Jonah Winter is the author of the new children's picture book My Name is James Madison Hemings. Winter's many other books for children include Hillary, Lillian's Right to Vote, and You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on James Madison Hemings in your latest picture book?
A: Here in America, we tend to whitewash our history, sweeping the more unpleasant parts under the rug – just as we whitewash the atrocities we are still committing. We brainwash our children with the concept of “American Exceptionalism.”
We teach our children about how great George Washington was – without focusing on the crimes against humanity he committed by enslaving 300 human beings. We teach them about how Thomas Jefferson came up with the radical concept of “All men are created equal,” without focusing on his essential hypocrisy as a man who owned 200 other human beings, ones who certainly weren’t equal.
We tend not to teach our children about the 400-year-old war on African-Americans that our country continues to wage – through its culture and so-called justice system. We do not teach them about the essential racism that has always been at the core of white America. And yet, for most children of color in this country, that essential racism is just a fact of life.
Empathy is what we need to be teaching our children in America – not “American Exceptionalism.” And in order to experience empathy, you must not avert your gaze from the suffering of others.
We need to teach American school children the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about our country. By hiding or whitewashing or lying about the more difficult parts of our history and culture in the history books that we present to children, we are stunting their spiritual and intellectual growth. We are creating another generation who will simply perpetuate our problems rather than solve them.
My goal, as an author, is to cover that material that the American school curriculums, textbooks, and publishers would rather keep hidden – in the hopes that our current generation of children might have at least a couple useful tools (such as knowledge and empathy) for building a more just society.
The life story of James Madison Hemings, as the son of America’s most celebrated hypocrite, seems to me to be a great starting point for teaching children to see America history for what it truly is, and not just what many white Americans would like it to be. Encouraging children to see Thomas Jefferson through the eyes of his enslaved son seems like a great starting point for teaching empathy.
Q: Hemings's story includes many complex subjects, including slavery and racism. What age group would you say is the ideal audience for the book, and how did you approach these topics for kids?
A: As the great civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson famously said, “We have to stop telling the lies we tell about who we are.”
The most important group to whom we must stop lying is children. Children of color don’t have the luxury of being “protected” from the knowledge of American racism. If even one child has to live through something like this, I don’t think it’s asking too much for other children to simply be aware of it.
As a children’s book author, I believe in broaching, not avoiding, difficult topics that many people believe to be “too difficult” for children – such as racism and white supremacy. And in presenting the topic of slavery to children, I believe it is my duty as an author never to sugarcoat or whitewash this terrible legacy.
As an author, it is my duty to tell the truth – even when, or perhaps especially when, that truth offends the sensibilities of certain gatekeepers (both inside and outside the publishing industry).
My interests as an author trying to get heretofore suppressed history into the hands of children… are not always the same as the corporate interests of my publishers. As an author, I am passionate about freedom of speech, about social justice – this is sometimes at odds with the priorities of the publishers, for whom controversy is often viewed as a negative.
And so it should come as no surprise that it is a struggle for me to get these “difficult” stories published. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told that one of my topics is “too adult,” well…,I’d have a lot of nickels!
That being said, I could not be more impressed than I am by the courage of my editor, Anne Schwartz, for publishing my book on Madison Hemings. In this era of self-censoring publishers, that takes guts.
There are many picture book biographies on Thomas Jefferson, most of which celebrate him as an inspiring, visionary, brilliant man – a Founding Father, who laid the bedrock upon which our democratic principles are founded.
If any of these books mention his tragic flaws, they mention them only in passing, as a sort of footnote. You know, “Oh by the way, he wasn’t perfect.” Well, I believe that not only was he not perfect, but that the bedrock he laid down was not one of democracy – but one of hypocrisy.
America needs to grapple with the fact that one of our most revered Founding Fathers was himself the embodiment of our essential hypocrisy as a country which believes itself to be the greatest country on earth, while in actuality being one of the most unjust countries ever, one that treats its own citizens terribly and bullies the rest of the world.
If a child is old enough to learn about Thomas Jefferson, then that child is old enough to be told the truth about Jefferson – the shameful, inconvenient, and difficult truth.
And given the fact that the publishing industry has regularly published picture books about this man, and the picture book age group is 5-to-8 years old, then that is the age at which I believe children should be made aware of the more shameful aspects of American history, the ones I cover in this book. Otherwise, they’re just being brainwashed with a pack of propagandistic lies.
Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?
A: I read a bunch of books about Monticello and Thomas Jefferson, and I of course read Annette Gordon-Reed’s groundbreaking works about the Hemings family, which was truly eye-opening and horrifying. I had no idea, until I read her books, about the depths of Thomas Jefferson’s psychological and moral problems – or “complexity,” as people more sympathetic to him might put it.
But the truly eye-opening bit of research I did was at Monticello itself – and the “Slavery Tour” in particular. The tour guide, who inexplicably carried a metal rod in his hand, announced as we were going into the space that had been used for making furniture by Madison and his brother and uncle, “Now we’re going to put the boys to work.”
He also announced, in answer to a question about Sally Hemings’ and Thomas Jefferson’s relationship, that no questions about the Hemingses were to be asked in the “big house” where Jefferson lived. You could only ask such questions on the special “Slavery Tour” that he was giving of the cabins on Mulberry Row.
It’s that kind of schizoid and nearly dissociative impulse to keep Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from ever being integrated, that unwillingness to even allow certain questions to be raised “in the big house,”… that perpetuates Jefferson’s own schizoid split down the middle as a hypocrite.
And this is as American as apple pie. It’s what we do! And it is pathological. This tendency to honor and validate and romanticize the men who not only allowed slavery to become part of the official fabric of America during its founding, but who owned hundreds of enslaved people themselves while constantly talking about the evils of slavery, is our greatest moral failing.
It is the bedrock upon which all our other moral failings have been built. (But please, sir, we’re going to have to ask you to leave if you persist in mentioning that here in the big house.)
I was also rather shocked to find that Sally Hemings’ former room in the dungeon-like “dependencies” (built into the ground underneath the “big house” – and out of sight of Jefferson or his esteemed guests) is now being used as a public restroom.
And, the woefully neglected cemetery for enslaved inhabitants of Monticello is located in the middle of the parking lot – without much signage or fanfare. Eye-opening.
Q: You've written many picture book biographies for kids. Are there some figures you've written about who particularly stand out for you?
A: There are things I love with all my heart about America – jazz, for instance. That was created right here in this country – by a man named Jelly Roll Morton. I wrote a book about him, too – because I ALSO like to celebrate the things that are absolutely heart-breakingly beautiful about America.
And I’ve written books about other jazz heroes of mine – Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, and Josephine Baker. Each one of their stories is so inspirational. They all reveal people who overcame humble and in some instances horrific circumstances to create new kinds of music which still moves and delights countless people worldwide.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am not at liberty to discuss the book I am currently writing! Given the competitive nature of the picture book nonfiction world, we authors have to play with our cards close to the vest – I hope you understand. Suffice it to say, my current project deals with racism more thoroughly than any book I’ve ever written.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I will mention, however, a book of mine coming out in February 2017, called The Secret Project. It is about the invention of the atom bomb – America’s single worst contribution to the world, and the single most evil invention in the history of the world. And yes, this is a picture book with very few words – for very young readers.
I am tremendously excited that this book, and my Madison Hemings book, have been allowed to exist – and tremendously proud of the editors who demonstrated courage in publishing books on such topics never before dealt with in the picture-book format.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb