Picture Book’s Depiction of Slavery Draws Fire

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — January 19, 2016 1 min read
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A children’s book about Hercules, George Washington’s cook and a slave, has been pulled by its publisher after concerns about its depiction of slavery.

Scholastic announced that A Birthday Cake for George Washington will no longer be distributed, NPR reports.

The book had drawn fire online for depicting Hercules, who eventually ran away, as happy and smiling. Critics said the book whitewashes slavery.

This is the latest in a series of books and textbooks that have been criticized for their portrayal of slavery in recent months. Books have drawn fire both for whitewashing the history of slavery and for overemphasizing slavery’s repercussions. Last year, a textbook in Texas was revised after a mother pointed out that it described slaves as “workers.” On the other hand, a book for students about the Black Lives Matter movement that traced the movement’s historical roots back to slavery became controversial before it was even published.

Scholastic released a statement about A Birthday Cake for George Washington on Jan. 17:

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.

The book’s editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, wrote an essay defending the book, as did its author, Ramin Ganeshram.

Davis Pinkney writes that the book highlights the role of African-Americans in the life of the country’s first president. From her essay:

In crafting the narrative for this book, culinary historian and Washington scholar, Ramin Ganeshram, took great care in contextualizing Hercules and Delia as enslaved people, while at the same time accurately depicting Hercules as the notable figure he was.

Ganeshram, the author, writes that it’s a matter of historical record that some slaves in skilled positions like Hercules took pride in their work. Hercules was noted for his skill.

NPR notes that unlike A Fine Dessert, another children’s book that stirred controversy for its portrayal of slavery last year, A Birthday Cake for George Washington was written and edited by a group that included African-Americans.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.