A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a children’s book by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton, was withdrawn from publication by Scholastic in January 2016. The book’s publication was halted over its visual depiction of our first president’s slaves as happy, smiling workers. One of the slaves depicted was Washington’s chef, Hercules, an actual historical figure. Clarence Lusane, author of The Black History of the White House (City Lights, 2011), responded to the controversy surrounding the book. He wrote to City Lights,
Under no circumstances should the institution of slavery and the lives of those who were enslaved be seen as anything less than a system of racism, oppression, and dehumanization. While the myth of the “happy slave” has been debunked countless times, the publication of A Birthday Cake for George Washington highlights the need to continually educate around the true nature of American slavery, the role of the nation’s founders in that process, and the complicated lives of those who were enslaved. George Washington, often referred to as the “father of the nation,” enslaved hundreds of individuals and families before, during, and after his presidency. Rather than lead the nation in abolishing slavery, he and other founders perpetuated and reinforced it. As president, he signed the 1793 Fugitive Slave law. He aggressively went after those individuals who escaped from his home or plantation including his cook, Hercules, who is pictured smiling happily on the front and back cover of the book. He ordered that those who were caught be brutally beaten and tortured.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington glosses over or denies these facts fostering the racist notion Washington was so beloved that nothing was more important to his enslaved than their master’s happiness. So, no, A Birthday Cake for George Washington should have never been published, and its publisher and author should own up to the mistake they made without excuses. It is ahistorical and downright false to indicate that Washington’s role as a slaveholder was somehow less dishonorable or immoral than that of others. The fundamental relationship between slave owner and the enslaved, whether sometimes cordial or not, was one of unequal power.
For more on Hercules, check out chapter 2 of The Black History of the White House, published by City Lights in 2011. For about the book, go here. Lusane recently appeared on Conversations with Great Minds with host Thom Hartmann.