Wednesday, January 20, 2016

George Washington's Birthday Cake

There's a lot of conversation going on about Scholastic's decision to pull from publication a recently-published picture book, A Birthday Cake For George Washington. Here's how the publisher described the book in press releases: Everyone is buzzing about the president's birthday! Especially George Washington's servants, who scurry around the kitchen preparing to make this the best celebration ever. Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president's cake. But this year there is one problem--they are out of sugar. 

The outrage--and there was plenty of outrage from readers and reviewers--came from two basic issues. One, the "smiling, happy slaves" trope, extended throughout the book; two, the assertion by the publisher/author that the book was based on history. Which is was to the extent that Hercules, Washington's chef, was enslaved, wore fine clothes, and had a daughter named Delia. The happy picture book leaves out the part where Hercules, apparently not so enamored of his position as the book might imply, runs away, and where Delia is left enslaved the rest of her life.

The book's editor, author, and illustrator are all Black. I don't know them personally. I've not read the book, and I'm not likely to now that it's been pulled from publication. You can buy it from third parties on Amazon, but I won't.

Not having read it, I can't have a real first-hand opinion. I can pretty much only comment on other people's comments. One person argued that the book did a service to young readers--that for most of them, it would be the first time they heard that George Washington owned slaves. If this is true, it's appalling. We need to do a better job of teaching history. 

I also don't think that any child's introduction to slavery should be light-hearted. You can't go straight to rape, death, and torture, nor to the toddler-sized manacles in slavery museums, but you also can't start out with a grin. Someone on Betsy Bird's blog said that you needed to have a basic understanding of a subject before you can move on to nuance. Nuance can't come first, or it becomes by default the basic understanding. So you need slavery is evil before you can examine enslaved people could be happy sometimes. 

I argue that you need that understanding down to your bones. I've never forgotten touring Poplar Forest, Jefferson's vacation home, with the historian who ran it (deliciously named Octavia Starbuck) and having her say, "We get school groups in here all the time, and the children say, 'oh, Jefferson was a good slaveowner.' We try to explain that there's no such thing, but most of them just don't understand.'"

As writers, we have an obligation to foster that understanding. We have an obligation to the whole truth. All of us, Black and White.