I am so proud to report that after backlash on social media, Scholastic decided to pull two books that depicted slaves as “happy and joyful” from circulation.
I can’t imagine anyone would co-sign a book about happy and joyful slaves. The books A Birthday Cake for George Washington and Happy Birthday Mr. President by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantly-Newton was a prime example of revisionist history telling and the reason why so many white people are ignorant about our history.
I spearheaded a petition by BrownGirlMagic, (an organization I started with my daughter) https://www.change.org/p/scholastic-scholastic-remove-the-two-happy-slave-books-from-circulation and circulated the petition on Facebook and Twitter and so many people got behind it and help thrust the movement forward to demand that Scholastic remove the “happy slave” books. Thanks to social media, everyone’s Facebook posts, tweets and an article from SheKnows.com about the ordeal which quoted me, and two other petitions as well, Scholastic released this statement today:
(January 17, 2016) Scholastic is announcing today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and will accept all returns. 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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.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 has a long history of explaining complex and controversial issues to children at all ages and grade levels. We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator.
Scholastic provides a wide variety of fiction and informational books and magazines which teachers, parents and children rely on, including many devoted to African American experience, history and culture. We are also committed to providing books, magazines, and educational materials that portray the experience of all children, including those from diverse communities and backgrounds, and we will continue to expand that commitment through our global publishing channels.
Thank you Scholastic for hearing our cries, receiving the word and understanding our perspective. This is indeed a victory for our children, but still there is more work to be done. We need editors who understand our perspective and who are not just talking pieces for you. We need you to accept manuscripts from authors of color who understand our perspective and we need people of color, blacks, Latinos etc behind the scenes making decisions from the editors to book fairs, to book clubs. We need you to not be afraid to publish books with African American characters that are NOT slave books. We don’t want slave books! There are beautiful stories about children at family reunions or a whimsical tale of siblings who reluctantly embrace a new baby (I once self-published Goony Goo-Goo and Ga-Ga Too) or a book about young black superheroes, family get-togethers or whatever other wonderful tales that hold us in the best light. We hope Scholastic will let go to the slave narratives and leave those alone. I hope more books about whimsical black childhood experiences do get produced.
I also want to note that I messaged the illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton, one because I am a fan of her work and my daughters have ALL of the Ruby and the Booker Boys books she has illustrated; and two unfortunately she is in the middle of this and the work she has previously done should not be discounted. She has made beautiful depictions on countless books and that should count for something. HOWEVER, Vanessa and the editor Andrea Davis-Pinkney both had a HUGE opportunity to offer insight to ensure that this slave book should have never gone into production. This was a serious err in judgment and a misstep on their part because they should have been gatekeepers for our babies! So while some people are bent out of shape because we also took Vanessa and Andrea to task, it HAD to be done because the burden was on them to watch out and make sure this kind literature to rewrite our history was never published. Our ire against them is justified. When there are so few black leaders in decision making positions in big publishing houses, moms like me rely on them to speak for all of us.
We want books like Ruby and the Booker Boys that Scholastic took off shelves with a vibrant little girl of color. And if Scholastic HAD promoted those books like the happy slave book, I’m sure they would sell MILLIONS of copies. You have to PUSH those kinds of books in the same way you push books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Scholastic has to get behind black books and show the joy and wonder and nuances of our people.
THE PROBLEM WITH THE HAPPY SLAVE BOOKS
When I first read the Clutch magazine article about A Birthday Cake for George Washington, I was truly disappointed. I’ve been a big supporter of Scholastic all my life. I was an avid reader as a kid and always read Scholastic books. As a mom of five, my kids share the same passion for reading and we spend a pretty pretty everytime Scholastic has a book fair. Dropping $80 to $100 on Scholastic books is the norm. So I have a vested interest in the kind of content they produce. I have actually been disappointed with the lack of diversity of books at the Scholastic book fairs. But the fact that I let it go and not address Scholastic or send a letter to the editors did not mean I did not care. But to Scholastic when black parents don’t complain or show face or write letters they must assume that we don’t have a vested interest in the kind of literature our children consume. They are wrong.
>>>Enter the Happy Slave books released on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.<<<
I have no idea who thought this book would be a good idea. I guess they sat around in the Scholastic boardroom waving their Confederate Flags reminiscing about the good ole slave days intently listening to Ramin Ganeshram happy, go lucky take of lies about Hercules, George Washington’s cook who couldn’t get free because George kept breaking the law to keep him and his daughter Delia. (Hercules ultimately escaped but I’ll get to that!)
