Home » Children's Books » Amidst Concerns Scholastic Inc. Removes “A Birthday Cake For George Washington” From Shelves

Amidst Concerns Scholastic Inc. Removes “A Birthday Cake For George Washington” From Shelves

18 January 2016

From Forbes:

In a statement made on January 17th, Scholastic Inc. announced that it would discontinue distribution of the new picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, after concerns were raised by educators, book reviewers, and librarians about the depiction of “smiling slaves” and a perceived sugarcoating of a tragic but important aspect of the United States history. Similar concerns were brought up last year in regards to the picture book A Fine Dessert written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. (The book was published by Schwartz & Wade books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.) Once A Fine Dessert was noted on The Horn Book as being a contender for the Caldecott award various educators brought up their dismay that slavery wasn’t referenced at all in this book depicting the making of the blackberry fool dessert over four centuries and different families through time. The author of A Fine Dessert apologized for this discrepancy on the website Reading While White and went on to donate her advance to the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. Schwartz & Wade made no public comment in relation to the book.

Prior to A Birthday Cake For George Washington’s release there was a post on Kirkus by the teen/children’s book editor Vicky Smith noting [the] similar depiction of “smiling slaves” in this text being a similar cause for discussion as it was to A Fine Dessert. In her post Smith pondered whether there’d be similar dismay brought up on this book because the editor, author, and illustrator are all people of color when one of the largest arguments for Dessert was why no one in the marginalized community may have seen this book prior to its publication to hopefully vet and raise concerns on the depiction of slavery and also the lack of naming this institution outside of the author and illustrator notes in the back. While A Fine Dessert wasn’t a best-seller nor did it end up on any of the ALA Youth Media Award lists there was also defense of the book on Sophie Blackall’s blog. Both A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington illustrate the history of the making of a dessert in history. In the case of George Washington it reflects the perspective of Delia watching her father Hercules, head kitchen slave, as he figures out how to prepare the president’s favorite dessert without sugar.

Link to the rest at Forbes and thanks to J.A. for the tip.

Children's Books

40 Comments to “Amidst Concerns Scholastic Inc. Removes “A Birthday Cake For George Washington” From Shelves”

  1. If we get any more ‘politically correct’ we’re going to be like some countries that are trying to forget that WWII even happened …

    • Er. Isn’t that the exact opposite of what’s happening here? It seems like the sugarcoating and “smiling slaves” would be more akin to “trying to forget that WWII even happened.” The whole point was that slavery was a tragic element in the history of the US (and, more widely, the world) and trying to pretend like it was okay is not a good thing to do.

      • Agreed, it’s getting ever more like those glossing over some of the things done in that war as if they didn’t happen.

      • Nope, I’m pretty sure that it’s the opposite.

        The author has done loads of research, the chef in question actually was very good at their craft. At the peak of culinary arts at the time. Hercules was reported to be a brilliant chef.

        The author wrote:
        “In our modern society, we abhor holding two competing truths in our minds. It is simply too hard. How could one person enslave another and at the same time respect him? It’s difficult to fathom, but the fact remains it was true. We owe it to ourselves — and those who went before — to try and understand this confusing and uncomfortable truth. To refuse to do so diminishes their history to one-dimensional histories that may give comfort to some but ultimately rob us all of the potential for real understanding.”


        • Oh, sure. Hercules lived with pride and dignity, and was respected. But then felt the need to escape.

          Perhaps because Washington and his wife would periodically “reset” their slaves’ Pennsylvania residence to prevent them from becoming free.

          The idea of two competing truths may arguably be too complex to cover thoughtfully in a children’s book like this, which may be why Scholastic pulled it.

      • more akin to “trying to forget that WWII even happened.”

        Like the pictures of those smiling Marines on Iwo Jima makes us forget the 6,800 who died?

        • If I’d been thinking I’d have dug up this quote to start things off …


          “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. […] He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
          – George Orwell, 1984

  2. Of course, this action is totally appropriate. Slaves would never have had any reason to smile. /sarcasm

    • Do you know much about slavery? I can’t imagine smiling in that situation. Well, no wait, maybe when trying to display a pleasant, obsequious disposition so as to avoid beatings.

      • Well, this is a thread thats not going to end well…

        • I agree. Shades of puppies, sad and otherwise.

          It’s not politically correct to want accurate information about all aspects of our history, no matter how painful it might be, but rather respectful of those whose experiences have been ignored or glossed over for far too long.

  3. We should ban all our founding fathers. They were all white men, and most of them owned slaves. The PC madness continues, treating all of us as infantile not knowing the historical reality of those times. It so much reminds me of communism, where the whole history was rewritten to suit the communists’ PC.

