Tuesday, January 19, 2016

An Open Letter By Denene Millner


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.

22 comments:

kj said...

vee, your heart leads and your talent follows. that says it all.

i support you one zillion percent in all that you do.

love
kj

Vanessa Brantley Newton said...

Thanks so much KJ love you baby girl!!

donny* said...

V, you know what a big fan I am of you. It hurts me to see what they are doing to you. It's clear they don't know you or your work and what your about. The things you've done to break barriers through your art and books. You're the best and I send lots of love. Keep being awesome!

Colle Jackson said...

I've been a fan of Vanessa's work since the first Ruby book hit the shelves and we purchased it for our daughter. As illustrators, small pieces of us find their way into everything we create, and we create with the best of intentions. Keep creating, Vanessa! Ignore the haters who obviously haven't read this book or any other you've written or illustrated for. You've helped fill our home over the years with images our kids can relate to- images of themselves in so many beautiful ways. By removing this book from our stores, they've removed an opportunity for children to have those conversations about race and historical facts with parents after enjoying the book.
Carry on, Vanessa, using the gift God has blessed you with, and remember Ezekiel 14:14- which I have on my desk for when I need to remember.

Vanessa Brantley Newton said...

Kj, Donny, and Colle, If only I could see you all and give you all hugs. LOVE YOU ALL!!!
KEEP ME IN YOUR THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS! Love you all so very, very much!!

Nita Jo said...

I missed all the controversy, as I had to take a break from reading blogs, but I see your heart in your artwork and posts. It hurts to think you have been attacked for doing what you love. You bring such joy to people. I hope it is all behind you soon. Wishing you peace and joy!

Vanessa Brantley-Newton said...

Thank you so very much Nita Jo. Big hugs to .

PL Carter said...

Dear Mrs. Brantley Newton, Mrs. Ganeshram Vellotti & Mrs. Andrea Davis Pinkney:
My hands are wet and shaking, I did not know where to write this. It just one person's opinion...my heart/feelings/emotions are not happy, but pleased, that 'Scholastic' has recalled your work, due to the virtual outcry of the nature of the work.
As a parent, I would be most appalled at this reading. As an matured adult, African American woman of 67, I seething about your judgements that this project got finished, distributed and landed in hands of any children on the premise to give history and reading lessons.
I am not talking about your talents, and/or credentials, but I am addressing your judgements and intentions toward young minds.
My questions to all three you, is how, who and what professionals did you collaborated with to do this project, at all? Have you ever heard of Alvin F. Poussant, psychiatrist and other noted medical professional who could have given feedback to this type of project? This is the type of project you find many to look over and review. The art, the writing, contents, syntax and lastly the repercussions of such work on young minds. How did you deem this as a positive look with historical overtones, mix with liberal art design with backgrounds in cooking and a passion for GW history? Who was your audience? Surely, not a second or third grader!
Have any of you been to Mt, Vernon and felt the 'Ancestor Spirits' lingering in those cold spots everywhere on that plantation? I had to get the heck out when I visited this bone-chilling place of unrested souls? Call me sensitive, but what I felt there, and in Mississippi rural plantations and in Dominica, in the slave quarters, bone-chilling on my visits and with other who had to leave quickly for fresh air.
I can not possibly write what this project and it's insensitive nature to our history towards educating our youth.
I do remember, why this made me take a few hours out of my busy day to research all three of you and make a comment. I was in the second grade, yes, I can remember that far back, and I read about Eleanor Roosevelt, who became inspirational to me...over time the years gave way, to other inspirational persons who took her place with stories and relevant meanings to me in age, experiences, and my cultural norms. However, it was getting my Master's at 54, that I researched and included her in components that her best friend was Mary Mcleod Bethune and what they achieved in that friendship. See, I did not read about that in Scholastic, way back when.
The young mind is receiving knowledge and our matured well educated minds need to pass on thru skills, talent, instructions and common sense (which is not so common anymore,) to understand our actions/intentions, and know that our judgements need intelligent influences, corrected historical rewritings.
A sincere apology from all of you are needed. This was, in my opinion, an error in judgement on many levels on this project. It may be time for all of you to go and get Ph.D with the theme of racism-101 and how the effects of slavery, symbolical representations is with 'us and them', daily. It's your call.
Peace, and Balance,
Mrs. C.

Vanessa Brantley Newton said...

Dear Mrs.C
Thank you so much or your incredible letter left here. Much respect to you. I have a little question for you Mrs.C.
Have you seen the book or read the book?

PL Carter said...

I am thinking before, I answer and/or if I answer, why are you asking it?

