Sugar Production Stories for Children and the History of Slavery

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.

Books and media analyzed in the article

  • A white family sits around a formal dining table, served by an enslaved black woman. An enslaved black boy adjusts the chandelier lights. Text appears to the right of the image, with a second, slim image to the far right, showing the black woman and her daughter licking the dessert bowl in a closet.

    A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families

    A Fine Dessert is a picturebook about four families who make blackberry fool, a fruit and whipped cream dessert. Each family cooks in a different time and place, showing four centuries of cultural change, from Lyme, England (1710), to Charleston, South Carolina (1810), to Boston, Massachusetts (1910), to San Diego, California (2010). A Fine Dessert received positive reviews at its publication, but readers pushed back online by questioning how black children may feel when reading about an enslaved black girl and her mother in Charleston, South Carolina (1810). The two occasionally smile while they work, and they make the desert for a white family, then lick the bowl while hiding in a linen closet (Thomas, Reese, and Horning, 2016, pp. 6-11). Despite the association of sweet treats with innocent children, the history of making and eating desserts is an especially fraught topic. Cheap sugar production drove the rapid spread of black chattel slavery, which served the eating pleasure of white families. As a result, many sugar production stories from the last two centuries have misrepresented sugar slavery to children, to avoid showing the human cost of their favorite treats. This context for sugar stories is important for how readers may feel about a contemporary picturebook on a similar topic. By considering A Fine Dessert as a production story, we can understand how its approach unwittingly relies upon a storytelling tradition originally designed to celebrate technology and hide oppression. First, production stories favor strict repetitive formulas across the full story or series. The production story series by John Wallis (ca. 1805-1840), William Newman (1861-1863), or Maud and Miska Petersham (1930s) treat various commodities, such as bread, coal, steel, diamonds, or sugar, using the same formulaic approach for each one. They often use the same visual layout and descriptive tone, creating an enchantment with mechanical repetition that supports the genre’s underlying narrative of technological progress. The stricter the formula, the more likely that the series creates an inappropriate equivalency between free and enslaved workers. Illustrator Sophie Blackall uses this repetitive approach to enable readers to compare family cuisine between the four time periods—with similar limitations. Second, production stories typically end with children joyously consuming the product in question. This invitation to “join the feast” can distance readers who have social justice concerns about how the product was made. The final spread of A Fine Desert shows a multi-racial, multi-ethnic gathering of friends, eating dessert in San Diego, California (2010)—the present-day parallel of the 1810 image. Although the families are diverse, their emotional responses are not. The final representation of happy children from the present-day US may alienate readers who do not see their feelings acknowledged in these happy faces. The problem of reader identification in the “final feast” also occurs in Clara Hollos’s The Story of Your Bread (1946) and Henry Newman’s The Story of Sugar (1861), both of which feature white children as the final consumers.
  • Six black persons of diverse ages and genders hold construction tools while facing intently towards the viewer. The perspective is on level with their hands, looking up into their faces.

    Brick by Brick

    Brick by Brick tells the story of the people who built the White House (1792-1800), showing cooperation between enslaved and free persons, and between black and white artisans. Production stories about historically significant structures—such as estate houses, castles, bridges, engineering wonders, government buildings, and churches—have their roots in early travel literature for children. By the mid-eighteenth century, educational travel literature included sketches about the major historical landmarks that children might tour with their families, alongside other sites like factories, shipyards, and natural wonders. By the twentieth century, improvements in book illustration and affordable printing supported a resurgence of production stories about buildings, marked by David Macaulay’s Caldecott honor book, Cathedral (1973). The construction industry is not responsible for the expansion of chattel slavery in the same way as cotton or sugar. Yet production stories about buildings remain political because they are symbolically significant embodiments of the narratives people tell about their nation. Emotional investment in old buildings leads to debates over what stories they should reveal for visitors. For instance, plantation houses attract visitors who want to learn accurate information about the lives of enslaved persons, but also visitors who expect a nostalgic reenactment of Antebellum America. Federal monuments celebrate the achievements of early Americans, which include slave owners such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Production stories about major buildings thus have to contend with questions of national identity. And like other production stories, they have always been deeply political, requiring the author to decide whether to reveal to children the possibly violent history of how a building was made and for what purpose. Even the earliest sketches about famous buildings in children’s books touched upon whether the pyramids were built by slaves, or celebrated a famous female general who once defended her castle, or explained religious wars that destroyed a family—historical events that resonated with present-day controversies. Brick by Brick centers more on the people who built the White House than on the building itself. In the first spread shown here, the text suggests names for the unnamed workers. Photorealistic illustrations provide strongly individualized facial expressions that frankly acknowledge the exhaustive work, the participation of enslaved children, and the violence used to coerce enslaved persons. In picture after picture, enslaved black workers meet the reader’s gaze. Some of them look angry, others disheartened, and some hopeful. The mixed expressions heighten reader identification and humanize the many people involved in the work, only some of whom were allowed to keep a portion of their wages, which they used to buy their freedom. When the White House is finished, the illustration focuses on the builders themselves, with the White House itself outside of the frame. For their part, the builders look in several directions, some looking at one another. Centering the people, not the building, is an important authorial choice because so many production stories minimize the faces and identities of people at work, focusing instead on a famous architect or engineering feat. The closest readers get to the White House is in the final spread. A contemporary African American family atop the White House roof tends a flag ambiguously posted at half mast, as if in mourning for those who died without their freedom. The view is difficult to identify, since we are level with the family. One intriguing way to interpret the image is that viewers are looking at this scene from across the National Mall, while standing inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was under construction when Brick by Brick was published. From this perspective, the book mourns and celebrates the construction of two quite different buildings, placed opposite to one another.
  • Underneath the title, two fashionably dressed ladies in a cloth shop examine cotton cloth for purchase from two smiling salesmen.

    Cuffy’s Description of the Progress of Cotton

    John Wallis printed three production stories for children on coffee, sugar, and cotton, each narrated in a contrived dialect by the fictional character named Cuffy. Recently arrived in London from the West Indies, Cuffy learned how these commodities are made while enslaved, and he promises to tell audiences what he knows. The frontispiece shows the pleasures of consuming these goods, as ladies select cotton cloth for purchase from a smiling salesperson. The lighthearted account dismisses the cruelties endured by enslaved persons and encourages consumption of cotton products.
  • 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.

