Here's the thing about that children's book, "A Birthday Cake For George Washington": I can't imagine a sane, rational, reasonably intelligent African American approving a story that depicts slaves as happy. What I can certainly see, though, is the nuance of the lives our people lived during a time when our folk were in bondage. I haven't read the book; only accounts of what's in the pages, mostly from people who haven't read the book and have no idea who its editor and illustrator are. I can tell you, though, as an author of 23 books, five of which were edited by Scholastic's Andrea Davis-Pinkney: nuance, track record and dedication to our children MUST count for something. Andrea is the award-winning children's book author who, as a writer, filled bookshelves with almost two dozen children's books featuring Black characters we treasure and love, and, as an editor, opened doors for many Black authors whose sole wish was to chronicle the lives of Black folk for brown babies, including treasures like Walter Dean Meyers, Derrick Barnes and yes, me. Without her, our shelves would be that much more barren. The same goes for the illustrator extraordinaire, Vanessa Brantley Newton, whose illustrations have graced countless books showing the joy and wonder of beautiful Black children and families. Both of these sisters are dedicated to showing the beauty of us, and as a colleague, writer, parenting expert, mother and lover and collector of Black children's books, I do think both Andrea and Vanessa deserve the benefit of the doubt--at least an airing that extends far beyond calling them Klansmen, racists, ignorant, clueless and whatever other insult I've seen lobbed their way. I read Andrea's explanation for publishing the book and, while I cannot say I could get behind a book about happy House Negroes, I can appreciate the nuance for which Andrea, Vanessa and the author were reaching. Perhaps it is the same nuance that found its way into, say, "Life Is Beautiful," the award-winning film about a father who fools his child into believing that Auschwitz is a "fun" camp full of wonder, even as he understands their impending doom. Of course, this we'll never know. The book has been pulled. We'll never know if there was room there for the tough, nuanced discussions we could have had with that book on the shelves. I will say this, though: I do hope that moving forward, all the people coming for Andrea and Vanessa's necks could consider actually supporting the Black children's books that have gone out of their way to shine a lovely light for our babies. I hope, too, that after all the ruckus dies down, the publishing world considers easing up on the slave, Civil Rights and Black icon narratives and instead focuses on a new kind of Black children's book, one that considers the everyday wonders of Black children's humanity. Bring on the stories of Black babies pushing past the first-day-of-school jitters. Let's see books about Black children enjoying family get-togethers, going to church, making friends in the park, bonding with grandparents, taking care of their dogs, using their big, beautiful imaginations. (I'm actually working on a project myself that I hope helps to fill some of this void--stay tuned.) Let's use this as an opportunity to celebrate us, rather than mindlessly tear us down. Andrea and Vanessa deserve that much. So do brown babies.
Denene Millner of My Brown Baby.
THE FIRST BITE: SLICING THROUGH A BIRTHDAY CAKE TO REVEAL LAYERS OF TRUTH
By Ramin Ganeshram, Journalist, Author
As members of the children’s publishing community, we have a tremendous responsibility to present history with the utmost accuracy and care. Keenly aware of this, author Ramin Ganeshram, a noted culinary scholar, an expert in the field of Washingtonian history, and the mother of a school-age daughter, spent years researching the life and times of George Washington’s enslaved chef, Hercules to craft her book A Birthday Cake for George Washington.
And, with this responsibility in mind, acclaimed artist 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.
These depictions have engendered important discussions surrounding A Birthday Cake for George Washington and the book A Fine Dessert, most recently compared in a thought-provoking article that appeared in Kirkus, and addressed in the Scholastic On Our Minds blog.
Scholastic is very proud to publish A Birthday Cake for George Washington. As the editor of this illuminating book, I am very pleased to welcome Ramin to this essential dialogue. In this post, Ramin shares her views. Here, she articulates why it’s imperative to render diverse depictions of slavery. She addresses slavery’s complex history and why this history must be addressed in its most accurate form, even when accuracy makes us uncomfortable. – Andrea Davis Pinkney, Vice President, Executive Editor, Scholastic Trade
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 furthered 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-dimension 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, and The 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?
Ramin Ganeshram is a veteran journalist who holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She has worked as a feature writer for the New York Times and for Newsday as a feature writer and food columnist. She has been awarded seven Society of Professional Journalist awards for her work and has been a finalist for the IACP Bert Greene Award for Culinary Journalism. Her articles have been published in Forbes, National Geographic Traveler; Four Seasons, Saveur, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and for NPR. She is also the author of a number of cookbooks
She was looking for abundance
"What is it?" she asked.
I told her, abundance has a different meaning
for everyone. For me, it has nothing to do
with having a whole lot of money, or
friends, or a big house and car.
Abundance to me is living a full life.
Eyes wide open to see it all and
enjoy each sweet and bitter moment.
Abundance is having what you need and
then overflow to share it with others.
