Posts tagged ‘Slavery’

A Birthday Cake for George Washington

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Birthday Cake for George Washington.jpgTitle: A Birthday Cake for George Washington
Author: Ramin Ganeshram
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
ISBN: 9780545538237
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2016.

In the kitchen, my papa, Hercules, is baking an amazing cake. But there is one problem: We are out of sugar.

Hercules, a slave owned by President George Washington, is a valued member of the White House Staff as the cook for the president. When Washington’s birthday arrives, Hercules is tasked to bake a cake, but there is no sugar to be found anywhere in the kitchen. With a little improvising of using honey instead of sugar, the cake is successfully made. The charcoal pencil pictures are supplemented with Photoshoped images of actual cookware. The enslaved kitchen staff are shown with a variety of skin colors.

Upon publication, there was quite a bit of discussion regarding this book. My library was one of the few to purchase and receive a copy before Scholastic discontinued publishing the title due to public outcry regarding the portrayal of the “smiling slaves”. I’m unaware if the reviews influenced the artist’s note at the back of the book, which stresses that “While slavery in America was a vast injustice, my research indicates that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. That is why I have depicted them as happy people. There is joy in what they have created through their intelligence and culinary talent.” An author’s note attempts to separate fact from fiction, clarifying that while Hercules’s daughter (who is the narrator in the story) doesn’t seem to have ever been at the center of government in the Philadelphia house, Hercules’s son Richmond was present for at least a while as a favor to the cook. The author’s note also emphasizes that Hercules along with the other slaves were rotated out to avoid allowing them freedom under a Pennsylvania law that freed slaves who resided in the state for more than six months.

I’m unsure how much control the author had over the illustration process, but it seems that the text taken by itself does not promote a “happy” situation. At various points in the story Hercules “roared at the kitchen maids”, “growled at Chef Julien” (a white chef from France) and at the kitchen boy, “scowled at the swirling, whirling snow” and “Only when Mrs. Washington comes into the kitchen does Papa turn his scowl into an easy smile.” I can imagine an imperialistic tone as he orders his staff around, repeatedly voicing “You! […] And you!” While the pictures show a smiling group of workers, the text reflects an uncertainty and anxiousness as they try a new recipe for the very first time to be presented at a Presidential birthday party. The cake (and the feast in its entirety) that is finally produced seems rather small for the number of guests one would expect at a birthday party for George Washington. The text presents an enslaved chef who is hiding his anxieties in front of his owner to avoid any disciplinary action, who takes responsibility for the entire cake so if something is wrong he saves others from being reprimanded, or worse. “No one seems to breathe until the cake platter comes back” empty, and Delia’s heart is “pounding” as the President approaches afterward. This is not the presentation of happy, accomplished culinary chefs confident in their ability, but slaves who know if they do something wrong it could mean dire repercussions.

When the controversy first surfaced, author Mitali Perkins publicized how she would have corrected the book to further stress the condition of slaves during that time period. While her rewriting of the text certainly stresses the dangers of not successfully caring out the orders of their owners, it’s a minimal change to a text that ultimately portrays a story that is intended for young children with a limited exposure to the concept of slavery. Writers portraying slavery and other historical social issues must balance a fine line of keeping it factually accurate but also factually appropriate for that age group. This book also provides a glimpse at a slave who was an anomaly, one who was well-known and dare we say respected, as evidenced by Washington allowing father and son to work together as a “favor”. My opinion is a different illustrator’s interpretation of the text may have negated the controversy.

I am a huge admirer of Mitalie Perkins’s Bamboo People and thought that she also raised several issues regarding Scholastic’s decision to pull the book from production. Is it censorship? I find myself asking the same question, especially in light of other books being questioned post-production. It’s not only children’s books, but adults books as well. Back in 2012, The Jefferson Lies by David Barton was pulled from store shelves, and the publisher’s Senior Vice President and Publisher Brian Hampton was quoted in an NPR article asserting that:

“There were historical details — matters of fact, not matters of opinion, that were not supported at all.” […] “The truth is, the withdrawing a book from the market is extremely rare. It’s so rare I can’t think of the last time we’ve done this,” Hampton said. But, he said, “If there are matters of fact not correctly handled or the basic truth is not there, we would make a decision based on that.”

Since then, we’ve had titles like A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall, where the smiling slave portrayal was questioned even as it won award recognition. Ghosts by acclaimed graphic novelist Raina Telgemeir is having its portrayal of Dia De Los Muertos questioned because it was slightly fictionalized and Telgemeir’s own experience in that culture is being questioned. And recently When We Was Fierce by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo is being “postponed” for “further reflection”. I must say I have not read any of these yet. Is this concern over cultural portrayals a desired response to the We Need Diverse Books movement, or will it backlash and yield even fewer depictions out of fear that they offend or prove too fictionalized? I’ve read reviews where factual inaccuracies have been brought to light in nonfiction books that don’t prevent their publication. Are we then being hyper-vigilant regarding fiction for a particular reason, and should we pass that same scrutinizing eye on nonfiction? If readers, reviewers, and the public in general are more willing to challenge a fictionalized publication, then we should evaluate why.  How much license should be allowed? I don’t have any of these answers, but they should be questions that are broached when discussing these and future incidents. In regards specifically to A Birthday Cake for George Washington, I think reprinting with a different illustrator and making a few minor corrections, like Perkins suggests, would make it more acceptable. However, I’m not a member of that African-American culture, and recent conversations seem to imply that I must defer my opinion to those who are members. That doesn’t mean I can’t voice them here.

