Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, surveyor, farmer, inventor, author, and political activist who was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1731 to a free African-American woman and a former slave.
As the authors explain in a forward, in 1791 Banneker wrote a letter to then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson attacking the institution of slavery and calling Jefferson a hypocrite. (The ostensible purpose of the letter was to enclose the almanac Banneker wrote, which no one would publish but an abolitionist. You can read the full text of his letter here.)
Banneker argued (as the authors quote):
“…Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”
It is ironic that if Banneker were white, Jefferson would have sought him out as an intellectual soul mate. Many of Banneker’s interests mirrored those of Jefferson. Banneker even built a wooden clock by duplicating the gears of a borrowed pocket watch; Jefferson loved that kind of thing.
Jefferson responded to Banneker, claiming:
“I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit.”
[Unless, of course, it meant having to give up his own slaves.]
Washington and Jefferson did, however, hire Banneker to help survey Washington, D.C. for the new nation’s capital.
Banneker’s almanac was quite successful, and he continued to publish it each year until 1797.
The striking and powerful illustrations by Brian Pinkney were prepared as scratchboard rendering, hand-colored with oil paint.
Discussion: The story of Benjamin Banneker is truly inspirational, and Banneker is an important figure in both science and history about whom many are uninformed. However, I don’t think it was necessarily wise to use actual quotes from the correspondence of Banneker and Jefferson in a book intended for ages 5-10. The gist of the letters could have been summarized in simpler syntax to much greater effect. On the other hand, adjusting the suggested age range upward would fix the problem.
Published by Gulliver Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998