    Cuffy’s Description of the Progress of Sugar

    Each page of this chapbook features a single illustration depicting one part in the process of making sugar. Readers follow sugar production from slave labor in West Indies plantation cane fields to sugar refineries in British port cities, and finally, to confectioners shops where children purchase sugary treats. John Wallis printed a series of three such production stories for children on coffee, sugar, and cotton, each narrated in contrived dialect and doggerel poetry by the fictional character called Cuffy. Formerly enslaved in the West Indies and recently arrived in London, Cuffy promises to tell audiences what he knows about making these commodities in exchange for coin. The lighthearted account dismisses the cruelties endured by enslaved persons. Without explicitly supporting slavery, the book effectively defends slavery by depicting work on sugar plantations as so enjoyable that Cuffy regrets leaving. Cane harvesting is a “merry time!” when enslaved persons (denigrated here as livestock) “cut the canes, suck the juice and thrive; / Mule grow fat as hog, though much work he bear-ee; / Horse and cow grow far, starving is no there” (p9). In fact, many enslaved persons starved at harvest time because of the relentless pace of work. The later stages of sugar production in England are shown performed by free white persons. At the conclusion, Cuffy thanks the reader for “kind relief,” or money given to tell his story, directly involving readers in the slave-sugar economy as consumers. The chapbook is a literal account of the material process of growing, harvesting, refining, and packaging sugar. Yet the racial context of sugar production makes this process take on metaphorical meanings at every turn. Enslaved Africans created brown sugar, which was shipped to England, where free, predominantly white workers, refined the sugar to make it white. Sugar production stories used this language of brown, white, and refined, to continually remind readers of constructed racial hierarchies. Moreover, the process of refining sugar required animal blood, or as Cuffy describes: “To make sugar white (sure he be a ninny!) / Blood, and nasty something, baker now put in-ee” (p.15). Beginning in the 1790s, many abolitionist politicians and poets alluded to this fact to make eating slave sugar disgusting. People should boycott sugar, they argued, because slavery is a cannibalistic institution. Since harvesting cane causes the death of overworked, starved enslaved persons, sugar is essentially refined in human blood (See also Sandiford, 2000, p. 124; Sheller, 2003, pp. 88-97). This abolitionist interpretation of the material process—what Timothy Morton calls the “blood sugar topos” (1998, p. 88)—was disseminated so widely that Wallis’s readers may recall this message while reading Cuffy’s account. The image of the “Confectioner,” for instance, shows a plump white man boiling a purple-red liquid in a large pan, suspended over an open stove flame. Although the text describes the liquid as “sugar-plum or candy,” the purple-red coloring may remind readers of human blood. Production stories that condone slavery, such as this one, tend to double-down on the literal, material process of refining sugar, as a way to avoid alluding to the blood sugar topos. This strategy is another example of how production stories can use scientific language to try to avoid addressing social conflict.
  • 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.

    Dave the Potter: Poet, Artist, Slave

    Dave the Potter is one of many contemporary picturebook production stories for children that explain how something was made in the past. Another example is Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson, illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt, about a girl who makes an illuminated manuscript; A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Backall, about making a blackberry and whipped cream treat; and Blacksmith’s Song by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk, illustrated by Anna Rich, about the son of an enslaved blacksmith, who assists his father in the forge and helps freedom seekers. Picturebooks about making things in the past are either told from the perspective of a child who learns how to make something, or they are exemplary biographies of famous artists, musicians, and artisans. Dave the Potter tells the biography of David Drake, an enslaved master potter responsible for managing the operations of a pottery manufactory in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. Based on the latest designs, his industrial sized kiln made massive pots used to store grain and salted meats to feed the growing regional population of enslaved persons. The picturebook thus engages with both ceramics and basic food supplies, both commodities often treated in production books. David Drake signed many of his pots “Dave,” adding short poems of rhymed couplets, even though it was against the law for an enslaved person to read or write. Today, his creations are collected in museums for public viewing (Chaney, 2018). The picturebook shows how Dave makes his pots and his poems but avoids erasing his personality and skills by balancing close-ups on Dave’s hands with meditative images of Dave’s face and creative productions. The quadriptych close-ups on Dave’s hands, for instance, which appears mid-book, showcases his craft expertise. Like Dave, readers pull out the book’s page to view the full spread, just as Dave “pulls” his pot from the pottery wheel. Another spread from two pages later shows Dave’s face, with eyes closed, hands thrown wide like Christ to embrace readers, while behind him the faces of Dave’s people stretch out from his mind like an ancestral tree. In both cases, Dave’s creativity is connected to a long history of African Diaspora cultures, that embraces his ancestors but also readers. By involving readers in Dave’s creative enterprise, the picturebook time slips between present-day readers, Dave’s work in the kiln, and Dave’s own past. This Afrofuturist approach brings recipients of David Drake’s art, including readers, to his South Carolina shores, where they can positively identify with his creative spirit but cannot forget the tragedy of his captivity. The picturebook’s multi-temporal setting is doubly fitting because of what Dave writes on this particular pot, which readers only learn on the final spread: “I wonder where / is all my relation / friendship to all— / and, every nation.” Having read Dave’s poetry, readers can turn back time themselves, by turning back the pages of the book, to find the same sentiments foreshadowed on the opening spread: a large pot transposed on a dark Atlantic Ocean, where a single ship recalls the middle passage. Instead of the sky above, viewers look down into the pot’s stored contents, the brown rim of the pot arching like a rainbow’s promise. Remembrance and hope, sealed away, opened later. Perhaps these are the images in Dave’s mind as he made this pot, wondering about “all my relation.”
  • Key to Knowledge, or, Things in Common Use: Simply and Shortly Explained in a Series of Dialogues

