This evening the widespread response to the publication of A Birthday Cake for George Washington has led to its recall by Scholastic. The book itself was released on 5 January in the shadow of a similar controversy about A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat. Andrea Davis Pinkney, the editor of Birthday Cake released a statement a day after the release to pre-empt controversy.
I wrote a review of Birthday Cake and four days ago it appeared on the Teaching for Change Facebook page. The post went viral within hours. Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Mikki Kendall, and many others spread the word on social media using the hashtag #slaverywithasmile. More critiques were published over the next two days by Zellie Imani, Colleen Mondor, Charles Pulliam-Moore, Leslie Butler MacFadyen, and many others. Atena Danner started a protest petition. Both Scholastic and the book’s author released statements attempting to justify the content of the book, but the outrage did not subside. Just four days after Teaching for Change posted my review, Scholastic released a statement saying:
(January 17, 2016) Scholastic is announcing today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and will accept all returns. While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn. [Full statement here.]
#SlaveryWithASmile, never trended on Twitter, but it amassed a huge conversation regarding the faults within this book. The Inquisitir, The Root, The Atlanta Black Star and Yahoo News were among those to cover the developing story and to carry it beyond the children’s literature community. No doubt there were emails and phone calls of which I’m unaware. I commented to someone on Twitter that we’ve become a community hundreds of years deep and hundreds of arms wide.
I’m overwhelmed to learn that Scholastic has opted to cease distribution of this book while admitting that they’ve misrepresented enslavement. While this victory is empowering, the fight itself is disheartening because the battle against the portrayal of ‘happy slaves’, of people who were less that human and who were being well cared for is a hundred years old. The need for accuracy, not for sweetening, with regards to the enslavement of Blacks in America is critical to this country. This era in American history has shaped our national identity and until we get it right, we will continue to be encumbered with racism.
And, our children. Our children’s minds cannot be pawns in our collective memory. We cannot, will not let institutions that want to control the messages that are delivered to our children continue to erode their futures. Indeed, as Ramin Ganeshram stated, “We in children’s publishing are now at a critical tipping point in discussions about race and history.”
As pleased as I am with this outcome, my sleeves are still pushed up. I am glad to see a growing awareness of the tremendous need for more diversity in children’s books. Here in 2015, of the 3,000 books published for children ages 8 and above, only 32 were identified by author Zetta Elliott and myself to be written by African American authors. The Publisher’s Weekly Annual Salary Survey continues to reflect that with regards to diversity in terms of age, gender and ethnicity the publishing industry does not change. To see the diversity in the the next faces hired in publishing is as important as seeing the next books with Native American, Latina/o, Asian American, African American, disabled or LGBTQIAP authors. He who controls the pen controls the story.
It’s late in the day. It’s late in the fight. But this round, this round in this fight seems sadly to be just getting started.
Deborah Menkart and her colleagues at Teaching for Change have been monumental in this effort, as have the names mentioned above. You can find us on Twitter. We’re #DiversityJedi