‘Happy Slaves’ book pulled by Scholastic after outcry by educators, librarians, activists

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by David Sheridan

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Scholastic Inc. released a children’s book last month titled A Birthday Cake for George Washington. In words and pictures, it depicted the first president’s slaves as happy and smiling.

The Washington, DC-based nonprofit Teaching for Change shared on Facebook a critical review of the book by librarian Edith Campbell along with the image from the book’s back cover of George Washington and his enslaved chef, Hercules, arm-in-arm, like best buddies.

Then Leslie MacFadyen of the National#Ferguson Response Network created the hashtag #slaverywithasmile, and within 24 hours articles appeared in the Atlanta Black Star, The Root, and Fusion.

Thousands signed a protest petition. Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature, served as the information hub, keeping the book’s critics up to date on developments.

Scholastic launched damage control with statements first by the editor, then the author, and finally the corporate office. But Scholastic must have realized that the protest had gone viral and its reputation was at stake.

It took just four days from the release of A Birthday Cake for George Washington for Scholastic to announce it was stopping the distribution of the book and would accept all returns.

This was not the first effort by a major publisher to sugarcoat slavery. Last fall, Roni Dean-Burren, a public school English teacher for 11 years and now working on a doctorate at the University of Houston, blew the whistle on McGraw-Hill.

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History teacher and NEA leader Kevin Gilbert

In its World Geography textbook, in a section titled “Patterns of Immigration,” McGraw-Hill ran the following caption: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”

Under pressure from Dean-Burren, who used #BlackLivesMatter on Facebook, McGraw-Hill announced that “our language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves.”

McGraw-Hill made changes in the textbook’s digital version and promises to include them in the book’s next print run.

Says history teacher and NEA Executive Committee Member Kevin Gilbert:

One way we perpetuate institutional racism is by not telling the truth about our past. Just as teachers in Germany must teach about the Holocaust, in America we must teach our students the truth about slavery. To sugarcoat the horrors of slavery or downplay the heroic struggle against it, disrespects our students and dishonors our ancestors.

For educators interested in teaching about the 10 slave-owning Presidents of the United States, see NEA member and fifth-grade teacher Bob Peterson’s President and Slaves: Helping Students Find the Truth, downloadable from the Zinn Education Project .

And Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offers a range of materials for helping educators teach students about all aspects slavery on www.tolerance.org.

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Reader Comments

  1. My life in Liberal Klans Oregon!!

    Arab/Muslim Americans are treated less than animals!

    We are being prosecuted in a daily basis! High tech lynching, institutionally racism! Especially for Arab women!!

    Oregon former late A.G. Dave Frohnmayer had my SS# blocked & prevented me from getting employed, made me homeless and jobless!

    He was the one who started & initiated the fraud of taking over our homes!!

    His bank robber Rep. Bob Ackerman hired Scarlet Lee/Barnhart Associated, forged my family’s signature, gave our fully paid Condo to the thief Investor/Realtor Bob Ogle & his mom Karen Ogle ” who was working in the USA Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia 1997-1999 & administered the power of attorney to have my sister signed it and add her son to the deed,”, without my signature!!

    Bob Ackerman had never responded to the Summon from the Court, and the sheriff never served him or arrested him either!!

    ThIs is what kind of criminal government we have in Oregon!!

    I ran five times for public offices! Voter Fraud & Sedition by Lane County government to protect & cover up for the two criminals Frohnmayer & Ackerman!!

    Oregon government is complicit with their crimes!!

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/justice4nadiasindi

    http://www.davefrohnmayer.com

    Please sign petition.

    https://www.change.org/petitions/a-g-eric-holder-sent-jeff-merkley-gov-john-kitzhaber-investigate-abuse-of-power-and-criminal-forgery-by-former-oregon-a-g-david-frohnmayer-and-lane-county-government#share

  2. This story confirms our continued need to be very diligent in our careful scrutiny of any and all literature funneling into the classrooms of young students. The fact that such an insensitive and misleading book could have been deemed appropriate for publication by Scholastic Inc. clearly demonstrates the need for this scrutiny. Furthermore, the decision to publish this book casts an immediate pall on the previously good reputation of Scholastic Inc. People at Scholastic responsible for judging this to be a book worthy of publication and distribution to our children need to have their tenure reviewed. That’s how serious this ill informed decision was. A book that characterizes the condition of slavery as enjoyable and amicable and portrays it this way to children of any color and race, is one that should be retired to the circular file post haste.

  3. The idea that slaves were never happy is absurdity. Of course in the context of what many knew, they were part of a household, one would expect that a birthday celebration would be a happy occasion. Wouldn’t you expect his wife to be happy on his birthday? Well strictly on legal terms, she has the exact same rights as his slaves.

  4. The racism is insidious and subtle, aside from the obvious aspects, it has other connotations that are subliminal. Why doesn’t the Black man have his arm around the White man? Having your arm around someone implies being protective, but it is also patronizing- it implies, at a deeper level, control and subjection. Anyone, child or adult, learns without knowing they are learning- if you are White you must be nice to Blacks, as long as you control them and get the first helping of everything, if you are Black, know your place, because your livelihood depends on the good will of the other.

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