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A Book About Slaves Making Cake for George Washington Stirs Up Major Controversy

'A Birthday Cake for George Washington' follows the story of Hercules, George Washington’s real-life slave and a renowned chef, as he cheerfully bakes a cake for the first president.

by Wyatt Marshall
Jan 20 2016, 11:00pm

Birthday cakes seem like pretty innocuous stuff—until they're not. And we're not just talking about subversive baking or dirty pastries. We're talking politics.

A picture book about baking a birthday cake for George Washington has recently come under fire for its depiction of slaves as happy and smiling servants. The children's book publisher Scholastic pulled A Birthday Cake for George Washington on Sunday after the book stirred up serious controversy online.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington follows the story of Hercules, George Washington's real-life slave and a renowned chef, as he bakes a cake for the first president, who was a slave-owner since the age of 11 but ultimately freed the 318 slaves that he owned at the time of his death.

From the publisher's description of the book:

Everyone is buzzing about the president's birthday! Especially George Washington's servants, who scurry around the kitchen preparing to make this the best celebration ever. Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president's cake. But this year there is one problem—they are out of sugar.

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.

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The book's cover.

Critics of the book, which has received overwhelmingly negative reviews on Amazon, think that the book's illustrations and upbeat tone might mislead children in regards to the barbaric realities of slavery. As for Washington, accounts of how Washington treated his slaves differ, with some saying he was a harsher master than most and others a somewhat lenient one. However, Hercules was said to be treated differently because of his culinary prowess, and was allowed to travel around Philadelphia and wear fine clothes. He also had his portrait painted by the celebrated painter Gilbert Stuart, which was highly unusual for a slave.

Amazon still has the book for sale, and it's currently listed as the top seller in the category of Children's African-American Story Books, though it is only available for purchase from third-party sellers. One of those sellers is currently selling two copies at nearly $2,000 apiece.

"The story revolves around Hercules, Delia, and the other slaves finding a replacement for the sugar and carefully baking the cake," writes Kiera Parrott in the School Library Journal. "Brantley-Newton's colorful, cartoon-style double-page illustrations, combined with the light tone of the text, convey a feeling of joyfulness that contrasts starkly with the reality of slave life."

She notes: "Later, when Washington congratulates Hercules on a job well done, Hercules responds, 'An honor and a privilege, sir.'"

Though notes in the book give a sense of the 18th-century realities for slaves and say that Hercules eventually escaped (from Washington's Virginia plantation where he was doing hard labor), they are not part of the actual story.

"We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator," Scholastic said in a statement.

The book, which was published on January 5, is written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, both of whom come from diverse backgrounds, according to the AP. Ganeshram is an award-winning journalist and a chef, and has written for the New York Times, Bon Appetit, and Saveur and appeared on Food Network's Throwdown! With Bobby Flay. She specializes in the cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago and often writes about food and culture in the Caribbean and America. Brantley-Newton has illustrated the series Ruby and the Booker Boys, which was edited by Andrea Davis Plinkey, winner of the 2013 Coretta Scott King prize for African-American children's literature.

Ganeshram addressed criticisms of the book in a post on the Children's Book Council Diversity blog, referencing the four years of research that went into writing it.

"He [Hercules] was a man renowned for his skill; a man respected by President Washington, a man who lived with pride and dignity," Ganeshram wrote. "Yet the discussion 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?

"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," she continued. "But they were smart enough to use those "advantages" to improve their lives."

It's not surprising that some of that might be lost on a young reader presented with illustrations that suggest that things are swell in Washington's kitchen. A Change.org petition is calling for the book to be removed from Amazon.

"Slavery should not and cannot 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 petition says.

A similar controversy erupted last year surrounding the book A Fine Dessert, which also had a chapter that portrayed slaves in the kitchen with smiles. "The sequence shows an enslaved mother and her young daughter making dessert and serving it to their owner's family, before hiding in a closet to 'lick the bowl clean.' In some images, the daughter is smiling," wrote The New York Times about the passage last November.

It seems that everyone agrees that diversity in children's books is important. What we can't agree on is how it should address America's troubling history.