This letter was to reinforce our notions when we take on the responsibilities to design and/or redesign, particularly, present our history with the knowledge of how, what and who learns from it. And with good resources to stage it, is a awesome task. Teaching our young minds in ways that might blur the lines of truth with creativity thru talents and yes, judgement influences is more than a notion. It's a heavy and serious turn around in mindsets for parents (particularly parents who adopt a child from another race and have not dealt with their own race issues), and who have to explain for the first time, "What is a slave?
I thank you for reading the my letter, and appreciate your response and even asking a question. However, Mrs. Newton, I am not going to 'blur' the question/comment with you thru a front door or perhaps a back door answer--No comment on your questions. And no question is little...
Peace, Joy and Balance,
Mrs. C

Vanessa Brantley Newton said...


Dearest PL Carter,

Thank you again for your comments and or statements.
Be Blessed
Always

PL Carter said...

You are welcome. I am keeping up with the social media and the wide audience voices on Amazon and even listened to a podcast about this work.
An issue this involved is one reason we need to tell our own stories, our research and know your audience. Now with Nate Parker's new movie, should give folks something other to chew on for a while.

Have you ever, read a South African author by the name of Zakes Mda? Reading him will give you a perspective on how other see culture, history, facts and what a readers gets from reading others research . His latest work is called: Little Sun. Enjoy.

Oh, one last request, that all three of you take a journey, 'The Walk' from Mt. Vermon to GW other plantation and let me know how it goes. Sleep under the stars, eat with an open fire and use the potty out there too... and tell me how it goes...Spring would be good for The Walk, towards freedom and knowledge. Also, keep a film or written journal on your experiences.
Peace and Goodbye,
Mrs. C

jennifer said...

HI Venessa,

Just dropping a note. I hope you're doing alright. You've been in my thoughts and prayers and I just wanted you to know that.

Vanessa Brantley-Newton said...

Thank you so much Jennifer. Appreciate it so much!!!

Garnet said...

While I read about this whole oppressive affair, I was thinking, "Why are the critics not considering the children?" Would any good parent anywhere raise their child to be miserable and self-pitying? Parents, even in the most challenging situations make great sacrifices to ensure the happiness of their children.

I haven't had the opportunity to read the book, but the sample of your illustrations I've seen was about a loving relationship between a father and daughter. Any attempt to embroil that portrayal into a negative social or racial issue is simply the worst kind of manipulation. I am appalled and offended.

Your compassionate portrayal of the truth was attacked. I have been there and know how it feels. In my small way, I stand by you, privately and publicly: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/37917/37917-6103907204736245760

Jerome Ellard said...

Blessings on your heart! Hang in there!

"Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." Pro 4:23

Michelle said...

I snagged a copy from my local library and have read it. I thought it was masterfully done, and if you understand that this was not a typical slave environment, then everything you both did makes sense. It's not painting a rosy picture; it's showing an accurate picture of this one human's experience. It's all so unfortunate and heart-breaking that a wider audience won't get the chance to see this book and know about Hercules.

Sarmatix said...

Beautiful illustrations and interesting texts. I will observe. Have a good day Justyna.

kj said...

not to continue mrs. c's upset, but to speak so strongly without the benefit of one's own experience and reaction seems to me to risk speaking partially or unfairly. that is simply my opinion, based on my own perspective. i don't like such strong finger wagging toward a woman and friend who i know fully well is thoughtful and considerate.

PL Carter said...

kj, the letter was addressed to three (3) people.
Do you know all of them, '...fully well...thoughtful and considerate'? Do you know anything about their judgements towards this project?
Ahh, that 'strong finger wagging' nuance; speaking from a cultural norm, which we don't do, usually. It's considered in 'our' culture as, 'bad home-training and ill-mannered. That comes from people putting their fingers in our faces over the centuries, telling us what we should and should not know or do.
Opinions--our right to have one, as 'free' people to express them. Just Like Mr. Hercule's..."to get the heck off the plantation'.
Your comments, made me think of the movie, the 'Help', when she gave the ex-employer, the sweet potato pie with her essence bake in it.
The rest of your statement was unclear to decipher.
No reply needed.

Mrs. C.

Clara's Mom said...

Dearest Vanessa, I have no opinion on the book in question because I have never seen it - but I TRUST YOU !! My dear friend is visiting me in Fiji and brought with her your book "One Love". We ADORED the pictures !! We HAD to look you up !! What a joy to find your site and to see that you have so many more adorable books, that - of course - we MUST HAVE and so will be ordering soon. May the gracious Lord forever bless you, your huge heart, your sure hand and keen eye. May you be enabled to bless the world with your marvelous pictures for years to come. With much love, Kim and Patti

Timothy Griffith said...

Wow. I would think your children's book career speaks for itself. You're in good company though. From what I know of Ezra Jack Keats, he got an earful of unjust criticism as well. "I'm sorry this has happened to you" seems inadequate. So I will say this "Can't wait for more of your beautiful work!"