13. It’s been a wild week for Food Tells a Story. First, I posted an updated piece that I’d written in December on Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef. Then I became aware of the new children’s book on the subject, A Birthday Cake for George Washington. That demanded a second comment. Without having seen the book (it seems that 99% of us have not), my reaction was mixed: I certainly understand the controversy around it, but as a teaching tool, I might be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. My take on it yesterday wasn’t all that different from the editor’s own statement.
Then within hours after posting that second piece, I learned that Scholastic had decided to pull the book. The publisher agreed with the public’s objection that “the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”
Of course, at this point, Scholastic had no choice. There was no way they could push the book’s sales in the face of its nearly universal condemnation, especially from the African American community. Folks may still be wondering how it ever got the green light in the first place, but that’s a question for a different blog. For every person who has questioned whether it was fair of Scholastic to throw the author, illustrator, and editor under the bus, there seem to be ten more who are eager to jump behind the wheel, back up, and run over them a few more times. The Wrath of God fire-and-brimstone invective being hurled down on the book’s creators is startling, especially considering that some of the most uncharitable comments do in fact invoke the divine.
The general reaction on social media illustrates the complexity of the subject. On the one hand, the Usual Suspects dismissively complained that the withdrawal of the book amounts to censorship and political correctness gone wild: “Slavery sucked. We get it already!” “Or is it just a ‘hate Whitey’ problem?” “If a book about 17th Century America has even the slightest hint of impropriety or political incorrectness about our sanitized contemporary views of slavery, then the best thing to do is ban the book. Censorship by any other name is still censorship.”
Well, thanks for proving the point made by the book’s opponents! Opponents feared that the book would be used to reinforce the “happy slave” myth.
To pretend that slavery was something other than awful is dehumanizing. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was heavily involved in human trafficking, and boasted of the profits it generated. Over one 10-year stretch, he sold an average of 85 slaves a year. Harriet Beecher Stowe nearly started the Civil War in 1852 by telling a story about the horrors of being “sold down the river.” But that practice didn’t bother Jefferson, because he believed that his slaves were something less than fully human. Paul Finkelman wrote in his piece, “The Monster of Monticello“that:
Destroying families didn’t bother Jefferson, because he believed blacks lacked basic human emotions. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote, and their love lacked “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.” [Finkelman’s hyperlink]
Contradictions writ large: In 1769, Jefferson placed an ad offering a reward for the return of an escaped slave named Sandy. Look at how Jefferson describes him: an obese, profane alcoholic, deceitful, rude and raucous. But Jefferson was still eager to get him back, for reasons not given.
On the other hand, some of the book’s opponents seem to object to any depiction that shows an enslaved person as anything other than steeped in abject misery. One commenter wrote: “Unless George Washington’s Slaves were happy being repeatedly raped, impregnated in their early teens, regularly beaten, subjected to virtually living outside in the extreme cold winters, as well as having to work in the very humid summer heat for about 18 hours per day, diseased, sickly and the prospects of an extremely high mortality rate, I’m pretty sure that they were anything BUT ‘happy’!”
But that attitude dehumanizes the enslaved in another way. It strips them of their capacity for feeling the full range of human emotion, even in the midst of oppression. A frequent comment compares the book to a book about Anne Frank being happy to cook a steak for Hitler. Fine. But one of the most poignant lessons to come out of the Holocaust is found in the paintings done by people in the concentration camps. The moral of the story is profound: Hitler can kill your body, but he can’t kill your soul. Do we really want to suggest that those artists couldn’t possibly take any personal pleasure or pride in their art?
Either way would be an appeal to the fallacy of imposing general history on individual history. At the general level, then yes, we would insist on absolute clarity: Slavery was brutal in every way, and the enslaved eagerly escaped its dehumanizing oppression whenever they could.
But individual histories are more complicated. The real-life Hercules took pride in his dress and appearance. He was a demanding kitchen manager, suggesting a pride in his work. He capitalized on whatever freedoms or indulgences Washington allowed. Yet in the end, he could not live (and did not wish to die) enslaved, and made his escape; ironically, by using Washington’s birthday as a diversion. Nor was his daughter upset by losing him. When Louis-Philippe, the future King of France, asked her about it, she replied, “Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”
At the same time, it would also be a mistake to see slavery as less complicated and contradictory than it was. It would be unfair, for instance, to equate Washington with, say, Jefferson. Without whitewashing him (pun intended), Washington was no angel, but he was plainly troubled by the institution of slavery in a way that Jefferson was not, at least from c.1790 on.
Washington was, at least by 18th Century standards, far less racist in his views of African Americans than Jefferson. Both faced financial difficulties, for instance. But while Jefferson sold off his extra slaves as a commodity, Washington felt obliged to keep slave families together, even though it meant keeping more slaves than he actually needed for running his Mount Vernon estate. (Under Virginia law, if he had freed his slaves, they would have been legally required to leave both the state and the families they had created with Martha’s slaves, who could not be freed.) And it should also be said that, unlike Jefferson, there is no evidence that Washington ever raped or otherwise engaged in sexual shenanigans with his slaves.
Is there a way to communicate a messy story like this to younger elementary readers? Is there a way to talk about positive, uplifting experiences like pride and joy in baking a cake, without turning it into another Song of the South? Is there a way to depict a particular slave owner as anything less than Simon Legree?
Maybe not. These are not rhetorical questions. I don’t know the answers. I would like to think that a gifted author could pull it off, but maybe the required “both/and” distinctions would be too much for a second grader to sort out. We have trouble with such distinctions ourselves. Upwards of half the population comes out of a hard fundamentalist religious background, in which the Bible is interpreted much the same as a phone book–a series of uncomplicated literal statements that cannot be understood as symbols or myths without denying Christ. Here, there is no room for subtlety, and any apparent contradictions must be resolved. In fundamentalism, saying “both/and” is considered heresy. For many Americans, Washington is either a god or a white devil, and there can be nothing in between.
The Apotheosis of Washington, 1865, in the dome of the Capitol rotunda.
In that climate, we’re just not very good at these discussions. To object that slavery and Jim Crow were not as benevolent as their defenders in every age have argued is dismissed as PC nonsense, while to suggest that the enslaved might have ever been happy, even for a moment, is to align oneself with Satan. We’ve certainly seen both extremes of the equation in the fallout from this book and its withdrawal. Of course, it’s only the first view that’s genuinely dangerous. The “it’s not so bad” attitude damages people in the present.
(In 2011, Fox News’ Stuart Varney mocked poor families by pointing out that most of them own a refrigerator. That’s our contemporary version of the Happy Slave myth. See there? You have a place to keep cold food. Poverty’s not so bad!)
By that measure, maybe it’s just as well that the book disappear.
Unfortunately, I suspect that there will be no happy ending. Is this experience going to encourage Scholastic to try another book involving anything to do with slavery? Not likely. Even for a publisher with a fairly reliable market like Scholastic, the risk may seem too great. I sure don’t carry a brief for the book: For me, an omission of Hercules’ escape on Washington’s birthday would be a fatal flaw. Nonetheless, I still can’t help but wonder if having something would have been better than having nothing.