlessly into a larger narrative of U.S. history. Most problematically, the book equates the experience of an enslaved family with that of free families from other eras.


In selective tradition books, enslaved people may be smiling, and they may be shown celebrating or having fun more than any other disposition. In these books, enslaved peoples expressions cannot be differentiated from free peoples expressions. In addition, pain from violence or forced labor is missing. One example that exemplifies this element of selective tradition books is A Birthday Cake for George Washington (Ganeshram, 2016). The characters are real: George Washingtons enslaved cooks, the father-daughter duo of Hercules and Delia. The plotline, told from Delias perspective, is straightforward. Everyone is celebrating George Washingtons birthday, But there is one problem: We are out of sugar (p. 2). The remainder of the book chronicles this busy day of cooking for Washingtons birthday (and looking for that sugar). They never find the sugar, but Delia saves the day by suggesting all this honey found in a storeroom be used instead (p. 12). The book ends as Hercules tells Washington that the effort was An honor and a privilege, sir (p. 28). In fact, the entire cooking odyssey appears to have been a wonderful experience for the enslaved persons. Of the 56 times enslaved persons are depicted, the illustrations display at least 40 instances of them smiling. In other images, enslaved persons appear either as talking or contemplatively cooking. For the books 14 panels (here, we consider a panel as containing a single scene across two pages), the illustrations depict at least one enslaved person smiling on 12 of them. In a memorable panel depicting six enslaved people working in a kitchen, all are smiling and three are raising something (like food they just cooked or a cleaning sponge) with an outstretched arm in a sort of celebratory pose (pp. 2324). This portrayal shows them as proud of their work, but it is a failed attempt at culturally conscious portrayal; one cannot assume their pride was comparable to that of a free cooking staff, or better, a free family cooking for itself. To boot, the author relegates an important detail of the book on a back page separate from the story text alongside a recipe from Martha Washingtons Great Cake: that Hercules escapes enslavement at a future birthday party and leaves his daughter in bondage (p. 30). The omission of these critical details from the main story puts the story firmly within the selective tradition.


In other embodiments of selective tradition, epic and proud historic moments in which enslaved persons played a central role do not include portrayals of enslaved persons at all or only briefly touch on their role. These books obscure the implications of the use of forced and unpaid labor in events that are central to the establishment of an American national identity. In The House that George Built (Slade, 2015), the narrator presents the real story (p. 1) of the construction of the White House. This story weaves together the colossal task of building a residence for the first president of the U.S. by focusing on George Washingtons heroic leadership style and unending humility. The central meaning of this story is that the building of the White House was emblematic of the values that founded the new nation: hard work, modesty, and ingenuity. We identified this book as selective tradition primarily for what is absent from this story of the founding of the U.S.: enslavement. The White House Historical Association (n.d.) notes that enslaved persons cut the stones from government quarries that were laid by stonemasons at the site of the White House, and they later helped rebuild the presidents residence after it was burned in the War of 1812.  While very few characters outside of Washington and John Adams are named, the types of workers, such as bricklayers and stone masons, are described and portrayed in text and several painted frames. In all of the visual depictions in The House that George Built, not one single person of color is represented. Thus the coerced participation of enslaved persons is omitted from this story, thereby obscuring the central role enslavement has played in U.S.s past, and by extension its present and future (Bell, 1992).

Instructional Implications

For elementary teachers, selective tradition books pose both a challenge and an opportunity. When books minimize the brutality of enslavement, turn enslavement into a fun story, or simply omit enslaved persons from historical events, it is clearly problematic when teaching U.S. history. Still, elementary teachers can use selective tradition books as examples of how the past is mediated through the lens of the present. That is to say, selective tradition books serve as an example of how depictions of the past are not objective accounts, but rather reveal as much about the ways in which authors in the present grapple with the horrors of the past as they do the events being depicted. Having students interrogate selective tradition books will better prepare them to confront such accounts wherever they encounter them, both inside and outside the classroom.


