Last month Scholastic had to repeal “A Birthday Cake For George”. Including the complicated truth of the actual experience of enslaved people in that children’s picture book, it seems, was too much inconvenient history for the creators. Luckily the public didn’t buy it. But Scholastic isn’t alone. This has been a problem for our country for centuries, inconvenient history. Dealing with the whole truth makes it difficult to fit historical events into a neat compartment, like a square peg in a round hole. Let’s face it, with as much as we each have to carry and attend to on any given day, square pegs are not generally a welcomed site. They disruptive tidy narrative, make history books very long and challenge us to think critically. Not that!
When the “Happy Slave” controversy came to my attention I couldn’t stop talking about it to my kids, my friends, or my community. I was so incensed by the re-writing of history in a blatant attempt to make the atrocity of slavery more palatable and convenient. Slavery shouldn’t taste like cake in your mouth it should be bitter. That’s why I was thrilled with Scholastic’s decision to pull the book. I was relieved. Whew! Crisis averted. Back to convenient life and round pegs right? Wrong. Because the whole truth still needs to be told, the record corrected. Luckily a book is already in print to satisfy just that directive, “My Name Is Oney Judge”. It’s actually been on my bookshelf for a while now, but I was too busy to read it with all that was on my plate. It was just too inconvenient. Recognizing my own hypocrisy I accepted the inconvenience and finally made room in my schedule to dive in.
Oney Judge was a name I was unfamiliar with, her story was too. On the face of things “My Name Is Oney” looked to be a picture book, like you would find on a Kindergarten bookshelf. But when I opened it I was surprised to find a story overflowing with historical details. The book was clearly better suited towards elementary school children who are doing book reports on the regular. After reading Oney’s history I was embarrassed, and to some degree angry, that it had taken 45 years for this square peg to come into my world.
Oney Judge was born into slavery in 1773. She was a mulatto Dower slave belonging to the Custis estate. Why she is historically significant is because Oney Judge was a body servant to Martha Custis Washington, wife of the first President of the United States. So many slaves lived and died across history without a whisper of recognition, but Oney Judge is known because she lived long enough to tell her tale, the tale of how she successfully, and quite illegally, took back her freedom. Like Hercules, the Washington family slave highlighted in the repealed Scholastic book “A Birthday Cake For George”, Oney enjoyed a better quality of life than that of laboring slaves. She was dressed better. She had more access to food. She experienced travel, and exposure to society. Also like Hercules, Oney was rotated between Pennsylvania and Virginia by President and Mrs Washington. They were blatantly denying Oney and other slaves their legal right to be freed under the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. Eventhough she wore no visible shackles, make no mistake, they were there. Oney was a prisoner, forced to adhere to the directives of her owners at all times. That was the inconvenient truth of slavery, and of the history of our first President.
On May 20, 1796, Oney Judge took a stand against the Washington’s enslavement of her. She escaped from Pennsylvania by boat and took refuge, and her freedom, in Portsmith, New Hampshire. The President put on his game face in public, but in private he was seething. There were aggressive advertisements posted for Oney’s re-capture. The President even engaged the Secretary of the Treasury in his attempts to get his property back. It was very inconvenient for him to try and govern, enforcing the laws of the land, overseeing the country’s evolution from the revolution, while at the same time struggling to regain control over an escaped slave.
This book took hold of my brain immediately. I had so many other things that I was supposed to do, but after reading it all I wanted to do was dig deeper and deeper into Oney’s story, and to the America she lived in. The Book helped spur me on with a Glossary of Black History in the back, as well as a time line identifying notable events that occurred during the 75 years that Oney was on this earth. My research inconvenienced my kids because they wanted my attention. It challenged me to learn more, to not settle for just the story in the book. It stoked the fire of my consciousness and spurred me to ask for more. I was googling and googling and googling well into the evening, way past my bedtime, completely inconveniencing my sleep. So, I woke up this morning prepared to inconvenience you, my readers. I’m here to get you to step away from the round pegs of history that you are being handed, and deal with those annoying square ones that bear the truth.
It’s Black History Month. Unfortunately that means we are very likely to hear complaints about how unnecessary and inconvenient the month is. People whine about the special reports that have to be done in school, the extra work at home, the departure from the regular curriculum, the disruption of routine. All an inconvenience. But guess what? That’s exactly what it is supposed to be. Learning history, learning from our history, should be disruptive to our routines, inconvenient to our neat and tidy vision of the birth and life of America. It means we can’t just publish books like, “A Birthday Cake For George” and get away with it. Instead we need to tap into our inner Oney Judge, embracing the inherent freedom that can come from the inconvenience of truth. We have to do better, so we can know more.
You can bring Oney Judge home to your bookshelf this Black History Month. “My Name Is Oney Judge”, written by Diane D. Turner and illustrated by Cal Massey, is available at Third World Press and Amazon. Go ahead, be inconvenienced. You will be HAPPY you did.
Read the first post here: Inconvenient History Part 1: No Cake For George Washington