The children’s publishing company Scholastic has stopped distributing the children’s book A Birthday Cake for George Washington in the face of controversy over the illustrations of “slaves as happy, smiling workers” (New York Times). The book is about a real-life man named Hercules (one name only) who was George Washington’s enslaved head cook, and his quest to make a cake for Washington without access to sugar. The half-dozen illustrations I’ve seen feature happy-looking black enslaved people working in George Washington’s kitchen.
Full disclosure: I have not read the book (which necessarily skews my take on it), but I intend to, and as a person who works with children and children’s books in school and public libraries I’ve been following the discussion with interest. Could enslaved people be proud of their skills and accomplishments, working as slaves? Did enslaved people ever smile? The answer to both, of course, is yes! Though their enslavers and their circumstances denied their humanity, human nature was not repressible in people who were enslaved, nor were the emotions humans are capable of: pride, joy, satisfaction at a job well done, as well as anger and a sense of injustice, to name just a few. But objections to A Birthday Cake for George Washington stem from the visual depiction of only the positive emotions of the slaves in the book. The exclusively positive illustrations of smiling slaves reinforces the traditional perception among many whites that “slavery was not that bad.”
Normally, I am all for careful and guided discussion about potentially sensitive topics in chapter books for children and young adults. But picture books are a special case, because they are usually aimed at very young children. Most people are primarily visually oriented, and young children in particular tend to be uncritical consumers of pictures: they believe what they see. The old saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” is particularly apt in this circumstance. As blogger Edi Campbell notes at Crazy QuiltEdi, “[Hercules’] life was not just like a free white person of that era, but readers have no reason to understand that.”
The author, Ramin Ganeshram, wrote in the author’s note to the book that Hercules ran away from his enslavement just one year later (which raises the necessary question of exactly how happy Hercules could have been, even with his “high status”); however, that note is an addendum to a story already told most effectively through its pictures. Scholastic editor and “bestselling and award-winning” children’s book author Andrea Davis Pinkney defended the book in her blog post, noting that Hercules was highly regarded and admired “—especially [by] the president!” (who enslaved him) but the larger story is lost.
That larger story (reported by philly.com) includes the fact that Pennsylvania had already passed the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, which stated that any slave in the state could only be held for six months before being able to claim their freedom. For this reason, the Washingtons “regularly and illegally shuttled their slaves across state lines before the deadline expired, thus resetting their residency at zero,” between their home in Philadelphia and their plantation in Virginia. “Washington wanted to keep it secret at all costs – even if it meant a lie. ‘I wish to have it accomplished under the pretext that may deceive both them and the public,’ he wrote to Lear [his private secretary]. ‘. . . This advise may be known to none but yourself and Mrs. Washington.’”
Worse, George Washington “signed the Fugitive Slave Act that Congress had overwhelmingly approved in 1793, which allowed slave owners to retrieve their runaways anywhere, even if captured in non-slavery states.” (All quotes in the previous two paragraphs are from “Hercules: Master of cuisine, slave of Washington” in philly.com.)
Hercules’ story, the story of a proud and accomplished African-American man held in slavery by the first president of America, who rose to prominence and esteem within the establishment of slavery and then relinquished it by escaping, is a complex and nuanced history that should be told (and kudos to author Ganeshram for attempting it!); but we should be very careful how we tell it, because it is part of an important and sensitive issue. Can this story be told in a (necessarily simplifying) children’s picture book? If the medium is the message, the illustrations would need to include more complex messages that can be discussed with children of all ethnicities, so that what they see (happy enslaved African-Americans working for white owners) does not directly contradict and overpower whatever else an adult might say about the rest of the story.
UPDATE 1/28/2016: I read “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” today. Unfortunately the text, like the illustrations, does not come close to doing the story of the man named Hercules justice. It is essentially the story of a man trying to bake a cake. In the author’s note, Ganeshram does tell about Washington’s successful and illegal circumvention of the law by transporting his slaves across state lines in order to keep them from claiming freedom, but does not report the Fugitive Slave Act that Washington later signed.