Recently, Scholastic Press halted distribution of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington”, a children’s book depicting smiling slaves working tirelessly to bake a cake for the president. Narrated by a young Delia, the story follows her father, Chef Hercules, and his ‘heroic’ attempt to bake a birthday cake without sugar. Despite choosing slaves as main characters, a lack of sugar is the only conflict the author presents.
The book has been compared to “A Fine Dessert”, another children’s book heatedly criticized for depicting “happy” slaves preparing a dessert for their masters. The book’s author, Emily Jenkins, eventually apologized for what was admittedly a “racially insensitive” depiction of slavery.
After so much controversy around this type of story, it’s curious that Scholastic Press originally defended their choice to publish “A Birthday Cake for George Washington”. According to a statement by Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and executive editor at Scholastic:
“Through carefully curated research, A Birthday Cake for George Washington presents an important slice of American history… The story illuminates Hercules’ purposeful work as a chef and the pride young Delia feels at the tremendous achievements of her father. The book concludes with Hercules’ whole story and what it means when you and your loved ones will never savor the sweet taste of freedom.”
The book is based on a true story. Hercules and Delia were two of over 300 African Americans enslaved by George and Martha Washington. Hercules was also in charge of the President’s birthday cake each year. However, in contrast to the books depiction of his pride in this special task, Hercules eventually escaped on February 22nd, 1797, George Washington’s 65th birthday. Tragically, he had to leave Delia behind, who lived out her entire life as a slave.
“Scholastic has a long history of explaining complex and controversial issues to children at all ages and grade levels. 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.”
Though the author claims to have intended to depict a story that represented slaves “who had a better quality of life than others and ‘close’ relationships with those who enslaved them”, many feel the resultant rosy picture distorts and misrepresents the injustice and horrors of slavery.