    Key to Knowledge is a kind of production story textbook once popular during the nineteenth century, featuring an exemplary adult teacher, who has lively conversations with a young family. The story follows the day-to-day activities of the children, while they eat breakfast, explore the outdoors with walks, and visit artisan shops or factories. Accompanying the children on their exclusions, the beloved parent or family friend (a mother, in this case) answers the children’s questions and encourages their curiosity and powers of observation. The goal of such books was to model for children how to learn in the regular course of their lives. The child characters model how to consult adult science books to learn more about what interests them, and they report their findings to the family with oral reports, science demonstrations, essays, letters, and other creative activities. As a result, a book like this one contains long passages of material excerpted from adult nonfiction and adapted for child readers, in the voice of the characters. At the time these were written, many wealthy families educated their children at home, through parents, tutors, and governesses. Children and parents who read A Key to Knowledge are expected to form their own educational experiences after the actions of these characters. The mode of education modeled by the book emphasizes active learning, experimentation, and conversation, over traditional book learning. Over the course of the nineteenth-century, books like this one began targeting girls or boys, indicated by the genders of the sibling characters. Aunt Martha’s Cupboard shows the typical formula for a girls’ textbook. Aunt Martha teaches the sisters about manufacturing by exploring items in the home, which connects their domestic environment to global trade. Like other middle-class families, they drink tea with sugar, which prompts the lesson on sugar production, including the images shown here.
  • Text on the left page, under the heading “Crop Time, or Gathering the Canes,” with illustration on the right, showing enslaved persons cut and gather cane.

    Negro Labour, or The Progress of Sugar

    Negro Labour, or The Progress of Sugar is one of the earliest sugar production stories created for children. Published two years after the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, the book begins by criticizing slavery but ultimately supports its continuation, “for it is now become the interest of the Planter to take more care of his Slaves, to feed them better, and to work them more moderately than he used to do, since he cannot now supply the places of those who die among them, as he could do before the abolition of that wicked Traffic, by the purchase of a fresh parcel, whenever a Slave-ship brought in a Cargo from Africa” (p. 4). Negro Labour shows how the abolition of the slave trade could be used to justify slavery itself. Contrary to the author’s predictions, ending the slave trade did not end overwork, starvation, and torture on plantations. Instead, selling enslaved children became a larger part of the slave plantation economy. The majority of the text focuses on technical details of sugar production, while avoiding overt acknowledgement of slavery or suggesting any political action on the part of readers. Accompanying illustrations, likely crafted without seeing the text, are often at odds with the apologist tone of the text. The section titled “Crop time, or Gathering the Canes,” for instance, describes the cane harvest as “a season of great mirth and festivity; and so highly nourishing to the bodily frame is the juice of the Cane that every animal derives health and vigour from the use of it. The Negroes that were meagre and sick before, by drinking freely of it, become healthy in a few weeks after the mill is set in action.” The lie that enslaved persons share in the harvest benefits attempts to counter abolitionist accounts of starvation and ignores that enslaved persons worked long hours during harvest and faced dangerous conditions in sugar mills. (A similar depiction of harvest time appears in Cuffy the Negro’s Doggrel Description of the Progress of Sugar.) An accompanying illustration, however, frankly depicts violence. Six black men cut and gather the cane, while two of them look over their shoulder in fear at a black overseer with a whip.
  • 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.

