Scholastic Pulls 'A Birthday Cake For George Washington' After Outrage Over Its Depiction Of Happy Slaves
With children's books, as with all books, representation matters; in fact, given how influential books can be for children, it might matter more than ever with children's books. Which is why it's heartening to see Scholastic halt distribution of A Dessert for George Washington , a picture book about George Washington's enslaved cook Hercules, after its portrayal of slavery provoked widespread criticism and anger. Because although it's not always clear what the best way to portray slavery for children is, there are some pretty clear ways not to, and the trope of the "happy slave" is in the latter category.
A Dessert for George Washington, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, is a book intended for children ages 7 to 10, and is currently listed as a bestseller in children's colonial era fiction on Amazon. The book focuses on Hercules, an enslaved man who acted as head cook for George Washington from 1786 until 1797, and Hercules's young daughter Delia as they prepared a special dessert for Washington's birthday.
According to the book description:
This story, told in the voice of Delia, Hercules's young daughter is based on real events, and underscores the loving exchange between a very determined father and his eager daughter, who are faced with an unspoken, bittersweet reality. No matter how delicious the president's cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa will not taste the sweetness of freedom.
However, many have taken extreme issue with the way the book portrays slavery, particularly its depiction of happy slaves. A Change.org petition asking that Amazon remove the book states that the book is rather, "a vile exemplification of the distortion of history. Slavery should not and can not be portrayed as anything other than what it was- the abuse of people of color for centuries in order to build the America we know."
The author, Ramin Ganeshram, responded to the widespread complaints with a post describing her intensive research into the subject matter, and her reasoning for depicting the slaves in the story as seemingly happy. She writes,
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.
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.
And certainly it is true that the millions of American slaves who were held in the U.S. over the course of several centuries did not exist in an unending state of sadness and misery. Human beings are capable of feeling a whole range of emotions even under the most inhumane circumstances. And depicting slaves as uniformly, flatly miserable is also a disservice to their humanity and human complexity.
However, the trope of the happy slave is not only widespread, it also has an insidious and truly deplorable history in this country. Slave owners and those who supported the institution of slavery often used the idea that slaves were "happy" as part of their claims that they were "better off" in bondage and that slavery was therefore justified. And those underlying ideas haven't gone away. As such, seeing depictions of slavery as something that was at most inconvenient — rather than a dehumanizing and disgusting human rights violation — is obviously not ideal, particularly in a book aimed at impressionable young readers.
Nor has this trope gone out of fashion; this is the second book in recent months to provoke outrage by portraying slaves as happy.
The book's choice to show Hercules and his daughter as seemingly happy with both their work and their status is even more unsettling considering the actual history of the people involved.
Despite attempts to downplay George Washington's lifelong role as a slave owner by claiming he wished he could free his slaves, Washington in fact took great pains to ensure that the enslaved people he owned remained as his property. For instance, while president during the time when the U.S. capital was still in Philadelphia, Washington skirted a Pennsylvania state law that any slaves residing in the state more than six month must be freed by rotating his slaves between the capital and Mount Vernon, his Virginia plantation.
The slave Hercules, meanwhile, was indeed an accomplished and celebrated chef, one who was widely admired for his considerable skill and who was given a great many privileges by Washington. But it would be extremely difficult to argue that Hercules was pleased with his slave status given that he ran away to freedom in 1797. In fact (and in light of this book, ironically) he ran away on Washington's birthday. He was forced to leave his daughter behind, but when the 6 year old girl, who also appears in the book as seemingly content, was asked if she was upset that her father was gone, she reportedly replied: "Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."
Which might have been a more appropriate moment to choose when searching for examples of a slave's happiness.
Depicting slavery, one of the darkest, most tangled, most nightmarish facets of American history, in a children's book is not an easy task. Nor do I think the solution is necessarily to avoid the topic in children's book altogether. However, in a country that never paid slave reparations, that made every effort to keep black Americans in subordinate and subservient positions for a century after slavery's end, and in which widespread racial inequality still exists, politically, economically, and socially, but where people are often told to "get over" slavery — I think in such a circumstance portraying slavery as anything other than the evil that it was is ill-advised to say the least.
In response to widespread criticism, Scholatic has agreed to halt distribution of the book and accept all returns, saying in a statement,
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.
Hopefully, publishers will take note of this case, and this will be the last book for a long while to try depict slaves as happy. Because children deserve better from their books.