The return of the ‘happy slave’

00-margaretkimberlyDespite the obviously cruel nature of chattel slavery and the well-documented atrocities used to maintain it, the much-loved White American fantasy of the “happy slave” is periodically resurrected.

This sick propaganda has two important functions. It trivializes any demand, complaint or expression of anger from Black people as being insignificant. It also gives White people license to do anything they want, just as their forebears did.

Slavery is ‘good’
In the past year, two children’s books were published which put slavery in rather a good light. In both stories the protagonists are enslaved house servants and their lives are depicted as being not so bad after all.

“A Fine Dessert,” by author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall, includes the story of an enslaved woman and her daughter in Charleston, S.C., who prepare a lavish dish for the slaveholders. After waiting on master, mistress and family, they hide in a cupboard and lick the cooking bowls. Enslaved people were often denied food and had to hide if they wanted more than they were allotted. This reality is turned into amusing anecdote for the 21st century literary minstrel show.

The New York Times included “A Fine Dessert” on its list of the best-illustrated children’s books of 2015. It has been mentioned as a serious contender for prestigious book awards.

This dubious story would not have been given the green light unless it had passed psychological muster with White people in the publishing and newspaper world. It is not surprising then that any coverage of Black people in the corporate media is problematic at best.

How does a writer make slavery a light and breezy read for children? By presenting a story that’s comforting to white bosses at corporate publishing houses, that’s how. The same racial hierarchy that prevailed under the slavocracy calls the shots in today’s book selling industry. The rules haven’t changed: don’t make Mr. Charlie angry, or hurt Miss Ann’s feelings.

Story of Hercules
The Scholastic company rang in the new year with the announced publication of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” by Ramin Ganeshram. It tells the story of a man named Hercules who was enslaved by George Washington. Hercules was a well-known cook and one of those who lived in bondage with Washington when the nation’s capital was located in Philadelphia.

The story of Hercules should be part of an important chapter in American history. New York City was the nation’s first capital. It was followed by Philadelphia before a new city was created along the Potomac River.

The purpose of moving the seat of government further and further south was not coincidental. The final location between the states of Maryland and Virginia put the city out of reach of any Northerners who might have abolitionist tendencies.

Philadelphia proved to be a great inconvenience to Washington because any enslaved person who lived in Pennsylvania for more than six months was entitled to freedom. The president was forced to rotate slaves between Philadelphia and his plantation in Mount Vernon, Va., to prevent their freedom. This action was a violation of the letter of that law, but Washington exempted himself and kept his human property.

Teach the facts
If a children’s book were to teach these easily provable facts there would be no harm done.

Instead, the author revealed another very dangerous truth about herself and others. She wanted to focus on how enslaved people found some happiness amid the cruelty and tortures inflicted upon them.

“In our modern society, we abhor holding two competing truths in our minds,” Ganeshram said. 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.”

Despite the author’s claim of respect and trust, Hercules ended up as a laborer at Mount Vernon before he was able to make a successful escape in 1797. But a larger question remains.

The ‘natural order’
Why is it so important to defend the institution of slavery at all? The answer is obvious. The defenders see servitude of Black people and the supremacy of White people as part of a natural order that should not be disturbed. They think racial hierarchy is just fine, and that telling a heart-warming story can make inconvenient facts disappear.

Ganeshram’s Trinidadian ancestry has been used by her defenders as a shield from criticism.

Likewise, a Black editor at Scholastic was called in to defend the indefensible. Both ended up with egg on their faces after Scholastic decided to end the public relations disaster and withdraw the book from publication.

Black people who spoke up about this travesty are to be congratulated for using social media in an important way. The publishing industry may shy away from any slavery stories for the rest of 2016. However, it is best to assume that stories of happy, smiling chattel will return.

Margaret Kimberley’s column appears weekly in Contact her at


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