After a torrent of criticism, Scholastic has decided to stop distributing A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a picture book about one of George Washington’s slaves.
The historical book tells the story of Hercules, a slave used by the president as his chef. It shows Hercules and his daughter Delia happy and taking pride in making Washington a birthday cake.
Almost as soon as the book was released, it received withering criticism for whitewashing the history of slavery.
The review in Kirkus noted that the book contained images of smiling slaves in almost every page. But it cautioned that this was not the same kind of story that had played out just months before when A Fine Dessert, another story about happy slaves making sweet treats, was eviscerated by critics.
A Fine Dessert, the review notes, was published by a totally white creative team. A Birthday Cake for George Washington was written, illustrated and edited by a diverse group of people of color, including editor Andrea Davis Pinkney, who is black and a winner of the Coretta Scott King Award.
Pinkney, in fact, wrote a long essay in defense of the book. American history, she wrote, is a messy and nuanced affair and, yes, some slaves found happiness in some of their tasks. Pinkney writes:
“Hercules was well known throughout Philadelphia. He was a highly regarded chef and a dapper dresser, who insisted on perfection in his kitchen. George Washington depended on Hercules to make him the perfect birthday cake. Hercules is often thought of by culinary historians as the first celebrity chef in America. On each day of the year ― and especially on the president’s birthday ― Hercules ruled the kitchen. He was quite proud of his status in the Washington home, and he lived a life of near-freedom. But as the founding fathers knew (and as the author notes) being ‘almost-free’ is not the same as being free. Hercules dreamed of his own liberty.
“Delia, Hercules’ daughter, often worked alongside her father, and was also keenly aware of her life as an enslaved person. In A Birthday Cake for George Washington, young Delia tells us the story of how her remarkable father does the impossible and makes a birthday cake for the most famous man in America—without any sugar. The story illuminates Hercules’ purposeful work as a chef and the pride young Delia feels at the tremendous achievements of her father. The book concludes with Hercules’ whole story and what it means when you and your loved ones will never savor the sweet taste of freedom.”
Ramin Ganeshram, the author of the book who is of Iranian-Trinidadian descent, wrote her own defense in a post for the Children’s Book Council. She writes:
“It is the historical record—not my opinion—that shows that enslaved people who received ‘status’ positions were proud of these positions—and made use of the ‘perks’ of those positions. It is what illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton calls out in her artist’s note as informing her decision to depict those in A Birthday Cake For George Washington as happy and prideful people.
“In a modern sense, many of us don’t like to consider this, fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery. But if we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented, and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage.”
Over at The Root, contributing editor Demetria Lucas D’Oyley dismissed those explanations. The book, she says, conveniently leaves out that Hercules escaped from Mount Vernon.
“Slaving, literally, over a hot 18th century stove to bake a cake for a man who has you and your child in bondage ain’t happiness or pride,” D’Oyley writes. “It’s duty. It’s survival. It’s busy work to pass the time while you’re plotting your escape.”
Eventually, Scholastic ended up agreeing with critics and pulled the book. In a statement it said it respected the “integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor” but without more context on the “evils of slavery,” the book may leave kids with “a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves.”
The Kirkus review notes one other thing the book left out: Hercules did ultimately escape. But he also left his daughter Delia behind and she remained enslaved.