(UPDATE: On January 17, the day after I posted this reflection, Scholastic announced that they decided to pull the book.)
12. In the few days that have passed since I posted my little summary of the story of Hercules, Washington’s enslaved chef, I have become aware of a new book on the subject: the children’s book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington (Scholastic, 2016), by Ramin Ganeshram, and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton.
The book’s official summary begins like this:
“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. Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president’s cake. But this year there is one problem — they are out of sugar.”
Well, no. Running out of sugar is a momentary hiccup. The real problem Hercules and his young daughter faced was worse by many orders of magnitude, as the publisher then makes clear:
“This story, told in the voice of Delia, Hercules’s young daughter, is based on real events, and underscores the loving exchange between a very determined father and his eager daughter, who are faced with an unspoken, bittersweet reality. No matter how delicious the president’s cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa will not taste the sweetness of freedom.”
A glance at the Amazon customer reviews give a taste of the book’s general reception, and it’s far from sweet. To date, it’s received 1.5 stars out of 5, but it’s probably even worse, because Amazon requires customer reviewers to give at least one star just to be able to post their comments.
Kiera Parrott, reviewing it for the School Library Journal, said “Young readers without sufficient background knowledge about the larger context of American slavery may come away with a dangerously rosy impression of the relationship between slaves and slave owners, and those with a deeper understanding are likely to find this depiction offensive.”
It’s this seemingly “happy and joyful” depiction that has upset reviewers. Hercules and his daughter seem just a little too happy to be making a cake for their owner’s birthday. For the sake of balance, I need to acknowledge the statements posted by the author and the editor, who are both good, solid people, and fully aware of the complexity of the story and subject.
But did they pull it off? Fairly or not, the gut reaction of many is that the book fails to communicate that complexity. Is it even possible to communicate that complexity to kids? Andrea Davis Pinkney, the executive editor at Scholastic Books, referenced above, thinks so. She said that the book:
“…presents tremendous opportunities for “teachable moments” with children, and for opening an important dialogue. I encourage you to enjoy this book with young readers, and while doing so, please listen to their reactions, and please talk to them about facts, fictions, and the complex history of our nation.”
My oldest grandson is on the front end of the book’s target audience of elementary readers, grades 2-5. I was trying to imagine the Grandpa’s Supplementary Lecture/Rant that young Henry would receive if he brought the book home. What, exactly, would I say to him to clarify any mixed messages he might be getting from the book?
When I was a little kid, my mom and I were watching a story on the evening news (ok, so I was a bit precocious) about civil rights protesters being attacked with fire hoses (maybe in Birmingham; I don’t recall). I asked her why the white people hated the black people so much. Her answer was plain and simple: “They’re just stupid.”
That was very far from a complete answer. Ignorance might be a sufficient explanation for Plato, but later thinkers from Aristotle to St. Paul would point out that sometimes we know the right thing, and still don’t do it, whether from sheer maliciousness or cold calculation. It rings hollow when I hear people excuse exercises in bigotry or racism with the plea that “We didn’t know any better,” or “That’s just the way it was.”
Yet for an eight or nine-year old kid in South Dakota, “They’re just stupid” wasn’t a bad answer. What counted was that my mom conveyed her contempt for their behavior, and allowed for no excuses or defense.
I’m not an educator or child psychologist. I don’t know when complex ideas become age-appropriate. Sunday School teachers run into this all the time. You can teach kindergarteners about David and Goliath, but probably not about David and Bathsheba. We want David to kill Goliath; we’re embarrassed about him getting Uriah killed.
But at some point, we do tell the full story. In the Bible, David is a deeply-flawed King. In the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), there are no saints. Only God is Holy. God is always trying to lead his people to freedom, but, as the prophets pointed out time and again, that quest for the Promised Land was thwarted by the way they mistreated one another.
So too, in American History, most of our “saints” were likewise deeply flawed; many, like Washington and Jefferson, by slavery. Sooner or later, our kids need to know that. They also need to know that justice was not secured once and for all with the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. We’re always falling short, and always need to be pushing forward toward a “more perfect union.”
The bigger problem is that some parents and grandparents have always taught their kids a version of American History. It’s not just a matter of glossing over the flaws of our heroes. From the beginning, slavery’s defenders have asserted the myth of the “happy slave,” attacked by Frederick Douglass in his 1845 Narrative. A good example of the contemporary version came from Duck Dynasty‘s infamous Phil Robertson in 2013, talking about how things were back during Jim Crow:
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. …. They’re singing and happy…. Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
(Phil Robertson, with his ideal President )
In reality, I’d like to think that the folks who might think Phil Robertson has a good take on things are probably not the sort who would ever buy A Birthday Cake for George Washington for their kids or grandkids. But you never know. Conservatives are fond of grabbing quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. to support causes that King would have found vile. So I fully understand the gut-level misgivings about the book.
On the other hand, the title of this blog is “Food Tells a Story,” and I believe that the story of Hercules the chef has important lessons to teach us. Hercules’ talents were recognized. He was able to take pride in his skills and establish a degree of dignity, even in a system that worked to undermine it at every turn.
And while his master may not have deserved a birthday cake, Washington was at least conflicted by slavery (and was the only President to free his slaves). As Washington got older, he was moving more in the direction of freedom, in contrast to Jefferson, whose views on slavery only hardened.
If a happy little book about Hercules and a birthday cake can open up an opportunity to teach these lessons in an age-appropriate way, then I guess I’m fine with it.