Publisher Pulls George Washington ‘Happy Slave’ Tale After Backlash
When A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a children’s book illustrated with pictures of a grinning slave baking a cake for the first president, hit the market in January, some people thought it was a story produced by The Onion. After all, the notion that slaves sang while picking cotton in the fields or smiled while fixing supper in the big house has been proved false at least since 1845, when Frederick Douglass smashed it in his autobiography.
Well, after nearly a week of the hashtag #slaverywithasmile trending on social media—and prominent writers, educators, librarians, parents, and Black Lives Matter activists speaking out against the book—Scholastic Corporation, its publisher, announced on Sunday that it would pull it from the market.
In a statement posted on its website, the company wrote that it respects the author, journalist Ramin Ganeshram, and illustrator, Vanessa Brantley-Newton, but 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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”
Indeed, the book offers a fictionalized version of Hercules, George Washington’s head chef, and his daughter Delia. “Everyone is buzzing about the president’s birthday! Especially George Washington’s servants, who scurry around the kitchen preparing to make this the best celebration ever,” reads the description on Amazon. “Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him.” The images show an enslaved Delia and Hercules grinning from ear to ear.
The backlash against the text was sparked by a critical review by Indiana librarian Edith Campbell that went viral on social media thanks to the efforts of Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Teaching for Change. The organization shared the review on its Facebook page on Jan. 13. A subsequent protest petition on Change.org garnered 2,738 signatures, and Black Lives Matter activist Leslie Mac created the hashtag.
This isn’t the first time Scholastic, which specializes in materials for teachers and children, has found itself in hot water. “In 2011, Rethinking Schools and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood exposed Scholastic’s profitable and unethical partnership with the American Coal Foundation. Scholastic had used its trusted name to promote a ‘clean coal’ curriculum to 4th graders all over the United States,” wrote Deborah Menkart, exectuive director of Teaching for Change, on the organization’s website. After extensive backlash, Scholastic was forced to “end the partnership with big coal and pull its curriculum from its website,” Menkart added.
In a post on her blog on Sunday, Campbell wrote that despite Scholastic’s agreement to remove the book, “the fight itself is disheartening, because the battle against the portrayal of ‘happy slaves,’ of people who were less than human and who were being well cared for, is a hundred years old.” Campbell called for “accuracy” in stories about enslaved black Americans. “This era in American history has shaped our national identity, and until we get it right, we will continue to be encumbered with racism,” she wrote.