Ten books express a social conscience perspective on enslavement, with three also containing some culturally conscious elements. Six of the books in this dataset directly or indirectly described the punishments enslaved persons endured, while three told of families being forcibly separated. While books exhibiting a selective tradition perspective obscure or ignore the horrors of enslavement, social conscience books are written with the goal of educating readers about its evils. While this is an admirable goal, social conscience books still contain problematic elements that may go unnoticed by teachers who are unprepared to decode such features. In addition, books that exhibit a social conscience perspective are often culturally inauthentic (Bishop, 2003) and may generalize, exaggerate, or omit experiences of enslaved people.

Violence and Forced Labor

While the selective tradition books do not depict the violence of enslavement, books that exhibit a social conscience perspective aim for neutral accounts of slave life. However, these books often use passive voice when depicting the horrors of enslavement, leaving the perpetrators unnamed or unidentified (Apol, 1998). Consider Ellen Crafts Escape from Slavery (Moore, 2011), which tells the true story of Ellen and William Craft. Ellen Craft was able to pose as a white man and escape to Philadelphia, and she later moved to Britain to avoid fugitive slave catchers. She and her husband became leading voices in the abolition movement and returned to Georgia after the Civil War to start a school for freed enslaved persons. While the book deals only briefly with Ellen Crafts life as an enslaved person, the narration of Crafts suffering encapsulates a social conscience perspective:

Ellen was bone tired. She walked along the shadowy path to her tiny home. Ellen shared a cabin with her husband, William. He was a slave too. Ellen hated being a slave. Slaves had no freedom. They could be bought and sold like animals. Even children could be sold and sent away from their parents. Ellen had been taken away from her mother when she was a little girl. (p. 7)

The reader learns about the awful treatment Ellen endured as an enslaved person, and the narrator articulates her humanity by describing Crafts reaction to this treatment. However, the inhumanity of the masters who perpetrated these actions is absent from this description. Similarly, in If You Lived When There was Slavery in America (Kamma, 2004), the narrator informs readers: Yes, many slaves were whipped cruelly (p. 35); who did the whipping is omitted. If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad (E. Levine, 1992), from the same series as If You Lived When There was Slavery in America, also makes use of passive voice. Equally troubling is that four books contain enslaved persons as central characters, but their masters do not appear: Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (Hopkinson, 1993), Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom (Evans, 2011), Tea Cakes for Tosh (Lyons, 2012b), and Juneteenth for Mazie (Cooper, 2015). While the crimes that victimized enslaved persons have a perpetrator, in these books the invisible owner is allowed to recede deep into layers of unspoken assumptions (L. King, 2015, p. 26).


Of the ten books expressing a social conscience perspective, six were stories about escaping from enslavement: If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad (E. Levine, 1992), The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom (Stroud, 2005), Henrys Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad (E. Levine, 2007), I Want to Be Free (Slate, 2009), Ellen Crafts Escape from Slavery (Moore, 2011), Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom (Evans, 2011), and Hopes Gift (Lyons, 2012a). Bishop (2007) observed that the majority of picture books dealing with enslavement focused on escape as a form of resistance to enslavement. A tradition in African-American childrens literature exists of equating joy with freedom (Bishop, 2007, p. 252), and these stories are empowering in the sense that they champion the characters bravery, resilience, and resourcefulness. However, we argue that books where the primary action is escape are also potentially problematic, especially for young readers. For example, in Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom (Evans, 2011), an escaped enslaved person tells a simple story about his or her escape from captivity. Few details are given, with the narrator providing brief phrases that explain the illustrated action on each panel. Some examples are: The darkness (p. 1), We are quiet (p. 4), and so on, until the book concludes with the following passage: Freedom. I am free. He is free. She is free. We are free (p. 29). This closing passage suggests many, if not all, enslaved persons sought freedom from bondage through this relatively straightforward, if dangerous, process. Given how frequently the books in this article describe stories of escape, and yet how rare escape from enslavement was (Banks, 1974; Blight, 2012; Bordewich, 2012; K. Frost, 2012), we classified these books as exhibiting a social conscience perspective. If escape is the central action young people read about when learning about enslavement, they will learn little about the institution of enslavement itself. Stories of escape may also suggest that the millions of enslaved persons who did not escape were simply deficient, or chose not to resist their bondage.


