A children’s book from the Scholastic Corporation that portrayed George Washington’s slaves as happy is being pulled from shelves following consumer outrage. A Birthday Cake for George Washington tells the story of Hercules, a chef slave, and his daughter as they prepare such a cake for the president’s birthday. The book received harsh criticism for its portrayal of Washington’s relationship with his slaves and their attitude about the work they did.
The story follows the two characters as they work with other slaves to find an alternative to sugar. Though the story is intended to be a loving relationship between father and daughter, the story ends with Washington congratulating Hercules on the cake, to which Hercules replies, “An honor and a privilege, sir.” People criticized the book for its depiction of the characters and their relationship to the president.
After an outpouring of criticism and anger, Scholastic has decided to pull the book. “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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” the company said in a press release. “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.”
Andrea Davis Pinkney, Scholastic’s vice president and executive director, wrote a blog earlier this month in defense of A Birthday Cake for George Washington’s intentions. She wrote that Hercules was well-known, respected, and admired in Philadelphia, and that the book discusses a holiday that often comes up in classroom settings.
Davis Pinkney also addresses the art, done by illustrator Vanessa Newton: “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.”
However, despite Newton’s artistic intent, the book is a troubling retelling of history that is too simplified, even for the young reader who would not yet understand the gravity of what she is reading.
Hercules eventually escaped from Washington’s plantation, but his daughter Delia remained a slave for the rest of her life.