And remember, sweetie, the live termites go inafter we bake it.

For inclusion in your "How did anyone think THAT was a good idea?" files (Martin Luther King Holiday edition): Scholastic Books has recalled a children's book depicting happy slaves joyfully preparing a cake for their owner's birthday. Apparently some editor at Scholastic decided that since the slaves' owner was George Washington, it made sense to go ahead and publish A Birthday Cake for George Washington, smiling dancing slaves notwithstanding. In a statement on the publisher's website, Scholastic explained Sunday:

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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.

Yep, to say the least. While it's unlikely to reach the shelves of your local bookstore or library, A Birthday Cake for George Washington was still available from Amazon as an e-book Monday, so we grabbed a copy, that we might better serve you, the Wonkeratti (good thing, too, as by Monday evening, the Kindle link was dead). It's a happy story of how Washington's slave Hercules, a master chef but also Washington's personal property, bakes a beautiful cake for the first president's birthday, even though the kitchen is unaccountably out of sugar, and everyone is simply delighted with his culinary genius. And did we mention that there are a lot of happy, laughing slaves in the thing?

Written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, the book was released on Jan. 5 and immediately started racking up a lot of one-star reviews on Amazon:

  • It's like Anne & Otto Frank Baking Cookies for Adolf Hitler on Christmas
  • This foolishness shouldn't be read to children. It's scary that this made it through the hands of so many and no one stopped it.
  • No, no, no! It's 2016 and this is how we are depicting relationships between slaves and slave owners?
  • I can understand maybe wanting to tell the story of Washington's slaves but this is the worst kind of revisionist thinking.
  • Mommy, I wish I was a slave too!

And of course, the occasional apologist, in this case maybe a rightwing homeschooler who sees capitalization as too politically correct:

own this. we do. a story that shows "slavery" was not always bad...truth be known most "slaves" led good lives as stated in documented historical accounts. teach history properly, not one sided.

So, with 87 percent one-star reviews, not exactly a warm welcome from the reading community.

And good god, it's a painful dog's breakfast of a book; the kindest thing that can be said of it is "Bless their hearts, they meant well." We can see the appeal of the idea: depict Hercules, a master chef and absolute ruler of "his" kitchen, as a strong, competent man who's looked up to by his daughter Delia and everyone else in the kitchen of Washington's Philadelphia home. Unfortunately, it falls all too completely to the temptation of finding inspiring stories within a national tragedy. Despite the horrible injustice of slavery, Hercules nevertheless carves out for himself a space in which he is the unquestioned expert -- he even bosses around a white dude, "Chef Julien, who came all the way from France to work here." And right there, the book dances straight past the problem: Hercules doesn't own this kitchen, or even his own body. And if Julien wants to leave, he'll get a letter of recommendation, not 20 lashes with a bullwhip.

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When Martha Washington comes downstairs to check on the preparations for the president's birthday party, everyone assumes a suitably deferential posture, and there's no mention of the fact that she owns everybody there (except Julian, but he's deferential, too, so all is equal, right?).

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The closest we get to honesty about slavery -- and it's no more than a hint -- is so full of reminders that Hercules had a fine time of it that it negates the suggestion that slavery was much of a problem:

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We learn that while "In the streets of Philidelphia, slaves are not seen," Hercules is a familiar sight, since he's President Washington's second most trusted slave, and George and Martha "give Papa fine things because his food is so delicious." He has a top hat, a nice suit, and even a gold watch, so what's to complain about? Heck, Hercules even gets to go to the theater, where he "sits in the audience with white people and many free black people, too." Gosh, and our history book said slavery was a bad thing!

Eventually Papa solves the no-sugar-for-the-cake crisis by substituting honey, and we get some pretty pictures of the kitchen staff (property exactly like the spoons and mixing bowls) in a flurry of activity as Hercules does his 18th century Gordon Ramsay thing. There's this kind of creatively framed image of the black folks working downstairs while the white folks dance upstairs, and everybody's so into being the best slaves they can be. It's such a pleasure simply to be able to serve the Great Man that they all dance their own way through their (involuntary, unpaid) labors:

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Finally the cake is served, and President Washington himself comes downstairs to tell Hercules he's a Good Slave:

Do we need to keep reminding you how to see this full size?

"Hercules," the president says in his soft voice that is like a whisper ... "You are a magician, a master chef. You have outdone yourself again. Good man!"

"An honor and a privilege, sir," Papa says. "Happy birthday, Mr. President."

The end. It might help if you imagine Hercules breathily singing that last bit like Marilyn Monroe.

Now, it's not like the author, Ramin Ganeshram, is utterly clueless about what slavery was, and in fact the full-page author's note at the end of the book suggests she may have been aiming for a more realistic, nuanced story. She notes that Hercules was, through his connection with Washington, pretty much America's first "celebrity chef," and that he "insisted on perfection in the kitchen and was known to have a temper with those who did not obey." Ganeshram also acknowledges that while Hercules "lived a life of near-freedom ... being almost free is not the same as being free, and he dreamed of his own liberty."

Ganeshram even tackles Washington's own willing participation in America's original sin, noting that he and Martha owned over 300 slaves and that slave labor was:

the source of his income and his rich lifestyle. But as the years went on, he began to see more and more that it was evil to keep fellow human beings in bondage, and he became more and more lenient with his slaves. Eventually, he granted freedom to his slaves in his will.

And yes, that phrase "more and more lenient with his slaves" makes our skin crawl. We also learn that for all that "lenience," Washington wasn't about to give up such a valuable property as a master chef:

Still, while they lived in Philadelphia, both President and Mrs. Washington were very worried about their slaves taking advantage of a Pennsylvania law that gave slaves their freedom if they remained in the state for longer than six months. The Washingtons often took their slaves -- including Hercules -- with them on trips out of state to "reset" their time in Pennsylvania -- keeping them enslaved.

Hmmm. That would present a bit of a challenge to illustrate in a cheerful story about baking a birthday cake. We also learn that, after being sent back to Mount Vernon when Washington suspected Hercules and his son of stealing money to buy their freedom, Hercules eventually did run away for good in 1797. And on Washington's birthday no less, the cake-baking ingrate. His daughter Delia -- who in reality never lived in the Philadelphia house -- remained in slavery for the rest of her life, because she belonged to Martha, who, unlike George, never freed her slaves. Delia, you don't have quite so much to smile about.

There's a hell of a story to be told about how Hercules navigated the contradictions of his life -- America's first Top Chef but still a slave. Ganeshram has written a blog post explaining her goal for the project, which was to depict Hercules as a character who, though enslaved, made the best life possible for himself and his family under the circumstances:

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.

Unfortunately, a children's picture book was probably the wrong vehicle for such historical paradoxes. Picture books don't tend to handle nuance and complexity very well, even with a page of author's notes. Maybe Ganeshram or another author can get it right someday, perhaps as a novel aimed at teen readers? Then we could look forward to rightwingers complaining that the Father of Our Country is portrayed as a schemer who cynically shuffled even his favorite chef around to keep him from gaining freedom. We might enjoy reading that book.

[BBC / Amazon / Scholastic / Children's Book Council]

Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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