Perhaps no book better represents a social conscience perspective than Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (Hopkinson, 1993). Many elementary teachers will likely be familiar with this book, as it is one of the most widely read books about enslavement written for a young audience (Bishop, 2007). This is for good reason: Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt tells the inspirational story of an enslaved girl who crafts a quilt that doubles as a map to freedom. This book is full of uplifting and hopeful themes: Clara, the main character, uses her ingenuity and creativity to escape an oppressive life and leaves her quilt with the hidden map behind for other enslaved persons. However, elements of Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt hold the potential to distort the realities of life under enslavement. After briefly working in a field with her friend Jack, Clara is assigned to domestic work. Previous studies showed a majority of childrens books about enslavement contained leading characters who carried out domestic tasks in plantation houses (Bickford & Rich, 2014; T. L. Williams, 2009), when in actuality the majority of enslaved persons performed far more arduous and cruel manual labor in plantation fields (Parish, 1989; Schermerhorn, 2012). Thus, through its first-person narrative, readers will learn about the harshness of enslavement, but the emphasis of the narrative is not of the back-breaking and physically demanding work endured by most enslaved persons.

In addition, the books vibrant and colorful illustrations, with rolling hills and cheerful faces, set plantation life in a bright and open world quite different from the realities of enslavement. For example, Jack is depicted as smiling as he picks cotton in a clean, smooth white shirt, an unlikely state for an enslaved person at work in a plantation field. These issues are not as significant as those found in selective tradition books, but they are problematic all the same. Much like the depiction of Ellen Crafts escape from enslavement, Claras escape as a simple affair: a brilliant plan is hatched, and then with few or no travails, the enslaved person reaches a northern destination and is now free. Rarely in such escape stories are depictions of the heartbreaks associated with leaving loved ones forever. Some, like the story of Ellen Craft, problematically create a sort of escape adventure where eluding ones master is the focus and enslavement is marginally referenced or not mentioned at all.

Instructional Implications

Social conscience books serve as a compromise between an acknowledgment of the horrors of enslavement and the challenges of writing about such topics for young audiences. They can be rousing and historically accurate (Bishop, 2007) but still contain subtle distortions that teachers ought to consider when building pedagogy to support such books. When using social conscience books, teachers have opportunities to emphasize the humanity and ingenuity of enslaved persons, challenging stereotypes about their willingness to accept their positions. Teachers might also ask their students to consider the likelihood of enslaved persons happily working in fields as depicted in the illustrations, given atrocities described in the narrative text. The internal contradictions of these books offer valuable moments for teachers and students to unpack literary and artistic conventions through a variety of heuristics used by historians (Mattson, 2010).


Eight books contain culturally conscious depictions, with three of them containing social conscience elements as well.  We envision childrens books as cultural artifacts; the stories told by them can either transform or transmit historical master narratives (Bishop, 2003). Culturally conscious books work to undo master narratives that either ignore or downplay the institutional nature of enslavement. That is, while selective tradition books portray enslavement as beneficial or harmless, and social conscience books portray enslavement as a banal, limited, and lamentable part of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, culturally conscious books put the systemic violence of enslavement at the center of their narratives (Sims, 1982).   

African-American Culture

A central feature of books that are culturally conscious is that they are culturally authentic. Aspects of African-American culture are accurately highlighted and celebrated despite the omnipresence of enslavement. Three of these books included positive depictions of skin color. The Invisible Princess (Ringgold, 1999) is a folktale set in the Deep South. Two enslaved persons wish for a child together but refuse to become parents out of fear of that their master would sell their child. Eventually, they give birth to a baby girl who is made an invisible princess by the Prince of Night, the spirit of an escaped enslaved person. Only the masters blind daughter can see this princess, and she describes the invisible princess thus: She has nut-brown skin, shiny brown eyes, long black curls, and the most beautiful smile! (p. 8). Later, the invisible princess describes the spirit who hid her: He is cold black and very handsome, Mama (p. 14). Additionally, the narrator elevates the princesss braided hair to holy status. Throughout the book, the illustrations depict the invisible princesss hair encircled by a golden halo. When the princess and The Sun Goddess meet one morning (p. 17), their appearances are similarly radiant and inspiring, much like Biblical, haloed figures.

