Being Realistic about George Washington’s Slave Views

illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Published by Scholastic Press

You may have missed this little tidbit from the Huffington Post on a new children’s book that some say makes our first president’s slaves look happy and content.

“Scholastic is pulling a new picture book about George Washington and his slaves amid objections it sentimentalizes a brutal part of American history.

“A Birthday Cake for George Washington” was released Jan. 5 and had been strongly criticized for its upbeat images and story of Washington’s cook, the slave Hercules and his daughter, Delia. Its withdrawal was announced Sunday.

“While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” the children’s publisher said in a statement released to the AP.

The book, which depicts Hercules and Delia preparing a cake for Washington, has received more than 100 one-star reviews on Amazon.com. As of Sunday evening, only 12 reviews were positive. The book also set off discussions on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere on social media.

While notes in “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” from author Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton had pointed out the historical context of the 18th century story and that Hercules eventually escaped, some critics faulted Ganeshram and Brantley-Newton for leaving out those details from the main narrative.

“Oh, how George Washington loves his cake!” reads the publisher’s description of the story. “And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president’s cake. But this year there is one problem — they are out of sugar.”

As someone currently working on a historical card game for kids and as someone who has read several biographies on Washington, it is true the “father of our country” owned slaves. First, as the owner of a (comparatively) small plantation in Virginia he inherited from his brother Lawrence (this is Mount Vernon), who inherited it from their father Augustine. He then married Martha Custis in 1759 and acquired her massive plantation she inherited from her deceased first husband Daniel Custis. As a member of Virginia’s gentry in the 18th century, Washington was surrounded by slaveowners and those who justified it. Mount Vernon had 318 slaves at the time of his death in 1799 and he himself purchased slaves over the course of his lifetime.

Richard Parkinson, an Englishman who lived near Mount Vernon, once reported that “it was the sense of all his [Washington’s] neighbors that he treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man.”( Parkinson, Richard. A Tour in America, in 1798, 1799, and 1800 (London: Printed for J. Harding and J. Murray, 1805), 420. Having that said, he did own slaves.

However, Washington became increasingly distant from slavery as a practice beginning in the 1770s and continuing until his death. While not a true abolitionist (he never freed his slaves during his lifetime), he expressly turned away from slavery as Revolution became inevitable. It boiled down to one question: How can we as people say we want a nation full of liberty for all if we keep certain folks in chains?

In 1778, not long after breaking camp at Valley Forge, Washington, who was then forty-six years old and had been a slave owner for thirty-five years, confided to a cousin that he longed “every day…more and more to get clear” of the ownership of slaves. (George Washington to Lund Washington, 15 August 1778, The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 12, 327.) He vowed never to separate slaves by purchasing one individual and not the others (a common practice at the time). He was further influenced by the views of the Marquis de Lafayette, an ardent opponent of slavery.

Not only did his views evolve on black people, but Washington was one of the first people to stand up for other groups as well. In a letter to Moses Seixas, a leader of Newport, Rhode Island’s Jewish community, Washington wrote “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.” (read more here)

As Washington neared the end of his life, which is the time when “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” takes place, he signed a will saying that, upon Martha’s death, all slaves they owned together were to be freed. He also stipulated in the will that money be left to those enslaved to provide for education or for living expenses.

The conclusion we are left with is that Washington was a product of his time, whether we like it or not. 250 years ago, slavery in most parts of America, especially the South, was considered acceptable and that’s what you did if you were among the better off who could afford vast tracts of land. A good comparison is to how many people today may think poverty is immoral, but do little to make the kinds of changes we need to raise the poor up. For example, opposing or not supporting school choice programs that would allow impoverished children who attend poorly performing schools to attend another school for reasons that have nothing to do with the child or that school, but have everything to do with money and who gets it.

I wish those who are commenting on this book in anger would take the time to understand Washington’s evolving views and recognize that, while hardly perfect, Washington was still ahead of his time and overall one of the greatest men who has ever lived. These attacks are part of a widescale effort to demonize our Framers as “evil old white men” whose Constitution we should ignore because women, blacks, and First Nation peoples (among others) were not granted equal privileges right away.

