On the morning of George Washington’s birthday, young Delia and her father are scrambling to put together their most important assignment of the year: a cake for the president himself.
“This cake has to be special,” Delia narrates. “President Washington is the most famous person in all of America. Papa is the general of the president’s kitchen.”
This “general” is Washington’s famed enslaved chef, Hercules, whose triumph over a sugar shortage on this special occasion is cheerfully chronicled in the children’s book “A Birthday Cake for George Washington.” At the end of the story, which concludes with an illustration of the president with one arm around Hercules, the author has appended a note describing the chef’s life in greater detail.
On this page, writer Ramin Ganeshram cites a biographical fact that is omitted from the book’s central narrative — namely, that Washington’s birthday was principally a notable event for Hercules because it was the date he would ultimately flee to freedom.
“Hercules did escape from [Washington’s plantation home] Mount Vernon — in the early hours of February 22, 1797,” the note reads. “It was President Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday.”
The contrast between this historical reality and the seemingly lighthearted existence led by Hercules and Delia in the book’s illustrated portions has incited criticisms of Ganeshram and artist Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s depiction of “happy” slaves.
After initially defending the book, publisher Scholastic Press announced Sunday that “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” has been pulled from distribution.
“While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor,” the company said in a statement, “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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”
The announcement came just over 10 days after Andrea Davis Pinkney, vice president and executive editor of Scholastic Trade Publishing, wrote in a blog post that the book successfully recognizes both Hercules and Delia’s status as slaves and the former’s culinary renown.
“Even though he was a slave, everyone knew and admired Hercules — especially the president!” Pinkney wrote. “On several occasions, the book comments on slavery, acknowledges it, and offers children and adults who will be sharing the book ‘a way in’ as they speak to these issues.”
The editor further presented the book’s central conflict, the search for sugar, as a metaphor for the slaves’ plight: “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.”
This attempt at conveying “the complex inequities of [enslaved peoples’] bondage,” however, left a bitter taste in many a reader’s mouth.
In addition to condemning the book’s illustrations of slaves happily indulging their powerful owner’s whims, critics have also argued that the the Founding Father’s views on slavery were not as complicated as “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” suggests.
“Ample documentation exists to support how demanding Washington was of the Whites, indentured servants and enslaved Blacks who worked for him and of his unyielding demands to get his money’s worth from the slaves he owned,” Indiana State University librarian Edi Campbell wrote, citing Henry Wiencek’s “An imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.”
On the other hand, Ganeshram recounts in her appended note about Hercules’s relationship with Washington that “whether or not slavery was wrong was a question that Washington could not easily answer for himself.” While he actively attempted to prevent the escape of Hercules and other slaves, he was also the only slave-owning Founding Father to free his slaves in his will.
The writer further argued in a statement last week that, as a well-regarded chef, Hercules might have had particular reason to be cheerful. To deny that this could have been possible was to erase his talents and achievements, she said.
“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,” wrote Ganeshram, who said she researched the subject for nearly four years. “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.”
But others said this was not enough to establish that Hercules and Delia were satisfied with their lot.
“George Washington was not Hercules’s friend; he was his owner,” Fusion‘s Charles Pulliam-Moore wrote. “Hercules might have been a respected chef, but he was never content with living his life as George Washington’s property.”
The book’s portrayal of the slaves’ happiness was deliberate. In her artist’s note, Brantley-Newton explains that her “research indicates that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. … There is joy in what they have created through their intelligence and culinary talent.”
“A Birthday Cake for George Washington” has been likened to another children’s book, “A Fine Dessert,” released last year. The story shows white and African American families alike enjoying the same dessert, including one illustration of a happy enslaved girl and her mother.
At the time, critics cited “A Fine Dessert” as evidence of the pitfalls of a predominantly white publishing industry. The book’s white author, Emily Jenkins, eventually apologized for being “racially insensitive.”
Meanwhile, Ganeshram is of Iranian and Trinidadian descent; Brantley-Newton and Pinkney, the editor, are both African American.
Kirkus Reviews’ Vicky Smith asked: “Will those who criticized, often in heated terms, “A Fine Dessert” call Ganeshram, Brantley-Newton, and Pinkney race traitors?”
“The conversation would have been a whole lot different,” she concluded, if the books had been published concurrently.
More from Morning Mix