Bishop (2003) argues that cultural authenticity is marked by grammatical and lexical accuracy of the characters dialect, and taken-for-granted information possessed by members of a cultural group (p. 28). Two books contained dialogue and narration in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). For instance, Heart and Soul (Nelson, 2011) is a first-person narration of the history of African Americans told primarily in AAVE. When explaining Reconstruction following the Civil War, the narrator explains, When the slaves were set free, they didnt have nothin, and the ol masters didnt give em nothin (p. 39). Relatedly, we argue that one recurring feature of books that embody the culturally conscious perspective is a presence of primary sources. In the Hollow of Your Hand (McGill, 2000) is an annotated collection of lullabies sung by enslaved persons, while American Slave, American Hero (Pringle, 2006) contains letters written by York, an enslaved man on the Lewis and Clark expedition. These primary sources are likely absent from students history textbooks or placed in sidebars and unlikely to be read (Loewen, 1995), and for students of color echo the histories they learn at home and in their communities (Dimitriadis, 2000; Epstein, 2009). Therefore, books that directly present readers with the voices of enslaved and freed people through primary sources are positioned to disrupt such narratives by legitimating knowledge these sources create.

Violence and Forced Labor

In contrast to the social conscience books, three books use active voice in describing brutality and explicitly depict enslaved people as property. In When the Slave Esperanca Garcia Wrote a Letter, the narrator writes, The captain rained blows on my son, just a child, making his mouth bleed. And Ive been so badly beaten that once I even fell off a balcony and only survived at the mercy of God (Rosa, 2012, p. 13). In The Invisible Princess (Ringgold, 1999), the narrator goes to great lengths to contrast the living conditions and social experiences in white and enslaved society, in Circle Unbroken (Raven, 2004) a family history details the slave trade wherein enslaved persons are depicted as bought and sold chattel, while Brick by Brick (Smith, 2013) describes the enslaved people as rented property and depicts the masters who financially profit from their toils with greedy expressions (p. 15). In contrast to the illustrations in selective tradition and social conscience books, illustrations in culturally conscious books such as I Want to Be Free (Slate, 2009) portray through frank but rich imagery the hardships that were representative of the types of work enslaved persons endured (Parish, 1989; Schermerhorn, 2012).

Instructional Implications

Given these elements, culturally conscious books are both more historically accurate and representative portrayals of enslavement than those found in selective tradition and social conscience books. They are also the books most likely to disrupt misleading master narratives that downplay the central place slavery occupies in U.S. history. Such narratives are commonly found in curricular materials for elementary students (Alridge, 2006; Brown & Brown, 2010; Busey & Walker, 2017; Epstein, 1998; J. Frost, 2012; Ladson-Billings, 2003c), but not present in culturally conscious books. However, as frank portrayals of enslavement, these books do not always have happy endings. Teachers will need to be prepared to have challenging discussions with their students about the themes in culturally conscious books. Parents too may react in frustration, as these may not be the sort of childrens books they have commonly encountered. Teachers will want to consult with the relevant literature (see Bishop, 2003; Sims, 1982) in developing a well-crafted rationale for using such books in their classrooms.


Our analysis reveals that elementary teachers have at their disposal a range of books from across all three theoretical positions on childrens literature. Teachers choices are far more complex than simply picking the best or most accurate book. Rather, their students would be best served by careful scaffolding of pedagogy in ways responsive to the interpretive stances exhibited across the variety of books available to elementary teachers. Take, for example, depictions of enslaved persons smiling while at work. Such illustrations are features of both selective tradition and social conscience books. That is to say: enslaved persons are depicted as having joyous dispositions in books that sanitize enslavement as well as books that educate readers about its harshness. Students may receive the unintended message that enslaved persons were content in their positions, though this was not the reality of enslavement. While firsthand accounts written by masters and visitors to plantations describe enslaved persons as outwardly docile and smiling, enslaved persons played two roles, one that he is forced to play with white people and one the real Negro as he appears in his dealings with his own people (Dollard, 1957, p. 257). Appearing outwardly submissive was both a survival tool as well as a form of day-to-day resistance (Bauer & Bauer, 1971). Along with songs, folk tales, and religion, smiling was a form of active opposition to the monstrous cruelty of enslavement. African Americans continued to employ this tactic long after emancipation. In 1935, Zora Neale Hurston famously wrote:

The Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive. You see we are a polite people and we do not say to our questioner, Get out of here! We smile and tell him or her something that satisfies the white person because, knowing so little about us, he doesnt know what he is missing. (p. 4)

The culture of opposition (Lipsitz, 1988), which formed during enslavement, provided African Americans with a partial refuge from the humiliations and indignities of Jim Crow segregation (Kelley, 1993, p. 79).  While the authors of selective tradition and social conscience books may have intended to portray these smiles as miscues to readers, they make no mention of these tactics in the narrative texts of these books. Thus, it is crucial for elementary teachers to unpack for their students these manipulations and other subdued means of obstruction to enslavement (Aptheker, 1969; Bauer & Bauer, 1971).

In addition, we were troubled that there remained books distributed by multinational publishers that reflected selective tradition: enslavement appeared to be a benign or enjoyable existence and owners were benevolent and even praiseworthy. Some books, if read side by side, presented divergent perspectives of enslavements role in historic events. The books The House that George Built (Slade, 2015) and Brick by Brick (Smith, 2013) describe the construction of the presidential home of George Washington (later known as the White House) and the people who built it. The House that George Built relies so much on selective tradition that one might guess that Washington himself was more integral to its construction than the unseen enslaved people. In the text, a refrain appearing on almost all panels (10 of 12) ends with the phrase, the Presidents House that George built. In another panel, the narrator describes Washington as [not] too important to lend a hand to the building project and he is depicted swinging a sledgehammer (Slade, 2015, pp. 89). The House that George Built offers an almost invisibly racist account (Ladson-Billings, 2003b), as enslaved people are not mentioned or depicted. Like in A Birthday Cake for George Washington (Ganeshram, 2016), the narrator relegates a critical detail of the story (via selective tradition) to the back page, separate from the actual story and pictures: Slaves, hired from their owners... worked on the immense construction project (p. 29). If enslavement was central to the story, placing it outside the narrative minimizes it, regardless of the authors intentions.

The culturally conscious approach of Brick by Brick splits with the master narrative in The House that George Built by focusing on the arduous and immoral nature of enslaved peoples labor contributions. George Washington appears on the first page tended to by an enslaved person, but that is Washingtons final appearance. Brick by Brick clearly reveals enslaved peoples roles in the structures construction: Slave hands dig, saw, and break stone, laying the foundation for the presidents home... slave hands bleed under a hot, hazy sun (Smith, 2013, p. 3). None of the panels show enslaved people smiling, and in one panel, greedy owners smile and take slave hands pay (p. 13). Unlike the refrain to George Washington in The House that George Built, in Brick by Brick the first names of the enslaved are repeated: Will Nace Gererd Manuel Liverpole Lester Herbert Samuel (pp. 1617). While culturally conscious portrayals of enslavement like Brick by Brick are available to teachers, 14 of the 21 books examined in this article exhibited either a selective tradition or social conscience perspective. Broadly, this suggests childrens literature continues to emphasize a laudatory history of the U.S. that celebrates its diversity but lacks frank portrayals of a shared, painful past (Zimmerman, 2004). The sheer number of selective tradition and social conscience books indicates that master narratives still play either implicit or explicit roles in the telling of stories about enslavement to young audiences (Ikemoto, 1993; J. E. King & Swartz, 2014; Ladson-Billings, 1998, 2003c; Montecinos, 1995; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002; Tate, 1997; Woodson, 2015).

