I learned about Scholastic’s new children’s book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, when a friend emailed me on Friday to ask, “Uh … have you seen this [expletive]?” Her note was accompanied by the book’s back cover, which depicted an illustration of a smiling enslaved man and child, accompanied by their beaming master—America’s first president, George Washington. Washington had his arm around the enslaved man’s shoulder like they were bros instead of oppressor and oppressed.
My knee-jerk reaction was a string of expletives as I tried to process this level of disrespect. Can you imagine a modern-day American publisher pushing a book about a cheery Jewish father and daughter on a trivial mission to bake a cake for the birthday of, say, an SS guard at Auschwitz? Can you picture a children’s book depicting a Jewish dad and child at a concentration camp snuggled up and cozy with Hitler?
Never! So why is it somehow OK to show enslaved black folks practically cuddling with their oppressors?
D'Oyley, Demetria Lucas. After Outrage Publisher Pulls Happy Slaves Children's Book The Root, January 17, 2016
In crafting the narrative for this book, culinary historian and Washington scholar, Ramin Ganeshram, took great care in contextualizing Hercules and Delia as enslaved people, while at the same time accurately depicting Hercules as the notable figure he was. In her extensive author’s note, Ramin clearly and carefully addresses the cruel injustice of slavery, as well as the vicious complexity of slavery that George Washington himself faced. In the book, Ramin notes that George Washington understood that it was evil to own fellow human beings, and that he was very conflicted about his part in the wicked institution known as slavery. Slavery’s injustice is also cited on the book’s front flap, so that any parent or teacher will know that this is an aspect of the story, and that it is to be addressed.
Pinkney, Andrea Davis*. A proud slice of history On Our Minds (Scholastic blog), January 6, 2016
In Monday's blog post, I wrote that our schools should be producing thinkers, not believers. The controversy and multiple points of view surrounding the publication and subsequent withdrawal by Scholastic of A Birthday Cake for George Washington is a case-in-point argument for this approach to education and why all educators, not just librarians, should be staunch proponents of intellectual freedom for both children and adults.
No book, no idea, no resource should be unilaterally withdrawn from a public school because it offends a single individual or group. I cannot defend A Birthday Cake but what I will defend is any material's right to due process before it is withdrawn from a school. (See Don't Defend That Book.) And as an educator, I believe materials like this should be the catalyst for "teachable moments," with students being asked to consider important questions about slavery, historical context**, the source of happiness, and the ability for an individual to excel under difficult conditions.
A concern was raised in my district about our teachers' ability to have such conversations. Is the rank-and-file teacher sufficiently culturally proficient to hold meaningful discussions on topics like this? It is a valid concern. Quite honestly, I don't know that my own level of CP is (or perhaps ever will be) high enough to be able to fully consider all the issues and understandings a book like A Birthday Cake raises.
But I ask myself does my personal imperfection - or any teacher's - justify not discussing controversial issues and asking students to consider multiple perspectives related to them? Asking students to think, not to believe.
While it may not rise to the level of seriousness of cultural proficiency, were we to not give educators computers until they were all "technologically" proficient, I suspect we would still be using a lot of typewriters.
OK, readers, have at me...
* "[Pinkney is] Coretta Scott King award winner, founder of "Jump at the Sun" (the first dedicated African-American imprint in children's books) at Hyperion, and probably our most honored and respected editor of color in children's books)" Bruce Coville
** Something these reviews made me think about were the sorts of things that are socially acceptable today that future generations will find abhorrent - buying clothes made in sweat shops; using fossil fuels; eating meat; allowing children to live in poverty; insisting on private health care; permitting a minimum wage salary which cannot support a family, etc.