    • The rewriting of history has already been done by cheerfully ignoring the way a good percentage of people suffered while some folks were eating cake. Taking into account the reality that slaves were human chattel is simply setting the record straight.

      • The record has been ‘set straight’ in modern schools to the point where students now believe all injustice has its font in the West.

      • History should not hide the injustices committed either by depraved men of the past, or “the men of their times”, or great men, whichever opinion you have about our ancestors. Even today in our “righteous” ways of viewing the world, we make mistakes just by attempting to re-right the history based on our biases, political, or religious/atheist beliefs. I think slavery, in the past or even to day, is a black mark on humanity, but we should not forbid that issue. People who ignore or forget the history are bound to repeat it.

  4. Turns out that Hercules was a real person. Some enlightening details about him (and how he ran away to freedom eventually):

    Louis-Philippe, the future king of France, visited Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797. According to his April 5 diary entry:

    The general’s cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, “Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”

    Hercules remained in hiding. In 1798, the former-President’s House steward, Frederick Kitt, informed Washington that the fugitive was living in Philadelphia:

    “Since your departure I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that it will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion.”

    The 1799 Mount Vernon Slave Census listed 124 enslaved Africans owned by Washington and 153 “dower” slaves owned by Martha Washington’s family. Washington’s 1799 Will instructed that his slaves be freed upon Martha’s death. Washington died on December 14, 1799. At Martha Washington’s request, the three executors of Washington’s Estate freed her late husband’s slaves on January 1, 1801. It is possible that Hercules did not know he had been manumitted, and legally was no longer a fugitive.

    In a December 15, 1801 letter, Martha Washington indicated that she had learned that Hercules, by then legally free, was living in New York City. Nothing more is known of his whereabouts or life in freedom.

    Because Alice (Hercules’ wife) had been a “dower” slave – owned by the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis – the children of Hercules and his wife were legally property of the Custis Estate. The children remained enslaved and were among the “dowers” divided among Martha Washington’s four grandchildren following her 1802 death.

    New research documents that Hercules was left behind at Mount Vernon when the Washingtons returned to Philadelphia following Christmas 1796. Historian Anna Coxe Toogood found Hercules and Richmond listed in the Mount Vernon farm records during the winter of 1796-97. They and other domestic servants were assigned as laborers, to pulverize stone, dig brick clay, and grub out honeysuckle.

    In November 2009, Mary V. Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon, discovered that Hercules’s escape to freedom was from Mount Vernon, and that it occurred on February 22, 1797 – Washington’s 65th birthday. The president celebrated the day in Philadelphia, but it was also a holiday on the plantation. An entry in that week’s Mount Vernon farm report noted that Hercules “absconded 4 [days ago]”.

    In the memoirs of Martha Washington’s grandson, G.W.P. Custis, Hercules was recalled as “a celebrated artiste … as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States.” The cook was given the privilege of selling the extra food from the Philadelphia kitchen which, by Custis’s estimate, earned him nearly $200 a year,[5] the annual salary of a hired cook. According to Custis, Hercules was a dapper dresser and was given freedom to walk about in the city.

    Above is from a Wickipedia article. Absolutely fascinating history… and horrible to contemplate.

  5. So, a slave never smiled. Not at his wedding, not at the loss of his virginity, not at the birth of his child, not at a sunshiny day or a puppy or the laughter of a friend. Just unrelenting misery, from one moment to the next. And yet, somehow he kept on living.

    Makes one wonder about this B&W view of humanity. Music was made in the concentration camps, and poetry, despite their certain knowledge of the end. Slavery is certainly an evil, but humanity finds a way to adapt to its conditions, as it does to all the other injustices of life. It’s ridiculous to suppose that slaves never, ever, smiled, and that we are evil people to think so.

    • This.

      I can’t speak to slavery, but I did somehow survive the later days of Jim Crow, slavery’s sickly sequel. There were times I smiled. In fact, I can recall being practically giddy a time or three. I recall seeing my parents laughing quite a lot back then.

      And yet, my parents and I were not allowed to sit at the Rexall lunch counter. We couldn’t go to the local amusement park. We had to sit in the balcony of various movie theaters.

      Because we could not do the things others did, or go the places others went, or sit in the same seats others could, the PC crowd says we could not *possibly* experience *any* joy in our lives.

      To deny anyone the full expanse of human emotion is to deny their full humanity. To say that I *must* recall my childhood as a time of misery and despair, despite the fact that I had a durn fine childhood, is to say that I’m not bright enough to realize how things *really* were. I’m not capable of *understanding* the truth of my situation.

      As if.

      • You can’t tell a mountain is high without having a lower mountain or a valley to compare it to. Most people have trouble with the concept that we all have different measuring sticks for what will make us happy/sad or feel good/bad. They can’t believe that someone else could be happy when they don’t think they could be in their place.

