By Sheryl Estrada
An illustration from “A Birthday Cake for George Washington.”
Scholastic Publishing is stopping the distribution of a controversial children’s book about George Washington’s enslaved cook, Hercules, and his daughter, Delia, after being highly criticized for illustrating slavery as joyful.
“A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” released on Jan. 5, is a story about Herculesbaking a cake for Washington and how he deals with the problem of running out of sugar. It istold in the voice of Delia.
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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.
This statement follows a petition on Change.org started by Aniela Sanchez last week, which called forthe book to be removed from Amazon.com because it serves as “a vile exemplification of the distortion of history.” A flood of one-star reviews of the book on Amazon.com ensued.
Critics of the book used social media to confront the portrayal of Hercules and Delia, even creating the hashtag #SlaveryWithASmile:
@debraj1121 The book perpetuates the happy slaves and benevolent master myth. The narrative end before Hercules is sent to hard labor
debraj1121 (@debraj112) January 9, 2016
A Kirkus review published in early January said the book’s narrative “focuses more on the making of a dessert than on the institution of slavery” and “depicts smiling slaves on nearly every page.”
“A Birthday Cake for George Washington” is written by food writer Ramin Ganeshram,illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton and edited by Andrea Davis Pinkney, a Black woman.
Pinkney is vice presidentand executive editor at Scholastic Trade Publishing. She defended the publication of the book in a blog post, saying it’sbased on the true story of Hercules, one of over 300 African Americans enslaved by George and Martha Washington.
“Even though he was a slave, everyone knew and admired Hercules especially the president!” she wrote.
The book cover.
Pinkney said Ganeshram, a culinary historian and Washington scholar, “took great care in contextualizing Hercules and Delia as enslaved people, while at the same time accurately depicting Hercules as the notable figure he was.” She said illustratorBrantley-Newton chose to portray them as happy people “not happy about being enslaved, but there was joy in what they created through their intelligence and culinary talent.”And the author’s note explains “the vicious complexity of slavery that George Washington himself faced.”
Ganeshram also defended the happy-go-lucky portrayal:
How could they smile How could they be anything but unrelentingly miserable How could they be proud to bake a cake for George Washington The answers to those questions are complex because human nature is complex. Bizarrely and yes, disturbingly, there were some enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and ‘close’ relationships with those who enslaved them. But they were smart enough to use those ‘advantages’ to improve their lives.
In 1790 Washington brought nine slaves, including Hercules, from Mount Vernon in Virginia to Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, to work in the President’s House.Hercules was married and had three children. Because Washington enjoyed his cooking, he was given “special privileges.”
To avoid a Pennsylvania law that allowed slaves to claim freedom after livingin the state for a minimum of six months, the Washingtons habitually returned their slaves to Mount Vernon from Philadelphia.The census of 1790 showsadeclineof slavery in the North and its growth in the South.
Hercules eventually decided to escape to freedom. It is indicated in records that, soon after being relegated to hard labor at Mount Vernon in lieu of chef duties, he escaped in early 1797.
Washington wanted him returned. “Ipray you to desire Mr. Kitt to make all the enquiry he can after Hercules, and send him round in the Vessel if he can be discovered & apprehended,” he wrote in a letter to Tobias Lear, his personal secretary.
Hercules’ wife and children remained enslaved.
According to the website for George Washington’s Mount Vernon:
Washington’s last will and testament, written in July 1799 before his death that December, provided for the eventual emancipation, care, and education of his slaves, following the death of Martha Washington. However, he had no legal control over whether the Custis family dower slaves would gain their freedom. As a result, Hercules’ wife and children remained enslaved, even after Martha Washington’s death in May 1802.
The book leaves out that Hercules escaped and left Delia behind but addresses this fact in an author’s note.