It may be a children’s book, but moms across the country have no intention of ever letting their kids read A Birthday Cake for George Washington. In fact, moms like Kia Morgan Smith, a teacher from Atlanta, are so angry with Scholastic’s latest offering that they’re petitioning to have the picture book removed from shelves.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington is about the first president’s chef, Hercules, and his daughter, Delia. It’s the president’s birthday, and Hercules has to bake a cake, but how can he get it done when there’s no sugar in the pantry?
It sounds like a simple enough premise, but there’s just one problem: Hercules isn’t “just” a chef. He’s a slave, and so is his daughter. And moms like Morgan Smith, a teacher from Atlanta, Georgia who created the petition that’s quickly gaining attention on Change.org, say the book amounts to revisionist history with the depiction of them as “happy” slaves who are excited to bake a cake for a man who treats them as property.
“This is an illegitimate distortion of the facts when you perpetuate the notion of a happy slave,” Morgan Smith told SheKnows. The mom of five is the blogger behind CincoMom and co-creator of Brown Girl Magic (with her 11-year-old daughter), in addition to being a teacher, and she’s pointed her finger straight at the book’s publisher, Scholastic.
“I grew up reading Scholastic books and attending book fairs as a teacher, and my kids buy their books all the time,” Morgan Smith noted. “The problem with creating these kinds of books is that they are trying to water down a very traumatic time in our history, and when you do that you create a climate for denial from other races and cultures to think being enslaved was an OK thing. When a powerhouse like Scholastic produces this kind of material to the masses, it’s very irresponsible and a missed opportunity to give our children the ability to understand one another truthfully and bring our society together like it should be.”
The book portrays Hercules as proud to be baking the president’s birthday cake, and an artist’s note from illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton states, “While slavery in America was a vast injustice, my research indicates that Hercules and other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. That is why I depicted them as happy people. There is joy in what they have created through their intelligence and culinary talent.”
In response to criticism, the book’s author, Ramin Gameshram, posted a defense, noting:
The discussion and criticism 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? The answers to those questions are complex because human nature is complex. 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. But they were smart enough to use those “advantages” to improve their lives. 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.
But a description at the end of the book seems to tell a different tale, pointing out that Hercules ran away from Washington’s famous home, Mount Vernon, escaping his enslavement. Delia, on the other hand, remained enslaved by Martha Washington.
“Why create this deceptive book that pretends he loved being a cook when obviously he was putting on a façade just to survive?” Morgan Smith posited to SheKnows. “Slavery was in no way ever OK or a happy time for any slave, just because they got a higher position from a field slave to a cook in the Big House. They didn’t want to be there, period. They were forced to be there against their will and were whipped, beaten and tortured and had no say-so in the matter.”
Morgan Smith isn’t the only one upset with the book. Dr. Hedwige Saint Louis, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Morehouse School of Medicine and the mom behind Healthy Mommy, Happy Baby, tells SheKnows she likened the book to a microaggression.
“The idea that slavery was OK in any way shape or form is unacceptable to our society as a whole, whether black slaves, white slaves or slaves of any color,” St. Louis noted.
Meanwhile, Twitter has been alight with angry comments since the book’s publication. Just a taste:
— Barnor Hesse (@barnor_hesse) January 17, 2016
— Gary Younge (@garyyounge) January 17, 2016
Scholastic has likewise responded to the backlash on Twitter:
We respect your views on A Birthday Cake for George Washington & hope we can continue this constructive dialogue. https://t.co/IUCLsQO1zN
— Scholastic (@Scholastic) January 15, 2016
The publisher’s blog posting directs moms to “other books and resources that address slavery and black history.”
But moms like Morgan Smith say that only highlights another issue — the lack of children’s books that include people of color, that aren’t limited to the discussion of civil rights or slavery. As she says, “We want more for our children.”
UPDATE: Scholastic has announced they are stopping distribution of A Cake for George Washington and will accept all returns of the book. According to a statement on the publisher’s blog, “While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, 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.”