      • You know, you’re right, and I’m sorry that I above stated I couldn’t imagine smiling. I’m sure that there were moments during which slaves were happy, and smiled.

        As I’m reading it (in line with my comment above), I think the problem is that a young children’s book may not be the context wherein the nuance you’re talking about can exist. My guess is the general feeling was that for many children, this might be the first time they encounter the idea of slavery, which wouldn’t include the demonstration/revelation of what a terrible and tragic it was overall. Imagine that child later learning that Hercules had escaped, and asking “But why would he escape? He had nice clothes and liked working in the kitchen.”

        You remind me of an article I read today, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. He did an interview with Playboy, and Gawker ran it in full. He mentioned a time when his daughter got excited about an invitation to an amusement park — and he had to tell his daughters about the realities of segregation, and that that invitation was not for people like him and her. Years later, the park was opened to all, and he attended with his daughter and it was, yes, a joyful occasion.

        To deny anyone the full expanse of human emotion is to deny their full humanity.

        Well, yes, but both slavery and Jim Crow denied people of their full humanity in very tangible and tragic ways.

        • Imagine that child later learning that Hercules had escaped, and asking “But why would he escape? He had nice clothes and liked working in the kitchen.””

          OK. Imagine a kid asks that. Just give him an answer. It’s not that hard.

          “He escaped because he was what we call a slave. That means one person owns another person, like we own a car. They buy and sell people.

          “People have done that for a long time, all over the world, and it has always been very wrong. It was done in this country until they fought a great war to end it about 150 years ago.

          “But Hercules knew he was a man, just as good as any other man, and better than many. He refused to be anyone’e property. So he escaped. By escaping, he stood up to something that was very wrong.

          “He did like working in the kitchen, and even slavery could not keep him from enjoying things. Nobody could take that from him. But, Hercules chose to enjoy those things as a free man, not as a slave. and that’s why he escaped.”

          • This.

          • That seems like the inverse of the conversation that should be had, though. It seems like education should begin with the foundation of slavery as the evil it was, and then move toward the exceptional situations and smiling and Hercules.

            • What should be done is a function of one’e objectives. If the objective is to tell an entertaining story to little kids, then we don’t have to provide any particular treatment of social pathologies.

              Our objectives are not limited by the Social Justice Warrior’s ideas of acceptable conversation.

              • Maybe if the objective is to tell an entertaining story to little kids, we might consider not including such a dark and tragic element as slavery. But oh, right, sorry, Hercules smiled because he got to cook! In a kitchen! He could even walk down a street. Like a free man!

                Like a free man.

                • It is reasonable to consider that Hercules may have had an inner strength of character that could not be owned or controlled by the slaveholder. To deny he could smile, love, and laugh is to diminish his humanity more than any shackle could.

                • I already addressed that above, Terrence. Here, I’ll quote for you:

                  I’m sure that there were moments during which slaves were happy, and smiled.

                  You said:

                  To deny he could smile, love, and laugh is to diminish his humanity more than any shackle could.

                  And I’m not sure. I mean honestly, literally regarding Hercules as property, which is what slavery and George Washington did, seems to diminish Hercules’ humanity. Regardless of how much he smiled in the kitchen.

                  I think we’re done here. Cheers.

                • Considering Hercules as property does indeed diminish his humanity.

                  But the notion that he did not smile, love, or laugh diminishes it even more. The SJW effort to suppress depictions of Hercules’ humanity does the same.

  6. How unfortunate that SJW-ism and political correctness has gotten so bad that although earlier I might have agreed that smiling slaves are inappropriate, now my immediate reaction is not to give an inch.

    It’s only the thin end of the wedge.

  7. This does make me wonder a few things:

    1. When writing different races, why wouldn’t the author ask the race in question to read it for accuracy?

    2. Who at the publishing house was asleep on the job not to do their research? Aren’t there fact checkers (or whatever you want to call them) to double-check what authors write?

    • 1. When writing different races, why wouldn’t the author ask the race in question to read it for accuracy?

      Right. As we all know, the sole and sufficient qualification to assess the accuracy of a text is to have the same colour of skin as the person being written about. Consider the upper-middle-class child of a Chinese-American bond trader and a Chinese-American pastry chef in a fashionable part of Manhattan. This fortunate child, by virtue of having Chinese ancestry, is equipped from birth to pronounce on the exact factual accuracy of a story about day labourers in a sweatshop in Nanjing. Whereas a day labourer in a sweatshop run by the same firm, but in Jakarta, cannot possibly know anything about the matter – not being Chinese.

      All knowledge is conferred by blood. Bear in mind this simple maxim, and you will do sterling work towards our common goal: preventing the spread of any kind of knowledge whatever.

