A new children’s book from the Scholastic publishing company has caused controversy among educators for portraying George Washington’s slaves as grateful, happy workers.
The plot of the book, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” centers around a search for sugar undertaken by the first White House chef, a slave named Hercules, to bake a cake for the former president.
The author, a specialist in Caribbean cuisine, only decides to reveal that Hercules is a slave a quarter of the way through the 32-page book.
“Up to this point (and even beyond) the book’s illustrator, (Vanessa) Brantley-Newton, surrounds Hercules with people physically looking up to him and with much admiration,” wrote Edi Campbell in her online literary blog for teens of color.
“After stating that Hercules is a ‘slave’, Ganeshram goes on to describe the clothes he wears, what type of entertainment he chooses and the time he spends walking in the streets, often alongside free Blacks. But, we never find out what it means that he’s a ‘slave.’”
Other reviews note that the book’s joyful tone and bright colors depict a carefree life for slaves who express deep admiration for their slavemaster, the United States’ first president.
The book’s illustrator, who in the past has drawn for books dealing with the Civil Rights movement, is African-American, but the author is not.
Though the book is marketed as a true story — Hercules was in fact inspired by the Caribbean cuisine of the French colonists escaping the Haitian Revolution — history shows he was not such a jolly chef.
Washington was known for treating his slaves “with more severity than any other man," according to a man who lived next to the president’s Mount Vernon estate in Northern Virgina.
Washington kept slaves in conditions that he himself admitted "might not be thought good enough for the workmen or day laborers" from England.
Hercules was allowed to sell scraps of food he found in the kitchen, though his own portions of food were likely insufficient for him and his four children. This was a privilege, considering that Washington was so nervous about the extra income some of his slaves earned from hunting that he ordered their dogs killed.
if a slave was gonna shit in anything edible, george washington's birthday cake is a good place to start— Miz Liz Strickland (@yousavedmyheart) January 15, 2016
On Washington’s 65th birthday, Hercules escaped Mount Vernon. Five years before, the slaveowner signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slaves to be captured in free states and fined those who helped or harbored them. Hercules’ daughter — who is the narrator of the children’s book and herself never escaped — reportedly told Louis-Phillipe, the future French king, that she was “very glad” her father left “because he is free now.”
Hercules’ escape is not mentioned in the text of the book, noted only in small print at the end of the author’s note.
Washington’s final act was ordering his 123 slaves be freed in his will (counting those of his wife, Martha, 318 people were enslaved at Mt. Vernon at the time of his death; hers were not set free). While living, however, Washington denied those he enslaved their freedom, exploiting a loophole in Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act — which set a deadline for slaves within the territory to be freed — by moving his slaves back and forth ever year between Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Washington even took his slaves’ teeth, buying them at less than a third of the going market price, according to public U.S. broadcaster PBS.
Despite the well-documented examples of a miserable Mount Vernon life, the editor of Scholastic’s new book on Wednesday defended the portrayal of Hercules.
“(If) we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented, and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage,” wrote the editor on the blog of Brantley-Newton, who was recognized by Brown Bookshelf as an important African-American illustrator.
“With this in mind, we must be extremely careful about substituting old tropes for new ones ... (The) range of human emotion and behavior is vast, and there is room in between how the literary world depicted historical African American characters and how it does now.”