Last week, news emerged about a children’s book that romanticized the story of Hercules, the slave and chef of the nation’s first president, George Washington. The book gave an account of slavery which suggested that enslaved African and Black folks were “happy” and honored to serve Washington. Now, Scholastic, the book’s publisher, has chosen to cease sales of the problematic book. But, they issued an even more problematic response from the editor beforehand.
On January 6th, Scholastic tasked Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and executive editor (who is also a Black woman), with writing a response to all the criticism they were receiving about the book titled A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The response posted on the Scholastic blog is titled “A proud slice of history.”
In it, she defends the book explaining that slaves who “worked” for Washington actually took great pride in their daily tasks. Specifically, she focuses on Hercules’ elevated status in the community and his “near freedom” to validate the contents of the book.
“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.”
Later, she makes sure to defend Washington too because White Supremacy.
“In her extensive author’s note, Ramin clearly and carefully addresses the cruel injustice of slavery, as well as the vicious complexity of slavery that George Washington himself faced. In the book, Ramin notes that George Washington understood that it was evil to own fellow human beings, and that he was very conflicted about his part in the wicked institution known as slavery. Slavery’s injustice is also cited on the book’s front flap, so that any parent or teacher will know that this is an aspect of the story, and that it is to be addressed.”
First of all, the statement in its entirety is incredibly misleading as it fails to acknowledge the fact that any “work” extracted from the American slaves was done under duress and with threat of physical harm. Any narrative that ignores those facts is biased and harmful. Unless the book depicts maimed and beaten slaves, nearly naked enslaved women, and whips and muzzles, it simply isn’t giving an accurate depiction of the conditions of chattel bondage.
Second, there is no such thing as “near freedom.” That isn’t a thing. Either someone is free or they aren’t. And, this desperation to look at Hercules’ status as the chef for Washington as the semblance of freedom ignores the fact that ALL Black Americans during this period were considered non-citizen property. Emulating freedom is not attaining freedom. This is evidenced by Hercules’ decision to run away just a year after the birthday this book depicts.
Third, George Washington was not a victim of American slavery. As Chief Executive of this country, he was not only complicit in the injustice Hercules, his daughter, and so many others faced, he was inherently responsible for it. He wasn’t “conflicted.” He was a slaver, a devout one at that. This idea that he, too, suffered under the weight of slavery is yet another effort to undermine and minimize the lived experiences of the enslaved during this period.
And, finally, a “front flap” entry discussing the “vicious complexity of slavery” is never and will never be enough. Depicting slaves as “happy” bakers and kitchen staff to children in elementary school just confirms the popular and wrongheaded narrative that slavery couldn’t have been that bad. I doubt that Hercules’ primary concern was his clothing or sugar. Without other books which accurately depict this era in the vulgar, violent, and cruel terms it deserves, this book was poised to rewrite the history of this period in extremely harmful ways.
Luckily, Scholastic saw the error in their ways and decided to stop circulating the children’s book. They released a statement on January 17th saying,
“Scholastic is announcing today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and will accept all returns. 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.”
While it is great that Scholastic finally heeded the dragging they were getting online, it is still disappointing that they did it while kicking, screaming, and justifying their actions using the resident woman of color to fight their battles. Hopefully, they have learned an important lesson about storytelling especially where American slavery is concerned.