    The Black Man’s Lament; or, How to Make Sugar

    One of the earliest abolitionist books for children, this production story by the Quaker abolitionist novelist and poet, Amelia Alderson Opie is a call to political action that eschews the pleasures of consumption. The copperplate engravings are by an unknown artist, but the style indicates that children’s publishers Harvey and Darton, a prominent abolitionist and Quaker firm, used the same artist for their reprint of William Cowper’s “The Negro’s Complaint” (Cutter, p. 71). According to historian Martha Cutter, the illustrator takes care to represent “distinctive (rather than stereotypical) persons,” who allow for intersubjectivity by meeting the viewer’s gaze (p. 82). Opie adapts the production story formula to foreground her abolitionist message, by opening her story with a plea to readers “to end the griefs you hear (p.2). The opening illustration shows two children signing a petition in support of abolition of the slave trade. A man in chains on the right resembles Wedgewood’s often circulated abolitionist image of a supplicant slave, but rather than kneeling, he stands and reaches out to the children. The right-hand page introduces sugar cane as a “beauteous plant” that “makes, alas! The Blank man’s woes, / And also makes the White man’s crimes,” with a lengthy small print footnote on sugar cane’s appearance and cultivation (p. 3). Readers accustomed to the scientific language of production stories would be surprised to find the actual process of sugar making relegated to the footnotes. Again, on the next spread, technical detail that would usually occupy a prominent place remains peripheral, while the emotional appeal of a human story dominates (p. 4). At this moment in the story, the enslaved man takes over narration until its conclusion. The accompanying illustration shows him “torn” from his wife and infant by men wielding swords and cudgels (p. 5). Some of the images, such as “Cutting Down the Sugar-Cane” and “The Bruising-Mill” (pp. 16-17) closely resemble those provided in other sugar production narratives, such as Negro Labour (1809) or William Newman’s A History of a Pound of Sugar (1861). This conformity to generic expectations makes the unique text below the images all the more striking. Harvest time is usually portrayed in sugar production narratives as a joyous, healthful time when harvesters gain weight by chewing the ends of cut cane. But in a departure from this formula, Opie’s speaker describes harvest as the beginning of “our saddest pains; / For then we toil both day and night.” Instead of feeding themselves, they feed an ever-hungry grinding mill.
  • Underneath the book title, The History of a Pound of Sugar, seven white children, roughly ages two through eight, watch a magic lantern show projected on the wall. The eldest boy operates the lantern projector. The projected slide features the series title and this book’s focus, Rhymes and Pictures: Sugar Cane, with an image of cane growing in the sun.

    The History of a Pound of Sugar

    William Newman wrote a production story series on bread, tea, sugar, coals, and cotton, each printed separately or available together in a single volume. At the date of publication, slavery had ended in the British West Indies but not in the US, where the Civil War had just begun. This volume on sugar begins, on the title page, with white English children eagerly consuming information about sugar cane, delivered in the medium of a magic lantern show, and it ends with white English children eating sugar from a barrel outside of a general store. Creating parallels between these two acts of consumption equates reading with eating and asks readers to identify with the privileged position of white English child consumers. The children operate the magic lantern show themselves. Such visual control over the entire sugar-making process appears throughout the book. The spread showing “Planting,” for instance, is focalized through the perspective of the “Planter,” who “walks around / With eagle glance, and all controls” (p.3). Production stories like this one give children a visual “survey” of the process, using visual strategies such as the elevated view, that give a sense of ownership and control. As a result, child readers are asked to identify with positions of power, such as managers and overseers, rather than with characters performing physical labor or working with machines. The book is a literal account of the material process of growing, harvesting, refining, and packaging sugar. But the process of refining sugar from brown sugar to white gives the text an opportunity to drive home racial hierarchies to readers. At this time, black workers, often slaves, created brown sugar, which was shipped to England, where free, predominantly white workers, refined the sugar to make it white. The description of this process passes judgment on the people who work the sugar at various stages: ‘Safe on our shores; the Sugar still / Is only “Raw,” or unrefined: / This is called “Moist.” The Baker’s skill, / With fire and various aids combined, / Makes of it “Lump”—crisp, crystal white, / Sweet to the taste, and fair to sight’ (p. 10). Such racist comments on the superiority of whiteness are commonplace in nineteenth-century sugar production stories. The cover’s portrayal of other mediated versions of this story suggests that publishers Griffith & Farran may have produced additional learning aids to accompany Newman’s books, such as magic lantern slides, games, or prints to hand on walls. Selling different mediums to teach this material was a strategy used by early-nineteenth-century publisher John Wallis.
  • On the left, titled, “The Negro’s Labour,” an enslaved African digs square holes while a white overseer holds a whip. More figures do the same in the background. Underneath, the text reads: 

Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant, for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, tears must water,
Sweat of ours must dress the soil.

On the right, titled “The Master’s Carousal,” four well-dressed planters drink and smoke, lounging around a table, while in the background, a man brandishes a whip over two people cutting cane. Underneath, the text reads:

Think, ye masters iron-hearted,
Lolling at your jovial boards;
Think how many backs have smarted
For the sweets your cane affords.

    The Negro’s Complaint: A Poem. To Which Is Added, Pity for Poor Africans

    During the initial rise of the sugar boycotts in Britain, Cooper’s two poems were first printed and widely distributed in 1788 by the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They are not production stories. Nevertheless, this reprint edition by children’s publishers Harvey and Darton uses popular generic conventions for teaching children about commodities. “The Negro’s Complaint” uses the same visual layout as contemporaneous production stories by Opie and Wallis, with a titled illustration and poetry stanzas underneath. One spread shows enslaved Africans planting sugar cane in square holes (p. 6), an illustration nearly identical to those of other sugar production stories (e.g. William Newman, A history of a Pound of Sugar, p. 3). Drawing further parallels, Harvey and Darton used the same illustrator as Amelia Alderson Opie’s The Black Man’s Lament; or, How to Make Sugar, a sugar production story they published the same year. Because of these editorial choices, Cooper’s poem takes on a new meaning for readers familiar with the production story form. Harvey and Darton draw comparisons between production stories and slave autobiographies, two forms that share narrative similarities. The titles of production stories (e.g. The Progress of Cotton; The Story of Sugar) make a commodity into a protagonist (e.g. sugar, cotton, coal), as if children are reading the commodity’s autobiography, and in fact, some fantastical production stories have commodities that come to life and speak their own life histories to human audiences. Autobiographies of former slaves, on the other hand, feature protagonists who were dehumanized as commodities for trade. When Cooper’s narrator, a fictional enslaved African, tells his own story, he follows in this tradition of abolitionist autobiographies. With their editorial choices, Harvey and Darton question why some production stories give agency to personified commodities while dehumanizing the enslaved persons forced to make them. Readers familiar with production story conventions would recognize other places where this book plays with the form. The illustration titled “The Master’s Carousal” positions a standard illustration for the cane harvest in the background, in order to focus, instead, on the “jovial” masters drinking and smoking in the foreground. Readers must confront the “iron-hearted” white men, who drink rum and smoke tobacco, and feel shame that they, too, have enjoyed commodities made by enslaved persons. The second poem in the collection, “Pity for Poor Africans,” has no illustrations, but its effect relies on familiarity with another popular children’s literature genre: the moral tale. The narrator is an Englishman who justifies eating sugar because a boycott would be ineffective, since others eat sugar anyway. He compares his choice to a boy who steals apples from an orchard, after he fails to convince his friends to abstain. Readers familiar with moral tales that warn boys not to steal apples would immediate recognize the speaker’s sophistry, then reevaluate their own choices on sugar consumption. The selection of both poems together suggests that Harvey and Darton considered how to frame abolitionist messages to speak to children, using literary conventions familiar to them.
Browse all