She loved how it rolled over and over
in her mouth when she said it!
Like the finest butterscotch candy
ever dancing on her tongue. I will
live in abundance.
Thinking out loud.
Have an abundantly fabulous day y'all.
I can't hear, "I love you" from folks who don't love themselves.
If you don't love you how can you love someone else?
I don't always get it right, but I love me some me
and this is just the way God wants it to be.
I love my face so round, brown and full,
I love my hair kinky curly as soft as lambs wool.
My brown eyes, my lips, my arms and legs
And all the joyful thoughts that run through my head.
I love me some you, brown, white or yellow,
I love me some you, all the girls and all the fellas
I want you to love you because your special it's
true. If you spend your time wanting to be someone else
who is going to be you?
Stop comparing yourself cause you can only do you
Learn to love yourself and others will learn to love you too.
And just incase they don't you are still fire all by yourself.
The secret to love is love yourself
and then you can love somebody else.
Written by Phat Mo.
Stilling myself today.
So much movement negative and
I need to know that these senseless
killings of innocent souls is not
norm. Singing soft songs to myself.
Sometimes so low that nobody else
can hear. I need to sing something
positive to deafen the aching soul
within. Why can't we just be?
We were created to be free. To love.
Teach me to love like you love
I want to love like you love.
My Client and friend Ms. Heidi B. Fuller will have a book that is coming out in December called,
" My Mama Taught Me Better Than That" 600 and somethin' quotes that will make you laugh and holler
out loud! Check out on Facebook @ Heidi B. Fuller on facebook.
Another long time blogger friend Rachel Ashe is sharing her awesome new project
Check it out!
Thinking about all my dear family and friends in Low Country
South Carolina, Beaufort,Sumter, Edisto Island,Charleston,
today who have lost so much due to the hurricane.
Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes
in the morning.
Praying for brighter days ahead.
Renee never thought of her job as work.
She got to fly to the most exotic places
and stay in gorgeous hotels. She was
only reminded when passing out peanuts,
liquor, and giving instruction in case
Have a great week everyone!
So I asked the little girl, "What happens when you close your eyes?"
She said, " In my dreams I am a princess trying to escape my palace room
where they make me stay all day and all night. I can only get away
when I close my eyes and fly. I fly right out of the window in the
dark blue night. Fluffy clouds swirl around me and bright blue stars
light up the nights sky. The air is light and I am
even lighter. My long braids fly in the soft wind like wings
taking me higher and higher. I feel God and the angels. They whisper
sweet healing words to me. I feel better. I feel like I don't
want to ever go back, but then He says,"You have a purpose and I
have a plan. Run to your destiny for you are safe in my hand.
Safe in my hand." When I wake I am back in my room safe and sound.
I have a good feeling inside my tummy. I know that everything
is going to be alright cause I have a purpose and He has a plan.
I will run to my destiny cause I am safe in His hand. I am safe
in His hand.
This is Bo and I need y'all to help me
find the rest of these sheep before Friday aight!
Cause I left them alone and they ain't come
home yet! I mean like, What up?? So like
holler at a little sistah if you see them aight.
My contribution for #Whimsical Wednesday
We always had the laying around. Playing underneath them and wrapping our little brown bodies in them to keep warm on cool Autumn nights. Pieces of left over history, dreams, stories, hand me downs and bits all stitched up together to make a quilt. They didn't make them for show. My Grandma would say, " Only the white women got to make dem kind. The real pretty ones with diamond and log cabin patches. Didn't nobody have time to make dem kinda ting." They made the kind that was called ," Necessary Quilts." My Grandma called them " "Nesasity" She was Gullah Geechee. The community of women would come together and work to create a quilt for each family. They would work on one and finish that one and start someone else's. They would sing songs and talk about the happening in the community and pray. Some used the quilts to hang up against the crack in the clap board houses to keep the cold out. Some to make a mattress for the family to sleep on. They even used them for storytelling, teaching the Bible and yes, even as maps to get to freedom. Now I am trying to learn how to make these quilts so that I might share them with my baby girl and leave a legacy for my family. This book is about a very talented woman named, "Harriet Powers". Harriet was a fantastic quilt maker artist. This book tells her amazing story and I got to do the artwork for. If you are quilter or would like to be one, or just like quilting stories, you are going to love this book. "Sewing Stories " By Barbara Herkert. Illustrated by your's truly. Coming soon! I'll keep you posted!
One little brown girl asking a question.
Why are there hundreds and hundreds of book with little to no
brown girls as princesses and queens?? Why are there no
books about Brown girls dreaming big? Why are there
no books about girls like me going to different places
in the world and having an adventure?
Why?? Can someone please tell me why??
Okay then, Ms.V Please write some books about
brown girls like me. Going places and having
an adventure and meeting people on the back of
a green elephant named Swasi.