Scholastic Pulls Controversial Picture Book: A Birthday Cake for George Washington

Posted on January 18, 2016

Scholastic has pulled its new children's book A Birthday Cake for George Washington after a tsunami of criticism of the title. The picture book tells the story of George Washington's slave named Hercules and his daughter Delia. Hercules had high status in Washington's household and he is portrayed and being happy and proud of his position. His daughter Delia is shown as being happy to help her father.

Critics have pointed out that Hercules and Delia were slaves and that the fact they enjoyed a higher status as slaves does not in any way mitigate the fact that they were enslaved and had no freedom. The book also fails to mention that Hercules ran away, leaving his daughter to her live of slavery. The illustrations in the book show Hercules and Delia smiling, seeming happy.

The book was edited, written and illustrated by people of color. Illustrator Vanessa Norton is African American. Editor Andrea Davis Pinkney is also African American and has won a Coretta Scott King award. Ms. Pinkney vociferously defended the book in an in-depth essay about the project. She explains, A Birthday Cake for George Washington does not take slavery's horror for granted. 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. Of equal importance are the book’s images, which show Hercules and other indentured servants smiling. The book includes an illustrator's note by Vanessa Newton, which speaks to the vital importance of properly depicting enslaved African Americans."

She also discusses the research that went into the book and the illustrator's reasons for depicting the slaves as smiling saying, "Vanessa also took great care in her research, which revealed 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. This why Vanessa chose to portray them as happy people. They were not happy about being enslaved, but there was joy in what they created through their intelligence and culinary talent."

Author Ramin Ganeshram (who is of Iranian-Trinidadian descent) wrote about the four years of research she did to uncover first hand accounts of Hercules' life. She says that Hercules was the first celebrity chef and he wanted to tell the story of his skill and contributions to American history. She says he is frustrated that everyone is only focusing on the fact that Hercules is smiling in the illustrations. She said, "the discussion and criticism of the book has, instead, been focused on the literal face value of the characters. 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."

The story of Chef Hercules and his daughter Delia is one that should be told. But it seems clear that the story was not a suitable subject for a children's picture book. Although that was not the intention, the illustrations showing happy slaves give a false impression of the despicable institution of slavery. The accompanying notes do not mitigate that fact.

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