To be fair, I haven’t read this book, and I do not know whether the slave called Hercules was “happy and content”, though I doubt there were many slaves happy to be treated like inhuman beings. I personally think the author should have considered this before writing a book following a few of Washington’s slaves and making them look happy. (update: In hindsight, the author probably did consider this and did what we love- generate drama to boost sales).

But I’m sure the people attacking Washington for his slave-ownership haven’t read the book either. And few of them will take the time to study the Framer’s views on this issue or the tumultuous Constitution conventions where slavery was a major source of contention between those who supported the institution and those who wanted to see it banned. Keep in mind in that time tarring and feathering were common forms of punishment, and most doctors treated illnesses with leeches, cold baths, or beliefs in “negative energy” because they were not aware of viruses and bacteria like we are today.

Read more about Washington’s views on slavery HERE

Will Authors Quit Writing in 2016?

photo: Wikipedia       

That seems to be the prediction of Mark Coker, Founder and CEO of Smashwords. Via his blog:

“Many indies and traditional publishers alike reported flat or lower sales in 2015. The go-go days of exponential ebook market growth of the early days (2008-2012) are over. As I shared in my November 2014 post, Things Get More Difficult from Here – Here’s How to Succeed, a key factor in the slowdown is an emerging equilibrium for consumption of print and ebook formats. Due to the law of large numbers, ebook sales growth (or declines) will begin to more closely mirror the overall market for all books. The book market is mature and is therefore a slow or no-growth industry.  Additionally, there’s an ever-increasing glut of high-quality low-cost ebooks that will never go “out of print.” These continuing factors paint a picture for a more competitive landscape for authors in 2016 and beyond. Every author will face more competition today and tomorrow than they faced yesterday. In addition to the factors I outlined above and in the “Things get more difficult” post, the growth of Kindle Unlimited presents a new existential threat to the industry (more on this in the next item).

 Kindle Unlimited will gut single-copy sales and drive greater ebook commoditization

Earlier this year I blogged how Amazon’s merchandising pages encourage Kindle customers to read books for free as part of a Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime subscription. Most of the publishing industry remains oblivious to the long term ramifications of Amazon’s strategy here (not a surprise, because despite Amazon operating with amazing transparency and predictability, most industry watchers and media still don’t understand Amazon’s long term self publishing strategy). The issue of immediate concern is that Amazon’s merchandising tactics discourage readers from purchasing single copy ebooks. Amazon is training Kindle customers to view even 99 cent ebooks as too expensive when other books can be read for what feels like free. Amazon’s success with Kindle Unlimited, which now offers over 1 million books almost exclusively supplied by indie authors is going to gut the market for single copy sales at Amazon. It’ll be death by a thousand small cuts.  The pain will be felt by four publishing industry constituencies. In descending order of pain, and in order of who will feel it first, these constituencies include traditionally published authors and their publishers which I’ll consider as a single group; non-exclusive indie authors; Amazon-exclusive authors; and competing retailers.

Basically what Mark is saying is that selling single e-book copies, or even e-book bundles will soon become obsolete, replaced by subscription programs. The only question is whether the distributors assume an pool-sharing model (where money is collected and distributed equally among contributors as the distributor sees fit) or agency (where the contributor is paid for each book downloaded or read as an individual unit). If Mark’s prediction is accurate, and Amazon shifts more and more e-books into a subscription program, then you should know much much harder it will be for an indie author to make money. Especially since Amazon continues to dominate e-book sales. Read his post; it’s worth your time.

