American publishing company Scholastic has agreed to stop selling a children’s book after outrage claiming that it depicts “happy slaves.”
The book, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” tells the story of the first president’s enslaved chef, Hercules, and his daughter Delia, who work through the dilemma of finding sugar to bake a birthday cake.
Black Lives Matter activists and other social justice organizations mostly took issue with the book’s illustrations, which show the protagonists smiling and enjoying their task. They were also bothered that the narrative didn’t include the fact that Hercules escaped from servitude, which the book’s author says she mentioned in the front flap of the book.
On Sunday, Scholastic announced it would no longer be selling the book following pressure from activists and a review from the School Library Journal which called the book “highly problematic.” The publisher said the book required further historical context about the “evils of slavery.”
“While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” Scholastic said in a statement.
Having performed years of intense research into the history behind the fictional narrative, the book’s author, chef, journalist and historian Ramin Ganeshram, attributed the emotions exhibited by the book’s characters to the complexity of human nature.
Defending the book, Ganeshram explained the depiction remained true to history and that sometimes history is more two or three-dimensional than the black and white depiction put out by those who only push the “narrative of the constant-cruelty” of slavery.
“In our modern society, we abhor holding two competing truths in our minds. It is simply too hard. How could one person enslave another and at the same time respect him? It’s difficult to fathom, but the fact remains it was true,” Ganeshram wrote four days ago.
Ganeshram also stated that illustrator Vanessa Newton “made the deliberate choice to depict slaves as beautiful people who possessed great dignity, who experienced joy in their accomplishments as the president’s servants – and who smiled about their achievements in the face of slavery’s degrading evils.”
The book’s editor, Andrea David Pinkney, agreed Ganshram had taken the utmost care with the subject of slavery and its presentation, and acknowledged the prominent role Hercules played in the president’s and others’ lives.
“Ramin clearly and carefully addresses the cruel injustice of slavery, as well as the vicious complexity of slavery that George Washington himself faced. In the book, Ramin notes that George Washington understood that it was evil to own fellow human beings, and that he was very conflicted about his part in the wicked institution known as slavery,” Pinkney wrote in a blog review earlier this month. “Slavery’s injustice is also cited on the book’s front flap, so that any parent or teacher will know that this is an aspect of the story, and that it is to be addressed.”
On Monday, leftist media outlets heralded Scholastic’s censorship as a “protest victory,” with sites like the Huffington Post describing “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” as a “racist” children’s book.
“As the victory to force Scholastic to withdraw its book illustrates, activists and scholars are using social media effectively to counter master narratives,” lauds a writer for the Zinn Education Project. “While there is much work to be done, this victory is an important milestone and a reminder of the power of collective action and truth telling.”
Ms. Ganeshram’s response, posted in its entirety below, imparts why “literary authority” is with those who “do the deep research,” and why it’s important to stay true to history:
Writing about history is a tricky thing. When books center on—or even refer to—diverse historical characters, things become even trickier. We saw this with the critical backlash of Emily Jenkins’ A Fine Dessert and now with my book A Birthday Cake for George Washington (Scholastic 2016).
Unlike many books that feature historical characters that are spun from their creators’ minds A Birthday Cake for George Washington, tells the story of a real American—Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef. He was a man renowned for his skill; a man respected by President Washington, a man who lived with pride and dignity.
I know these facts from the nearly four years of research I did with the aid of historians, largely, at the National Park Service’s President’s House site in Philadelphia, where my story is set. We know from first-hand accounts that Hercules was famous in his day as a towering culinarian—admired and in-charge, despite his bondage. My story is further bolstered by my decades of research into American culinary heritage and the complex and varied nature of enslaved existence, particularly in Early Federal America—information used to demonstrate the range of Chef Hercules’ skill and brilliance.
Yet, the discussion and criticism of the book has, instead, been focused on the literal face value of the characters. How could they smile? How could they be anything but unrelentingly miserable? How could they be proud to bake a cake for George Washington? The answers to those questions are complex because human nature is complex. Bizarrely and yes, disturbingly, there were some enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and “close” relationships with those who enslaved them. But they were smart enough to use those “advantages” to improve their lives.
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.
In a modern sense, many of us don’t like to consider this, fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery. But if we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented, and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage.
In our modern society, we abhor holding two competing truths in our minds. It is simply too hard. How could one person enslave another and at the same time respect him? It’s difficult to fathom, but the fact remains it was true. We owe it to ourselves—and those who went before—to try and understand this confusing and uncomfortable truth. To refuse to do so diminishes their history to one-dimensional histories that may give comfort to some but ultimately rob us all of the potential for real understanding.
With this in mind, we must be extremely careful about substituting old tropes for new ones. In the sadly not-so-distant past, enslaved people were often depicted in children’s literature as childlike, foolish, or happily insensible of their condition.
Counteracting the industry’s previous wrongs, recent books like Dave The Potter, Henry’s Freedom Box, andThe Story of African Americans have been gorgeous, intense and…pervasively somber. These depictions lend legitimate gravitas to their subjects—but the range of human emotion and behavior is vast, and there is room in between how the literary world depicted historical African American characters and how it does now.
We must be mindful that we don’t judge historical figures by modern viewpoints. Knowing this, we thought long and hard about each word and depiction in A Birthday Cake for George Washington, as my editor Andrea Pinkney outlines in this post.
Perhaps most diminishing within the critical commentary on blogs and elsewhere is the parsing of the race of the creators of the two projects one white (A Fine Dessert) and one of color (A Birthday Cake for George Washington). This is a reductive and divisive subterfuge that misses what should be the only point about legitimacy: If you do the deep research, ferret out the facts and are true to them then you have literary authority, regardless of color or ethnicity. When you write from your singular perspective or purely from imagination and pass it off as history, then authority is not yours.
We in children’s publishing are now at a critical tipping point in discussions about race and history. Right now, we can come together to cut through the previous layers of singular perception and slice to the heart of the truth. Will you take the first bite?