Still, the most common depiction among the elementary enslavement books were those crafted in the social conscience tradition. But a close analysis of these books indicates that elementary teachers will sometimes encounter more than one perspective on enslavement in a single book. While a handful of books fit squarely within the selective tradition frame or were culturally conscious, several books exhibited elements of more than one category. Placing the books in one of three categories was helpful in developing an understanding of the qualitative elements of childrens literature about enslavement. Yet because analytical tools help researchers distort reality in order to make sense of it (Creswell, 1998), we must acknowledge the complicated nature of this data. For example, we ultimately categorized The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom (Stroud, 2005) as a social conscience book because the primary theme of this book is escape, and the reasons for escape were somewhat minimized. As described earlier, escape stories teach children very little about enslavement itself and portray a historically rare occurrence (Banks, 1974; Blight, 2012; Bordewich, 2012; K. Frost, 2012). However, the narrator also uses active voice when describing the break-up of the main characters family, an element of culturally conscious books.  Therefore, we urge teachers to think of books about enslavement as occupying a continuum, with selective tradition books sitting on one side, culturally conscious books sitting on the other, and social conscience books in a middle space. Rather than using the analysis of this article to remove books from ones reading list, teachers would do better to use the criteria from each category, consider their learning objectives, and carefully scaffold learning experiences around the various interpretations of U.S. history embodied in the book they choose to have their students read.


We began this article with Vince Stapless reflections on his experiences with divergent interpretations of enslavement. While Staples contrasts the history he learned at school with the history he learned at home, we considered the competing interpretations of U.S. history in books written for elementary students. A similar clash of interpretations about the enduring legacy of enslavement in American society was on display in the summer of 2016. During the Democratic National Convention, then First Lady Michelle Obama gave a speech where she noted that the house her African-American children lived in, the White House, was built in part by enslaved persons. Her description of U.S. history could have been pulled directly from Brick by Brick. Pundit Bill OReilly responded to Obamas culturally conscious portrayal of U.S. history stating:

Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802. However, the feds did not forbid subcontractors from using slave labor. So, Michelle Obama is essentially correct in citing slaves as builders of the White House, but there were others working as well. Got it all? There will be a quiz. (2016, July 26)

OReillys interpretation of the building of the White House, that enslaved persons were essentially happy and compensated, echoes the selective tradition portrayal in The House that George Built, where slaves are only mentioned as an afterthought. Indeed, three of the most recent books on enslavement, published in 2015 and 2016, embodied the selective tradition perspective and fit neatly within OReillys portrayal of U.S. history. It was a troubling realization that after the second term of the first president of color, contradictions of enslavement and the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness persist.  Selective tradition books may represent a smaller number of available books, but the notion that they continue to be published at all is a distressing reminder of the contested ground enslavement still occupies in public discourse.

At its essence, selective tradition books obscure the centrality of the owner/property relationship in the slave system and its ongoing legacy (Bell, 1992). The happy slave narrative, which many elementary teachers may be unprepared to decode (Gay, 2003), sends an unsettling message to young students. However, we believe that books from all three interpretations have a place in the elementary classroom. Were elementary teachers to simply remove books that exhibit a selection tradition perspective from their classrooms, this would only solve one dilemma. As our article indicates, nuances are evident in books that straddle two of the perspectives. A large number of books will present young readers with elements of enslaved persons humanity, ingenuity, and resilience, but they also risk presenting an incomplete vision of enslavement in U.S. history. Teachers and students ought to be aware of these interpretations of U.S. history, because, as the controversy over Obamas DNC speech indicates, these interpretations exist outside of childrens literature. They are embodied in civic spaces and in discursive practices around what it means to be a member of American society. Young citizens need to be prepared to decode these interpretations when they encounter them, and analyzing accounts of enslavement is a good place to begin this goal.

