Sugar Production Stories for Children and the History of Slavery

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  • In the foreground, a black man cuts down sugar cane with a machete. In the background, a donkey cart hauls away cut cane, while a black woman chews cane and another man plays the fiddle. Underneath the image, the text reads:

Cutting Down.
Now comes merry time! negroes all alive!
Down we cut the canes, such the juice and thrive;
Mule grow fat as hog, though much work he bear-ee;
Horse and cow grow fat, starving is no theree.

    Production stories for children

    A collection of children's books featuring examples of "production stories," a nonfiction, multi-media genre that explains how commodities are made, transported, and consumed in an industrial global economy.
  • On the left, titled, “The Petition for Abolishing the Slave-Trade,” a white adult man holds out a petition for ending the slave trade for two children to sign. He holds the arm of an enslaved man in chains, drawing him forward towards the children. The text underneath reads: 

“Come, listen to my plaintive ditty,
Ye tender hearts, and children dear!
And, should it move your soul to pity,
Oh! Try to end the griefs you hear. 

On the right, titled, Sugar-Cane, a black man stands in a cane field holding a farm tool. The text underneath reads: 
“There is a beauteous plant, that grows
In western India’s sultry clime,
Which makes, alas! The Black man’s woes,
And also makes the White man’s crime.” 

A footnote describes sugar cane at length, in the language of natural history.

    Abolitionist literature

    A collection of works created with abolitionist messages and written by abolitionist authors or publishers.
  • In the foreground, a black man cuts down sugar cane with a machete. In the background, a donkey cart hauls away cut cane, while a black woman chews cane and another man plays the fiddle. Underneath the image, the text reads:

Cutting Down.
Now comes merry time! negroes all alive!
Down we cut the canes, such the juice and thrive;
Mule grow fat as hog, though much work he bear-ee;
Horse and cow grow fat, starving is no theree.

    Proslavery production stories

    A collection of production stories that defend slavery or the slave trade, usually by minimizing the cruelty of slavery, spreading racist stereotypes of enslaved persons, or spreading misinformation.
  • A large pot dominates the foreground, sitting on the shore of the ocean. A single ship sails far away. The sea and sky are dark, almost black, with white clouds. The sky ambiguously looks like an inside view of the pot, with clouds as the stored contents, and the round rim of the pot arching like a brown rainbow. On the left side, the text reads: 
“To us
it is just a pot,
round and tall,
good for keeping marbles or fresh-cute flowers. 

On the right side, the text continues:
But to Dave, 
it was a pot
large enough to store
a season’s grain harvest,
to put up salted meat,
to hold memories.

    Contemporary children's production stories

    A collection of production stories published or sold in the 21st C, including works from the 20th C that remain popular and available for purchase.
  • In the foreground, a black man cuts down sugar cane with a machete. In the background, a donkey cart hauls away cut cane, while a black woman chews cane and another man plays the fiddle. Underneath the image, the text reads:

Cutting Down.
Now comes merry time! negroes all alive!
Down we cut the canes, such the juice and thrive;
Mule grow fat as hog, though much work he bear-ee;
Horse and cow grow fat, starving is no theree.

    Article images for "The Progress of Sugar"

    The items below are analyzed in "The Progress of Sugar: Consumption as Complicity in Children’s Books about Slavery and Manufacturing, 1790-2015," by Elizabeth Massa Hoiem, now available through advanced digital publication in the academic journal Children's Literature in Education (2020). The item descriptions can be read independently and provide visual analysis not covered in the article. For those without journal access, a manuscript of "The Progress of Sugar" is available through IDEALS, the open-source repository for the University of Illinois. “The Progress of Sugar” examines the historical origins of production stories for children, written in English and published in the United States and Great Britain. During the 18th and 19th C, privileged children and their parents greatly increased their consumption of sugar, coffee, cotton, and rum—all commodities eaten or worn on the body and produced by enslaved persons. To prepare children for this new industrial global economy, parents educated their children about how and where things were made, using a new kind of information book. When writing the story of these commodities, authors of these early economics and manufacturing textbooks had to make ethical choices about whether to disclose to children the human costs behind their clothing and treats. While abolitionists used the production story to expose the horrors of slavery and encourage children to join boycotts or sign petitions, proslavery authors celebrated the pleasures of affordable goods and circulated lies and misrepresentations. Still other authors avoided the subject of slavery altogether by focusing on the science, technology, statistics, and machines used to make these products, to the near exclusion of the people who did the work. The production story is a result of this troubled history. To this day, the production story tends to cover how things are made separately from who makes things and under what conditions. One aim of this exhibit is to encourage librarians, educators, and readers to look for production stories that faithfully tell the human story behind making things and to recognize when production stories resist the legacies of slavery, resource extraction, and child labor that the genre was once designed to hide.
  • In the foreground, a black man cuts down sugar cane with a machete. In the background, a donkey cart hauls away cut cane, while a black woman chews cane and another man plays the fiddle. Underneath the image, the text reads:

Cutting Down.
Now comes merry time! negroes all alive!
Down we cut the canes, such the juice and thrive;
Mule grow fat as hog, though much work he bear-ee;
Horse and cow grow fat, starving is no theree.

    Early production stories

    A collection of pre-1950 production stories, featuring works of historical interest, which children today are unlikely to find available.