      H. Smiggy McStudge

  8. I hope that PG’s wrist is all healed up. This one is going to keep him hopping.

    I’d make a substantive comment here, but it would just be one more for him to delete.

  9. It’s not a children’s book, but I highly recommend _Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made_ by Eugene Genovese about the culture of African-American* slaves in the US. It’s thick but very readable, and does a beautiful job of showing how people carved out a world of their own. Also, remember that the conditions of slavery varied greatly across the colonies and US. Was it morally wrong? We believe so now. Was it uniformly horrendous across time and space? Eh, that’s where the story gets messy.

    *I specify because chattel slavery and debt peonage were also practiced in New Mexico. The last confirmed family slave in NM died in 1936.

  10. I don’t think the problem was showing that sometimes slaves could be happy. People objected because that’s all the book showed, and that gives the impression that slaves didn’t have it so bad. Yes, people can survive horrible circumstances and even come out of them with a few happy memories, but that doesn’t excuse the whole evil enterprise. Showing happy slaves without showing the ugly realities of slavery is telling kids a lie.

    Yes, there were composers who wrote music in the Nazi Death Camps. Sadly, most of them died there. A few pieces that survived the camps can never compensate for sheer loss of talent and the brutal suppression of the arts in Nazi Germany, just taking pride in baking a great cake doesn’t make up for the indignity and evil of slavery.


  11. I havent seen the book, so cant comment on it. However as long as publishers publish Geo Wallace and The Dalai Lama, publish Phyllis Shaffly and Gloria Steinem, publish old Ralph Reid and Christopher Hitchens, Mother Angelica and ‘Go F Yourself Said the Father’… I wonder how anything can or ought be vetted for propriety, properness, factual quality.

    I think of 6M Jews under Hitler, Goebbels, Hoess, Mengeles, 4M more Gypsies, Catholics, Germanic tribal groups wiped out by Stalin, several M wiped out by Stalin in his own nation, Russia. I think of the Armenian holocaust, the destruction of over9000 tribal groups by a handful of thugs from the Mediterranean. I think of the Mexican and Spanish Inquisition wgho murdered Jews, non-compliant Catholics, political loudmouths, and more, the legions of murders by the Khans, by the Hoards, by the Celts, by the Goths and Visagoths, by the Crusades, the millions and millions murdered, raped, enslaved. People who are your ancestors so that your chance of being born was a freakin miracle. I think of the purposeful starvations of people of the heaths, the theft of over 500k Irish taken as slaves to Barbados, the enslavement of ‘concubines’ by Middle Eastern “princes’ as we speak, who travel with them in retinues to serve them. I think of Isis and Boko Harum and the Viet Cong, the cabals of Mexico who behead, kidnap and rape, who run entire underground filth houses using imprisoning enslaving young women to serve as toilets for men. I think of the enslavement of the many as the end users of poison called heavy drugs.

    ANd then I think of whether a piece of paper in a book, that shows someone smilling, is somehow an affront to the HERE and now, and I could just walk into the mountains and never come back. The wild animals seem more civilized about what matters most, where to intervene now.

    Viktor Frankl, enslaved with several million other Jews and Eastern Europeans in slave labor and death camps, survived. He wrote a book. He said that even in the most abject conditions were innocents were hauled out before the ‘shooting wall’ and murdered on the spot before all the other slaves, even as they heard the screams of women and girls and boys being raped and raped, often to death by the SS and their ghouls, even as they saw babies cut out of dead women’s wombs for entertainment sake, and more– that the mind and heart of the person could not be possessed. That people, yes, laughed. Smiled. Fliirted with others enslaved. Fell in love. Grieved togethr. Tended to the sick. Dared to make love. Sang. That the men who composed the demented framework of Nazism could take everything, including one’s life, but they could not steal nor murder one’s attitude, one’s world view even in the zeitgeist, the deadly spirit of the times. I’m with Frankl. And the girls raped by Boko Harum, and the Muslim women who’ve had their noses and ears sliced off by their own fathers, with those who are dragged from encampment to encampment, enslaved to serve sick appetites of men who thrill to violate children.

    Frankly I know my view is not popular or acceptible. But frankly rather than try to make sense about an illustration in a book, I’d rather help foal another mare whose a first time mother, to make sure both are safe.

  12. I saw illustrations from the book on a forum with librarians who were highly concerned about the book. It’s EXTREMELY sanitized. Everyone is bright and happy and baking. I agree with the decision.

    I have a young child, and while she doesn’t need to see the stark reality of slavery, she should understand from a book that a slave was not there willingly, even if he or she made the best of it.

    It’s also troubling in the context of the textbooks from Texas that called slaves “workers.” In order to not repeat history, we have to teach age-appropriate, accurate history.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.