In addition, this article confirms the unabated tradition of sanitizing U.S. history and disregarding controversial political and social issues in childrens literature (Anyon, 1978; Apol, 1998; Bickford & Rich, 2014; Bickford & Schuette, 2016; Fox & Hess, 1972; Larkins et al., 1987; T. L. Williams, 2009). This article also documents that while a diversity of interpretive narratives about enslavement are present in elementary-level history books, the invisibility of race in U.S. history remains a powerful feature in current social studies resources. In so doing, our analysis illuminates an understudied aspect of history education: childrens literature about controversial topics written for elementary students. While much research has been done on the portrayal of African-American history in secondary history books (see Alridge, 2006; Brown & Brown, 2010; Epstein, 1994; Woyshner & Schocker, 2015), comparatively little research has been produced that focuses on similar resources for elementary history instruction. While several studies have shown that portrayals of enslavement in childrens literature tend to omit violence, focus on exceptional individuals, and poorly contextualize life in the South after emancipation (Bickford & Rich, 2014; Bickford & Schuette, 2016; T. L. Williams, 2009), this article has provided elementary teachers with an analytical tool useful in selecting and building pedagogy around childrens literature that depicts historical events and personages.

Finally, we hope that researchers will continue the work of this article by further examining the persistence of selective tradition. While we found evidence of selective tradition in childrens literature, we suspect it lives in curricula, content standards, teachers decision-making, and in a host of other spaces outside of K12 learning spaces. We can speculate but cannot answer with certainty in this article why authors and publishers still rely on selective tradition and master narratives (Busey & Walker, 2017; Ikemoto, 1993; J. E. King & Swartz, 2014; Ladson-Billings, 1998, 2003c; Montecinos, 1995; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002; Tate, 1997; Woodson, 2015) when telling the history of enslavement in the U.S., and we think researchers would be wise to consider this issue further. We also believe researchers of a number of topics in K12 education will find utility in the analytical tool we developed for this article. Colonization, womens history, the civil rights movement, and labor history are all topics that appear in childrens literature and are ripe for investigation using the heuristic we have developed and applied in this article. Selective tradition, social conscience, and culturally conscious are interpretive frames that could be directed at any number of topics in childrens literature that portray historical and contemporary examples of oppression for young audiences.


The authors thank Angelia Lomax for her helpful work that shaped the analysis in this article, Wanda Brooks for her insightful feedback on an early draft, and Christine Woyshner for her informative input about subsequent revisions. We are also grateful to Lyn Corno and the anonymous Teachers College Record reviewers for their thoughtful critiques of this article.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 4, 2019, p. -
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About the Author
  • Timothy Patterson
    Temple University
    E-mail Author
    TIMOTHY PATTERSON, Ph.D., is assistant professor of social studies education at Temple University, where he primarily teaches courses in social studies methods and the history of education. His research interests include teacher education in the social studies, particularly related to global education and international professional development. Previous publications include: Patterson, T., & Woyshner, C. (2016). History in other contexts: Pre-service history teachers’ field placements at cultural institutions. The History Teacher, 50(1), 9–31; and Patterson, T. (2015). The transformative power of travel? Four social studies teachers reflect on their international professional development. Theory and Research in Social Education, 43(3), 345–371.
  • Jay Shuttleworth
    Long Island University, Brooklyn
    E-mail Author
    JAY M. SHUTTLEWORTH, Ph. D., is assistant professor of education at Long Island University, Brooklyn. He teaches primarily methodology courses and the social issues of urban education. His research interests include broadening the conceptualization of citizenship education to include responsibilities for sustainable living. Recent publications include: Shuttleworth, J. M. (2015). Teaching the social issues of a sustainable food supply. The Social Studies, 106(4), 159–169; and Hatch, T., Shuttleworth, J. M., Taylor-Jaffee, A., & Marri, A. (2016). Videos, pairs, and peers: What connects theory and practice in teacher education? Teaching and Teacher Education, 59, 274–284.
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