First of all let’s deal with this: slaves were not happy. Slavery is not a HAPPY event and no matter which way you slice it slavery can’t and won’t be NORMALIZED! Scholastic allowed the author Ramin Ganeshram to create books with whitewashed revisionist history that is harmful to our children. The concept of happy slave Negroes should not have ever materialized.
Let’s break it down:
According to the Atlanta Black Star, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” by Ramin Ganeshram and Vanessa Brantly-Newton is the story of Hercules, the President’s head chef, as he attempts to bake Washington a cake for his birthday celebration. The story, as told by Hercules’ daughter Delia, takes a turn for the worse as Hercules discovers there is no sugar in the cupboard.
An excerpt from the book reads:
Everyone’s 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’re out of sugar.
The book claims it is based on true events. The front flap of the book states:
This story, told in the voice of Delia, Hercules’s young daughter, is based on real events and underscores the loving exchange between a very determined father and his eager daughter, who are faced with an unspoken, bittersweet reality. No matter how delicious the president’s cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa don’t have the seethes of freedom.
However that is a lie.
Hercules was not in fact a “happy or joyful” enslaved person, he actually escaped to freedom on February 22, 1797 – Washington’s 65th birthday – which the president celebrated in Philadelphia. According to a diary entry of Louis-Philippe, the future king of the French:
The general’s cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, “Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.
This is exactly why some white people don’t take the struggles of black people seriously. You can’t perpetuate a stereotype that slavery is not as bad as it seems and that whites were not horrible racists who ripped a large population of people from their homeland, destroyed their culture, raped, tortured, and killed these blacks, as well as made them work for them AGAINST their will.
Scholastic not only tried to water down a true event but promoted an illegitimate distortion of the facts by perpetuating the notion of the happy slave with a mediocre story of a search for some damn sugar for a birthday cake. The problem with a book like this is white kids and other cultures who read it will assume that slavery wasn’t the cruel, horrific, blood-fest that it was and it further disintegrates the truth. Why create this deceptive book that pretends Hercules loved being a cook when obviously he was putting on a façade just to survive? Slavery was in no way ever OK or a happy time for any slave just because they got a higher position from a field slave to a cook in the Big House. They didn’t want to be there period. They were forced to be there against their will and were whipped, beaten and tortured and had no say so in the matter.
These are the types of microaggressions that black people constantly have to deal with: the insults and dismissals we endure on a regular basis by non-blacks who disregard and dismiss us as a people. While the author believes she intended no harm because microaggressions were not overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, this book minimizes our history very subtly when the author presented this book as a cute, happy and joyful rendition of our history.
Hercules was never content with living his life as George Washington’s property. He escaped and left his daughter Delia behind and instead of telling that part of the story, you can instead find a recipe for “Martha Washington’s Great Cake.”
These are the type of microaggressions that make other races insensitive to us and marginalize our issues and not honor us as a people. Would Scholastic ever print a book about the Jewish children who were forced to cook meals for their captors or bake cookies for Hitler at a concentration camp? No because you dishonor the legacy of those people who suffered horribly at the hands of that terrible event in history. None of their ancestors want to praise the fact that their great-grandfather was proud of baking cookies for Hitler. But Scholastic allowed Ramin Ganeshram (a non-black woman) to do that with our history and there was NOT ONE gatekeeper to stop and say, “hey, is this wrong?”
This is wrong. Would you ever print a story about Anne Frank baking a cake or cookies for her captors at a concentration camp? Our history is nothing to be made light of and our young boys and girls deserve better. Scholastic penetrates our community through book fairs at our schools yearly.
- Stop trying to find a way to tell us slavery doesn’t matter.
- Stop making light of our ancestors getting beaten and raped and forced to do a job and smile and act like they liked it just so they could stay alive!
Ramin Ganeshram clearly is a woman who doesn’t have the best interest of black kids at heart. In her editorial she claims in her research that she found that slaves with higher status positions were proud. Wouldn’t you be smiling so that you would not be whipped and slayed as often now that you weren’t in the fields picking cotton? Wouldn’t you put on a façade when massa strolled by so you wouldn’t get beat until the white meat showed? The slaves were NOT happy; they were coping and dealing with the hand they were dealt while in captivity! Proof is in the fact that Hercules escaped! Why did Scholastic find it important to whitewash and water down our history? #FAIL
I am glad that Scholastic realized the error of their ways. I am thankful to Scholastic for continuing to put children first by declaring that this book was not a fit selection. Must respect to Scholastic for realizing that. Thank you.
WE DID THAT!
New statement about the picture book “A Birthday Cake for George Washington”
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