He also writes:

“During the early days of the indie ebook revolution, it was relatively easy for a quality writer to earn good income self-publishing low-priced ebooks. The market was doubling and tripling each year, readers hadn’t really seen 99 cent ebooks before, and everyone was happy.  As I mentioned in the “Ebook publishing gets more difficult from here” post, the exponential growth masked challenges that market’s maturation has now brought to light. Many indies who quit their days jobs to pursue writing full time will find they need to return to a “real” job in 2016, especially authors for whom writing is their sole source of income and they’re already feeling challenged to make the monthly rent. This means production will decline among the indie midlisters. As I’ve been telling the audiences for my ebook publishing workshops for the last seven years, if you want to make a lot of money publishing ebooks get a job at McDonalds instead. Publishing has always been a tough business. Witness the fact that most traditionally published authors must maintain day jobs. Ebook publishing is NOT the path to riches except for a very few authors. Yes, I’ve been pleased see the many Smashwords authors whose indie ebook earnings have allowed them to pay off mortgages, buy homes and save for retirement. These stories inspire me, yet we must remember these are the exceptions, not the rule. In 2015 I witnessed a growing desperation among many bestsellers, some of whom – I can imagine due to their prior successes with indie publishing – had might have changed their lifestyles or quit their day jobs. These authors are now feeling the financial and emotional pain of struggling to make ends meet. I hate to see this pain and anguish. As I’ve advised in the past, your prior success is no guarantee of future success. If you’re among the many Smashwords authors who’ve been blessed and have done well, or if you’re fortunate enough to sell well in the future, please bank that money when it comes. Pay off your debts and be conservative with your savings so you can build up your rainy day fund.”

No one has ever said publishing was easy, but I’ve noticed big-time indies are often more optimistic than the rest of us into the future of indie publishing, in terms of making serious money and not just doing it as a side-hobby. It’s easier to think earning money writing is easy and Amazon is great if you’re one of the lucky few to earn 6- or even 7- or 8- figures a year writing, just as a lot of the blockbuster best-sellers in the traditional system rarely complain about their publishers or support changes to the traditional publishing system that are needed. It’s a matter of whose bread is begin buttered by whom, I guess. I’d guess an author has maybe a 2% chance at best of earning enough money a year to sit around and write (and do writing-related activities) all day. That includes authors who could do that, but who choose to maintain other occupations, such as with non-fiction writers. And that’s just to pay bills; that’s not the lavish lifestyles some of them live.

David Boyle of the Society of Authors, based in the UK, writes:

“You worry a little, as an ebook author, that people might be sceptical that you have ever written anything. Or indeed whether all that writing exists in any real sense, since you can’t see it on your shelf. I mean, where is it? You can’t lend it, copy it or give it as a present. Yet bizarrely, online pirates seem capable of giving it away for free within days of it going on sale.

There are certainly advantages to writing the new generation of ebooks that are designed as such, rather than as reluctantly issued e-versions of printed books. They are often a convenient length – maybe a fifth or quarter as long as a traditional book, just long enough to read on a transatlantic flight or a train to Scotland. And they are priced low enough to sell widely. It is a marginal decision to buy a short book at £1.99 or £2.99. You might as well buy it as not.

an ebook writer, I’m only too aware of the problem flagged up by the Society of Authors, that the income of writers is still falling. I certainly agree that authors should get at least half the royalties on ebooks; the big publishers often fob them off with 25% or less. Well, I would say that.

Yet this is not primarily a difficulty with ebooks. It is a symptom of two more fundamental, linked problems. The competition watchdogs have allowedAmazon and the big supermarkets to strangle what had been a working business model. As a result, the remaining, desperately consolidated, mainstream publishers are trapped in a business model that works for nobody – except perhaps for the 5%, the mega-earning authors, who take 43% of all the money.”

Though Mr. Boyle says he will continue writing (and I assume working his financial services job while he writes on the side), no doubt many authors will come to the conclusion that yes, it’s really, really hard to earn a living from writing and the time spent writing could be better done doing other productive things.  I think his concern is more aimed at the Big Five traditional publishers, who are losing to Amazon and who don’t offer a good deal on e-book royalties to their writers. I can’t speak for smaller presses.

So writers of the world: How many of you will continue to write, and how many will decide the time spent writing just isn’t worth it anymore?