Scholastic has pulled a children’s book about slaves owned by George Washington after public outcry over its rosy portrayal of slavery.
Scholastic announced on Sunday that it would pull A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The book depicts a slave named Hercules and his daughter Delia as they attempt to bake a birthday cake for the first president and are hampered by the fact that they have no sugar. The book depicts the situation as happy and fun despite the reality that Hercules and Delia — who were real people — were slaves owned by Washington. The author’s note at the end even points out that Hercules eventually escaped slavery, although he left Delia behind.
On Facebook, critics called the book “outrageous” and “unacceptable” for its portrayal of happy and proud slaves. “[The book] insinuates slavery was a happy time and that slaves were happy to serve their white masters,” reads one comment. The horrors of slavery, and the reality of life for slaves like Hercules and Delia, have been whitewashed over and over in American history.
In a response posted to the website for the Children’s Book Council, author Ramin Ganeshram defended her depiction of the characters, calling human nature “complex.”
“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,” she wrote.
At The Root, Demetria Lucas D’Oyley wrote, “Slaving, literally, over a hot 18th-century stove to bake a cake for a man who has you and your child in bondage ain’t happiness or pride. It’s duty. It’s survival.”
The announcement that Scholastic had decided to pull the book came the day before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a holiday that pays tribute to the leaders and activists who have fought for Black rights in the United States. While many have said that race is no longer the problem it has been historically, the issues of representation and historical revision brought to light by A Birthday Cake for George Washington only prove that there is still a great deal of work to be done.