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The Price of Freedom

Price of FreedomTitle: The Price of Freedom
Author: Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin
Illustrator: Eric Velasquez
ISBN: 9780802721662
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Walker Books for Young Readers, c2013
Publication Date: January 8, 2013

Trouble began in early September 1858, when a ten-year-old boy spied several “rough-looking” men on the porch of an Oberlin flophouse. Suspecting that they were slave hunters, Oberlinians posted lookouts around the hotel.
Indeed, the men were slave hunters. They were led by Anderson Jennings, a Kentuckian who had been promised $500 per slave (equal to about $13,000 each in today’s money) for returning John and Frank to their former owners.

John and Frank had escaped from their master in January, 1856. Fleeing Kentucky, they crossed into Ohio where Quakers sheltered runaway slaves. Even though Ohio was a free state, they could still be legally captured, so the original plan was to continue on to Canada. Upon arriving in Oberlin, Ohio and learning the route was blocked, the two friends stayed in the friendly town, taking up jobs and living among its residents. That all changes when slave catchers come to town, and John is captured. With the law against them, residents of Oberlin demanded John’s release. But are they successful in this time of divided ideals and conflicting politics?

I was slightly disappointed by this book. While the story is unique, based on fact, and one I’d never heard of, the writing lacks the suspense that should probably be present. Almost half the story contains very short non-sequiturs introducing the people involved in rescuing John, which quickly bogs down and confuses the story. The artwork starts strong, and I was especially struck by the page where we see John and Frank peering over a fence with the moon lighting their path visible behind them. Surrounded by spooky, bare-limbed trees, it’s astonishing how well the mood is struck with that one picture. In contrast, the scene where the townspeople have gathered, demanding John’s release, looks hastily colored, with none of the details and only vague impressions and blobs of paint for some of the faces. Eric Velasquez’s artwork seems to lose something when doing larger scenes, and if he had stuck to the closeups and featured only a handful of people in each of his drawings, then I think it would have worked better.

The other thing missing from this book is map! While I’m impressed that the book provides a bibliography, further reading, and websites lists, along with a small note in the back, there is no map of either the route John and Frank took, or a state map simply identifying where Oberlin is located in correlation to Cleveland. On the suggested Oberlin College website, readers can view a picture of a monument dedicated to the Oberlinians who fought for John’s freedom, but there’s no mention of that monument in the book. Instead, it mentions a sculpture that “honors the role of the college and town” but there’s no picture of it in the book or on the website.

Overall, I feel like this very short story would have worked better in a compilation of little known tales involving either the underground railroad or civil war history since so little is known about the participants. Libraries in Ohio have a unique link to the story, and would do well to have it on hand for young school children. However, I’m not sure how much demand there will be outside of the immediately mentioned area. If this is a diamond in the rough, I think it still needs a little polishing.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

The Underground Abductor

Underground Abductor.jpgTitle: The Underground Abductor
Series: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5
Author/Illustrator: Nathan Hale
ISBN: 9781419715365
Pages: 128 pages
Publisher/Date: Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, c2015.

“Robert, Ben, Henry, We are leavin’. We’re goin’ NORTH. This Saturday night.”
“Why Saturday?”
“Nobody expects slaves to work on Sunday—we’ll have a whole day’s lead.”
“Who’s gonna lead the way?”
“I will. I’ll follow the North Star.”
“That’s your plan? You’re gonna follow a STAR?”
“That’s right, I’ll follow that star like Moses followed the Pillar of Fire.” (45)

Araminta Ross was born into slavery, and “by the time she was ten, Araminta had been hired out many times, and had the scars to prove it.” She lived with her six siblings and her mother, while her father worked at a neighboring lumber mill. Upon hearing of her impending sale, she makes her first attempt at escaping with her brother’s, but they get scared and return with her in tow. So the second time, she makes the trip by herself, securing herself a new life in Philadelphia and along with it a new name, Harriet Tubman. But she can’t forget those family members she left behind, and begins regular trips south to escort not only family but other slaves to freedom, first to Pennsylvania and then all the way to Canada. This is her story, told in graphic novel format, of the difficulties she faced and how she rightfully became a recognizable name in American history.

This was my first experience with Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, although it is the fifth one in the series. It appears that Nathan Hale, the American Revolutionary spy, is set to being executed and is stalling his death by weaving stories from American history, Scheherazade style, to his executioners. Interruptions from his executioners ask the contextual questions and garners the answers that readers unfamiliar with this story might have, like who is Franklin Douglass, how did slavery work, and why was what Harriet did so dangerous. The only spot of color in the black, white, and gray illustrations is purple, which starts off pale and then intensifies as the dangers increase and the war creeps closer. Readers familiar with Harriet Tubman’s efforts will learn tiny details that may be new, like her birth name and the closed head injury she suffers as a child and the fact that family members (both immediate and extended) helped her evacuation efforts. Hale presents the tale with an immediacy and urgency that mimics the mood that must have permeated Tubman’s raids.

Details like how many times she went across to help her family, how many people she would take in different abductions, and how she kept everyone safe also help readers realize her commitment to the cause. There is a sense of spiritualism, garnered from Harriet’s visions, which are attributed to her head injury but are portrayed as being astonishingly helpful and accurate. Her life isn’t sugarcoated, revealing the whippings she received and the abandonment of her husband, and Hale is refreshingly upfront and honest when he doesn’t know the answers or the true facts. This is an accessible introduction to the abolitionist, and to the concept of the Underground Railroad and slavery.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

 

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