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When George Washington celebrated his first birthday as president of the United States, he couldn’t have known that a children’s story about his favorite cake would one day rock the publishing world and lead to the actual banning—not just censoring—of a picture book.
Admittedly, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, published on Jan. 5 by Scholastic, suffered from bad timing. Only months before, another picture book on a similar theme came under intense scrutiny. A Fine Dessert tracks the progress of “blackberry fool” from the 1700s to the present day by showing a family in each century making and enjoying the cobbler. The book enjoyed a fine reception until some reviewers, several months after publication, expressed their discomfort with the depiction of one family, a South Carolina slave mother and daughter. The book shows the two gathering berries, mixing batter, and whipping cream to go on top. They seem reasonably content, and on some pages they are actually smiling.
That was the problem, and in A Birthday Cake for George Washington the slaves—particularly Hercules, the president’s personal chef—smile all the way through. Does this not perpetuate the myth of “happy slaves” that whites once used to justify the peculiar institution?
Already smoldering with A Fine Dessert, controversy flared with the birthday cake, fueled by the Twitter hashtag #SlaveryWithASmile. Critical commentary popped up in major media outlets like NPR, and one-star reviews swamped the Amazon.com page. After a statement defending the book on Jan. 15, Scholastic changed course two days later and pulled it from distribution, offering to buy back copies from dissatisfied customers. (Readers can still purchase A Birthday Cake for George Washington from online booksellers as a collector’s item: New copies go for as much as $150.)
Scholastic’s response was almost unprecedented. In her first interview after the recall, the book’s author, food critic and journalist Ramin Ganeshram, reiterated her admiration for the slave Hercules and her desire to give him his due as one who made the best of his talents. She also cited a little-known fact about picture book publishing: “Authors and illustrators often do not speak, or interact. I never had a conversation with Vanessa [Brantley-Newton, the illustrator], just a few tweets.” (It’s worth noting Brantley-Newton is herself African-American, as is the book’s editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney.) When Ganeshram saw the illustrations, just weeks before publication, the “over-joviality” of Washington’s dark-skinned kitchen staff seemed to her a smile too far, but her objections went unheeded.
When should children aged 3 to 5 be exposed to the evils of America’s original sin? There’s no easy answer, but Scholastic should have seen trouble coming, especially after the controversy over A Fine Dessert. When the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) accused Scholastic of self-censorship, the publisher insisted it had withdrawn the book because it “did not meet Scholastic’s standards for appropriate presentation of complex subject matter”—not because of the criticism.
Both Scholastic and the NCAC may be missing a point. “The range of human emotion and behavior is vast,” wrote the author in her explanatory statement after the recall. Indeed it is. Did actual slaves ever experience moments of joy? All humans do. Did they ever take pride in their work?
Those who mastered a skill for which they received praise undoubtedly did. Not because they were less than human but because they were fully human. The very thing that made chattel slavery so heinous—the humanity of the slave—also allowed even slaves to experience life in its complex, deep, and mystifying dimensions. That included occasional happiness and satisfaction.
Should troubling periods of history always flash a moral directive, like a neon sign? Should we define an entire slice of humanity by its historical condition? Children should know that slavery is bad, but also that slaves possessed the human capacity of rising above their circumstances. Although children should see accurate depictions of slavery (appropriate for their age), relentless depictions of miserable slaves could become a form of overkill, robbing developing minds of any sense of nuance.