George Washington, Smiling Slaves And Ramin Ganeshram

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.

A Birthday Cake for George WashingtonHer 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.”

Ramin Ganeshram

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.”

Scholastic books

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.

She concludes:

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?

10 responses to “George Washington, Smiling Slaves And Ramin Ganeshram

  1. Are we to assume that slaves NEVER smiled.
    What a bunch of politically correct crap is this publisher’s pulling the book just because a few history deniers bitch and wish to imrint their misinterpretation of historical fact on us all.
    Loathsome as Trump may be, his take on our dysfunctional attachment to erasing our history through poitical correctess does have its attraction and it is people such as the “no smiling slaves please” group that hughlight that attraction.

    • “Are we to assume that slaves NEVER smiled…”? I wondered the same thing. Especially with respect to a children’s book, the cover illustrates an encounter between two people, familiar and comfortable with each other, engaging together in something special…. and in this case, FOR someONE special. We’re PCing ourselves to death. So often, that may be necessary but here? I dunno, I really don’t. We’ll never heal this way if every attempt to engage is a land mine waiting to explode.

  2. I am appalled at the vitriol visited on Ramin through Amazon and social media–almost entirely be people who had not read the book.

  3. I support Ramin and her well-researched book.

  4. Every writer should be horrified, I was dumbfounded at the nastiness of responses on Ramin’s HuffPost piece where she clearly outlined how the illustrations did not line up with the text.

    Hercules is the subject of other stories related to cooking & Mt. Vernon and Ramin brought it to a children’s book. Her publisher did her no favors.

  5. I am sorry her publisher did not listen to her concerns about the illustrations. Illustrators and writers often communicate to make sure the intent of the book is consistent, and often point out concerns to each other. The publisher also has a responsibility in a piece of historical fiction to support the writer and illustrator’s attempts to be accurate. The artist should certainly be sensitive to the writer’s concerns, especially if the illustrations misrepresent history. It sounds like a wonderful story, and I hope she has a chance to share it with kids and the adults who read it.

  6. Dan, thank you for this “President’s Day” entry. We should all be thankful for the Freedom of Speech and our choice to use it. The author, Ranim Ganeshram had a great idea to write a children’s book about the slave, Hercules. While her book will not have commercial success as her publisher chose to pull it, it has resounding media appeal (including this blog)for the comments both good and bad by those who choose to talk about it. I took a look at the Huffington Post article by Ms Ganeshram(“Why the Banning of ‘A Birthday Cake for George Washington” Really Matters”) and some of the Amazon reviews. Unfortunately, it is not a “free speech success story” due to the book’s absence in the face of high volume criticism by some to force the publisher to cave in. Scholastic should have stood by this Author. Schools, parents and kids choose what is read. There should always be a choice. When my kids were young, I purchased many Scholastic books and never thought that they would sensor a book. If they can self sensor a published book, how many books never get published due to their sensitive nature? I think that Ms. Ganeshram made one big mistake. She had a choice. She chose to submit her story to Scholastic and apparently gave up a great deal of her artistic and entrepreneurial freedom to this large publishing house. As a result, there is one less book for parents and teachers and kids to CHOOSE to read, or not!

  7. Robert Mitchell

    One very disturbing fact to note: the book was pulled by Scholastic in early January after the firestorm of vituperation had commenced. All the media covered the storied up to and including NPR. it was not until early February, a month later, that anyone from the media even bothered to contact Ramin for her side of the story. A pretty sad commentary on the state of the media and the press these days. Not only that they perpetuated the biased attack, but that no-one thought it might be an interesting angle to hear from the other protagonist in the admittedly one-sided and unfair struggle. Not very imaginative of them.

  8. I consulted on several books with scholastic and separately Joshua Morris, mostly of a civil rights/human rights/political nature. (Joshua Morris started in Westport and then moved after being purchased by Readers Digest). The relationship between illustrator and writer was so tight, acting as liaison between the 2 was my primary function on each project, to keep the meaning between the 2 mediums the same. I am so sorry it didn’t happen for this book but maybe the resulting dialogue out of the mistake will bring more attention to issues than otherwise would have happened; actually it looks like that is al ready happening. Good luck with it, it deserves a lot of success.

  9. Dayle Brownstein

    I know that it is the case that authors and illustrators don’t interact much, and I’ve always thought that’s a bad idea. The illustrator should be helping to send the author’s message. That being said we can’t throw EVERYTHING that is PC out the window, especially when it comes to kids. This is a complicated and sensitive issue, and people have the right to be thoughtful about the message that it sends. I do not agree that the book should have been pulled, but I would hope that parents and teachers would have in depth thoughtful discussion about it. And, Mr Katz your abbrasive response to this is no more helpful than some extreme PC responses are. This is about the feelings and messages being sent to sensitive little people, and sensitive issues deserve to be addressed sensitively. Not rashly and unfairly, but sensitively.