We need literature that wrestles with the evils of slavery while confronting its complexity especially when its written for children
A book called George Washingtons Birthday Cake has caused controversy for depicting a smiling black cook, in this case chef Hercules and his daughter, preparing cake in the kitchen for the president, who held in bondage hundreds of enslaved workers. It is unclear what kind of moment we are witnessing on the cover. Is it familial love, servile obedience, or, perhaps, a smile to hide the pain of being enslaved? Improving our understanding of the lives of slaves is key to answering those uncomfortable questions.
The rationale which the illustrator, Vanessa Brantley-Newton, gave for the happy slaves imagery was that these enslaved folk, identified as servants, were proud and felt privileged to serve a man of such a great stature. In her plea for a middle ground, the author, Ramin Ganeshram, argued that not every enslaved person was in the middle of hell every single second, and therefore, smiling isnt an unreasonable thing to suggest.
I know Ganeshram, as do many in the black culinary scene. I have not dialogued with her about the book, nor have I had the opportunity to read it. Both the author and illustrator, are of color. On the surface, they are right on both counts. But why are we still uncomfortable, opposed and furious even after the book has been pulled?
Part of the problem is that our society has poorly dealt with slavery in relation to our children. The first talk about race, especially for children of color, should confront American slavery, and it would be great if there were a plethora of books to ease that process. This book, although well-intentioned, doesnt quite succeed.
We need literature that wrestles with the evils of slavery while confronting its complexity we have yet to find a middle ground for a national conversation and understanding of the peculiar institution that doesnt sandwich our understanding between slavery as Maafa and slavery as Song of the South.
I remind my audiences at period cooking demonstrations that slavery was colloquial and discretionary. Slavery differed from property to property, slaveholder to slaveholder and from one enslaved community to the next. A one- size-fits-all narrative is insufficient.
As one of a very few people willing to portray and interpret the lives of the enslaved, and as one of an even more select group someone whose cooking career is almost entirely based on the cooking done by enslaved people for kitchens high and low it becomes easier to enter the headspace of a Hercules or James Hemings, both of whom were slave chefs to US presidents.
Hercules might very well have felt at times in his life power, autonomy, authority and an elevated status. He would have felt some measure of attainment and pride in his skill set and his ability to make money. Enslaved culinary professionals werent quite the House Negroes of Malcolm Xs parables, nor were they constantly plotting revenge.
They lived very complicated lives with fuzzy lines between themselves and white slaveholders on one hand, and the black community of artisans, field workers and their fellow domestic staff on the other if they were in fact on a property able to maintain such diversity of labor.
However, the close proximity to slaveholders presented constant dangers for the enslaved who worked in kitchens. The kitchen was perhaps the number one space where the rape of enslaved women occurred. A cook might be fixed with a horses bit to prevent them from eating the food, or find their whole head caged in the most severe of cases. One mistress in the French Caribbean calmly entertained guests after having her cook burned alive in the oven for burning a cake. This was not a place of ever-sun; it was a liminal zone of hardship and horror.
Hercules ran away on George Washingtons birthday, after having spent some time at Mount Vernon demoted from his position. After his loyalty and service was repaid by having to work outside in wet, cold Virginia weather, Hercules successfully absconded.
When his daughter (presumably the one depicted on the cover) was asked how she felt about her fathers absence, she said she was pleased he had obtained his freedom. Hercules was later seen in New York in 1801 by the then mayor, but by then, all of Washingtons chattel had been emancipated.
Keeping ourselves and others honest about slavery in American history and beyond is constant work. I perform historic cooking demonstrations on a southern plantation in order to preserve the past. When I lift those pots heavy with boiling water, cook as our ancestors did and pick cotton for 16 hours, I am often dismissed by visitors with a good luck with that attitude.
But its not my job alone to bear the burdens of our heritage we as African Americans must own our past and keep others honest about it so we can move forward. Still, I have yet to see a majority African American audience at one of my historic cooking demonstrations on a southern plantation, or at other events meant to draw in the African American community. We still fear the plantation.
The weight of social media outrage over a book cover pales in comparison to the importance of keeping historic sites and house museums honest when they use terms like servants, or when visitors try to assuage their discomfort by assuring themselves that everything was satisfactual and loudly proclaim that slavery wasnt so bad, or that x group had it far worse.
All of us must be engaged in a greater cultural and historical literacy so that when the story of our ancestors is told and the books are read to all children, our complicated history of struggle and sorrow, joy and triumph receives a depiction that bears resemblance to the truth.