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Response to The First Bite

These are my thoughts as a reader, mother, grandparent and African American woman on A Birthday Cake for George Washington. In Part II you will find my thoughts regarding the  author’s response to criticism of the “happy slave narrative”.
PART I.
Author: Ramin Ganeshram
A Birthday Cake for George Washington.

Although I recognize the talent and hard work that went into the creation of both A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington, I am alarmed by the distortions of slavery. In both books readers are provided historical data nixed with the myth of the benevolent slave owner.

The historical record paints a much less rosy picture of George Washington as master:

George Washington is reported to have “frequently used harsh punishments against the enslaved population, including whippings and the threat of particularly taxing work assignments. Perhaps most severely, Washington could sell a slave to a buyer in the West Indies, ensuring that the person would never see their family or friends at Mount Vernon again. Washington conducted such sales on several occasions.” http://www.pbs.org/…/shows/jefferson/video/lives.html

When Richmond (the fourteen-year-old son of Hercules) was caught stealing, George Washington had this to say to his farm manager: “I hope he was made an example of”.
Excerpt from: The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House by Jesse Holland.

When it was discovered by the farm manager at Mount Vernon that slaves were using wheat sacks to mend clothes, he proposed purchasing bags made of coarse sacking from Europe, “which a Negro could not mend his cloaths with without a discovery”. http://www.pbs.org/…/shows/jefferson/video/lives.html

The argument will no doubt be made that the book is not about George Washington. If so, the book is incomplete and inaccurate. Further, the depictions of happy slaves looking adoringly at Martha Washington, and the one of George Washington hugging his black cook belie that argument. It is as much about the Washingtons as it is about Hercules.

So what remains hidden in this presentation is that Hercules walked on shifting ground at all times. His position, fame, and freedoms, as well as his physical and emotional health were all dependent upon the will of the master.

By removing the less pleasant realities of his life, the reader is left without a context to grasp slavery or understand why Hercules’ brief triumph was truly remarkable. And by book’s end, we are again left wondering. Why would Hercules want to leave a life of luxury? What made slavery intolerable for a man in his position? What would he achieve by escape? Escape made him a fugitive, not a free man. What then made escape worth the risk?

Once again, I am left confused and dismayed. Concerned that children’s books unintentionally continue to create distortions about slavery, African American history, and this country that a child will have to come to grips with later in life.

PART II.

These are my thoughts after reading The First Bite.

The First Bite: Slicing Through A Birthday Cake to Reveal Layers of Truth

The first problem with the author’s response is the use of the word respect. Washington may well have respected Hercules’ talent as a chef. He certainly enjoyed it. He did not, however, respect the man. A man he recorded, like he did other holdings, in his log books. To respect the man would have mandated that Washington grant Hercules more than a few extra freedoms. It would have demanded that he grant him the status of human being rather than property. That the author could argue that any slave owner respected his slaves shows a lack of understanding of the institution of slavery.

The story is not historically accurate. Nor was it mean to be. But since the response leans on research, it’s important to note that there are inaccuracies. Hercules’ female children did not accompany him to Philadelphia. There would not have been a Delia present to watch snowflakes fall through the living room window. Further, If she had been present, she would not have had time for such an activity. She would have been busy doing what slave children did – work. The afterword is where readers, who choose to, will find the historical details of Hercules’ life. They will also find that the author included a note stating that there is no record of Delia having ever worked in Philadelphia as depicted. This information will likely never be read to children who have consumed the pictures and the narrative of a lovely, smiling slave at her father’s side.

With respect to smiles. This book depicts all slaves as smiling not just the gifted and talented Hercules and his proud daughter. It also reintroduces the trope of the benevolent slave master. George Washington engaged in the use of the same harsh punishments as other slave holders did. He also used the threat of a sale to the West Indies to maintain order. And he did make several such sales. George Washington was not the most heinous slave master, but he was a slave master and behaved as such.

Hercules is recorded to have been demanding, and he would likely have been quite ruthless with those who worked under him. A truth that I find uncomfortable, but one I would readily admit. A truth that most African Americans would readily admit. You misjudge the ability of black people and others to understand the pressures, demands, and the need to please placed on those in bondage. We also understand the development of adaptive behaviors in stressful and demeaning situations.

In the segregated south, where I grew up – we were certainly not slaves, but we were oppressed. Did we laugh and smile? Absolutely. But those moments belonged to us. In contrast, during contacts with those who oppressed us, we employed the polite smiles of those who must hide their true feelings.

What I regret about this book and its defense is that they both miss the mark. This book could have been a treasure, if only the author, illustrator, and editors had found a path to visualize slavery in an honest way. One that would not burden children with images of brutality, but would show the difference between Hercules ( a favored slave) and others. If this had been done, this book would have fully realized its potential. But because slavery was stripped from the story, there is no context to truly understand how remarkable Hercules’ rise to fame really was.

For those who doubt that slavery has been stripped from this book, I challenge you to look at the characters and imagine them without pigmentation. Then try to identify the slaves. If you have trouble with this, you will understand what I am saying. Then I want you to remember that this book utilizes a real slave to carry the story.

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2016 by and tagged , , .
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