Photo: Scholastic | Words By Dominique Matti
As a Christmas gift to the family last year my tech-savvy Nana had all of our home videos ripped from many VHS tapes to one DVD. We each got a copy. In most of the videos, I am too young to speak. My personality is reduced to cries of stubborn frustration and squeals of pleasure. But in one of them, I am about five years old, a Kindergarten student, and I am anxious to perform for the camera. It is Thanksgiving 1997, we are in New Jersey, and my brother and I are making a video for my aunt who won’t be home for the holiday. We sing the songs we’ve learned at school. One is about chubby turkeys hiding from chefs and their cleavers, one is an expired tune from Halloween about a woman all skin and bones, and one is glaringly racist.
I mimic back the title of the song as taught to me, it’s called “Indian Rain Song.” I have an “Indian stick” as well, a thick branch with bells and brightly dyed feathers hot glued onto it. I pound it against the ground and belt out made-up syllables with gusto. I pat my mouth with one hand and make a wavering high pitched sound, attempting what I was taught to be an “Indian war-cry.” It’s peculiar that my teacher taught us a "war cry,” because we learned nothing about Native Americans fighting the genocide waged against them by Pilgrims. No, all the pillaging, murdering, infecting, and torture was reduced to a friendly meal where corn and turkey was served. The Pilgrims and Native Americans were friends, and they were thankful to know one another.
In a country that makes a national holiday out of a narrative that paints its victims as willing participants, I shouldn’t be shocked about the smiling slaves on the cover of A Cake For George Washington, but I am. If America can turn Small Pox blankets and massacres into a five-course meal then why wouldn’t we turn whips and chains into smiling faces and birthday cake? We’re talking about George Washington, after all, one of the founding (and untouchable) fathers of the USA, champion for freedom and liberty and justice for all, right? Did we expect anyone to muddy this icon of autonomy by highlighting the fact that he was hellbent on keeping people captive? That his “for all” meant for him and his kin? No, of course not. But part of me still expects better, expects us to teach children the truth.
Earlier this week Twitter made me cry. The user @kay_sesen posted photos from his visit to The Slavery Museum in Badagry, Nigeria. He talked about the weight of the chains, how they tired his arms in less than a minute, how slaves wore them for sometimes six months at a time with no release. I clicked through and found a photo of smaller chains. This is what broke me. He said that the chains were for newborns, that they placed them on their fragile bodies fresh out of the womb, so the postpartum mothers would know what their children were: property, animals, slaves. I thought about the fragility of my freshly born son, how I was almost afraid to hold him in the hospital, how eager I was to fatten him up so he wouldn’t be small enough to be blown by a breeze. I thought about someone burdening his tiny body with heavy chains, and I became consumed by rage. @Kay_sesen posted water bowls reminiscent of troughs, with sharp metal edges meant to cut the slaves while drinking.
The brutality astounded me, and I realized that I’d never actually been taught about the horrors of slavery. I was taught that the masters were cruel, yes, that slavery was bad, yes, but that was it (because then Martin Luther King gave a speech, Obama became president, and racism ended). I wasn’t taught the real history. I wasn’t taught the tactics they used in stealing my ancestors and breaking them. I had to wonder if the story was censored in order to protect me from the rage I might feel, or to protect my White peers from their legacies. In any case, I wanted to know more, so I googled it. I saw photos of bridles, of branding rods, of backs so mutilated by whips that they look like knifed up clay. I saw the kinds of contraptions only a sick mind could create. I sat seething. There were thousands of images. All of that history, all of that heaviness, all of the evidence of such permeating evil, and today, I was taught that all of the malice that allowed for that treatment of us had vanquished. And not only that, but authors and editors and illustrators and publishers all had the audacity to green light a book for children that teaches a narrative that slavery wasn’t always awful.
In her public response to the mounting criticism, author Ramin Ganeshram asserts that George Washington “respected” his slave, Hercules. She chalks the denunciation of the book up to an inherent societal resistance to accepting competing narratives:
"In our modern society, we abhor holding two competing truths in our minds. It is simply too hard. How could one person enslave another and at the same time respect him? It’s difficult to fathom, but the fact remains it was true. We owe it to ourselves—and those who went before—to try and understand this confusing and uncomfortable truth.”
This statement is equal parts arrogant and absurd. It insinuates that people don’t agree because they’re too lazy to try to understand--that their thoughts aren’t nuanced enough to understand— that George Washington, defying all definitions of the word, respected the person he owned. In her argument, respect must be conflated with the enjoyment of the meals Hercules could whip up, high regard conflated with appreciation of the spoils of another man’s forced labor. Can you respect a man while stripping his free will or autonomy or ability to self-actualize? Can you respect a man as a man while denying him every basic right you laud as belonging to every man? What does respect mean to Ganeshram? I don’t think she knows. Still, she insists that we are indebted to accept what she calls “uncomfortable” but I call downright dangerous: the “fact” that our abusers, that our enslavers, that our oppressors can respect us while robbing us of our lives.
It seems more likely that Ganeshram, herself, a Washington scholar, is unwilling to accept competing narratives about the man she’s dedicated her life’s work to. The competing narrative is this: George Washington, freedom personified, was a tyrant, cruel enough to make a man his belonging. That is an “uncomfortable truth” for America, the one that calls out the hypocrisy of the nation, not the one that says his slaves smiled. Saying his slaves somehow maintained dignity, pride and respect while being stripped of those very things soothes the American psyche. It makes it feel better about what it did.
Ganeshram appears to believe she’s doing something daring by refusing to talk about the bad by silencing it with a “good narrative.” But it’s a tired tactic. It’s been done for decades. It’s done when someone calls out current racism in modern society and is silenced by someone talking about the progress we’ve made instead. It’s done when someone talks about police brutality and someone says “not all cops.” It’s done when someone talks about rape and misogyny and someone says “not all men.”
Ganeshram seems to be uncomfortable with the truth, so she highlights a silver lining that is obsolete in the face of the horrors: the grace with which some Black people manage suffering oppression. That’s nothing to celebrate, if you ask me. I’ll celebrate when the suffering stops. Forget the fleeting moments amidst all of the brutality of being owned, where slaves may or may not have genuinely smiled.
I say "may or may not have" because the oppressors got the last word on what went down in history, the history that Ganeshram says studying qualifies her (and other non-Black people) to write about and characterize the Black American experience. I say her self-appointed qualifications seem to have come from the same problematic place the teacher who taught me an “Indian Rain Song” got hers: a deep-seated desire to circumvent the evils of this country’s hateful legacy. I’m glad Scholastic recalled the book after backlash. May we continue to protest the rewriting of wrongs.
Dominique Matti is a 23 year old writer, poet, and mother based in Philly. Her central focus is social justice. Her favorite pastime is drinking copious amounts of coffee.