In January I followed the controversy that erupted shortly after the publication of Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington, prompting Scholastic Press to recall it. Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, the picture book is a tribute to the slave Hercules, a highly skilled chef belonging to Washington, whom Ganeshram imagines happily baking a cake for his master’s birthday dinner. When it became obvious that Cotsen was not going to be able to acquire a copy of the book through the usual channels, Freeman Ng, author and children’s book blogger, was kind enough to donate his copy to the collection.
After reading A Birthday Cake, I went looking in children’s books of the 1790s for Black characters who were servants in private families (that’s the period when Hercules was working in Philadelphia). If any Black domestic slaves did appear in children’s books, I was curious to see how were their circumstances, both physical and mental, were depicted. Were they presented in sufficient detail for us to see if they were aware of their condition? And how were their relationships with their masters portrayed?
Some quick and clever searching turned up a handful of interesting stories. Perhaps I should not have been surprised at my success. Didn’t Lucy Aikin, the niece of Mrs. Barbauld, boycott sugar as a girl out of anti-slavery sentiment? The lawyer Thomas Day pointedly attacked the institution of slavery in his famous novel for children, The History of Sandford and Merton (1784-1789), whose narrative focuses on the reclamation of the spoiled son of a Jamaica plantation owner. During the same period, one of the first slave narratives, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1772) went through nine editions and was translated into Dutch, German, and Russian.
One unknown writer who tried to argue children out of their lack of respect for the victims of the transatlantic business of slavery, was a Miss Mitchell. Her story “Goodness not confined to Complexion or Form,” was published in Tales of Instruction and Amusement (London: E. Newbery, 1795). Miss Mitchell published another three children’s books under her married name, Mrs. Ives Mitchell Hurry. In the Guardian of Education‘s review of Tales, Mrs. Trimmer noted that Mitchell probably wrote it for her pupils, a Miss Harrison and her younger sister A. B. Harrison. The dedication, which is signed from Copford Hall, the beautiful country manor of the Fiske-Harrison family in Essex, suggests that Mitchell might have been governess to the two daughters of John Haynes Harrison and his wife Sarah Fiske Thomas.
The most interesting character in Hurry Mitchell’s “Goodness not confined to Complexion or Form” is the father Mr. Murray, who owns a plantation in Jamaica. At the beginning of the story, the family has just begun living in England so the children can receive a better education than was possible in the Caribbean. He has also brought over several black servants, including a little girl named Janet, whose parents had been in his service for years. On their deathbeds, Mr. Murray promised them that Janet would have a friend in him for as long as he lived.
Janet is supposed to be more companion than servant, but the children Dorothy, Arnold, and Sophia frequently tease and bully her without provocation. As the children of a Caribbean plantation owner (albeit an “enlightened” one), they regard Janet as nothing more than a house slave. After observing his children’s cruelty to Janet, Mr. Murray decides to punish them for making Janet’s unhappy situation more unbearable. First he asks them to explain how they can justify treating the generous and affectionate Janet so cruelly and then picks holes in their logic. Next he reveals that Janet is of much higher rank than the children as the granddaughter of a king, who lost a war against a neighbor and was sold to European traders (a scenario with a basis in historical fact). Mr. Murray makes Dorothy, Arnold, and Sophia apologize to Janet one by one, before announcing that they must participate in a week-long educational experiment designed to show them a thing or two about about their supposed superiority to Janet..
From our standpoint, many critical issues have been left unaddressed in “Goodness.” Perhaps the most glaring contradiction is Mr. Murray himself, held up as a “moral” Jamaica planter, who champions the interests of slaves when nobly born, but never questions the institution. Then there is Janet herself, more a cipher than a fully realized character. On the one hand, she has been given a girl’s name instead of one for a dog (many Black boys in children’s fiction are named Caesar or Pompey), Hurry Mitchell never lets Janet speak for herself. Everything the reader knows about her comes from Mr. Murray. Janet is easily frightened, reacting more like startled animal than the granddaughter of a king. Yet Ives Hurry Mitchell insists that the reader, like the Murray children, acknowledge Janet’s humanity: there is no question that it is right for Dorothy, Arnold, and Sophia to be made to suffer for their treatment of Janet and that by suffering, they will change for the better. So here is the story…