Ramin Ganeshram holds a master’s in journalism from Columbia University. The former feature writer for the New York Times, 7-time Society of Professional Journalists honoree and author of a book about African-Americans’ culinary heritage was born to a Trinidadian father and Iranian mother. She lives here and attends meetings of TEAM Westport, our town’s multicultural committee.
Now she’s in the middle of a national cultural controversy.
Her latest book — A Birthday Cake for George Washington, about the president’s head chef Hercules, a slave — was pulled soon after publication last month by its publisher, Scholastic. Critics objected to illustrations depicting smiling slaves.
Some people also criticized Ganeshram for concentrating on Hercules’ work as a chef, and not on Washington’s ownership of slaves and Hercules’ eventual escape from Mount Vernon.
Ganeshram is fighting back. She says she did not collaborate with the artist — and objected to them before publication.
Authors and illustrators of picture stories often do not speak or interact, she says. Her communication with the illustrator was limited to a few tweets.
Interestingly, the artist — Vanessa Brantley-Newton — describes her blended background as “African-American, Asian, European and Jewish.”
And the book’s editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, founded Hyperion imprint Jump at the Sun. They publish African-American children’s books.
Ganeshram’s book came out of a larger, 4-year project about Hercules. “For me, Hercules is everything,” she told AP. “Every opportunity to present him to the world was something to be seriously considered.”
Ganeshram says she raised objections to the “over-joviality” of some illustrations last spring. When she offered to send research material to the artist, Pinkney told her, “Authors and illustrators don’t interact.”
As commenters — many of whom had not seen the book — slammed Ganeshram on Amazon and other sites, she replied on Huffington Post.
Describing the slave Hercules as “a remarkable man whose talent and self-possession earned him unusual status in his own time” — and a salary twice that of the average free white man — she wrote:
As a chef and person of color, I revere and admire Hercules. I wrote “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” to lionize him through one fictional moment in which he uses superior talent to overcome culinary disaster.
Imagine my horror when the children’s book I wrote to celebrate this gifted black American was twisted and misconstrued as a defense of slavery by an online lynch mob (and I use that word deliberately) that angrily and incorrectly parsed my ethnicity.
She says the publisher ignored or refused all her requests — and then told her not to respond to personal attacks on her “perceived race, nationality, color, scholarship and journalistic integrity.”
Ganeshram also criticizes Amazon for allowing “libel, hate rhetoric and violent, racist imagery” to remain on the book’s review pages.
On Huff Post she writes:
There is more at stake here than the future of one author or one picture book. Most pressing is the question of whether we can ever reach a place in our society where questions of race can be openly and objectively discussed, especially with our children.
It’s one thing to understand the volatility of the outrage toward “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” but another to learn from it. The righting of racial injustice doesn’t come from shutting down conversations by banning books or screaming the loudest but from opening dialogues.
Without these dialogues we’re in danger of living in a world where any single, sanctioned group may decide what we might write or read or say or think, based upon their own interpretations of an “us” and “them” society.
And how did you spend your Presidents Day?